Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Composers struggle under Shostakovich regime

This week BBC Radio 3 broadcasts a series of programmes titled Shostakovich in Context, which means devoting yet more airtime to an already over-exposed composer. The saturation coverage of the Shostakovich centenary has meant the exclusion from concert and broadcast schedules of many other deserving composers with anniversaries this year. There is a particularly bitter irony in this cultural hegemony by a Russian composer for Peteris Vasks (left) who celebrates his 60th birthday in 2006. For Vasks is a Latvian, a country whose very culture was under threat for more than fifty years from Russian ideologies and military power.

Latvia is one of the so called A8 countries from central and eastern Europe which joined the EU in 2004, the others are Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Slovenia. The A8 countries should be joined by Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007, although Bulgaria has a few money laundering and related problems to sort first - it has been said that Bulgaria isn't a country that has a mafia, but a mafia that has a country. Latvia is located on the Baltic between Estonia and Lithuania, and shares eastern borders with Russia and Belarus. The USSR annexed Latvia in 1940, and the country only regained its independence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. The last Russian troops left in 1994, and ten years later Latvia joined both the EU and NATO. The official language is Latvian, but 38% of the population speak Russian, and the ethnic and cultural diversity is shown by the mix of Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Russian Orthodox among the countries religions. Latvia’s turbulent past and current EU membership have created an extensive diaspora, and there is a large migrant Latvian community working in agriculture here in East Anglia where I write this article.

Peteris Vasks was born in western Latvia in 1946. His father was a minister of the Church, and the religious intolerance of the occupying Soviets forced the family to move south to Lithuania where he attended the musical academy in Vilnius. He returned to his country of birth to play in Latvian orchestras, and then took up a teaching career in the Latvian capital, Riga, which continues today. His musical vocabulary is influenced by Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and George Crumb, and his unique style incorporates aleatoric techniques. Vasks is an important modern composer as he is one of the select group of eastern European composers who have successfully developed a nationalist style without compromising their contemporary vocabulary; others include Arvo Pärt (Estonia), Giya Kancheli (Georgia), Gyorgy Kurtag (Hungary) and Henryk Górecki (Poland), and interestingly four out of those five come from the A8 countries.


Not a single note of Vask’s music was included in the 2006 BBC Proms season. Rectify this by listening to four minutes of Anthony Marwood and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields playing Peter Vasks: Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra ('Distant Light') - Mosso - Cadenza II -

* As I upload this article the news breaks that BBC Chairman of two years Michael Grade is unexpectedly leaving to move to commercial rival ITV. As Grade has presided over a wholesale lowering of programme standards at the BBC, and is going to troubled ITV, where the programme standards are already the subject of universal derision, it is difficult to know what to think. Perhaps the rumoured £2m ($3.8m) salary renders thought superfluous?

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9 comments:

Pliable said...

Today's Michael Grade development puts Norman Lebrecht's grasp of BBC politics into perspective.

Just last week Lebrecht blustered;

The view from the top floor of Broadcasting House is that Radio 3 represents the Reithian ideal of informing, entertaining and elevating the nation. It is the flagship of any political bid to secure a new Charter and license fee. Michael Grade would sooner lose the National Lottery than dumb down Radio 3.

Well Norman, Grade didn't dumb down the flagship - he jumped ship altogether.

Anonymous said...

The presentation and reception of Shostakovich and his work in the West has always been carefully managed, a rare example of close cooperation between the Soviet cultural apparatus and Western commerce. This is a topic that certainly deserves further study.

One wonders in this particular case if Shostakovich's publishers have now promoted that body of work at the expense of other, living composers in their catalog. This would make, of course, perfect business sense, as those scores are capital with a limited shelflife, and maximizing income opportunity from those scores now is better for the current account than risking an investment in newer scores that may never return that investment.

Garth Trinkl said...

..."Western commerce" ...

Daniel, I believe that it was more than Western commerce that was involved in the reception in the United States [and 'Europe'?] of Shostakovich's wartime symphonies -- especially his Leningrad symphony, which I imprecisely recall had a long circuitous route on microfilm from Leningrad and Leningrad's evacuation zone of Alma-Aty to Philadelphia for its first American (or Western?) performance. I believe that more than 'Western' publishers were involved.

I actually thought of Shostakovich and his Leningrad symphony last Sunday when we (for the first time) visited Washington, D.C.'s new Soviet-style World War Two Memorial, on the National Mall.
Among the great Atlantic battles engraved on the Atlantic Eagle-garbed pylon was the Allied 'Battle of Murmansk', in the far north of Europe.

I have to run, but perhaps someone can begin to do this far better justice (and also solve the latest political assasination in London).

Anonymous said...

Garth,

I was thinking specifically of the establishment of Shostakovich's wider reputation through strategically placed premieres and recordings in the 1960's. It is my understanding -- and I may well be wrong about this -- that a number of these recordings and performances were subsidized by the Soviet Union, for example through guaranteed sales of records.

Pliable said...

Daniel, very interesting thread that opens up.

Melodiya - the Russian state record label

Gosconcert - the Russian state concert agency that controlled movement of Soviet artists outside Russia, and Western artists visiting the USSR.

You are right Daniel, both had a heavy influence on the development (or otherwise) of Russian artists.

I had some peripheral involvement with both via EMI.

I hope this thread is developed by other contributors.

Garth Trinkl said...

I recall that Boris Schwarz in his "Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-70" (London, 1972) talks about the cold war official cultural exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that involved Shostakovich, Copland, Harris, Sessions, and several others. (Pliable or others can talk about the U.K. or British Commonwealth - Soviet exchanges.)

I recall from Schwarz's book that in the 1950s and 60s, composers from the non-Moscow Soviet composers' unions, such as those in Leningrad [Petersburg] and Kiev [Kyiv] -- and composers such as Part, Ustvolskaya, Silvestrov, Hrabovsky, Kancheli, and others -- certainly felt slighted by these official cultural exchanges. Some of these now prominent (though still underexposed in the 'West' and I assume much of the post-Soviet states, as well) composers were working in menial jobs at the time of the official, non-commercial exchanges; and their names could only be whispered out of hearing of the establishment composers and their backers.

Garth Trinkl said...

"...Shostakovich's wider reputation through strategically placed premieres and recordings in the 1960's..."

Daniel, perhaps you or someone else should also look into, and compare, this to the premieres and recordings of works by Penderecki and Lutoslawki in the 1980's (all of Lutoslawki's three late Symphonies were commissioned by different major American orchestras).

Furthermore, Rostropovich had a huge role in the introduction of large amounts of Eastern European new music in "the West" in the late 1970s, 80s, and early to mid 90s; and I don't believe that 'Western commerce' informed all of his programming decisions.

*

(When I heard violist John Graham, and his colleague, give the American premiere of Shostakovich's very late Viola Sonata, at Miller Theater, Columbia U., in Jan or Feb 1977, I don't recall specific commercial backing, or an immediately available, follow-up LP. And Daniel, I will assume that you have viewed Sokurov and Aranovitch's film, Sonata for Viola, on Shostakovich. That poetic film was censored upon its initial release in Leningrad in 1980 or 81.)

Guthry Trojan said...

I apologise for dumbing-down the tone of debate, but after reading,
“As Grade has presided over a wholesale lowering of programme standards at the BBC, and is going to troubled ITV, where the programme standards are already the subject of universal derision, it is difficult to know what to think.” - and seeing this - I can't help wondering when the last person at Radio 3 will be asked to turn out the lights.

Pliable said...

And yet more on what Lebrecht described as 'the Reithian ideal of informing, entertaining and elevating the nation from
The Rambler.