OTHER EASTERN EUROPEAN COMPOSERS
In the last paper, we had a look at the difficulties faced by Soviet composers. We will close the chapter on the Soviet Union by looking at a few twentieth-century Russian composers, and then proceed to other parts of Eastern Europe.
It is both humorous and sad to note that while the government of Germany was trying to protect the public from the new trends in 20th-century music by condemning it as “Bolshevik,” the communist regime in the USSR was condemning the same music as “fascist.” Poor Poland was stuck between these extremes, at one time being suppressed by the Nazis and next by the communists. This was the case in many of the countries of Eastern Europe, and, in a combination of desperation and national pride, many composers turned to folk music as an excellent and “innocent” source of inspiration.
SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Several good Soviet composers also relied upon some folk tunes and stories to provide subject matter that would escape State censorship. One of these was Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), a composer of tremendous capability and lyricism. Prokofiev lived outside of Russia from 1918 to 1934, when he was touring in Europe and America as a pianist and completing commissions as a composer. An interesting fellow ideologically, he returned to Soviet Russia and submitted to the charges of “formalism” which were leveled at him by the capricious critics. But while he was living outside, he produced an opera for Chicago called The Love for Three Oranges (1921), ballets for Serge Diaghilev in Paris, and the Third Piano Concerto. Perhaps his world renown protected him from more extreme criticism than that which he got. When he returned to Russia, he composed the delightful fairy-tale, Peter and the Wolf, for narrator and orchestra, as well as Romeo and Juliet (1935-36). Continuing to draw on Russian material, Prokofiev wrote the opera War and Peace in 1941.
Prokofiev was considered by many to be the best of the Soviet composers, and his relationship with the West had not hurt him any. For one thing, he kept melody as something of paramount importance, and that always endears a composer to the common man. Though he was criticized for his symphonies by the Soviet regime, he seemed to escape censure in other venues. His piano and violin sonatas are particularly lyrical and attractive; the later piano sonatas are not only beautiful but full of technical difficulties.
DMITRI KABALEVSKY (1904-1987)
Dmitri Kabalevsky was relatively young when the Revolution took place; it was in 1904 that so-called “Bloody Sunday” took place, when a group of Russians, led by a priest, walked to the winter palace to appeal to the Czar, who was not at home, and his frightened guards opened fire upon the crowds. This meant, of course, that Kabalevsky was a little closer to the Revolution than his forbears, perhaps in spirit as well as in time.
Kabalevsky was born in St. Petersburg and educated at the Scriabin Music School and the Moscow Conservatory. According to the Soviet biographer Lyudmila Polyakova, “this wise and sensitive artist’s standing in Soviet music is determined mainly by his vocal compositions (operas, operettas, cantatas, songs).” [Soviet Music, p. 55] In the last lecture, we have noted one of the texts Kabalevsky had to work with in song-writing. He did a good job setting this uninspiring piece of writing, and I suspect that the reason he is not renowned in the West as a composer of vocal music is that the subject matter is limited in its appeal. His Symphony #3 is subtitled Requiem for Lenin, and his noted chorale, written for the 25th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, is entitled Our Great Fatherland (1942).
Kabalevsky wrote many pleasant, nationalistic pieces, especially for children. In 1948, 1949, and 1952, respectively, he wrote Youth Concertos for violin, cello, and piano. They reflect the joyful optimism of youth, portray children’s games, folk songs, festivals, and so on. The second movement of the Piano Concerto features the theme of one of Kabalevsky’s own popular songs, “Our Land.” The Children’s Pieces of Kabalevsky are written for young pianists. These and other pieces have made his reputation in the West.
ARAM KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
“In conditions of socialism, the peoples inhabiting the Soviet Union have grown and developed spiritually as never before,” reports Lyudmila Polyakova (Soviet Music, p. 59). This remarkable observation was based upon the fact that “the universal spread of music education has resulted in the upsurge of musical culture generally and in the appearance of professional composers where there used to be only oral tradition and improvisation on folk musical instruments.” (ibid., p. 59). I’m not sure how the first statement is related to the second, but apparently Polyakova equates formal composition with a higher form of spirituality than folk music. In any case, there is no argument that Aram Khachaturian was one of the more talented non-Russian Soviet composers. He won the Stalin Prize twice, and was awarded the Order of Lenin.
