A Composer’s Hour

Rodion Shchedrin (Yuri Belinsky/Itar-Tass)


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.

July 18, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 13

Books, Arts & Manners
  • Dan Blumenthal reviews On China, by Henry Kissinger.
  • Michael Knox Beran reviews What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment, by David Stove, edited by Andrew Irvine.
  • Mackubin Thomas Owens reviews A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, by Dov S. Zakheim.
  • Jay Nordlinger on the Russian master Rodion Shchedrin.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Super 8.
  • John Derbyshire quantifies his inventory of books.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .