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The Music of Rodion Shchedrin

Centered in Russian Culture and Everywhere at Home: An Oeuvre in an Interplay Between Empathy and Irony

Rodion Konstantinovich Shchedrin is deeply rooted in Russian culture, both spiritually and emotionally. His music has thus been able to grow to great heights high and branch out in many directions. The oeuvre of this composer has no gradual development forward, no tentative beginning, no succession of early, main and late works. Everything is there from the very beginning – a variety of genres and styles, spiritual richness, originality, virtuosity, the spirit of invention, masterly instrumentation and the power of authenticity. A special characteristic which is most striking, perhaps a trademark of his production, is the interplay between empathy and irony.

These two poles – empathy as well as distance – are probably due to the composer’s origins. He was born in Moscow as the son of a musician and grandson of an Orthodox priest, and he virtually inherited both spiritual independence and critical awareness of the world. Rodion Shchedrin says that he “digested a lot of avant-garde” but was not "confused by it or made compliant to it."

“The piano concerto was always my field of experimentation".

Paths of world music and European modernism cross in the piano concertos. Himself a brilliant pianist and organist, Rodion Shchedrin made solo appearances as the interpreter of his own works, beginning his career in this personal union in 1955 with the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, which plays with Russian folklore in a manner both emphatic and ironic.

Piano Concerto No. 2 belongs to Shchedrin’s "experiments with twelve-tone techniques and jazz." He enjoyed a brilliant success with it in 1967 as composer and pianist during a European tour of the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky.

In the Piano Concerto No. 3 consisting of 33 variations that only find their theme at the end, Shchedrin was inspired by the "phenomenon of notated aleatorics." The premiere in 1974 was a sensation when the composer played all three piano concertos in a tour de force single evening.

Piano Concerto No. 4, commissioned in 1991 by Steinway to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company‘s founding, bears the subtitle ‘sharp keys.’ Shchedrin understood his exclusive use of the sharp keys as "his kind of musical minimalism." It keeps an appropriate distance from the current fashionable trend, of course, for the harmonic restriction does not lead to any limitation or to endless successions of the same thing; on the contrary, the composer makes magic, enchanting the listener with timbral effects and thematic variety.

"I have written music for the piano throughout my entire creative life."

Shchedrin’s piano compositions are dialogues with a final authority about the relationship between "ordo tonalis and ordo divinas", between the order of the tones and the divine order. In the musical heaven of the Orthodox Christian Russian composer rules the Protestant German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano written between 1964 and 1970 and the Polyphonic Notebook of 1972 (25 Preludes for Piano) reflect this guiding star; they are encyclopaedias of musical forms, homages to music for its own sake far removed for any marketable attitude.

Concertos for Orchestra: Wit, Irony and Deeper Meaning

With his concertos for orchestra, Shchedrin created a genre of his own far removed from the cyclical symphonic form. In a single, unstoppable forward movement, monothematic events are blended with a variety of motifs, and the old technique of variation brings core motifs to the point of ‘explosion’ with a considerably new dynamism.

Number One of the concertos for orchestra (Naughty Limericks / Osorniye chastushki) of 1963, is also the Number One in the favour of public and interpreters alike. George Balanchine made use of the Naughty Limericks as ballet music, and they enthralled Leonard Bernstein so much that he commissioned Shchedrin to write another concerto for orchestra, The Chimes of 1968, masterly not only in its use of colour. With empathy with the old Russian bell sounds and distance from blind nostalgia, the concerto "ends in the exploitation of the ringing of the chimes".

The concertos for orchestra Old Russian Circus Music and Round Dances, composed to commissions from the USA, are also in the tradition of these one-movement, programmatically charged orchestral concertos.

Symphonies "Eternity is in love with the phenomenon of time"

Shchedrin has called his two symphonies "resonances of the past". The echo of the war, the outbreaks of violence and aggression as well as his own emotional entanglement in hate and fear are their subjects, not brushed aside since the end of the Second World War and ensuring both symphonies a place in the international repertoire.

Symphony No. 1 (1958) stands in opposition to traditional structure with its "movements in the wrong order". Then there is a highly unconventional tone, striking for its wildness and aggression. The language of a distraught subject is audible beyond all classical balance.

Symphony No. 2 (1962-1965) continues this theme. Cast in 25 preludes overlapping into each other, musical "eternity" appears in the form of double fugue and cancrizans canon: the "phenomenon of time" in sonorous, onomatopoetic elements and thematic contrasts.

Operas "from humour, exuberance and caustic sarcasm, it is only half a step to desperation, mourning and tears"

Shchedrin’s subjective tendency, his alternation between empathy and distance, find their correspondence in everyday life in Russia, namely in the so-called Chastushki, "a form of Russian improvised singing in villages that only originated in the twentieth century (…) in which, from humour, exuberance and caustic sarcasm, it is only half a step to desperation, mourning and tears."

Chastushki found exemplary theatrical formation in Shchedrin’s opera Not Love Alone (1961, reduced version 1972). At the suggestion of Kyril Kondrashin, Shchedrin adapted this masterly, at times joking and at other times tragic operatic music into an orchestral suite, ensuring its presence in the concert hall. Whoever wishes to abandon himself/herself to the magic of Russian folk art will find a great deal on offer in the first two operas of Shchedrin (Not Love Alone and Dead Souls).

To an extent hardly equalled by any other composer of his time, Shchedrin, who is also a trained choral conductor, knows the possibilities and special characteristics of the human voice. In hardly any other opera is there such enormous vocal variety and differentiation as in Dead Souls based on Nikolai Gogol, composed in 1974 and representing Shchedrin’s principal theatrical work. This was a composition that he simply had to write, tackling it and completing without knowing whether or not it would ever be performed. Yuri Temirkanov finally performed the opera with great success at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, also recording it for commercial release.

