Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

A Composer’s Hour

Rodion Shchedrin (Yuri Belinsky/Itar-Tass)

Every now and then, I’ll interview a musician, and I’ll often ask, “Who are the living composers you admire or respect? Is there anyone worth listening to today?” Usually, the musician will smile at the cheeky way the question is phrased. Almost never will he protest, “What do you mean? There are many, many fine composers among us.” Chances are, he’ll say, “Well . . .” — then give me two or three names. One of those names is likely to be that of a Russian composer, Rodion Shchedrin.

In the last 15 years, he has grown ever more popular, championed by some of our best musicians. These include three major conductors: Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel, and Mariss Jansons. One of his biggest boosters was Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist and conductor who died in 2007. When you had “Slava” in your corner, you were the beneficiary of an almost superhuman force.

The Lincoln Center Festival, here in New York, will feature Shchedrin this month, when the Mariinsky Ballet, from St. Petersburg, comes to town. Gergiev will conduct, and such luminaries as Diana Vishneva will dance. Two of Shchedrin’s ballets will be performed: The Little Humpbacked Horse (1955–56), based on the fairytale poem by Yershov, and Anna Karenina (1971), based on you-know-what. The Mariinsky will also perform Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite — i.e., his arrangement of Bizet’s score. Maya Plisetskaya, one of the greatest dancers of all time, premiered this ballet with the Bolshoi in 1967.

Shchedrin has a great affinity for ballet in general, and for Plisetskaya in particular: They were married in 1958. They are still an attractive, even a glamorous couple, she in her mid-eighties, he in his late seventies. Also, you could argue that they are the most talented couple in the world. Seriously. Of course, you might put in a bid for Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, too.

Rodion Shchedrin was born on Dec. 16, 1932. (There was another composer born on December 16: Beethoven.) His father was a composer and music teacher. Many, many composers have been sons of composers, or of professional musicians: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to begin with. Shchedrin’s first name is an old-fashioned Russian one, shared by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The last name looks fearsome in its spelling, but is easy to pronounce, or approximate: Shed-REEN.

He studied with two top musicians at the Moscow Conservatory: Yuri Shaporin and Yakov Flier. The former was his composition teacher, the latter his piano teacher. Flier was little-known in the West, unlike some other pianists from the Soviet Union. But he was magnificent. Shchedrin has said he was the best he ever heard, after Vladimir Horowitz. That’s a powerful statement, even allowing for a student’s natural loyalty.

With respect to composition, Shchedrin came of age in “a rather lean time,” as he put it in an interview earlier this year. Even the Impressionists — Debussy, Ravel — were scorned as tune-happy squares. Abstraction and devotion to method were the rule of the day. “For 35 years, there was a dictatorship of the avant-garde,” Shchedrin said in another interview, “and I was never a part of it.” He lays great stress on what he calls “intuition.” Especially in earlier years, he wrote his share of abstract, or semi-abstract, music. But he insists that “music should touch the heart and soul.” And he has referred to himself as “a post-avant-garde composer.”

#page#Once, he was asked what he was prepared to listen to, right that second. He replied that he was always prepared to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker — “because each and every section of the score is a masterpiece.” That is a very rare declaration for a modern composer to make. Even those who believe it — who know it’s true — would shrink from saying it.

Shchedrin is one of those people with a huge appetite for music, music of every period, and of every type. And his own music reflects an awareness, and absorption, of the past. He is not trying to invent the wheel; he knows he stands on shoulders. Shostakovich liked to say, “I love everything from Bach to Offenbach.” Incidentally, Shchedrin knew Shostakovich, and knew him well. And, as Shostakovich wrote a tremendous variety of music — from elephant walks to unbearably painful string quartets and symphonies — so has Shchedrin. He’ll give you an atonal piano concerto, an Orthodox liturgy, or a quadrille.

In his catalogue are five operas and five ballets. And, for these and other works, he has drawn on a library of Russian writers: Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Mandelstam, Nabokov . . . (One of his operas is Lolita.) Shchedrin is devoted to all things Russian, drinking deep from his culture, and extending it. You can see this in the titles of his works. For example, his Concerto for Orchestra No. 3 is subtitled “Old Russian Circus Music.” And his Op. 94 is, get this, The House of Ice: Russian Fairytale for Marimbaphone.