Khachaturian was Armenian by heritage, but was born in Tblisi, Georgia and assimilated the styles of music of Georgia and Azerbaijan—states which today have reverted to their deadly enmity with Armenia, unfortunately. He was a late-bloomer and graduated from the Moscow Conservatory at the ripe age of 30. His first highly-successful work was his Piano Concerto, written in 1937. (By the way, it is possible that the enthusiasm for his very interesting work may have been enhanced by the fact that he was born in Stalin’s home country.) His second acclaimed work, obviously of limited interest to the West, was Poem About Stalin, which was written in 1938. “Its fascinating melodies made it immensely popular,” reports our critic, Polyakova (p. 59). Like Shostakovich, Khachaturian wrote a “war symphony,” to the memory of the victims of the “Great Patriotic War,” World War II. Probably the best-known of Khachaturian’s melodies in the West is the “Sabre Dance” from the ballet, Gayane, which is another production based upon Soviet themes.
What is especially attractive about Khachaturian’s music is the composer’s use of the folk songs of the Caucasian Mountains. As other composers were to do, he researched the music of his homeland and the surrounding areas to find inspiration for his pieces. Folk music brought fresh sounds to twentieth-century music, sounds which are strange to many of us who are used to only the major and minor modes.
Polyakova’s book is full of the names of composers, probably many of whom were talented men (there are hardly any women) who might have thrived in a less stifling atmosphere than that of the Soviet Union. In fact, there is no doubt that some of these may become better known in the West, now that the “Iron Curtain” no longer exists. The relative obscurity of the Soviet composers is a “monument” to the tragedy of political bigotry and isolationism. The predictability of Soviet music led creative minds to seek inspiration outside their country, at whatever cost. They found that inspiration in the medium of jazz.
Unfortunately for the current state of affairs in Russia, many of the finest musicians have left the country in search of a better life in the West. This is so much the case that as of the early ‘90s, the Bolshoi Ballet was using taped music with their ballets, because they were so short of money and musicians. Their famous theater needed very serious repairs and was in danger of collapse.
In the book, Soviet Composers, one finds that the theme of the music the Soviets created was unvarying and untruthful. If the theme was peace, then the triumph of peace was inevitably displayed in the finale. If the theme was Stalin, then Stalin ruled over all. In almost every case, the composers followed strict, prescribed patterns: joyful openings, replete with folk themes and glorifying “youth,” movements describing tragedy and pain, but the ultimate triumph of socialism, and final movements (which are usually described by Polyakova as the weakest of the piece) in which boundless and unfounded optimism must prevail. The words, “colored with optimism and a bright youthful outlook” (p. 75) characterize most of the “successful” music described in the Polyakova’s book.
Now, there is a truthfulness in optimism, but not an optimism based upon the success of a “system” of this world. Such optimism cannot compare with the “peace that passes understanding” given to us in Christ. A culture which glorifies “youth” and “optimism,” in spite of the facts at hand, is very shallow indeed, and this failing of Soviet music to deal with the realities of the world is nothing to boast about. In other parts of the world, suffering was treated with honesty—perhaps with bitterness, lack of faith, ugliness, or distortion—but at least without being glossed over. The Soviet system could not withstand the shocks of the last century, and neither could a large portion of Soviet music, which was destined for oblivion.
HUNGARIAN MUSIC AND MUSICIANS
The Hungarian composers and musicians of the 20th century again were victimized by the “tug of war” between the Nazis and the Communists. Life was very difficult for them. This is a subject very close to my heart, because I studied with both Dr. and Mrs. Erno Daniel, who went through so much as Christians in all the difficulties their homeland experienced. Mrs. Daniel, now in her 80s, has had the joy of revisiting Hungary in recent years, but she will never see her ancestral home, because it is now part of Slovakia and she cannot get a visa to that country. Marshall Tito, the former President of Yugoslovakia, commandeered it for his summer home.
