Rodion Shchedrin is internationally recognized as the pre-eminent contemporary composer of the Russian modern school. His autobiography looks back over an eventful life and provides a variety of stimulating insights behind the facade of the international music scene. Along the way Shchedrin elaborates highly personal views on the political situation and many other aspects of life in the former Soviet Union, turning an unsparing eye on the machinery of ideological repression exerted on artists as they struggled to interpret and conform to the constantly mutating diktats of the regime. A wealth of anecdotes and humorous observations offer the reader glimpses of the author's essentially sanguine and life-enhancing disposition.
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“Rodion is altogether a great composer, who gave our music so much. This music will live forever and always be played in the future.”
“I am sure he is one of the leading composers of our time and of course the leading Russian composer.”
“Rodion is a very Russian Composer; but also in many, many ways a cosmopolitan figure. He is one of the most distinguished composers of our time and undoubtedly the leading individual of the Russian composition school.”
“Professional musicians call him the king of contemporary orchestra, having in mind the utmost expressivity of sound that is present in his music, along with an utmost concentration and economy of means.”
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British library
We acknowledge the financial support of the Maya Plisetskaya and Rodion Shchedrin Foundation.
© 2014 Schott Music GmbH & Co. KG, Mainz
All rights reserved
Russian Original Edition Родион Щедрин. Автобиографические записи published by “AST Moskva” and “Novosti”.
© Text: Rodion Shchedrin, 2008
English Paperback Edition
© 2012 Schott Music GmbH & Co. KG, Mainz
Photo on front page © Peter Anderson
Photoset inside © Rodion Shchedrin archives
Typeset by Hümmer GmbH, Waldbüttelbrunn
Zu dieser Ausgabe
1 My genealogical tree
3 Return to Moscow
4 The choral institute
6 The world around
7 In search of folk-music
8 Three successes
9 Cinematic myths and the death of my father
10 Maya Plisetskaya
11 Some sinners and saints
12 First opera
13 Were there musical dissidents in the former Soviet union?
14 Establishment composers
15 Carmen suite
16 Poetoria, the Prague spring and the Lenin oratorio
17 Dead Souls
18 Who is a composer?
19 How I found myself occupying Shostakovich's chair
20 Perestroika years
21 The tale of the twelve months
23 Only apple trees with apples on them have stones thrown at them
24 Working with Lorin Maazel
25 11 September 2001 and Mariss Jansons
26 Instrumental concertos
27 The sealed angel in Berlin
28 Working days, high days and holidays
29 Why Munich?
30 Boyarinya Morozova
Appendix 1 List of compositions
Appendix 2 Index
My father, Konstantin Mikhailovich Shchedrin, was born in 1894 into the family of a country priest in the village of Vorotsy, in the Russian countryside near the city of Tula. Vorotsy, in what was then the Tula Guberniya, lies about 40 kilometres south-west of Tula and 300 kilometres or so south of Moscow. Not long after, his father, my grandfather, whose name was Mikhail Mikhailovich Shchedrin, was moved to the small town of Aleksin, a picturesque place on the banks of the River Oka, the largest tributary of the Volga – although Aleksin's oldest inhabitants insist that the Volga flows into the Oka rather than the other way round, and therefore the Oka flows all the way into the Caspian Sea.
My grandmother, dignified by the name Elizaveta Nikolayevna née Doctorova, was also from a clerical family. As a matter of fact in those days it was frowned upon for a priest to marry a girl stemming from anything other than an ecclesiastical background. My memories of her are dim, as she died in 1944. She was known to me as “New Granny”, and that is what I called her to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother, “Granny Zina”, who looked after me from my very earliest days. Granny Zina lived near us in Moscow, whereas “New Granny” lived in Aleksin.
Grandfather Mikhail, the Aleksin priest, had eight children, all boys – not a sister among the lot. All eight, including my father, were educated at the Tula Seminary and received a good religious grounding. Grandfather departed this mortal coil before the Revolution but there still exists a pleasing memorial to him in Aleksin: the winding path leading up to the little church bears to this day the name of the “Shchedrinka”.
“New Granny” was a selfless woman and in her widowhood carried the entire burden of the household on her own, ensuring a good education for all her sons. She was the very soul of kindness, and spoilt me monstrously when we came to Aleksin for summer holidays. She would send presents to Moscow, dried pears in a canvas bag, well knowing my sweet tooth and my remarkable capacity to consume the pears in incredible quantities.
Family lore has it that all eight brothers were very musical, even though only three of them took music up as a profession. In the fine summer months Aleksin was famous for its sandy beaches, its water-meadows, its pine forest, its abundance of mushrooms, the excellence of its fishing – and not least for the “Shchedrin Brothers Orchestra”. I can tell you which brother played which instrument. My father played the violin; Uncle Sasha (Alexander Mikhailovich) the cello; Yevgeny Mikhailovich the piano. Viktor Mikhailovich was on clarinet, Mikhail Mikhailovich on double-bass. The “Shchedrin Brothers Orchestra” was to play a decisive role in my life.
Actors from the Maly Theatre troupe in Moscow often spent their summer holidays in Aleksin, and the “Shchedrin Brothers Orchestra” would be roped in to participate in vaudevilles, charades, literary readings and the like. My father's musical gifts were soon noticed, and one actress, Vera Nikolayevna Pashennaya, still a young woman but already well-known in Moscow, took an energetic interest in the fate of the fifteen-year-old “violinist”. Father was an accomplished player on any instrument that was to be found in Aleksin, and he possessed perfect pitch, but the most impressive of his qualities was a phenomenal memory. My own musical memory is not negligible, but Father's was one of the wonders of the world. Anything he either heard or read from notation he was able to reproduce either on the spot or later with hundred per cent accuracy. He was like a miraculous, natural tape-recorder. From my own experience of what he could do, I can state without fear of contradiction that legends of the musical memory of a Mozart, a Rachmaninoff, a Glazunov are in no way exaggerated …
Vera Nikolayevna paid from her own pocket to bring Kostya Shchedrin and his partly home-made violin to Moscow. She persuaded the then Rector of the Moscow Conservatoire, the composer Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov, to meet and hear him. Ippolitov-Ivanov must have been impressed by my father's natural gift; otherwise he would not have enrolled, as he did, young man from the provinces into the preliminary school of the Conservatoire without subjecting him to a formal examination. There my father spent the next two years, all the time having his tuition fees and living expenses supported by Pashennaya. A fine example of generosity on the part of a famous actress in those days of our Fatherland!
