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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin

What, then, about cold-war purity, “Eastern”-style? The complementary orthodoxy, adhered to (and sometimes enforced) within what during the cold war was called the Soviet bloc, demanded above all the “accessibility” and “transparency” of style that (when embraced by Rochberg or Lerdahl) the Western critical establishment deemed heretical, and frowned upon the idea of stylistic progress that had led the music of “bourgeois decadence” into social isolation. One might expect that as the frigidity of the cold war eased, so might doctrinal rigidity on both sides. And indeed, as social criteria crept back into (and undermined) Western modernist commitments, formalist ideas played a similar role among composers in Eastern Europe—at first among a subversive minority, later more openly and commonly. The principal effect in the East, as in the West, was a growing and finally dominant eclecticism.

Besides the general liberalizing trend that followed the death of Stalin, known as the “Thaw” after the title of a 1954 novella by the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg (1891–1967), a number of specific circumstances brought young Soviet musicians into previously risky or forbidden contact with the music of the European avant-garde. Official visitors from abroad, especially the Italian composer Luigi Nono, who occupied a singular position as a member of both the Western avant-garde and of the Communist Party, brought with them scores by “Darmstadt” composers and made gifts of them both to libraries and to individuals. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932–82) made a Soviet tour in 1957, during which he gave an informal recital for students and teachers at the Moscow Conservatory, playing works by Berg, Webern, and Krenek and lecturing through a translator about the technique of serial music. The most spectacular such occasion was an eightieth-birthday-year (1962) visit by Igor Stravinsky, who performed his music, met with students (and with the Soviet prime minister Nikita Khrushchev), and was accepted thereafter in his homeland as a “Russian classic.” The nascent impact of Western avant-garde music on Soviet musical life was furthered by the presence in Moscow of two immigrants who, although little known to the public, enjoyed considerable professional prestige. The older of the two was Filip Gershkovich (1906–89), a Romanian-born composer and music theorist who had studied with Berg and Webern, composed his first twelve-tone score in 1928, and fled from Nazi persecution to the Soviet Union in 1940. His music being unperformable in Russia at the time, Gershkovich worked as a music editor and an orchestrator of soundtrack music for films. He began attracting private theory pupils in the 1950s.

One of them was Andrey Volkonsky (1933–2008), a young Moscow composer who belonged to a celebrated princely lineage (immortalized by Tolstoy in War and Peace) and was born in Geneva while his family was in exile from the Soviet Union. From 1945 to 1947 Volkonsky lived in Paris, where he studied piano with the Romanian-born virtuoso Dinu Lipatti. He was long reputed to have been one of Nadia Boulanger's many pupils in composition, but it seems he made the claim only to pad his résumé when applying to the Moscow Conservatory after his family's repatriation in 1947. At the Conservatory he became the pupil of the senior Soviet composer Yuri Shaporin (1887–1966). His early compositions met with success, particularly a Concerto for Orchestra, written under Shaporin's direction, which was performed in 1953, the last Stalinist year. That same year, however, a fellow student denounced Volkonsky for having scores by Schoenberg and Stravinsky in his possession, and he was expelled from the Conservatory on the pretext that he had missed the beginning of classes owing to the birth of his first child.

Enjoying the protection of Shaporin (and, it was widely assumed, of Shostakovich), Volkonsky retained his membership in the Union of Soviet Composers; his exclusion from the Conservatory only confirmed his unorthodox stance. In 1956, having connected with Gershkovich, Volkonsky produced Musica stricta, the first twelve-tone composition by a Soviet citizen. The irony of such a title for a work that became emblematic of creative freedom was only a facet of a more general cold-war irony: musical behavior that in the West would have been regarded as the height of conformity meant just the opposite within the Soviet sphere of influence. At a time when Soviet writers and visual artists on the cutting edge were beginning to explore social and political themes that had been taboo as subjects for treatment while Stalin was alive, their musical counterparts were withdrawing as far as possible from social commitment. Formalism was for musicians the most effective way of displaying nonconformism.

A piano suite in four movements, Musica stricta is cast in an idiosyncratic twelve-tone idiom that is actually not at all strict. It is by no means confined in its pitch materials to twelve-tone rows, and when twelve-tone rows are used, they are varied in ways that are unrelated to Schoenbergian or Webernian procedures. “I didn't really understand the techniques very well,” the composer admitted to an interviewer in 1999, “but I understood the principle.”

