By John Helmer in Moscow
It’s a pity Vladimir Lenin was tone deaf, and dismissed music (along with chess) as an entertainment for the ruling class. Had he an ear and taste for classical music (like Karl Marx, who was keen on Beethoven, and Leon Trotsky, who loved Verdi), he might have devised a revolutionary doctrine for the performing arts. This could have protected Russia from the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich the cellist, Nikita Mikhalkov the filmmaker, Valery Gergiev the conductor, and X the theatre director.
I regret I am obliged to avoid using X’s, or his Moscow theatre’s real name, because he and his colleagues are so thin-skinned, so despotic, and so vengeful, they brook no criticism, and would react by attacking the livelihood of a member of my family.
And this is the point: the erstwhile freedom which the presidency of Boris Yeltsin introduced, after toppling Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, was not a freedom for artistic expression in Russia at all. It was the start of a new dictatorship, much worse for Russian culture, its producers and consumers, than anything that had gone before.
The eulogies over the death of Rostropovich — which followed Yeltsin’s in Moscow by five days in April — miss the point of the human rights which Rostropovich made a reputation pursuing, aggressively, during the Yeltsin period – Rostropovich’s interest was limited to advancing his own right to make as much money out of Russia as possible. Even an oligarch as wealthy as Oleg Deripaska, owner of Russian Aluminium, expressed his shock at the size of the performance fee Rostropovich once demanded for a charity concert in the Samara region, sponsored by Deripaska’s company.
Just as Yeltsin privatized Russia’s natural resources for the benefit of a handful of his supporters, who banked the cash value abroad; so Yeltsin’s privatization of Russia’s cultural resources made a handful of performing artists very rich. The cultural privatization also started a reign of new terror, in which this handful of men took control of the performing arts in Moscow – the concert halls, theatre stages, film studios, airwaves – and systematically destroyed all rivals for a dwindling state culture budget, corruptly garnering the public resources which had supported Soviet arts education, copyrights, and broadcasting, for their private gain. Unreformed, they still rule today. The destruction they wreaked was far greater, countrywide, and longer lasting than the policies of the cultural commissars of Stalin’s time.
The new men are not new oligarchs of art, because they aren’t a new phenomenon. Most of them had highly successful and publicly celebrated careers in the Soviet period. They are the Stalins of sound, because they used Yeltsin, and then President Vladimir Putin, to grant them a monopoly of money and power in their corners of the performing world.
All Russian musicians remember the story of January 26, 1936, when Stalin walked out of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of Mstsensk, disparaging it in terms more pungent than Pravda the next day, which editorialized that Shostakovich had created chaos instead of music. Stalin’s reaction has been pilloried by Shostakovich’s supporters ever since. The fact that Stalin’s ear was not attuned to the atonality of 20th century classical composition puts him squarely among the majority of the classical music audience the world over. In a thousand years of European cultural history, he was also not the first sovereign to stop up his ears at the audible dissonance, and to reject the new sounds his musicians were making.
But step back to Lenin’s doctrine of performance, which he never got around to writing. That starts with the history of the evolution of classical music from the two most powerful institutions of the day, the church and the throne, and from the ear of listeners attuned only to music they could sing or dance to. Driving this evolution was the technology of sound-making — the invention of standard notation, the revision of well-tempered harmony, the construction of strings, piano actions, and instruments of louder and louder tones, audible in larger and larger rooms, as well as printing presses to churn out thousands of copies of sheet music. And supporting all this invention was the profit motive, which emancipated performers, then composers, from the limited prospects allowed by their patrons — bishops, kings, noblemen.
The final evolution of the concert hall in the 19th century, along with the steel-stringed cello and the pianoforte action to fill the hall with sound, were the triumph of bourgeois capitalism. Liberated, at last, was music from religious limitations on melody and harmony, delivered to a new breed of impresario, manipulated by a new type of star performer, and amplified by the new technology of sound, so that the largest possible number of paying ears could be accommodated in a single space. And the bigger the bang in the concert-hall, the higher the sales went of sheet-music for home entertainment. Along the way, the performing arts naturally backed the rise of the bourgeois nationalisms. These found their champions in Mozart’s conflict with Salieri over opera in German versus Italian, and the deployment of canons in Tchaikovsky’s pseudo-national anthem, the 1812 Overture. At least, Tchaikovsky admitted himself that that one was hack work: “very loud and noisy, but I’ve written it without affection and enthusiasm, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merit in it (1880).
Trotsky also remembered the melodious nationalism of Italian opera in Odessa, when he was at highschool, not least of all, he later admitted in his autobiography, because he had a crush on one of the sopranos.
This music to thump by reached its epitome in Wagner’s musical dramatizations for the Kaiser’s, then Hitler’s killing-machines; and John Philip Sousa’s tunes to accompany the beach landings of the US Marines, taking American imperialism to Cuba, the Philippines, etc. If Shostakovich had been engaged to write music for Sousa’s clientele, the outcome would have been more draconian than his clash with Stalin.