One day in 1959, soon after Maya Plisetskaya and I were married and living in a two-room apartment on Kutuzovsky Prospect, the telephone rang. I was not at home. Maya picked up the receiver.
“Is that the apartment of Rodion Shchedrin?” asked a deep, chest-toned, slightly husky woman's voice.
“Yes, it is,” answered Maya.
“This is People's Artist of the Soviet Union Pashennaya. Good day to you.”
“How do you do, Vera Nikolayevna.”
“To whom am I speaking?”
“I am Maya Plisetskaya, Vera Nikolayevna.”
There was a pause, then: “Whatever are you doing there?” asked a surprised Pashennaya.
“Well, Shchedrin is my husband,” Maya parried.
“Oh, I didn't know. Is Kostya Shchedrin a relation?”
“Rodion Konstantinovich is his son …”
Another pause, longer this time. Then: “Is Kostya himself still alive?”
“Sadly, he died some years ago.”
Vera Nikolayevna broke down and wept over the telephone. Later, she telephoned again to suggest that I compose incidental music to Ostrovsky's play The Storm, which she was planning to produce on the Maly Theatre stage as well as taking the role of the Kabanicha. Needless to say I agreed, and the play went into production, Pashennaya several times during work on it referring to her memories of summers in Aleksin. No doubt feelings from those distant days had sparked something in her heart. My music touched a chord with Vera Nikolayevna and she went so far – she was over seventy years of age at the time – as to request that it be played at her funeral. Her wish was respected.
In examinations at the Conservatoire my father so excelled in harmony tests that Ippolitov-Ivanov promoted him to the free-composition class in the Theory of Composition faculty led by Professor Sergey Nikiforovich Vasilenko. Among Vasilenko's other students at the time was the well-known conductor Nikolay Golovanov.
In those years Father was able, through what he earned playing for movies in the cinema equally on the violin, the viola or the piano, and also giving private lessons, to rent a room near Arbat Square. The year he graduated from the Conservatoire was a fateful year for Russia – 1917.
In our family politics were never discussed. We all knew how what a dangerous topic it was, especially in the presence of outsiders and children. For this reason there were many matters of which I became aware only much later, when my father was already dead. But I was then told by my uncle Yevgeny, Father's brother, who during that fateful year was living with him in the Arbat, of an episode that occurred in the very earliest days of the October Revolution in Moscow. A young Junker, scarcely more than a boy, escaping from the Red Guards who were pursuing him, had concealed himself in the entrance of the building where my father and uncle lived, under the wooden stairs. There they found him, shot him and stabbed him with their bayonets. My father and uncle opened the door to their flat a crack, cautiously keeping it on the chain. Struck dumb with terror they heard the desperate cries and the clatter of footsteps, a shot, followed by agonised groans. The instant the Red murderers left, the brothers approached the wounded young man as he lay sprawled on the staircase, hoping to render him assistance. But the Junker was dead, his face and body horribly disfigured by stab wounds. Yevgeny summed up the situation: “That first day taught us everything we needed to know”.
Two years later the two brothers were confronted by a predicament that could easily have had a fatal outcome. In the winter of 1920 Father and Uncle Zhenya were in the little town of Bogoroditsk, fifty kilometres or so from Tula. Late in the evening they heard a light tapping on the frost-encrusted window. It was a neighbour. “Listen lads, you'd better get out right now. They're coming for you tonight …”
There was not a moment to lose. Without pause for thought the two fugitive musicians piled into a farm sledge, its floor covered with hay, muffled themselves up to the eyes in blankets, and stole away into the impenetrable darkness of the blizzard. So it was that the two Shchedrin brothers evaded the clutches of the Bogoroditsk Cheka. Had they not been quick enough on that snowy winter night I would not have made my appearance into this world on another winter night in 1932. Merely the fact of being the son of a priest was enough to be accused of class disaffection, counter-revolutionary tendencies, treason. This was a time when church buildings were demolished, their bells hauled down and destroyed, ancient icons consigned to the flames, altars defiled, “servants of the cult” killed, exiled, their hair and beards shaved. Look at the television screens of today and watch them, our Communists of yesterday, the children and grandchildren of those brave fighters against “the opium of the people”, crossing themselves, exchanging kisses with the Orthodox triple kiss, standing reverentially candles in their hands as though they were glasses of vodka – and be afraid. A tragic fate overcame two of the elder brothers. They perished in the cellars of the NKVD. All the remaining six died in their own beds.
Father's graduation composition was the score of a one-act opera The Burial Mound, after Ibsen's play, earning him the diploma and status of a “Free Artist”. In 1918 he returned from Moscow to Aleksin, where he successfully organised the first music-school in the town. Later he came back once more to Moscow, which is where I was born and grew up.
For Father, as he himself used to say, there were three Gods. One was in the heavens, on earth were Chekhov and Scriabin. Those of Father's compositions with which I am familiar are strongly influenced by Scriabin's music; in fact he described himself as a “Scriabinist”. The influence is particularly marked in his best work – the Sonata for Violin and Piano, published in 1924. Later in life he fell under the sway of Chagall's paintings from his Vitebsk period, of which he had black and white reproductions. One picture, “I and the Village”, taken out of a monograph on the artist, adorned the wall of our apartment. “That is completely Aleksin,” he would always say.