I did some things incorrectly, but it's good that I didn't do everything correctly. There are octaves, which Schoenberg forbade, and also triads, which Schoenberg also forbade. But I simply didn't know about that. I thought I had written a twelve-tone composition, and it's true that those techniques can be found in places. And because of that I named the piece Musica Stricta, because of the strict techniques, although I unwittingly used them entirely according to my own manner.80

In effect Volkonsky had responded as a listener to the sound of early twelve-tone music (or even earlier Viennese atonal music), rather than as an analyst to its technique. The writing is full of the stacked fourths and tritones (“atonal triads”) that abound in much early-twentieth-century music. The second movement, the easiest one to analyze in terms of row technique, is actually a sort of fugue or ricercar in which four rows seem to compete for dominance of the contrapuntal texture (Ex. 9-9). Volkonsky, who was then the Soviet Union's only professional harpsichordist as well as its only twelve-tone composer, evidently fell back on the formal procedures of the Baroque repertoire, with which he was exceptionally familiar, as a frame to accommodate what was for him, as much as for any Soviet musician, a highly unfamiliar method of composing.

The End of Soviet Music

ex. 9-9 Andrey Volkonsky, Musica stricta, II, mm. 1-9

By the time he composed The Lamentations of Shchaza (Zhaloba Shchazï, 1961), for soprano and instrumental quintet (English horn, percussion, harpsichord, violin, and viola), Volkonsky had had access to some of the representative scores of the “Darmstadt” school, obviously including Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître, which the work diligently imitates in its sound and gestures (although not in its strictly technical procedures, which, as Fred Lerdahl pointed out, were then quite arcane). Boulez returned the complement by performing Volkonsky's work in London and Berlin in the late 1960s, thus bringing the existence of a Soviet “underground” avant-garde to the attention of musicians in the West.

By then Volkonsky had several companions. Edison Denisov (1929–96), a protégé of Shostakovich, was especially energetic in promoting advanced Western techniques and esthetic principles among his contemporaries. His apartment, like Volkonsky's, became a lending library for scores that he had procured, beginning in the late 1950s, from Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and other Darmstadters. He also agitated for performances of work by the advanced Soviet composers of the 1920s, hoping to forge a connection that would circumscribe the era of socialist-realist conformity. After analytical studies with Gershkovich and several trips to the Warsaw autumn festival, Denisov made his debut as an avant-gardist with a twelve-tone cantata, The Sun of the Incas (1964), composed to a text by the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957) and dedicated to Boulez.

A second center of Soviet avant-garde activity arose in Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine), the closest large Soviet city to Warsaw. Three Kiev composers—Leonid Hrabovsky (b. 1935), Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), and Volodymyr Zahortsev (b. 1944)—became known in the West when Joel Spiegelman (b. 1933), a composer and harpsichordist on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, brought their twelve-tone compositions back with him from a trip to the Soviet Union and had them performed, together with works of Volkonsky and Denisov, in New York. A benchmark for the recognition of Soviet twelve-tone music was reached in 1968, when Silvestrov's Third Symphony, subtitled “Eschatophony,” became the first composition by a Soviet composer to be performed (under Maderna's baton) at Darmstadt.

The next year, an orchestral work by another Soviet avant-gardist—Pianissimo by Alfred Schnittke (1934–98)—was performed at the Donaueschingen Festival, the other major West German contemporary-music showcase, which had in fact commissioned it. The composer, who had already had pieces performed in East Germany and Poland, was at the time earning his living in Moscow by writing soundtrack music for animated cartoons. He was not allowed to attend the festival. The restrictions placed on his employment and travel were heavily publicized, as was the program that the work was supposed to illustrate, a torture scene from Franz Kafka's story “The Penal Colony,” in which an inmate is pricked by a multitude of tiny needles that inscribe a slogan on his body.

The music, consisting of a tone cluster that expands à la Ligeti until it becomes a sonic cloud, must have sounded fairly old-hat at Donaueschingen but for the fact that it was the work of a Soviet composer. That was enough to tinge its Darmstadt conformism with iconoclasm—a typical cold-war inversion. But there was also a somewhat subtler sense in which Schnittke's composition could be taken as un- or anti-Soviet, and that was the sense suggested by its title. Soviet composers were expected to make affirmative public statements, fortissimo. To speak in atonal whispers was genuinely countercultural (more for the whispers than for the atonality), and invested the oddly un-Slavic name of this shadowy Soviet son of a German-Jewish father and a Russian-born but ethnically German mother, whose first language was that of his parents and who divided his time between writing utilitarian film scores for a livelihood and unperformable masterworks “for the drawer,” with a romantic aura of martyrdom that continued to dominate reportage about him for the rest of his life.


(80) Quoted in Peter J. Schmelz, Listening, Memory, and the Thaw: Unofficial Music and Society in the Soviet Union, 1956–1974. (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 2002), pp. 93–94.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Oct. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009012.xml