Music: After the Revolution

Several new CD releases bring to mind the fate of music after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Heady times, they were—for a while. Not only did the epaulets come off the uniforms and the bands from marriage, but the conductors dropped their batons in the new classless society. When the proletariat paradise did not emerge from the chaos, the Communist party’s steel boot stomped down. The disciplined conformity of the happy peasant/factory worker replaced the wild avant-garde of the intellectuals.

One of the most curious and practically unknown figures from this period is Artur Vincent Lourie (1892-1966), a Russian Jew of French origin. Lourie leapt with both feet into the brave new world with his futuristic version of “free atonality.” Lenin appointed him as the first Soviet commissar of music. However, Lourie had the prescience to see that the revolution would eat its own. While in Berlin on official business in 1922, he jumped ship and moved to Paris, where he became a close friend of Igor Stravinsky. Lourie was disillusioned with the musical avant-garde. He saw Stravinsky’s neoclassicism as a way out “from the dead end in which musical modernism has landed.”

Lourie also saw the Revolution as a spiritual dead-end. In 1921, he observed that “we are living in an irreparable situation, in a world of unmusicality, in a spiritual wilderness…. We are merely participating in the ‘dying embers’ left amid the ashes of Russian culture.” Aristotle said that men start revolutions for reasons connected to their private lives. Most likely, they renounce revolutions for private reasons, as well. After the revolution, Lourie’s private life changed. He abandoned the ménage a trois in which he lived and converted to Catholicism, to which he remained faithful for the rest of his life. Lourie also became a close friend of Jacques Maritain, whose home in Princeton he eventually inhabited. As his private life changed, so did Lourie’s music. The former ultra-modernist embraced the past, basing some of his music on Gregorian chant.

The MDG label has issued a recording of one of the first pieces that Lourie wrote in the West, the Suite (String Quartet No. 3); and Concerto da Camera for string quintet (with double bass), written in 1947, both sublimely performed by the Leipzig String Quartet and double bassist Christian Ockert in the Concerto. Though more than 20 years apart in composition, these two works are clearly from the same pen. The music is somewhat sketchy in nature and almost improvisational in character. It does not shout or attempt a grand statement. It will not bowl you over on first hearing. But it is exquisite, refined, highly lyrical, and rich in its Baroque and Classical allusions. It is scaled to interior thoughts and feelings, intimate, jewellike, but still spontaneous. I have come to love these pieces intensely. Try the haunting, tender Intermezzo from the Concerto to sample the very special brand of this man’s music. This is not the kind of release you would likely come across in the normal course of things. It is worth seeking out. I want to hear more of this man’s music, especially the Concerto Spirituale, which was considered a classic in the 1930s.

Lourie’s neoclassical music came from outside the Soviet Union. Inside, things sounded quite different. Forced conformity to the proletariat fiction produced in Russians an even more exaggerated sense of the absurd than they had inherited from the czarist era. The situation seemed to demand the extreme, and Russian composers spoke in its terms so long as they could get away with it. The commissars began to suspect that the use of extremes was to express the forbidden. Gigantic howls of anguish and corrosive bitter humor did not sound proletarian, even if directed nominally against the capitalist roaders. Thus, in 1936, Shostakovich was so frightened by the denunciation of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, that he withdrew his coruscating Fourth Symphony from rehearsals. It was not heard until after Stalin’s death, another 25 years later.

Gavriil Popov (1904-1972) was not so lucky. His First Symphony, a work of six years’ labor, premiered in 1935 and was banned the very next day. Indifferent to Popov’s dedication of the work to his father as “a worker and fighter on the front of proletarian culture (educating young workers),” the Party forbade the Symphony because it expressed “the ideology of classes hostile to us.” Like Shostakovich, Popov was found to be a “formalist,” not the first word that this magnificent sprawl of a work and its enormous sound world would bring to mind.

There is something wonderfully unhinged about this music that must have bothered the commissars. One can see them scratching their heads: “This can’t be what Marx meant.” Like Shostakovich’s Fourth, this work is too realistic for Socialist realism. It expresses the cataclysmic nature of what was going on in Russia. A 50-minute Gargantua, the First Symphony is boisterous, extravagant, manic, and completely over-the-top. There may be hints of Prokofiev and Shostakovich here and there, but Popov speaks with his own voice, one that Shostakovich admired.

The first movement, at nearly 24 minutes, is a symphony in itself, portraying “struggle and failure.” The prolonged second movement, “humanity,” is, for the most part, as gentle and lyrical as the rest of the symphony is raucous. The last movement, “the energy, will and joy of the victor’s work,” has one of the most prolonged climaxes ever written. How Popov sustains it is a virtuoso marvel. It has to be heard to be believed. Critic David Hurwitz calls the finale “possibly the most excessively noisy peroration ever attempted.” It is not for the fainthearted, but it has a kind of crazy magnificence that reminds me of the exhilarating finale to Leos Janacek’s masterpiece, Sinfonietta, and parts of his Taras Bulba. Leon Botstein’s recording on Telarc, with the London Symphony Orchestra, is stunning. It is accompanied by a teenage work of Shostakovich’s, Theme and Variations, Op. 3, that sounds like Haydn after listening to the Popov.

In case you think music of wild abandon is a thing of the past in post—Soviet Russia, listen to the new Naxos recording of the premiere of Boris Tishchenko’s Symphony No. 7, and think again. As Tishchenko (b. 1939) was a student of Shostakovich, it is no surprise that Shostakovich’s imprint on his music is so strong, including this work’s sometimes sardonic character. If Shostakovich takes us to the edge of the cliff, Tishchenko takes us over it. Written after the 1991 collapse of communism, the Symphony No. 7 still speaks in the language of extremes, apparently a habit hard to shake. Tishchenko often begins the five movements of this work with a simple idea that he prolongs long enough for us to develop some trust and familiarity with it. Then he takes the idea and ratchets it up until it begins to spin out of control. Sometimes it is fun to listen to him do this, especially in the jazzy sections; sometimes it is harrowing. In either case, Tishchenko is worth listening to even if only on the level of the virtuosity and brilliance of his writing. There is more here than black humor and antics, but Tishchenko keeps an emotional distance that makes it hard to discern what that might be at first hearing. The live recording of the superb performance by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, under Dmitry Yablonsky, leaves nothing to be desired. It is great to be able to hear a contemporary Russian work like this, hot off the press, on a bargain label. Bravo Naxos.

Culture crime: Do not write music columns late at night. In the February issue of Crisis, I made the pathetic mistake of saying Elmer Bernstein composed the magnificent score to the movie The Big Country. No, no, it was Jerome Moross. I have only listened to the score 100 times!

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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