But Konstantin Shchedrin did not become a professional composer. Much of his time was spent teaching, lecturing on music and playing the viola in the orchestra of the People's Palace Opera. He had had a job there before the Revolution, when the Provisional Government was still in power, and I can recall him telling me about the occasion when Alexander Kerensky came to address a wildly elated political meeting in the People's Palace Theatre. When Kerensky appeared on the stage he managed only one phrase: “When we meet together we are all seized with an irresistible enthusiasm …” before the eruption of a frenzied, ecstatic ovation that prevented him saying another word. He was carried out shoulder-high into the street, while the orchestra, in which my father was playing the viola, beat out a fanfare manfully trying to be heard through the din of applauding hands and throats screaming their delight.
In 1927, when he was teaching a class in piano and solfeggio at the Stasov Music School, my father fell in love with one of his students blessed with the euphonious name of Concordia, which made a pleasing contrast with her rather more prosaic surname Ivanova. Cora, as she was called at home, was a lively player of the popular and classic piano repertoire, including several of Scriabin's Preludes and Schumann's “Aufschwung”. Father was a devotee of Schumann's music as well, and I imagine that his pupil's choice of repertoire will have added to his feelings. Soon they were married, and Concordia Ivanova became Concordia Shchedrina. On 16 December (the birth date of Ludwig van Beethoven) 1932, I made my appearance into the world.
My father was in no doubt of the name I should be given. I ought to have been called Prometheus, after the poem by Scriabin he loved so dearly. Prometheus Konstantinovich. My mother categorically objected to this plan. Eventually the warring sides settled on a compromise: I would be named in honour of Robert Schumann. (Later, however, I adopted the more Orthodox Christian variant of Rodion.) While still a baby I was clandestinely christened in the little church at Sokolniki, on which occasion the priest, unfamiliar with Schumann or his music, expressed displeasure at the foreign name I was being given. My mother's name, Concordia, is, however, to be found in the Orthodox Church Calendar.
The time has come for me to tell you about the family on my mother's side. My grandfather, Ivan Gerasimovich Ivanov, from a lower-middle-class family in Tambov, was by common consent an exceptionally vivid personality. He was a virtuoso player on the guitar, sang drawing-room songs and possessed an inexhaustible fund of jokes and opinions on everything under the sun. He also spoke French fluently. He mastered everything he set his mind to. A tall, blue-eyed man with a moustache the colour of wheat and a light-brown beard, he had the charm to set many a maiden's heart aflutter. He worked on the railways all his life, starting as engine-driver's assistant and rising to be director of a line. At the time of the savage reprisals against the uprising of the 1905 Revolution Grandfather Ivanov and another driver, Ukhtomsky, had sprung a train-load of revolutionary workers successfully out of the capital. At full steam, wheels thundering along the tracks, their train blazed its way through lines of Cossacks and police enfilading the track. This dramatic episode of the abortive uprising was later commemorated in films and books, and for his feat Grandfather became one of the first recipients of the USSR's “Hero of Labour” accolade (forerunner of the “Hero of Socialist Labour”. We still have at home the official citation, signed by Kalinin, giving an account of the event. Bearing in mind the dubiously mixed social origins of our family, Grandfather's citation was a highly significant document. “It is our shield against adversity”, my mother's brother Igor Ivanovich, who followed his father into the railways, used to say.
In this connection I want to emphasise that at no time did any member of my family on either my father's or my mother's side, including my “revolutionary” Grandfather, join the Communist Party.
Before I reached the age of reason I perpetrated the supreme sacrilege of tearing our talismanic family bulwark into two equal halves. My act of rebellion precipitated universal indignation among my nearest and dearest. The citation was carefully glued back together on the reverse, rolled up into a cardboard tube and put away, and the author of the outrage soundly cuffed round the ears.
My maternal grandmother, Zinaida Ivanovna, was blue-blooded and her union with Ivan Gerasimovich achieved against the will of her parents. Her mother, that is to say my great-grandmother, Praskovya Afanasyevna Abolesheva, notorious for her uncertain temper, simply banned her rebel daughter from the house. That was the extent of her parental blessing on the marriage. But before this happened Zinaida who, as is right and proper for a daughter of the nobility had been born in St Petersburg, had completed her schooling at the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens. She spoke three languages well, and sometimes during my restless childhood tormented me unbearably by forcing me to sit still in the little room in Sokolniki while I was subjected to passages from Hamlet in the original. She and my mother used to converse only in French, which drove my father mad.
Before the war I was moulded into a classic model of a “mother's little boy”. Mama would wash me – remember, we were living in a communal apartment – only in water that had been boiled. I wore short trousers and a little sailor's jacket and a splendid silk scarf tied in a bow round my neck. Nonetheless, my grandmother's aristocratic ancestry was kept well hidden from me, and I regularly had my nose rubbed in the Hero of Labour's citation which I had so shamefully desecrated, no opportunity being lost to inflict another slap for good measure.
When many years later towards the end of the 1960s I performed my Second Piano Concerto at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, I was surprised to be sought out after the performance by a lady who turned out to be the daughter of my grandmother's sister, Madame Marti. This information utterly astounded me: the very idea that one of my grandmother's sisters had emigrated to France was quite beyond my comprehension. The conspirators in my family had done their work all too well, so all-embracing was the fear and the desire to stay alive. I recall how whenever my uncle Igor visited us, the first thing he did on coming through the door was to put a cushion over the telephone.
