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Bad Bargains for Russian Music

On Russian Music

by Richard Taruskin
University of California Press, 407 pp., $39.95
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Russian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography
Sergei Prokofiev receiving the Order of the Red Banner of Labor from Mikhail Kalinin Moscow, 1943; from Simon Morrison’s The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years

It is one of the abiding curiosities of modern music history that in 1936, at forty-four, after more than a decade of success in New York and Paris, Sergei Prokofiev took up permanent residence in Stalinist Moscow. For a while he enjoyed the privileges of official patronage, but, inevitably, the tide turned, and during the 1948 show trials, he was censured for formalist misdeeds along with Dmitri Shostakovich and others. Concert and theater managers withdrew his compositions from performances. Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, with his music, survived, a score Prokofiev came to despise precisely because it alone of his works was allowed to be played, ad nauseam, on Soviet radio. Prokofiev spent years in this sort of internal exile, homebound, invalided by strokes, sometimes capable only of a single hour’s work a day, and desperate to revise his ballets and operas to please the bureaucrats, many of them talentless competitors with no intention of rehabilitating him. Various of his last works speak to the effects of his self-censorship and opportunism.

Biographers of Prokofiev love to note his having died at sixty-one on March 5, 1953, within perhaps an hour of Stalin’s death, although the timing relies on official Soviet accounts that can’t be checked. Sovetskoye iskusstvo waited thirteen days to publish on page 4 its obituary of the composer. Alfred Schnittke, his younger colleague, who watched the funeral procession, later recalled how,

along an almost deserted street that ran parallel to the seething mass hysterically mourning the passing of Stalin, there moved in the opposite direction a small group of people bearing on their shoulders the coffin of the greatest Russian composer of the time…. To move against the tide in those days was hopeless. Yet even then there was—just as in earlier ages—the possibility of a choice between two decisions, only one of which was right.

There was a choice, that’s true, but few then had the audacity to make it. Fifteen people witnessed the interment.

The People’s Artist, by Simon Morrison, a musicologist at Princeton, draws from previously unexamined Soviet archives and private documents, among other things, to counter the claims made from time to time that Prokofiev devised coded criticisms of the regime in his late works; for those who want to hear such things, the codes are said to suggest pain and regret. Morrison steers clear of wishful conjectures, and also of the Soviet version of the story, by which, as Tikhon Khrennikov, head of the Union of Soviet Composers once put it, Russia provided the former émigré composer with magnificent and heroic “life impressions” of his homeland that “nourished his creative imagination.” That fiction suited Stalin’s propagandists, and it isn’t altogether false, in that Prokofiev’s Faustian bargain produced music such as the great, late piano sonatas, of which Sviatoslav Richter memorably gave the first performances of the seventh and ninth: virtuosic, panoramic masterpieces. But his most pathetic scores came in the bargain, too.

Prokofiev, as he emerges in Morrison’s excellent book, was not above tyrannizing his peers (it was symptomatic that he abandoned his first wife for a younger woman with better Party connections). He was a patriot, but not an ideologue, who responded willingly to official orders to change his music by simplifying harmonies and melodies without, “to his mind,” sacrificing “his creative integrity”—whatever that became.

For Prokofiev, as for Shostakovich, serving the State was an obligation,” Morrison notes. “It was also, however, a stimulus for the creation of works that sought to elevate and ennoble the listener from a patriotic and spiritual standpoint.” Or as Prokofiev himself wrote in his diary in 1933: “What is needed now is to create for the masses in a manner that allows the music to remain good.” So he believed in socialism, and also in its usefulness to him.

That he miscalculated makes his end unfortunate, but not tragic. The Soviet Union represented for him, unlike the West, a fame brothel where music for the masses, whose composition came most naturally to him early on, promised a means to compete with Stravinsky, his Russian rival. Ominously, Pravda published its editorial “Muddle Instead of Music,” signaling a new campaign of artistic oppression, in 1936, the same year he settled there. But it was a measure of his narcissism that he believed, as a star, that he would remain above Stalinist politics. What this also implies about his moral indifference to the fate of others is another matter. He accepted the assurances of Soviet authorities who coaxed him to quit Paris, and he misjudged his own restless musical temperament, which couldn’t in the end reliably hit the moving target of Socialist Realism. In a sense, this was Prokofiev’s virtue and undoing. “He seemed neither to hear nor to see the approach of an annihilating havoc without precedent in human history,” as Schnittke put it. “Or rather, he did not wish to see or hear.”