The psychic nature and differentiated character exploration of Shchedrin’s operatic figures is, unlike with many of his contemporaries, depicted not so much through spacious orchestral discourse – his characters gain their unmistakeable guises primarily through the line of the vocal parts – the person is present from the first sung tone onwards. In this way, he creates numerous roles with weight and profile, especially for altos and mezzo sopranos.

The choir also forms exciting sound events: pulsing, iridescent sounds such as wind, darkness, light and the rumble of thunder. Both the choir and the orchestra are more than merely prompters, but are active, equal partners of the soloists. Instead of the first violins and second violins, there is a 28-part chamber choir plus two soloists (mezzo soprano and alto) in the Russian manner of 'larynx singing'.

If archaic heterophony is linked with the twelve-tone principle in the orchestra pit, two plots take place at the same time on the theatrical level - an opera buffa an opera seria. Nne after the other as in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, but simultaneously, parallel, interrupting and blending with each other. The opera Dead Souls is definitely of an unmistakeably Russian essence and of international format.

Ballets "an individual solution for each subject"

The composer is not only bound in a marriage of many years to Maya Plisetskaya, the legendary prima ballerina of the Bolschoi Theatre, but also in a creative communion. He wrote all his ballet scores for Maya Plisetskaya: The Little Humpbacked Horse (1960, based on Russian folk tales), Carmen Suite (1967, based on Georges Bizet), Anna Karenina (1972, based on Lev Tolstoy), The Seagull and The Lady with the Lapdog (1980 and 1985, both based on Anton Chekhov). They are all represented in the international ballet repertoire and, like the Romantic Music Anna Karenina of 1978/1979, have also found their place in the concert hall.

The Carmen Suite for strings and percussion, a brilliant arrangement of material from Bizet’s opera with the addition of two excerpts from Bizet’s Arlésienne music and the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth, is one of the most frequently performed ballet scores in the world.

With its subtitle 'Lyric Scenes', Anna Karenina refers to Tchaikovsky’s opera Evgeny Onegin. Here, Shchedrin has fraternised with the old master of Russian opera and ballet in terms of structure and emphasis, as well as through quotations.

The Seagull consists of 24 preludes, three interludes and a postlude – an unusual musical form for a ballet. There is also a stylised seagull cry as a leitmotif. Shchedrin adapted this ballet score into an orchestral suite for the concert hall in 1984.

In The Lady with the Lapdog, Shchedrin surprises listeners with an "incomplete orchestra" - strings, two oboes, two horns and celesta – resulting in an "emotionally heated sound".

Shchedrin created a new kind of ballet music that is orientated according to the needs of dance: clear and transparent in its specification for dancing actions. At the same time, however, it is provided with an overriding network of symphonic-thematic references, thus preserving its independence, offering its own, independent subtext far removed from the concrete action.

Choral Compositions "How does one reconcile the transient with the immutable?"

In Northern Europe with its noted choral tradition, Shchedrin is appreciated as a master composer of a capella choral writing second to none. There is no situation that he cannot produce only by means of the sound of a choir, whether turmoil, calmness, suppressed fear or bell sounds such as in The Execution of Pugachyov (1981).

As a composer who spent his childhood in a Russian village, he above all preserves the echo of songs that have faded away, as in the beautiful a capella choruses Willow, Little Willow/Iva, Ivushka (1954) and Russian Villages(1973) or the Concertino, a four-movement masterwork without text for mixed choir as well as the Stanzas from Evgeni Onegin (both 1982).

"My soul, rise up, what are you doing sleeping?"

Shchedrin professes a religious impetus without subjecting himself to church doctrine. Long before it became the fashion to profess Russian Orthodox faith at the time of Perestroika, Shchedrin created works of religious intention.

Among these is Poetorium, a Russian Passion composed in 1968 to verses of the poet Andrei Wossnesensky, a friend and companion of Shchedrin.

"My soul, rise up, what are you doing sleeping?" Shchedrin expressed this evocation in the choral work The Sealed Angel with text by Nikolai Leskov (1988). It is a valid formula illuminating many of the works.

This is especially true of The Musical Offering for organ, 3 flutes, 3 bassoons and 3 trombones. Composed in 1983 to mark the occasion of the 300th birthday of J. S. Bach, The Musical Offering, with its performance duration of over two hours, is not merely an homage to the German composer. This is music that does not follow the customary function of art, that does express human trials and tribulations, but seeks access to a final authority and is a more or less "depersonalised" music. In terms of its duration alone, The Musical Offering is demanding indeed. The composer later decided to shorten the work but without affecting the musical structure of the composition. In times of increasing polarisation concerning questions of faith, Rodion Shchedrin provides an example of the spiritual fellowship of a baptised, devout Russian Orthodox Christian with a Protestant German composer: "My soul, rise up, what are you doing sleeping?"

As with The Musical Offering of 1983, Stikhira (Praise, a Symphonic Adaptation of the Old Slavic Ecclesiastical Chant) of 1988 for the 1000th anniversary celebration of the Christianisation of Russia, is based on the idea of transcending joylessness, fear and abandonment through God’s love and praise of God.

Shchedrin designates his musical position as "post avant-garde." For him this means "that all the restrictions, all the ‘one mustn‘t do that,’ ‘that isn’t customary,’ ’they will not approve’ have been ruled out. The birds have been released from the cage, one writes as one must and as one feels."

Sigrid Neef
(Translation by David Babcock)

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