My mother gave up her music and went to study at the Plekhanov Technical College of Industrial Economics. Even so, whenever there were family festivities at home she would always play her party pieces: one or two Préludes of Scriabin, and of course Schumann's Aufschwung. Her brother Igor divided his leisure time from his work as a power engineer between music and chess. He was a pretty useful pianist, his repertoire for our musical soirées consisting mainly of piano pieces by Albéniz.
Of such was my genealogical tree composed.
My parents moved through a succession of unprepossessing rooms in Zamoskvoreche before eventually settling in one of the apartments of House No. 23, Mytnaya Ulitsa. The apartment had three rooms, two of which were occupied by the Reshetnikov family, while the three of us squeezed into the third. It was not a large room, but space was found for the Becker grand piano.
I never knew for certain what our neighbour Reshetnikov did for a living. But from my memory of his vaguely military aspect – even going into the kitchen or the lavatory he wore an olive-green tunic – it now seems clear to me that he must have served in one of the branches of the “organs”. Moreover, the hours of work required by his service, invariably at night, would seem to substantiate my inference. Our neighbours possessed two hunting dogs – English setters, who were evidently less than enchanted by the music they could hear coming from our side of the wall, which immediately set them whining and barking. Their pet hate seemed to be the genre of the piano trio. Fairly regularly, usually on a Sunday, my father and two of his brothers, Yevgeny and Alexander, would get together to make music, just for the sake of it, for themselves. In that cramped little room at No. 23 Mytnaya I heard a good spread of the piano-trio literature: Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff. They formed the very first musical impressions of my childhood.
Summers brought a trip to Aleksin. To this day, somewhere in the depths of my subconscious I am aware of a moment of rapid movement over the smooth surface of a river, accompanied by the clattering valves of an engine. Could this really have happened? I asked my mother – since it was always she who journeyed with me to Aleksin. Was it really something I had experienced? “Uncle Misha once took us both out in a boat on the river Oka, and it had an outboard motor. Surely you can't have remembered that? You were only two and a half years old …”
We stayed in the one-storey log cabin which was the Shchedrins' home near the river. As long as they lived, all eight brothers maintained the most exemplary relationship with one another: caring, respectful and affectionate. And they all worshipped their mother, Yelizaveta Nikolayevna. In truth, my own memory of her is of a saintly person. From dawn to dusk she worked at a thousand menial tasks: feeding her family, cleaning, washing, tilling the kitchen garden, fetching water, drying pears the moment there was a peep of sunshine, washing the floors. Everything she did, she did with unhurried grace and expertise, smiling happily at herself and her kin. A year or so after she died the house was sold, and the pittance of money from the sale scrupulously divided between her surviving children.
Of course, my recollections of those pre-war summers in Aleksin are those of a child, and they have been eroded by the passing of the years. Even so, I retain some musical memories: shepherds calling to one another across the mist-shrouded river, the keening of mourners over the body of a departed relative, the echo of long-drawn-out songs heard from two fields away, a single voice singing a lullaby. These sounds meant more to me than any classical music. For as long as they lasted I would be rooted motionless to the spot. It seemed as though all nature had held its breath, bewitched by their beauty. Only much, much later would I be moved by the music of the classical masters.
You will not be surprised to learn that it was not long before I began to have formal instruction in music inflicted upon me, and I was sat down in front of the piano keyboard in the dark, gloomy communal apartment of a strict music teacher, Maria Lazarevna Gekhtman. Studies by Maykapar, J. S. Bach's Inventions, Kuhnau sonatas … Quite apart from the teacher's unsympathetic attitude and intensity of my boredom, the music itself aroused not a flicker of interest in me. Father resorted to strategems: “I'll take you fishing if you'll learn one Bach Invention by heart.” It was a powerful incentive, and I studied that Invention diligently.
In spite of everything, my piano-playing was good enough by May 1941 to qualify me for admission to the Central Music School, the preparatory school attached to the Moscow Conservatoire. That summer we had planned to go as usual to Aleksin, but my parents did not want such a long interruption in my lessons with my private piano-teacher Gekhtman so we delayed our departure, instead spending the month of June in the little village of Tarasovka, just outside Moscow, where my great-aunt Alexandra Ivanovna, my grandmother's sister, had a dacha. From there I was taken into Moscow twice a week for my lessons. My parents wanted their son to be on spectacular form, pianistically speaking, for his inauguration into the world of musical studies. I was still a good little boy at that time and practised assiduously, relishing the prospect of fishing in Aleksin and the wide open spaces of the Oka countryside when it was all over.
But we never got to Aleksin at all that year. On 22 June war was declared, and a few days later I saw from the terrace outside the Tarasovka dacha the first German aerial assault on Moscow, the searchlights sweeping the night sky, and heard the pounding salvos from the anti-aircraft batteries. We took ourselves back to Moscow, to our flat on Mytnaya Street and the Reshetnikovs' music-allergic dogs. Full mobilisation was announced. For the past few years alongside his intensive work as a lecturer Father had been taking a class in music theory in the Nationalities Studio of the Moscow Conservatoire, teaching students from Turkmenistan, Kyrgizia, Uzbekistan. At first teachers from the Conservatoire were not being called up as they were considered to be in a reserved occupation, but the Germans were getting closer and closer to Moscow, threatening the city itself, and the military registration and enlistment office, the Voyenkomat, decided to establish a country-wide network of militias. It was an initiative conceived in an upsurge of patriotism, and it elicited a response from every sector of society. My father joined up without delay.