His regard for music at large can be seen in yet more titles: such as Hommage à Chopin and In the Style of Albéniz. And no one is more important to him than Bach. “The highest point of music,” he has said. In common with Shostakovich, Shchedrin has written 24 preludes and fugues — for such composers, it is almost a duty, a happy duty.

One summer, the Shchedrins and the Shostakoviches were vacationing together in Armenia. Shostakovich asked Shchedrin, out of the blue, “If you could take one score with you to a desert island, what would it be? And you have ten seconds to decide.” Shchedrin named Bach’s Art of the Fugue. Shostakovich — surprisingly, you may well think — named Mahler’s Song of the Earth.

Be assured that Shchedrin cares if you listen. (In 1958, the American composer Milton Babbitt wrote a notorious essay called “Who Cares If You Listen?” The title came from an editor, not him, and he always bemoaned it.) Shchedrin doesn’t mind pleasing his audience, while remaining true to artistic standards, and he especially doesn’t mind pleasing those who perform his music, who are the first audience, so to speak. He regards it as a mortal sin to be boring.

Often in his pictures, you see Shchedrin with a twinkle in his eye. He loves humor, as Shostakovich did. (Shostakovich did not have much to twinkle about.) The subtitle of Shchedrin’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1 is “Naughty Limericks.” Later, he wrote Three Funny Pieces, for piano trio. (They are, too.) And his Humoresque is one of his most popular pieces — ingeniously funny, almost laugh-out-loud. Of course, the humor in Shchedrin’s catalogue can be of the dark or ironic kind. For 40 years, he composed in the Soviet Union, after all.

#page#Since the demise of that country, or entity, or empire, he and Plisetskaya have divided their time between Moscow and Munich. And Shchedrin has written a lot of music, a gusher of music. The end of Communism, he has said, freed his mind, his body, his spirit, and his pen. More than a third of his overall output has been written since the Soviet Union expired in 1991, when he was 59.

A delicate subject, Soviet times. Since 1991, there have been many arguments and recriminations concerning Shchedrin and others. Who did what? Who was honorable and who was dishonorable? What can be given a pass and what must be atoned for? Shchedrin has spoken of awful compromises: “In a totalitarian system, relations between the artist and the regime are always extremely complex and contradictory. If the artist sets himself against the system, he is put behind bars or simply killed.”

I will not don judicial robes or put Shchedrin in the dock. I will record just a few facts. He wrote an oratorio, Lenin Is Among Us, for the centenary of the founding tyrant in 1970. Of course, others, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich, wrote such music too. He was head of a composers union — like Shostakovich. Perhaps worst of all, he signed a letter denouncing Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and greater dissident and man. So did Shostakovich, Khachaturian, others.

Shchedrin, in various venues, points out that he never joined the Communist party, and that, in 1968, he refused to sign a letter supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Here is something else: Plisetskaya’s father was executed by the state; her mother was sent to the Gulag, but survived. In 1964, Plisetskaya accepted the Lenin Prize. Her husband accepted it 20 years later. The Soviet Union, as you know, was a strange place, as well as a vicious, evil one.

Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin; Shostakovich, who was eleven when the Communists seized power, died 16 years before they fell. Shchedrin has pointed out the ways in which he himself has been lucky: He was 20, just starting out, when Stalin died. He got to compose in relative — and let me stress “relative” — freedom. And when the Soviet Union ended, he still had some time left: and is having a hell of an Indian summer, as Haydn, Verdi, and Saint-Saëns, to name three, did. (Schubert died at 31.)

Will some of his music last? That is always a hard thing to predict, but I myself think so, yes. There will be audiences who want to hear it, musicians who want to play or sing it — dancers who want to dance to it. Type the name Shchedrin into YouTube. See the happy faces, and engaged faces, and moved faces. Shchedrin reaches people. By enriching musical life, he has enriched life in general. Right this second, I’m going to listen to his little Troika for piano again. After that, maybe the Amoroso from the Chamber Suite — a sweet, sad caress.

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