It is of passing interest to note that it was a big-band thumper like Sousa who felt threatened by the invention of sound recording. “ These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country,” he warned.
“When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.” Sousa under-estimated the capitalism of music, by a long shot.
The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was the first modern performer of international status to repudiate the concert hall, and to recognize – for purely musical reasons – that the technology of recording sound could be superior aesthetically to the live performance. He also proved that the performing artist could survive the switchover economically, though, of course, the concert impresario and the sheet-music publisher have not done as well.
Gould saw the potential for a revolution in music-making and understanding in the Soviet Union; that’s why he chose to visit in 1957—over the objections of officials in Ottawa and Washington, who believed at the time that he was aiding and abetting the enemy. Subsequently, in a 1962 broadcast on Canadian government television, Gould defended the quality of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, clashing head-on with the Soviet cultural authorities over what Gould called “the idiotic repressions of Soviet musical life.”
But Gould also saw beyond his own revolution in sound production to the revival of the individual listener, the small room, and the chamber sound with which music had flourished five centuries earlier. Gould’s revolution was the antithesis of music to thump by. Had the democratic ideologies of the Russian reformers of 1991 been genuine ones, the outcome today for Russia’s performing arts might have been equally liberating.
What happened instead to the performing arts in Moscow was that the richest, most powerful state budget for the performing artist in the world was suddenly cut off. In a relatively short time, this led to the loss of the state copyrights on recorded music; the pirating of performance rights; the wholesale destruction of the place Russians filmmaking had in the cinemas and on television, and its replacement with trash imported primarily from the US. Although some classical music recording labels tried to keep orchestras alive with recording contracts, those who lacked the patronage of despotic conductor impresarios, like Gergiev, could not survive. He and Rostropovich positioned themselves as intermediaries and conduits for western culture cash. It was paid out, and they took it, for the same political and ideological reasons that had sustained the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other Cold War-fighting fronts.*
As the older generation of performers dwindled, there was no longer a state supported system to replace them with the young, or to employ the old to cultivate the talent of the young.
The state funded system for the education and training of performing artists in music, theatre, and film was crippled. Admission to the theatre schools was taken care of by bribery. Radio Orfei, the state funded classical music broadcaster, with a daily audience of 9 million, was choked for lack of funds, and left the air, its frequency taken over by a church broadcaster. When that radio fell silent, the revolution of the intimate audience which Gould had hoped might be self-sustaining, failed.
While the casting-couch was not unheard of in Soviet film studios and live theatres, the directors who flourished in the Yeltsin period did so as pimps. A boom in Russian film-making developed – for pornography and sadistic violence. Talented actresses became a Russian export for the first time in history – as sex slaves. Film directors from Hollywood and Bollywood created networks of agents in Moscow, and Russia’s leading regional centres, to audition boys and girls for sex shows sold on the internet.
To revisit Pravda’s notice on Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, Russian music had become chaos – while a tiny elite accumulated all the benefits. They arranged through a compliant Kremlin to award themselves state signed telegrammes of congratulation on their jubilees, and state awards. And abroad, posturing as the new artistic leaders of democratic Russia, Rostropovich, Mikhalkov, Gergiev, and X were showered with western honours. What exactly had they, have they, done for Russian culture? They have encouraged foreign entertainment combines to swamp radio, television, and the sound recording industry. They have withheld training from a generation of talent. They have established a more ruthless artistic oligopoly than Stalin was able to enforce; and pauperized the generation who follows them. Their tyrannizing extends to the most intimate of details; it is reported of Gergiev that he will not allow his orchestra players and singers a decent interval to relieve themselves.
Under a baton like that, Russian culture has reverted to what it was in 1839, when the French nobleman Astolpe de Custine wrote his Letters from Russia. Banned by the Russian censor until 1996, de Custine wrote: “Civilization, which elsewhere elevates the mind, here perverts it. It had been better for the Russians had they remained savages:- to polish slaves is to betray society. It is needful that a man possess a basis of virtue to enable him to bear culture.” The Stalins of sound claim virtue, but they are savage destroyers.
* Rostropovich plays a footnote part in the CIA’s first cultural war against the Soviet Union, in a 1964 visit to the Berlin house of Nikolai Nabokov, then front-man for the CIA. At the time, Rostropovich was with the Soviet ambassador to East Berlin, Pyotr Abrassimov. Fully committed on the US side, and taking money, was Igor Stravinsky.
He and other composers on the same payroll were funded to encourage 12-tone and other avant-garde musical composition, premiered by touring US orchestras also subsidized from the same source. Arturo Toscanini, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, refused to be recruited, but he hated the music, and refused to take the money. For the tale of the cultural cold war between 1950 to 1970, see Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper, the CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999). The story after 1970, in which Rostropovich played a much bigger role, and of the new cultural cold war, which began with Yeltsin, hasn’t been told yet.