When, a few years later, I became a student of the Moscow Choral Institute, seeking like all boys for any way to alleviate the boredom of lessons, we would only have to ask our score-reading teacher, S. S. Blagoobrazov: “Won't you tell us, Sergey Sergeyevich, something about your wartime experiences in the People's Militia?” for the lesson to be instantly forgotten while the miraculous survivor launched into a description of how he and his fellow-soldiers were despatched into minefields and to confront tanks without so much as a rifle between them. There must have been a guardian angel also watching over my father in the midst of the slaughter, although he was never a man to talk about those times. On the rare occasions when he did all I can recall was the word “dreadful” cropping up repeatedly. My cousin Oleg Shchedrin, the son of my father's brother Viktor, was killed in the very first days of the war. In spite of the difference in our ages he and I were mates in Aleksin, going fishing together, gathering mushrooms and berries and other enjoyable pastimes. He was carried off by the first shell to explode as his troop disembarked from the train taking his unit to the front. He never fired a single shot in his life. He was eighteen years old.
As the Germans continued their advance towards Moscow the bombardments and air-raid warnings became more frequent and Mother would take me down to the bomb-shelter. In one such raid a high-explosive bomb landed on the house opposite ours in Mytnaya Street. The moment the all-clear sounded we ran out to look at the smoking ruins, and could hear the cries of the injured. We could not get very close, however, because the rescue teams had cordoned off the devastated site. The little square surrounding the building had been utterly destroyed, and no house was ever built to replace the one that had been obliterated.
October came, and there was no word, not a sign, from Father. Mother was in an agony of despair. My musical activities ceased altogether, and the air was thick with panic-stricken rumours: the Germans were believed to be at the gates of the city. The windows of our room looked out on the squat brick building housing the Goznak works. Behind the high mesh fence topped with barbed wire the works produced coins, banknotes and medals. One grey, overcast morning there was a strong smell of burning, and charred scraps of paper money wafted over on the wind. The contents of Goznak's safes were being incinerated.
Families of “key workers” still in Moscow began to be hastily evacuated from the capital. My uncle Igor, he who had so enjoyed playing piano pieces by Albéniz, was one such because despite not being a member of the Party he occupied the not insignificant position of Chief Engineer of the Main Communications Directorate of the USSR. In wartime the post ranked as equivalent to a Major-General, and Uncle was indeed so appointed, along with the offer to evacuate his family, an entity to which he attached his sister and her son, that is to say my mother and myself. With his wife Nina Vladmirovna, their son Oleg (another cousin Oleg, this one two years younger than me), and my grandmother Zinaida we set off in a train packed to the roof with people bound for Kuibyshev. Should the military situation worsen to the extent of forcing the abandonment of Moscow, the Government's plan was to relocate Russia's capital city to Kuibyshev.
The train took a week to reach Kuibyshev, coming several times under aerial bombardment, which caused the passengers, before the train had even come to a complete standstill, with one accord and as fast as their legs would carry them to put as respectable a distance as they could between themselves and the railway line. There we would lie motionless, face downwards and bottoms up, until the danger was past. On one occasion a bomb hit one of the carriages, and it took a considerable time for the fire to be extinguished and the burnt-out skeleton of the wreck to be uncoupled from the rest of the train.
Eventually we reached Kuibyshev and Uncle's family was allotted two rooms in a house on Red Army Street, near the railway station. Grandmother, mother and I occupied one of the rooms. Uncle Igor himself arrived in Kuibyshev later.
I have unhappy memories of the winter of 1941, a time of vicious, blustery winds and not much snow. We experienced real hunger. I trudged over endless frozen fields thinly coated with snow searching for any potatoes that might have been overlooked. Dressed as I was in Moscow clothes, which were not nearly warm enough, I was pierced to the marrow by the icy Volga winds. The former potato fields, hilly, uneven water-meadows, flanked the river banks. But people had already been over them with a fine-tooth comb and had left hardly a single one. If I did manage to find two or three blackish spuds it was a triumph, a cause for exultation. They would be our rations for a whole day. My mother desperately looked for work of some kind, until she was detailed off to the obligatory so-called “labour front”. We had no money at all to live on, and could not merely sit around depending on hand-outs from Uncle Igor's family, especially as until he arrived in Kuibyshev they themselves were in dire straits.
It was a long way back from the potato fields to Red Army Street. The trams ran infrequently, with passengers clinging to the footboards. If it was my lucky day I would hang on too, at least for a few stops. Once some local lads, finding a nice little Muscovite boy to victimise, tipped me off from my hold on the back buffers while the tram was at full speed, and I took a mighty tumble, scratching my face all over so that people stared at me in terror. To crown it all I then contracted scarlet fever with such severe complications that I had to be taken into hospital. It was a railway hospital, with a single enormous ward given over to all kinds of children's diseases. But the kind-hearted doctors nursed me through it successfully.
Father came to Kuibyshev at the beginning of 1942. He had been shell-shocked, and that had caused him to be demobilised from the militia. Life became more cheerful. He had managed to salvage his old viola to bring with him, and immediately found himself a place in the Kuibyshev theatre orchestra. He tried to get a place in the Bolshoy Theatre orchestra, the company having also been evacuated to the town, but came to grief during a read-through of the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. The ordeals of the past few months had evidently affected his performing prowess.
Some months earlier, at the end of 1941, Dmitry Shostakovich had arrived in Kuibyshev, having completed his great Seventh Symphony. Father and he were already acquainted, and when a Kuibyshev branch of the Composers' Union was established and Shostakovich became its president, he proposed to my father that he take up the position of Executive Secretary. As well as his official duties, Father assisted Shostakovich in many ways, acting in effect as his personal assistant and secretary. I am accordingly privileged to claim that Shostakovich knew me from my childhood. On many occasions, at times of real hardship, he went out of his way to be of inestimable help to our family. I have other memories of him as well, which I shall share in later pages.