If life was difficult during the War—and it was—it became almost intolerable after the Soviet Army marched into Budapest. The city was virtually destroyed, as were all cities in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Then, of course, the fate of the country was decided by Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt at Malta, and it became a communist satellite. Mrs. Daniel, who had toured as part of a piano duo with her husband, was put in prison at hard labor, partially because she insisted on making the Sign of the Cross whenever she saw a Catholic Church. She all but lost her ability to play the piano. Music was enslaved by the State, although not as seriously as in Russia, because the Hungarians are a proud and nationalistic people. Although they were forced to study Russian, the Hungarians were not pleased and kept within themselves the seeds of rebellion, which, of course, broke out during the 1950s. Christians were persecuted; at one time, the Daniels hid 60 priests and nuns inside their home while the secret police encircled the outside. All escaped. At one point, the Soviets warned the Hungarians that they were going to close all the churches, synagogues, and mosques. Great crowds of Hungarian people then knelt on the front lawns of their houses of worship, daring the Soviets to shoot them.
Amid these difficult conditions, a great music school, the Franz Liszt Academy of Music at Budapest, continued to produce remarkable musicians and composers. Among these were three composers of note: Ernst von Dohnányi, Zoltán Kodály, and Béla Bartók. (Now that you have seen all three names accented properly, I shall not bother to insert the accents again. The Hungarian language is distantly related to Finnish but is singular in the family of Indo-European tongues.)
ERNST VON DOHNANYI (1877-1960)
Dohnanyi served as Director of the Budapest Conservatory beginning in 1919, and in 1931 he became general director of the Hungarian National Radio. He lived in the United States after 1948. He continued the Romantic tradition throughout his compositions, which are very charming, but sometimes accidentally reminiscent of other composers. One of his very popular works is Variations on a Nursery Song, which is a long and difficult piano concerto based upon Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, which has many creative and delightful variations. A fine pianist, he was Dr. Daniel’s teacher and close friend. His son, Christoph, conducts in the United States at this time.
ZOLTAN KODALY (1882-1967)
This interesting man, together with Bela Bartok, was a collector of Hungarian folk music. He is most famous because a “method” of teaching music, which has spread around the world, was justly named after him.
In Hungary, patriotism was kept alive partially because of the teaching of folk music and Hungarian traditions. Teaching small children was considered a most important privilege and was reserved for some of the best-trained musicians to graduate from the Franz Liszt Conservatory of Music. When children start in nursery school and kindergarten in Hungary, they are taught by the “Kodaly method” to learn through folk songs, rhythm syllables, and pitch syllables (the “moveable do” being used to identify the notes). The children first sing and step to the music, then clap, and watch the teacher as he or she moves the hand to indicate the pitch, and then they do the same. Later, they take up instruments, such as the recorder. By this sound method of teaching, Hungary is able to produce many solidly-grounded musicians. Katinka Daniel is the foremost teacher of the Kodaly Method in this country and has produced several books of pedagogic materials. The Method is used, to some extent, in most music pedagogy at this time, in this country and all over Europe.
As a composer, Kodaly quoted the forms, harmonies, and rhythms of his native folk music. Most famous among his works are the Psalmus Hungaricus (1923) for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, the Hary Janos suite (1926), and the Missa Brevis (1945). He has also written cello concertos and other orchestral pieces.
BELA BARTOK (1881-1945)
Bartok was born in the town of Nagyszentmiklos (Great St. Nicholas), Hungary, which is now Sinnicolau, Romania. He taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest and immigrated to the United States in 1940. Not only was he a collector of folk music, together with his friend Kodaly, but he was a great and original composer.
To give you an idea of the scope of his work, Bartok compiled 12 volumes containing 2700 Magyar, 3500 Magyar-Romanian, and several hundred Turkish and North African folk songs. Some of these may be heard in the popular piano suite, Romanian Dances, and in the Mikrokosmos (1935, “small world”), a collection of 150 progressively-graded piano pieces, again very clever for the way he gradually introduced different aspects of piano technique. He originally wrote the Mikrokosmos for his 10-year-old son, who begged him to teach him piano; necessity is the mother of invention! The Mikrokosmos starts out with the hands together, playing in parallel and just on five notes “under the fingers,” and then goes on to dotted rhythms, imitation, and other more complex forms.
Bartok used a great deal of chromaticism and counterpoint in his music. He is very famous for his string quartets, one of which sounds very much like a tree full of bees, and his Music for Percussion and Orchestra.
It was our misfortune that an Iron Curtain separated us from Hungary for so many years, because the Liszt Academy offered exceptional training and had, among other things, a beautiful choir. For seventy years, we lost the joy of contact with countries behind the “Iron Curtain.” It will take a long time to recover our losses, and theirs.