That said, he wasn’t shipped to a gulag like many friends and colleagues, or like his first wife, Lina, a fragile depressive, the mother of his children, with whom he endlessly squabbled and whom he never technically divorced. Soviet agents arrested her shortly after he was criticized by the Party, and without political recourse she was convicted of treason and espionage because she had made it known that she wanted to return to France (distraught, Prokofiev nevertheless seems to have done, or was able to do, nothing to help her). She languished for eight years in Soviet prison camps.

Prokofiev, on the other hand, financially strapped, scrambled to redeem himself through works like Story of a Real Man, an opera adapted from a novella by Boris Polevoy, in turn based on a news account of a Soviet pilot during the early days of World War II who lost both legs and then was goaded by a commissar to overcome his handicap in the spirit of the Revolution. “You’re a Soviet man” is the phrase pushed in the opera higher by half-steps into an aureole of strings. Genre tunes familiar to Soviet audiences wove through the score to please censors.

But as an inspirational work it was pointless. Genuine sentiment often came across as irony in Prokofiev’s hands. That was the nature of his music. Apparatchiks heaped scorn after the opera’s run-through. “I just don’t understand,” the composer kept repeating to his second wife, Mira, an admission that spoke volumes, as Morrison writes, “about the earnestness of his aspiration to appease his antagonists.” Perhaps Morrison is also right in detecting a hint of defiance in the abject letter of apology the composer wrote to the authorities, which ended: “I would nonetheless prefer, however, to write an opera on Soviet themes and even, in the event of failure, to listen to negative reactions—than not to write and not to listen.”

His late works, like that ambiguous remark, present a quagmire. Is it possible to separate the sounds of his music from the circumstances of their making and from the uses to which his art was, and continues to be, put? Does his greatness as a composer somehow exempt him from the ends he served? Might buried criticisms of Stalinism, if they exist, mitigate these ends?

Morrison’s answer is, in every case, no. About Semyon Kotko, Prokofiev’s first Soviet opera, from 1939, he reproaches “present-day listeners” who

may find—or may wish to find—irony in the two-dimensionality of the dramatic situations. These do not, however, reflect a desire on the part of the composer to be subversive…. Prokofiev hoped to create a Soviet operatic classic.

It’s worth recalling that when Semyon Kotko was written, Prokofiev also volunteered to compose a paean to Stalin, Zdravitsa, whose opening stanza declaims:

There has never been a field so green
The village is filled with unheard-of happiness
Our life has never been so happy
Our rye has hitherto never been so plentiful.

Zdravitsa “cannot be rescued from the dustbin of musical agitprop,” Morrison insists. Works like it have become “the subject of debate between those who hail their musical qualities and who condemn their texts,” but this

is a disturbing work, and it is disturbing because of—rather than in spite of—the soothing harmonic and melodic texture that supports the depiction of Stalin as a benevolent figure. If the music of this work is to be of continued service, it must be presented in such a way as to cause discomfort.

That is “the ethical responsibility of critics and historians.”

Concertgoers in New York may recall that in 1996 the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus under Valery Gergiev performed Zdravitsa during the inaugural season of the Lincoln Center Festival, and Gergiev told interviewers at the time that he discerned anti-Stalinist messages between the notes. Four years later, when Leon Botstein conducted the same work with the American Symphony Orchestra, the program notes for the concert at Avery Fisher Hall invited listeners to decide “whether there is any irony in the piece,” implying that it is an open question.

As Anne Applebaum, in Gulag, points out, American liberal culture persists in treating Stalinist terror with a measure of equivocation that Nazi terror doesn’t permit. Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler killed Jews, Applebaum notes, but music celebrating Hitler is not going to be performed in New York anytime soon, certainly not at Avery Fisher, to test some theory about coded messages or to demonstrate the inherent ambiguity of music. Doing so would transgress a moral line. Time may erode that line and alter how music is heard or how pictures are perceived or books read, so that art glorifying, say, Assyrian tyrants or French despots may now strike us simply as beautiful because we have come to accept, tacitly or unconsciously, the moral acquiescence this entails. But cultural historians still have a professional and ethical obligation to point out where the line once was.