Rehearsals began for the Seventh Symphony, with Samuil Samosud conducting the Orchestra of the Bolshoy Theatre. My father, in close continuing collaboration with Levon Atovmyan, oversaw the provision of the orchestral material. About this time Shostakovich's efforts succeeded in extricating my mother from her “labour front” servitude and securing for her a position as a duty supervisor in the Bolshoy Theatre's wardrobe. Leaving me at home on my own was now a risky business, since the “influence of the gutter” (to quote my grandmother) had already wrought havoc on my Little Lord Fauntleroy manners, and so I became an inveterate visitor to the Bolshoy Theatre. (I should state in parenthesis that I had had my first experience of the lyric stage before the war in Moscow when I was taken to a matinee performance of Bizet's Carmen at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre. To this day the miraculous features of this visit are preserved in my memory.)
But to return to Kuibyshev. My father, having extracted from me my most solemn promise to sit quieter than a mouse, let me come with him to the general rehearsal of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony. For the first time in history this great composition was heard in its entirety, and the occasion has become a legend. But I must not perjure my conscience: the symphony was too difficult for my childish ears to appreciate. What I did understand, and what gave me extreme pleasure, was the invasion theme in the first movement, all the more so because my father had graphically explained the context to me. The quiet life of peacetime suddenly broken by the measured, distant, frightening rhythm of the timpani – that was how it sounded, as if growing out of the quiet of the night. And then the theme, whistled – so it seemed to me – by the Fascist soldiers as they marched along. I did not attend the first performance as no one suggested taking me to it, but had I had an inkling even of a hundredth part of the importance of that evening I would have done anything to force my way in, crawled through or over or any obstacle in my path. But I was not quite ten years old and had no way of knowing.
Needless to say, there was no such thing as a piano in our room in Red Army Street. Nor could there be any question of my keeping up my musical studies. My father's attempts to sit me down at the piano in the quarters of the Composers' Union was not crowned with success. Neither did I go to the ordinary school, but spent most of my time either on the street or in the nearby “Wings of the Soviets” stadium, or on the slopes of the banks of the Volga. The only exceptions were Bolshoy Theatre run-throughs and general rehearsals, and evening ballet and opera performances every now and again whenever my mother contrived a way of slipping me into the auditorium.
Today I believe that these outings to the theatre were much more valuable to me than practising studies by Maykapar and sonatas by Kuhnau. I was a restless, fidgety adolescent, and it seemed to me that roaming all over the town I must have been everywhere and seen everything there was to be seen. But later it turned out later that I, and my canny young Volga hooligan companions in mischief, had missed the biggest thing of all, right under our noses. We had no idea that in the very centre of the town, hard by the Party Regional Headquarters, an underground bunker to house Stalin and his Politburo had been constructed in the record time of a few months. It was 37 metres deep under the ground, complete with elevators and an elaborate ventilation system. It contained a replica of the hall inside the Kremlin where the Politburo met, as well as Stalin's private apartments and bedroom accessed by four fake camouflaged doors and a fifth, the real one. There was a map of the entire battle campaign covering one of the walls and a huge table covered in green baize, equipped with vertushka telephones – an exact reproduction of the rooms in which the Leader of All Nations and his Party acolytes toiled in Moscow.
However could this monstrous edifice have been constructed away from the prying eyes of ubiquitously inquisitive boys, not to mention the entire population of a large city? Where, for instance, had they disposed of the thousands of tons of earth which had to be excavated in order to accommodate the acres of concrete and steel?
Today Stalin's bunker is open to visitors. In the winter of 1997, when festivals of my music were being arranged in various cities in Russia, one of which was Samara, I and a group of musicians visited it. Going down in the lift was a descent deep into my wartime childhood.
In the spring of 1943 we came back to Moscow, to our room in Mytnaya Ulitsa. Everything was intact, the piano and all our possessions. The Reshetnikovs had stayed in Moscow all the time.
Mother, once again through the good offices of Shostakovich, found a job in the administration of the Bolshoy Theatre administration, this time in the financial planning department (she had studied economics at school). Grandmother was now living in her own flat, and both my parents were out all day coming home only late in the evening; I was therefore left essentially to my own devices.
The crowd I fell in with as I wandered the streets was frankly most unsuitable. We all had nicknames rather than our proper names. Here are some of them I remember: “Chizh” [siskin, a small but pugnacious bird], “Vobla” [a kind of cockroach], “Krivoy” [‘crooked’], “Shtany” [‘trousers’]. My nickname was “Ginger”. I was quite freckled, and constantly the butt of the suggestion, presented as indubitable fact, that “sparrows had shat on my face”. The group had no interest in music whatsoever, despised it in fact, and occupied itself exclusively with hooliganism and foul language. We used to sit for hours on the edge of the Mytnaya Street pavement waiting for an open lorry to pass by with its load of cabbages, water-melons or beetroots. We were expert at thrusting a long metal pole with a hook on its end into a good specimen, flicking it out like a football into the waiting hands of an accomplice, and greedily devouring our booty there and then with out filthy hands, sitting on the pavement giving cheek to passers-by and swearing. Of all the activities we got up to, this one was probably the least disgraceful. One day, amusing ourselves by chucking stones at the windscreens of passing cars, we smashed the glass of an Emka. At once four brawny types leapt out of the wrecked car and gave chase. I ran like the wind, but was soon caught and given a severe thrashing, then hauled off to the police station where I spent a whole night during which the policemen continued to apply themselves to my body.
As it was fatal for any member of the group to show the merest hint of cowardice among his peers, another night time practice of ours was to lie face downwards, one behind the other, between the rails of the railway track and wait for a train to come bearing down upon us. The trick was to lie absolutely still, pressing oneself as close as possible to the frozen, tar-smelling sleepers, and freeze there without breathing while the dazzling headlights of the thundering monster and the long string of carriages rumbled over one's motionless body. Thus did we strive to case-harden our nerves, risking life and limb in stupid, arrogant rivalry. I am ashamed now to think of what we did.
