Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sign Of The Times

They never did correct his name. I'm starting to wonder if the problem really is that no one cares.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

"My Teacher Played Me Commie Music!"

I wrote a little guest post for Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog about how I introduced my students to Prokofiev, via Joe Stalin. Here's a taste:

I try to smuggle a little music into my lessons. Students studying Napoleon heard snatches of Beethoven’s Eroica and the story that went with it. Recently, with a GCSE class investigating culture and politics in Stalin’s USSR, I used interview footage featuring the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, recounting the way in which, during the Soviet period, books themselves were altered as officials and artists feel in and out of favour. But I had an ulterior motive: the interview, from Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary The Red Baton, plays with clips of Sergei Prokofiev’s choral ode to Stalin, Zdravitsa (“A Toast” or “Hail to Stalin”). It’s beautiful, sweeping stuff.

Read the whole lot here.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, 17 December 2017

One turn of the dial: Grigori Kozintsev on filming good and evil

It so happens that, by itself, the activity of a people – its selfless devotion to duty, its bravery – can be evaluated only when the goal to that activity is known. Sometimes the artist need not be explicit about the goals; the audience will perceive the action of the screen as though it were tuned in on a definite wave length of spiritual activity by an associative force, tuned in on a conditional reflex of attitudes toward good and evil.

During the Second World War, William Wyler directed his Memphis Belle. The film contains shots of a bomb run by flying fortresses, the life of the pilots, their military work, the return to base under fire.

The chronicle is filmed as entertainment: it shows the characters of the pilots, their mutual relations, tastes, customs. Their tastes are not demanding. A picture is painted on the side of an airplane: a bathing beauty sticks out her rear end. Returning from a run (mortal danger and the bravery of the crew is indicated; there are quite a few seriously wounded), the pilots slap the Memphis Belle on her behind; it’s a custom.

In this case, neither the drawing itself nor the conduct of the men is in any way attractive of itself. Wyler does not show the enemy: bombings are filmed from the plane (little squares for objectives, the smoke of explosions, shell craters). But the audience sees the movie as though tuned in on a certain wave length: hatred for fascism is already a conditioned reflex.

The American fly-boys, their bravery, and even their joke about the girl in the bathing suit, all seem attractive, profoundly human.

Now let us imagine this film in its entirety as taking place in Korea. Just as any turn, however insignificant, of the radio dial will tune in another station, so here everything becomes different and the interpretation makes an about-face. The men are murderers; their life is coarse. And the bawd in the bathing suit becomes a symbol: here are the ideals and the culture in the name of which these thugs have flown across an ocean in order to annihilate a people fighting for their freedom and human dignity.

From the notes of Grigori Kozintsev, made during the filming of his 1964 adaptation of Hamlet (with music by Dmitri Shostakovich), published in his book Shakespeare: Time and Conscience, which was translated by Joyce Vining in 1966.

Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, 15 December 2017

Galina Ivanovna's Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya, seen in the Dutch TV documentary Scream Into Space
For many years I worked in a music library. I know how many years passed there, but I couldn’t now divide the time and say what belonged to which of the years. Libraries are places where time collects and where ideas go to rest, but time and thought stand strangely still between the shelves. Libraries have cycles and habits, and they go on until one day, they stop.

An elderly, sprightly lady used to breeze through the gate and give a brief but sincere “hello”, and a “hope you’ve a lovely holiday” or the like as she left. These all passed between us as though we’d done the introductions long before, but in truth, I barely knew who she was, only that she was a rare exception, a library regular from outside our institution. At Christmas, she’d bring a box of biscuits and card, left with her usual economy. A smile, a few words, and gone again.

“Sister Andre sort of came with the library”, the Librarian told me. “She’s been coming for years. She’s a nun. She’s researching something.”

I think more years passed before I asked what it was.


“Dullaghan”, she said, in a way that sounded right and compact in her Irish brogue. “D-U-L-L-A…”

“Got it”, I said, finding her record and issuing her books. Sr Andre Dullaghan.

