Russian composers in the first half of the 20th century

The political and social events of the first half of the 20th century had fateful consequences for many Russian composers, which are reflected in very different ways in their respective oeuvres. One focus of the Musikverein’s programme focuses on Russian music in these times of upheaval – in a broad spectrum from orchestral concerts to song recitals, from silent films with live music to education programmes.

Music in Upheaval. Russian composers in the first half of the 20th century – this programme’s focus was planned to open an exciting chapter in history. How did war, revolution and the pressures of totalitarian systems affect musical creation? What paths did composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich embark on under the pressure of circumstances? These questions, which we wanted to ask from a historical perspective, have taken on a startling relevance due to recent events, Russia’s war against Ukraine. In view of this, there can be no talk of upheaval (yet). We are witnessing a rupture: the rupture of international law, the rupture of a humane consensus that we achieved in the Europe of the 21st century. We are all sad and dismayed by this development. Of course, our programme focus will be played out as planned – the exemplary questions it raises give us cause for further discussion. Deviating from our original plan, however, we will not perform concerts during this cycle with a Russian state orchestra. We have withdrawn our invitation to the Mariinsky Orchestra and its chief conductor Valery Gergiev. We would like to thank the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Alain Altinoglu for taking over the planned programmes with rare works of the repertoire at short notice. We continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine with concern and attention – we will adapt our program to the situation if necessary …

Igor Stravinsky played poker in Paris, Dmitri Shostakovich commemorated his deceased wife in mourning in Leningrad, Sergei Rachmaninoff opened his romantic musical soul to jazz harmonies in New York, Sergei Prokofiev gave a second life to a hellishly virtuoso work in a Bavarian monastery: four Russian composers whose biographies, fates and artistic work were dramatically influenced by the global political turbulence in the first half of the 20th century have been influenced and shaped. In a separate focus, the Musikverein brings these and other fates and the expressive music that captures a tragic era back to life for the audience through selected works.

From 15 to 23 October 2022, the Musikverein organized the festival “Music in Upheaval – Russian Composers in the First Half of the 20th Century”. At one concert, there was a change in the programme: Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata “Alexander Nevsky” op. 78 was replaced by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, op. 47. The reasons for the change in the programme were explained at the concert itself by the Artistic Director of the Musikverein, Dr. Stephan Pauly, as well as in a detailed discussion after the concert.

The situation in Western Europe, which was increasingly affected by wars and, after the collapse of the German and Austrian monarchies by fascism, finally prompted Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff to emigrate to the USA. Rachmaninoff never really felt at home in the USA, maintained contact with other exiled Russians and observed with great interest the developments in his home country, which he left in 1917 – without knowing it, forever – as the social upheavals during the turmoil of the revolution deprived his artistic existence of its economic foundations. Starting with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the homesick composer and pianist was to write only six works in exile in America. Rachmaninov completed his Third Piano Concerto, composed especially for a concert tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered in New York under Walter Damrosch, in the summer of 1908 in Ivanovka, his wife’s country estate.

Stravinsky settled in Beverly Hills in 1941, after nearly three decades in exile in Switzerland and France. While still in Paris, he was commissioned by the American Ballet to compose a new ballet music entitled “Jeu de Cartes”, performed in concert at the Musikverein by Alain Altinoglu and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, in which Stravinsky turned the cards of a poker game into dancing figures. The United States welcomed the famous Russian with open arms. Although only nine years younger than the emphatic post-romantic Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky stood for a completely different, new generation of composers. In their only personal encounter in joint exile, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky avoided talking about music, as their positions were too deeply opposed. But in 1942, another topic dominated minds anyway: the concern for the Russian homeland in the Second World War. The Soviet Union’s struggle against Nazi Germany made both composers patriots again. The fate of their compatriots during the war made previously critical, political positions towards the Soviets recede into the background. Rachmaninoff even played benefit concerts for the Soviet army during the war years.

The spirited and compositionally uncompromising Prokofiev, who at the beginning of his career caused stormy enthusiasm and also rejection among Russian audiences, especially with two piano concertos and piano solo works, could not escape the political events at first: “The February Revolution was joyfully welcomed by me and the circles in which I moved. During the uprising, I was on the streets in Petrograd, hiding behind ledges of walls from time to time when the shooting became too violent …” The “joyful” mood, on the other hand, was soon replaced by worries about the uncertain situation for art in the midst of social upheavals. Thus, Prokofiev was glad when a sympathetic Commissar of National Education gave him permission to leave the country. In the spring of 1918, Prokofiev began his journey to the United States via Japan. It was not until ten years later, after long stays in Western Europe, that Prokofiev, driven by homesickness, returned to the Soviet Union, which was already ruled by Stalin.

In the Great Hall of the Musikverein, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Alain Altinoglu will shed light on Prokofiev’s eventful life and work on the basis of two exemplary works: the keyboard furioso of the Second Piano Concerto, composed in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, which radically throws all traditions overboard, the sheet music of which was reconstructed having been stolen by the flames during the revolution and was reconstructed by Prokofiev in exile in southern Germany, and the cantata reworked into a cantata in Moscow in 1939 as the archaic, powerful film music for Eisenstein’s film “Alexander Nevsky”. The film depicts the struggle of the Russian peoples in the 13th century, led by Prince Nevsky against the invading knights of the Teutonic Order and was first suppressed by Stalin’s regime and then, after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, used for propaganda.

Not to be missed in this focus is Prokofiev’s musical fairy tale “Peter and the Wolf”, which is on the programme with Marko Simsa and the Ketos Quintet at “Allegretto” for children from the age of six. Prokofiev composed and wrote the lyrics for the play in 1936, on behalf of the director of the Moscow Central Children’s Theatre. She was married to a general of the Soviet army, who, in turn, was a friend of Dmitry Shostakovich. When the general became a victim of Stalin’s terrible “purges” a few years later, Shostakovich also had to fear for his life. However, despite repeated persecution and ostracism during Stalin’s reign of terror, he was the only important Russian composer to remain in the Soviet Union. The Artis Quartet will once again devote itself to deeply serious chamber music by Shostakovich, a genre that was not intended for the general Soviet public and in which the composer expressed himself privately, so to speak: a true musical contemplation of the soul with all the suffering and Soviet tragedy caused by political persecution.

Around the central quartet of Stravinsky-Prokofiev-Rachmaninoff-Shostakovich, other composers who helped to shape Russian modernism will light up this program at the Musikverein, such as the mystic Alexander Scriabin in a piano recital by Marc-André Hamelin or Mieczysław Weinberg, a close friend of Shostakovich in Moscow, who fled from his native Poland to escape the invading National Socialists. whose music was only rediscovered after his death as a resounding poetry between horror and hope, and from which the Artis Quartet will play one of his touching string quartets. The Russian-focussed programme also includes an exciting project in one of the word-music cycles with a reading from Boris Pasternak’s epochal novel “Doctor Zhivago” and music by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, as well as the screening of the silent film “Aelita – Flight to Mars” from the hard-pressed early revolutionary years in the USSR, with live music composed by Dmitri Kourliandski (2010).

Text by Rainer Lepuschitz.

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