When the Central Music School came back to Moscow after being evacuated, as a successful candidate in the entrance examination two years previously I was eligible to attend, and I began to take classes. The rough edges of the street-bred behaviour which had become second nature from the life I had been leading on Mytnaya Street took some time to rub off, and I was constantly being punished and given “final warnings”. In those days the Director of the School was V. G. Sokolov; only his long-standing friendship with my father saved me from expulsion.
But in my veins flowed the blood of a patriot, and I was an avid devotee of all the latest Soviet anti-fascist films. I also longed to hurl myself into battle with the bloodstained enemy and rush to the defence of the Fatherland. I convinced my schoolmate Misha Gotlieb, the son of one of the two-piano team of the Gotlieb brothers, to run away with me to the front. When we got to the railway station we found we were unable to get past the guards and so decided to spend the night in a doorway somewhere and try again the following morning. A night in the entrance to an apartment building proved to be a dreadful experience, and my accomplice began to show signs of weakening. I also had got chilled to the marrow from the cold stone floor, and we ingloriously made our way back to our respective homes. Although our escapade had only lasted 24 hours, I had missed lessons and so earned yet another comprehensive scolding and “final warning”.
Nevertheless, I had in mind a further attempt to run away and get myself to the front. This time my partner in crime was the flautist Yura Savich. Our first steps promised well. We successfully penetrated the cordon round the Leningrad station. The German blockade had only recently been lifted from Leningrad, and we fondly imagined that our assistance in person was needed to deal an ultimately crushing blow to the yet unvanquished foe.
Once we had worked out which train was going to Leningrad, we crawled under the wagons and scrambled into an empty military teplushka. A few hours later the teplushka began to fill up with soldiers under the command of a lanky, bewhiskered sergeant-major. We crouched in our corner, but it was not long before we were discovered.
“What are you lads doing here? Where do you think you're going?” we were fiercely interrogated by the moustachioed NCO.
We spun an incoherent yarn of explanations. We were orphans, our fathers had perished heroically fighting for their country, we wanted to get to Leningrad where we had an aunt. One of the soldiers – evidently a Leningrader – abruptly asked where the aunt lived. “Near the ‘Changing of the Guard’ Cinema,” I lied without stopping to think, having once seen a photograph of this semi-Constructivist building in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia some volumes of which we had at home. The tall story produced an effect, the sergeant visibly softened and wanted to know how old we were. I was eleven, but said I was fourteen, which might just have made plausible given my gangling physique. “Same as my lad, fourteen,” said the sergeant, clearly touched by the coincidence, and melted still further.
In this manner we went in the army teplushka all the way to Leningrad, where Soviet forces had recently begun to break the blockade. Our sergeant-major adopted us like a father, persuaded the quartermaster to allocate some rations to us, and for all the world like regimental mascots we set off to the front, where the unit was due to replace troops due for deployment elsewhere.
Those days with the army that “really happened” are in my memory inextricably mixed up with scenes from Soviet wartime films in countless numbers of which I immersed myself both before and after this adventure. The only things I remember in any detail are the perishing, bone-chilling cold (it was November), the mess of snow underfoot, the dirt, the crusts of bread crumbling in the frost, the corrosive stink in the nostrils, the stupefyingly deafening artillery salvos, the hoarse cries struggling to make themselves heard from the frozen stiff throats of the soldiers. But I was happy. I was taking part. I was a fighter, at war.
God alone knows how all this could have ended. But intervention in my “military service” came from the unexpected direction of my Uncle Igor, the Chief Engineer of the Directorate of the People's Commissariat of Communications. I have already mentioned that his wartime rank was equivalent to that of a General. He had circulated our photographs through the appropriate channels, a search had been instigated, and to my overwhelming shame and despair flautist Savich and I were apprehended and ignominiously returned to Moscow in a police carriage. So ended my gallant wartime adventure.
There were more reprimands at the Central Music School, more summonses to director Sokolov's office, more final warnings. Even though alongside my continuing career of depravity I was at last beginning to devote some time to my studies, eventually I perpetrated one outrage too many: I slightly scratched one of my schoolfellows, a clever young cellist, with a razor blade – which led to my irrevocable expulsion from the School. Father was in despair. I lapsed back into my bad old Mytnaya Street ways. I lost any interest in studying, I was completely out of control. What was to be done with me? The only possible solution presenting itself to my father was for me to be sent to the Nakhimov Naval College in Leningrad, which was a residential boarding establishment, to be trained as a sailor. My father sent off the application and the family awaited the result.
But the Lord God evidently had other plans for me than giving up music and going to sea. At the end of 1944 the Moscow Choral Institute opened its doors in Moscow, with the well-known choral conductor Alexander Sveshnikov as its Rector. Before the Revolution Sveshnikov had been a church-choir precentor, and former colleagues from the ministry could usually count on him for a sympathetic hearing. Sveshnikov had long been acquainted with my father, and when the time came to appoint the teaching faculty for his new Institute asked him if he would take a class in musical literature and history. Father in turn asked Sveshnikov to listen to, and perhaps accept as a student, his wayward but musical son. The Director named the day and the hour for the interview.
I did not possess an exceptional singing voice. But I did have absolute pitch and could sing in tune and with intelligence. From the repertoire I sang for my audition I remember the aria “A Maiden Wanders” from Musorgsky's opera Khovanshchina and some folksongs I could recall from Aleksin days. Sveshnikov accepted me as a student in the Institute and confirmed a place in its boarding hostel. For the family this represented salvation. The year 1944 was coming to an end.