That most musicians and music lovers are inclined, or feel constrained, to turn a blind eye on the morally or politically dubious aspects of serious music—and thus imply that the only legitimate object of praise or censure in art is the quality of its making,” as the musicologist Richard Taruskin has put it, “represents the ultimate triumph” of what he calls “the poietic fallacy.” Taruskin defines this fallacy as a mistaken belief that what matters most about a work of art is the artist’s intent, not how the work functions in the world. This fallacy has served the proponents of Zdravitsa, whose claims of hidden messages strive to offset uneasy feelings listeners may have when they find themselves themselves tapping their feet to propaganda for a genocidal tyrant.

But what’s the alternative? Censoring this music? Two very entertaining volumes of Taruskin’s selected lectures, essays, and journalism (many for The New York Times‘s Arts & Leisure section)—one volume devoted to Russian music, the other, on a range of topics, entitled The Danger of Music—make a kind of leitmotif out of such moral conundrums.

Taruskin appears here as the Old Testament prophet of musicology. Deeply aggrieved, a scholar of prodigious and groundbreaking gifts, a fluent and lively writer, the author of a magisterial, six-volume history of all Western music, he brooks little disagreement, avoids no argument, and seems always eager to pick a fight.

He can write with much affection about Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomïzhsky, one of the now obscure Russian opera composers of the nineteenth century to whom he became attached as a graduate student some forty years ago; but with even greater venom about others, like Solomon Volkov, whose as-told-to Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (1979) he savages as a hoax. That book made out that Shostakovich, even more so than Prokofiev, was a closet dissident. Taruskin heaps abuse on this claim and its supporters. Legions of Taruskin’s enemies, as Taruskin gladly tells us, have in turn arisen to compare him to Stalin and the celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley. Minor dissents provoke thunderbolts. Bigger ones bring out a polemic subtlety that is rare among flame-throwers.

But compassion is hard to detect in his writing. Isaiah Berlin once described a visit by Shostakovich to Oxford in 1958. He recalled the “haunted, even persecuted expression” on the face of the composer, who “would fall into a kind of terrified silence. It was depressing and very harrowing and made one like him and pity him a great deal.” Berlin went on to ponder “what an extraordinary effect censorship and prison has on creative genius. It limits it, but deepens it.” He added: “It is terrible to see a man of genius victimized by a regime, crushed by it into accepting his fate…thinking that unhappiness is happiness and torture is normal life.” In those few words, Berlin conveyed, along with the deepening of creative thought in response to oppression, both the human cost of Shostakovich’s plight and the grace of forgiveness. This is not Taruskin’s gift.

But serious music mustn’t be coddled or excused from moral responsibility, Taruskin makes clear. Almost nothing is more deplorable for him than “sentimental complacency.” “Art is not blameless,” he writes. “Art can inflict harm. The Taliban know that. It’s about time we learned.” As he recalls in The Danger of Music, he once had “an unfortunately acidulous exchange” with Robert Craft in the pages of this publication over Stravinsky’s Cantata, Taruskin having predictably taken issue with a notoriously anti-Semitic passage in its text, borrowed from a fifteenth-century verse. Gustav Holst set the same text to music in 1916, but he composed before the Shoah, unlike Stravinsky, whose work was written, according to Taruskin, out of a cold kind of indifference, only a few years after World War II ended. Taruskin wagers that musicians today would more likely think twice about performing Holst than about performing Stravinsky because Stravinsky “has been classified as an unassailable great.” He does not say the obvious: that they would of course also do so because his music is, frankly, better.

Craft responded to Taruskin’s attack by quoting Auden, who noted that “The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic, but we can’t change it.” “Are we not debased and diminished, both as artists and as human beings, by such a commitment to ‘abstract’ musical worth?” Taruskin answers. And in a nutshell, that’s his philosophy. He suggests that performers who prefer not to tinker with offending texts consider making some announcement to accompany their performances, at least drawing attention to the debated material, adding: “Such a course is not the same as decreeing that they do [so], and…an appeal to discretion is a far cry from censorship.”

Perfectly right, although Taruskin’s adversaries tend to miss the distinction. Blind rage is a human response to what can be his condescension. “Richard Taruskin’s sneering antipathy for the person and music of Sergei Prokofiev made sad reading,” as Harlow Robinson, a music biographer, wrote after Taruskin’s review of his book appeared in The New Republic. Taruskin quotes Robinson’s letter at length. Robinson went on:

At a time when all cultural institutions, and particularly those in the field of “classical” music, are fighting for their very survival, a fashionably cynical character assassination of one of the most important (not to mention one of the few truly popular) composers of the 20th century seems both ill advised and churlish.