What did she do up in the reading room, I asked? She was working on her book, she replied, on the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya. I knew the name, a little of the reputation, though I didn’t know the sound of the music. Strange and intense, I’d heard. A recluse, who’d not long ago died.

And then, from the little nun to whom I’d nodded and smiled for years, came the story of the time she’d made it into the world of Galina Ivanovna Ustvolskaya, a tiny world sealed shut to all but a select few.

Galina Ivanovna lived in a nondescript apartment in St Petersburg. If one knew anything of her, it was that she’d been a pupil of Shostakovich. He’d even, it was said, proposed marriage. She declined, and later in life, she vehemently denied his musical influence and his personal friendship. Shostakovich “killed my best feelings”, she wrote.

In her later years, she cultivated the myth of her own singularity. Scholarly study of her music was forbidden. Early works were struck from her catalogue. Just a handful of musicians could perform her music to her exacting standards. She admitted no influences, no antecedents. She belonged to no tradition. And she’d withdrawn from the world, to that tiny flat that she shared with her husband. No one saw her. One did not visit Ustvolskaya.

Some time, in the 1980s, perhaps, Sr Andre had fallen under the spell of the music. In the pounding of Ustvolskaya’s brutally expressive, rhythmically single-minded symphonies and sonatas, Sr Andre had seen God, a raw and blinding image of Him that spoke intensely to her faith. A visit to St Petersburg, in 1993, gave her the chance to discover more than was then possible from the trickle of information reaching the West. She found scholars and musicians eager to share their knowledge of Ustvolskaya’s work, but speaking with the composer was out of the question.

Further visits followed, and the quest to learn more became a doctoral thesis. Finally, in 1997, at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, Sr Andre took a risk and phoned Galina Ivanovna’s home number, a few days shy of the composer’s 78th birthday. She answered. Galina Ivanovna didn’t throw down the phone, but rather, spoke with Sr Andre warmly. News of Sr Andre’s passion for her music, and of her research visits to St Petersburg, must by then have reached her, even within her little fortress. Was this a way in? Sr Andre sensed that it might be, if she proceeded with care. A few days later, she phoned again.  

“I do not wish to see you”, said Sr Andre, “but at 5:30 I will ring your doorbell and leave you a present.”

Immediately: “There’s no need to.”

Sr Andre, though, had prepared. “I have already bought your present.” Chocolate-covered prunes – Galina Ivanovna’s favourite.

There was a pause – a long pause.

“What time did you say you’d call?”

That evening, Sr Andre arrived at the apartment, at the appointed time. She rang the bell, not expecting any response. But the door opened, and there stood Galina Ivanovna, dressed beautifully. She offered Sr Andre a warm embrace, and invited her into the apartment. They spoke for a while, and the composer asked this question: “Why do you love my music so much?”

“I love your music”, replied Sr Andre, “because every note touches my soul.”


She told me this story as I sat behind our library’s broad wooden issue desk. I read later that Galina Ivanovna referred to Sr Andre as “the nun”. And here she was - Galina Ivanovna’s nun - telling me of this precious meeting. I was at one remove from the most mysterious of the Soviet Union’s visionary musicians.

I stored it away in my mind. Years passed, I changed career, and eventually I set to writing something about Ustvolskaya. I knew who to contact first.

I had expected the routine to continue, even without me, and for Sr Andre to be regularly climbing the stairs to the reading room, to be reviewing her notes and shaping her manuscript at the big sloping table on the first floor. But she wasn’t; she isn’t. News came back from a colleague that she had passed away in 2015, eight years after and ten years the junior of her beloved Galina Ivanovna.

I don’t know what became of her work. The book she was shaping will never be finished. Perhaps the notes and the thoughts they hold rest somewhere, in a box or on a shelf of some little library, waiting for someone to pick up the threads and continue the work.