It may seem strange that in those years, when so much blood was being spilt in the Great Patriotic War with Germany, anyone should think of opening a new music school. But the one crime of which Stalin may be exonerated is that of stupidity. His policy of deliberately inculcating and fostering a spirit of patriotism in the country found expression in such steps as the re-introduction into the army of epaulettes, new “historic” ranks, medals named after great military leaders of the past such as Alexander Nevsky, Suvorov, Kutuzov, Nakhimov. The springs of Russian musical culture also lay in the intentionally forgotten past. More than three hundred years ago there had been an Imperial Choir of Singing Deacons at Court. In the Orthodox liturgy the only music that could be heard came from the voices of men and boys. Instruments and women's voices were forbidden. In the Imperial Court the Tsar's Deacons' Choir of Deacons (Khor Gosudarevykh Pevchikh Dyakov) accompanied all religious services and ceremonies. It is the case that all olden-day important Russian composers, Bortniansky and Glinka among them, took their first steps in this eminent institution. The time had come for this fact to be brought back to mind.
The nucleus of the new School was formed by choristers of the Leningrad Choral Capella, under the tutelage of P. A. Bogdanov. The Capella had been evacuated from Leningrad to the village of Arbazh, and Sveshnikov managed the feat of having the entire complement of young choristers brought to Moscow and accommodated in the residential facilities of the new Moscow Choral Institute. To them were added promising voices drawn from Moscow and other parts of the country. At the time it was said that Sveshnikov's friendship with the famous Marshal Voroshilov, who himself liked to join in the singing, was a factor in achieving what was by any standards an extraordinary organisational achievement in wartime.
Sveshnikov was allocated a venerable building on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, next to a zoo with a big lake and landscaped with artificial stone hills for the animals. It was a perfect place for games and all kinds of juvenile antics. The animals themselves had been evacuated from the city along with the human population, and in our breaks from lessons and free time we made good use of the empty enclosures and cages, improvising entrances and exits through the wire netting. In winter we engaged in the highly dangerous sport of plummeting down on skis from the highest point through the narrow gaps out on to the ice of the frozen lake. The attic floor of the old house served as our dormitory: one enormous room with about fifty beds in it.
The food was skimpy in the extreme, but the atmosphere in the classrooms and all our communal living was wonderful. All us boys had tasted sorrow: some had lost parents, and the hunger for education and especially for music was exceptionally strong in us. To me everything was interesting. I had never sung in a choir before, and the daily hour-and-a-half singing practice, invariably taken by Sveshnikov himself, was a memorable experience.
The boys' choir gave regular concert performances, and sometimes even took part in church funeral services. I remember the funeral of the superb singer Antonina Nezhdanova, for whom Rachmaninoff composed his Vocalise. She was a very old lady when she died, a devout believer, and for her obsequies the authorities made an exception. For our public performances we had a concert uniform: dark blue army-style tunics with gold buttons. I was very taken with these military accoutrements and they were some compensation for any lingering regret that I was not after all going to be a sailor.
Strict discipline was the rule at the Choral Institute. It was categorically forbidden to lean on anything during singing practice: we had to stand bolt upright at attention the whole while. Pleasant day-dreams were abruptly shattered by a sharp, painful jab to the collar-bone from Sveshnikov's index and middle fingers. Our house-father, who lived with us in the residential quarters of the School, was an elderly man with a moustache, Vadim Konstantinovich Belyayev, straight as a ramrod, who we judged must have been an army cadet in his youth,. Sinners were told off to stand to attention in the cold, lower corridor. And woe betide anyone who dared to disobey his orders. There was no corporal punishment in the Institute, but with disobedient boys Belyayev was a virtuoso with the edge of a ruler across the knuckles or a deft, far from symbolic, box on the ears.
Sveshnikov's idea of musical education was a good, solid general grounding. We were taught to play the violin and the harmonium and even to write out scores accurately. Of course there were also piano lessons, but Sveshnikov personally was not much interested in the piano and always accompanied his singing practices and rehearsals on the harmonium, which he would play standing up, pumping the bellows with his right foot and producing odd, disconnected sounds from the instrument. Occasionally he would fish out a silver tuning-fork from his waistcoat pocket and give us the note in a high falsetto, which he could do like a virtuoso. To sing a high descant in the proper register was for him as easy as falling off a log.
We had marvellous music to sing. Sveshnikov knew the whole gamut of choral literature. Boys whose voices were breaking at the age of puberty sang in the men's register, so we were able to tackle four-part harmony. Our conductor particularly loved church music. This was tolerated as far as the music itself was concerned, but to sing it with the original words could get one speedily sent to Siberia. Sveshnikov adopted a transparent device to get round this: he asked a married couple of his acquaintance, Bolotin and Sikorskaya, both poets, to substitute for the scriptural texts innocuously neutral verses such as “Spring has come”, “A fine day”, “Dawn breaks in the sky”, and so on. We sang similar fake words to Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Bortniansky, to Bach's magnificent motets, choral works by Haydn and Handel. Few people could understand texts in German or Latin, but even they were not completely safe since among those who could understand them there was always the opportunity to turn the suspect words into Russian in order to denounce anti-Soviet backsliders.
But how we enjoyed this music, grabbing it with both hands and absorbing it into our bloodstream! It was in those times of making music in the choir that I first began to discover the magical beauty and power of music. They made me want to compose music myself. Strange, delirious sounds began to invade my head.
My first choral work was a ballad about Young Guards to a text by Sergey Ostrovoy. In choir practice we had been working on a setting of these words by a Soviet composer, and it seemed to me that I could make a more interesting and ingenious piece. In one of the breaks I showed my score to Sveshnikov. He told me to eliminate my, as he put it, stupid idiosyncracies, such as asking the tenors to sing higher than the altos. Smarting at the censure of my epoch-making discovery, I nevertheless dutifully corrected my score and when the following day Sveshnikov looked through it, he said: “Write out the parts. We'll try it out tomorrow.”
He kept his word and at the end of singing practice we performed my Ballad. Nor was this the only occasion on which the choir performed my naïve efforts at choral writing. The one Sveshnikov liked best was my Lullaby, to a traditional folk-song text. He repeated it several times.
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