Of course this is Taruskin’s point: classical music, assuming a posture of marginality and victimhood, abjures the rough and tumble of real-world debate that would help assert its cultural importance.

Other targets of Taruskin include Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, whom he mocks for having predicted the triumph of twelve-tone music and the end of orchestral music. As too often is the case, he gets carried away by righteous indignation. The “old academic avant-garde,” he quite absurdly writes, is “a congregation of crybabies” akin “to the likes of the East German spymaster Markus Wolf or the Albanian widow Hoxha, relics of another discredited elite.” Such insults cheapen Taruskin’s remarkable scholarship and prose, but he can in any event be credited for cutting through the sanctimony that so often cripples writing on classical music, however crude the knife. Whether he writes about so-called authentic performance practice (the very notion is “charlatanry,” he points out) or the central role of German repertoire in the musical canon, to which he takes what comes across as personal umbrage, it is received opinion, which by its nature implies intellectual complacency, that he especially loathes, along with the industry that promotes it. “The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard,” he writes,

as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or in its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves. Which is not to say that classical music, or any music, is morally reprehensible. Only people, not music, can be that.

Moral reprehensibility seems precisely Taruskin’s problem with Zdravitsa and Stravinsky’s Cantata. But he is not always consistent. He links the decline of classical music’s prestige to the rise of pop, before which public figures felt obliged to feign interest in high culture if they didn’t have it. After President Kennedy remarked during a White House dinner that as a student in Paris his wife had won a Vogue essay contest on the subject of “People I Wish I Had Known,” citing Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Serge Diaghilev, Stra-vinsky joked to the President that she must have been researching pederasty. Taruskin cites this anecdote to contrast the Kennedy era with the era of Bill Clinton, who pretended to no interest in classical music and whose daughter is named after a Joni Mitchell song.

I for one rate our sax-toting president’s participatory investment in music higher than anyone’s passive consumption of the classics,” Taruskin says. “Teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them nothing but vainglory, and inspires attitudes that are the very opposite of humane.”

True enough, a commercial field of public relations has evolved to promote symphony orchestras, art museums, and other institutions of high culture on often false premises. The arguments are based on economic and scholastic benefits to society that rely on dubious statistics, which in any case miss the point of art. Pleasure and self-fulfillment are the best reasons to make music or paint pictures, and they’re the only reliable defense for promoting classical music now, which is not dying, as Taruskin points out, but changing. He cites with admiration Gabriel Prokofiev, the British-born grandson of the composer, who studied electronic music in school, played in a disco-punk band, and now writes string quartets.

Taruskin’s greatest hero, however, is Gerald Abraham, a prolific mid-century author of books on Russian music, whose Concise Oxford History of Music, published in 1979 and written solely by Abraham, provided for him a model of catholic breadth and accessible prose. To fulfill the obligations of his dissertation and finagle a fellowship to Russia to visit Russian relatives during the early 1970s, Taruskin chose to study Dargomïzhsky, Alexander Serov, and César Cui, whose aesthetic debates transformed Taruskin’s thinking. “From a cynic I became a true believer and, like Gerald Abraham, a self-appointed missionary,” he writes.

A passionate style, and a demanding ethical sentiment (also inherited from Serov…and Cui in the first place, although often ascribed by my opponents in debate to my Jewishness), have been my distinction and my curse ever since,” he adds.

The passionate style is risky. It is, or has been, especially unfashionable in musicology…. Musicology has not been as skeptical a discipline as its scholarly siblings, and it has not been terribly vigilant against mythography.

This attitude explains why he goes so fiercely after Solomon Volkov, among others: because he believes that nothing less than “the reputation of one’s own profession…is at stake.” Scholars are destined to be wrong, he admits, paraphrasing Keynes. Their work will be superseded (Abraham’s already is). But dishonesty, laziness, and cowardice can’t be tolerated. “I single these men out for censure because they are the ones who wear the same robes, so to speak, as I,” Taruskin writes. “Their possession of Ph.D. degrees obliges them to a higher standard of accountability than the various lawyers, fiddlers, scribblers, keyboard ticklers, and baton wavers who share the dock with them.”

Hanging judge may be more like it than Old Testament prophet, and by the way, he lets the scribblers off too easily. His books locate much of the blame for the debased role high art has come to play in society at the feet of precisely those who try to shield culture from the hurly-burly of real life and debate. Art suffocates in thin air. Angry and prejudiced to the point of outrage, Taruskin wrestles it back to earth, where we live and die.

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