Sr Andre Dullaghan
The details of Sr Andre's meeting with Galina Ustvolskaya are related in the introduction to her doctoral thesis, Galina Ustvolskaya: Her Heritage and Her Voice (City Universtiy London, 2000) and are much the same as they were told to me by Sr Andre herself. Images used on this page fall under fair use and are intended to aid study and review. They will be removed upon request by the copyright holders. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

A Rare Russian Treat, Tomorrow on BBC Radio 3

Rozhdestvensky (right) at a rehearsal with Shostakovich and Rostropovich, in 1960.

Few great musicians of the era of Shostakovich survive now, but the legendary conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky is still out there, offering a very real link to the greatest of Soviet composers. Rozhdestvensky worked with Shostakovich between the early 1960s and his death in 1975, most notably on the late revival of the opera The Nose. Rozhdestvensky's appearances in the West are relatively rare these days, but he did appear, in Dresden, earlier this year, conducting the first and last Shostakovich symphonies. The concert is broadcast on Radio 3 on Monday 13th November, at 2pm, and will be available for 30 days afterwards for UK users.

Rozhdestvensky leads the Dresden Staatskapelle in tomorrow's broadcast. The orchestra has a fine history with Shostakovich, and recordings are available of them in symphonies conducted by another great Shostakovich maestro, Kirill Kondrashin. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, 6 November 2017

BBC Radio 3's Russian Revolution

Looking through the schedules for this week, I note with delight how much time is being given over to Russian music and culture on BBC Radio 3. I then wonder quite how I'm supposed to listen to it all. One programme at a time, I suppose. I've made a list of everything I could, though you'll note that some of these things are now in the past. UK readers can follow the links (for 30 days) to catch up with all that Russian goodness.

Composer of the week continues next week with music from the post-Stalin period. The anniversary (calendar-corrected) of the actual Bolshevik Revolution is marked by a special afternoon discussion on Tuesday of this week.

5pm – The Listening Service on Shostakovich’s 15th Symphony
5.30pm – Words and Music: Russia after the Revolution
6.45pm – Sunday Feature: Emigranti – 1917 Revisited
7.30pm – Concert of Tchaikovsky from the Verbier Festival
9pm – Drama on 3 – Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

9am – Essential Classics: interview with BBC foreign correspondent Bridget Kendall (all week)
12noon – Composer of the Week: Scriabin and Prokofiev
2pm – Afternoon Concert: Music by Tchaikovsky and Taneyev
7.30pm – Evening Concert: LPO in music by Shostakovich and Rachmaninov
10.45pm – The Essay: Ten Artists that Shook the World (all week)

6.30am – Breakfast: Live from the Mariinsky Theatre
12noon – Composer of the Week: Mosolov and Roslavets
1pm – Lunchtime Concert: Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky
2pm – Breaking Free: A century of Russia culture, live from Lenin’s London office
7.30pm – Evening Concert: Shostakovich and Rachmaninov from the RLPO
10pm – Free Thinking: Man With a Movie Camera
11pm – Late Junction: Russian Experimentalism

12pm – Composer of the Week: Myaskovsky and Popov
1pm – Lunchtime Concert: Alexei Vlodin
7.30pm – Evening Concert: Cedric Tiberghien plays Prokofiev and Mussorgsky
10pm – Free Thinking: Svetlana Alexievich and Stephen Kotkin

12pm – Composer of the Week: Shostakovich and Kabalevsky
1pm – Lunchtime Concert: Anna Vinnitskaya
2pm – Afternoon concert: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel
7.30pm – Evening Concert: Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov from the RPO
10pm – Free Thinking: Russian Art and Exile
12.30am – Archive recordings of Kirill Kondrashin

12pm – Composer of the Week: Prokofiev and Khrennikov
1pm – Lunchtime Concert: Vadym Kholodenko
2pm – Afternoon concert: Music by Tchaikovsky

9am – Record Review: Includes Gerard McBurney on Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony
12.15pm – Music Matters: Discussion with Teodor Currentzis
3pm – Sound of Cinema: Russian Revolution special
6pm – Opera on 3: Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth
1am – More archive recordings of Kirill Kondrashin

