11 January 2011

And a third

. . . because it’s so interesting. Also per Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life

Another theme raised repeatedly during their American visit [22 Oct - 21 Nov 1959], according to an account attributed jointly to Shostakovich and Khrennikov, was the Soviet attitude toward dodecaphony, with the (preposterous, so they claimed) allegations that not only was it not performed in the Soviet Union but Soviet composers were officially forbidden to compose dodecaphonic music and, therefore, were denied artistic freedom. The opening of channels for cultural exchange had ushered in a new era of cultural competition. On his return from Italy and France the previous year, Shostakovich had reported that “the leading French masters are deeply troubled about the future of music in the West. They are troubled by the dissemination of false ‘avant-garde’ trends — like the notorious dodecaphony or ‘concrete music’ — among their youth. This still-born art gains no recognition from the broad public, it attests to the ideological impasse, the crisis of bourgeois culture.” Such phrases, coupled with tributes to the adherents of genuinely “progressive” music responsive to the needs of the broad listening public, figured increasingly in Shostakovich's lexicon, as mouthpiece of official Soviet aesthetic policy.

In an interview given to a Polish journalist during the Warsaw Autumn Festival but published subsequently in Sovetskaya muzyka, Shostakovich preached at length of the perils of dodecaphony, which he felt had unreasonably monopolized the programs of the festival:

I am firmly convinced that in music, as in every other human endeavor, it is always necessary to seek new paths. But it seems to me that those who see these new paths in dodecaphony are seriously deluding themselves. The narrow dogmatism of this artificially invented system rigidly fetters the creative imagination of composers and deprives them of individuality. It is no accident that in the entire legacy of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic system there is not a single work that has gained wide acceptance.... Dodecaphony not only has no future, it doesn’t even have a present. It is just a “fad” that is already passing.

Soviet music, he asserted by contrast, was evaluated not by its degree of experimentation or by its deviation from tonality but by whether it was good, that is, whether it was rich in substance and artistically consummate.

This is not the place to debate the Soviet failure to acknowledge the aesthetic “inevitability” of the Second Viennese School and Serialism. In hindsight, the stance, though dogmatic, seems considerably less wrong-headed and regressive than it was thought to be in the West. At least in Shostakovich’s case, it should not be assumed that he was ignorant of the musical styles he was condemning. Nor can it be taken for granted that the official line he was obliged to toe was completely alien to his real preferences and convictions. Shostakovich was an exceptionally sensitive and literate musician. In Warsaw, in America, and on his frequent foreign jaunts, he was provided with ample opportunity to meet composers, listen to their music, and assess the international picture. He stocked up on recordings whenever he traveled.

His son Maxim has recalled that scores sent by composers or musical organizations could always be found in their home and that Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, the late works of Stravinsky, and a couple of pieces by Xenakis were among the works he admired. In March 1959, as it happens, Shostakovich presented his old friend Shebalin with a score of Le marteau for his birthday. Denisov recorded in a diary entry for 1957 Shostakovich’s private comments about his dislike of the music of Schoenberg and his feeling that Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies were rather saccharine. After having been singled out in one of Shostakovich’s speeches as the “arch-representative of ‘decadent capitalist culture,’” Karlheinz Stockhausen subsequently received a private letter from the composer professing admiration for his music and encouraging him to visit. Still, if his tastes in music were more catholic than his sometimes strident rhetoric might suggest, Shostakovich nonetheless favored more conservative contemporary idioms, the music of Benjamin Britten, for instance. His distaste for dry, inepressive music and his opposition to composition by rational system of mathematical formula were genuine. Direct engagement with his listener, the need to connect through his music with ordinary people remained a central concern for Shostakovich.

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