12noon – Private Passions: Interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore
2pm – The Early Music Show: Music form the court of Catherine the Great
7.30pm – Evening Concert: Music by Glazunov and Schnittke

The header image is from the BBC Radio 3 website and is one of a number of designs being used to promote this season. Read more about co-opting propaganda imagery here. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, 5 November 2017

A Berliner Birthday Message to Herbert Blomstedt

Full marks to the Berliner Philarmoniker for this charming video in celebration of conductor Herbert Blomstedt's 90th birthday which he celebrated a few months ago. I saw him conduct earlier this year, and I only hope I'll take a flight of stairs as spryly as him when I'm that age.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Tanks, Catcalls and Correcting a Correction

On August 21st, 1968, star Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was scheduled to play Dvorak's Cello Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall, and the irony was lost on no one. The day before, half a million Warsaw Pact troops had poured into Czechoslovakia, land of Dvorak's birth, to crush a remarkable flowering of liberal socialism which, in Moscow's eyes, could not be allowed continue. For months, under the leadership of Alexandr Dubcek, Prague had been reforming industry and freedom of speech. Soviet tanks rolling into Czech cities, on August 20th, signaled the end of Moscow's patience.

Rostropovich, alive to the symbolism of his performance of the greatest Czech work for the instrument, reportedly played with tears in his eyes. On stage beside him were the Soviet conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov, and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. The mood in the hall was electric, though as the performance began, the protests which threatened to drown out the music subsided. The concert, which concluded with Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony, has gone down in legend as one of the 20th century's most remarkable.

These sort of events always attract a certain degree of myth. Did tears really stream down Slava's face? Did anti-Soviet protesters really drown out the music? A letter to BBC Music Magazine, printed in their new December issue, sought to correct this one. No, Victor and Lilian Hochhauser, the impresarios who arranged the concert, firmly state in relation to the second. They write:

"As we were responsible for negotiating the visit of the cellist Mstislav Rostropotvich and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra to the BBC Proms on 21 August 1968 and subsequently to the Edinburgh Festival, we wish to point out the inaccuracies in Peter Haydn Pike's letter (September)."

They continue:

"In view of the Soviet invasion into Prague, we were all expecting trouble, but there was absolutely no interruption during Rostropovich's emotionally charged performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, no 'catcalls' to drown out the Shostakovich symphony, and the concert was broadcast in full."

The concert was broadcast, and the two pieces were released on CD, the Dvorak by BBC Legends and the Shostakovich on a separate disc by ICA Classics. Trouble is - there are interruptions, and there are catcalls. Hecklers threaten to hold up the start of Dvorak's Concerto, though they stop before the first note is heard. Things are different, though, in the Shostakovich. Hecklers yell, though it's not clear what, and the first, quiet bars of the Symphony are lost in a melee of protest and lots of shushing. (The first movement is not to be found on Youtube; Spotify users can find the recording there).

I'm not taking aim at the Hochhausers here, who've mixed with the legends of 20th century classical music and without whom London's concert scene would have been much the poorer. But memory's a funny thing, isn't it?

I took a pic of the page in question. Also, you can enjoy the "gems" from Twitter and Facebook.

The header picture is credited to "YouTube", though I suspect they didn't take it. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Making a good impression: The music of The Death Of Stalin

Can brutal dictatorships ever be funny? Armando Iannucci thinks so, and he's crafted a hilarious and terrifying film about the farcical circumstances surrounding the death of just about the baddest dictator of them all, Joseph Stalin, in 1953. The humour in his film The Death of Stalin arises from a few things. People act absurdly as they second-guess everything that is ever said to them. Stalin's ministers scramble for position as his body lies on his office carpet, still warm. And then there's the way with language familiar from Iannucci projects stretching back to the news spoofs On The Hour and The Day Today (old collaborator David Schneider joins him in the screenplay credits). Iannucci and friends are able to render horrible insults and threats funny by their weird specificity (see Beria shouting, from a little window, that he'll gouge out someone's eyes one at a time "so you can watch it happen"). Some question whether this grim moment in history should be played for laughs (see historian Richard Overy's po-faced critique of the film's historical accuracy, for example), but the humour heightens the horror. No one here is making light of on-the-spot executions or Beria's hideous abuses.

Most in the audience will, I suspect, find themselves too gripped by the grim spectacle of Stalin's ministers climbing over each other to advance their careers / survive (often both) to have noticed what goes on on the soundtrack. Mozart and Tchaikovsky here rub shoulders with a Shostakovich-sound-alike score from Christopher Willis, who has worked on a previous Iannucci series, Veep. I suspect Iannucci - a keen classical music lover - knows enough about Shostakovich to have asked Willis for something along the lines of the 10th and 11th Symphonies, which come from 1953 (the year of Stalin's death) and 1957 (a year after Khrushchev's "Secret Speech") respectively.  Willis has done very well, contributing music that sounds like those pieces, and which nods in their direction without borrowing too heavily from them. Listen out for a moment of muted, glassy strings, recalling a favourite atmospheric effect of DDS's, used in a number of the symphonies. There's also a mini-piano concerto which blends the nervy pianism of the 1st Concerto with squawky wind-heavy orchestration of the 2nd. Willis elsewhere mentions Weinberg as a reference point too, though I'd have to know my Weinberg better to spot quite how. Interestingly, the symphonies are the reference point, rather than the workmanlike film scores that Shostakovich pumped out during this period. The decision has generally been taken to avoid the faux-propaganda stylings we get so often, and I'm glad of that.

One element of the plot which could have been developed further involves a concert pianist, seen playing Mozart's 23rd Concerto at the start and the end, who turns out to be Maria Yudina. She's not (I don't think) referred to by her surname during the film, and I didn't guess it was meant to be her until I read the credits later. Her anti-Stalin feelings are not in question - she was a rare example of an off-message voice who was tolerated - and her intense religious faith is hinted at in the film. She's played younger in the film, though, than her actual 54 years, and rather more glamorous too. The whole, rather brilliant, opening scene of the film is based around a story from 1944 (moved up to 1953 here) of the scramble to record a version of a live radio performance after-the-fact, after Stalin requested a copy, and the on-air rendition had gone untaped. The source for this story seems to be the Shostakovich "memoir" Testimony (and you might know what I think of that), though there may be corroboration elsewhere.

Shostakovich fans can go and see the film confident in the knowledge that a particularly skillful pastiche of their favourite awaits, and everyone else can enjoy the jokes and cower at the brutality hidden in plain view.

I should also mention that the film is based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury; proof to the skeptical, hopeful, that those things can have some value.

The image at the top is the film's best poster, I think, which uses a different visual trope of Soviet propaganda to to slanty 1920s stuff we usually see. The image is used for the purposes of review and study and falls under "fair use"; it will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s)

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Thing happens, revealing larger thing about classical music

Just recently, a thing happened to a person involved with classical music. While some found this thing amusing, and others still commented that sometimes things just happen, this thing revealed a larger, more troubling thing about classical music.

Many years ago, things happened, but they were different things. Now, increasingly, this sort of thing is all too common in the world of classical music. But what does this thing tell us about the state of classical music as it presently is? Jenny Squeakygate, director of the London Contemporary Percussion Quadrangle, says this sort of thing does happen in the modern world. "The thing is", she comments, "that these things are a consequence of the way in which things are done and the ways in which the public engages with those things."

But is it really fair to simply dismiss this thing as a thing that happened? The format of reports such as this, coupled with a need to pick holes in things, suggests not. "While this thing might have been an accident, it reveals that many within classical music are actually very complacent about a lot of things", says Phillipa Barline, blogger and freelance commentator on things like this. "While organisations are throwing money at things, they are in fact neglecting other things, which I have decided are the most important things".

Whatever the significance of this thing, one thing is clear: things will continue to happen, and they may or may not be indicative of larger things.