The Young Composers

During the visit to America of a delegation of Soviet composers in the fall of 1959, a discussion with American composers was broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company on November 23, 1959, on the subject broadly designated as “The Creative Composer.” The Soviet participants were Dmitri Shostakovich, Tikhon Khrennikov, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Konstantin Dankevich, Fikret Amirov, and Boris Yarustovsky. The American participants were Roy Harris, Howard Hanson, Alan Shulman, and Ulysses Kay. Nicolas Slonimsky was the moderator and translator. Frank opinions were exchanged between the two groups. Ulysses Kay, an outstanding Negro composer who had visited the Soviet Union in 1958, remarked that he had an “impression of sameness” from Soviet music, and added: “The question is, Does this condition grow out of the Soviet composers’ preoccupation with national idioms in their works?” The following article by Boris Yarustovsky, professor of music at Moscow University, cast in the form of an open letter to Ulysses Kay, endeavors to clarify the problems facing young Soviet composers.


You remember, of course, my dear Ulysses, the meeting of a group of American composers with Soviet composers and the round-table discussion at the RCA Building in New York. This was a very friendly and warm talk. Many important and deeply felt thoughts were voiced on both sides regarding the role of art in humanistic education, the significance of great and moving ideas in musical composition, the essential bond between the language of music and national traditions.

Howard Hanson was profoundly correct when he said, “In this age of science and technology, music must be utilized to bring beauty into the world.” Roy Harris was correct, too, in saying that one cannot write important symphonies by sucking his thumb and that music must have its basis in great ideas generated by life itself. It was at that point that you, Ulysses, remarked that Soviet music produces the impression of sameness. Frankly, for us this remark was rather unexpected; it had little connection with the logic of our discussion, with the trend of our thoughts. Our reaction became even more intense since you failed to offer any evidence to support your opinion. Naturally, we’d like to find out what particular Soviet works gave you reason for such a conclusion. After all, it is quite possible that we ourselves are not aware of this sameness.

Since returning from our stimulating tour in the United States, we have already held two important plenary meetings in Moscow. One of them was devoted to the creative production of young composers, and the second to the subject of music in the contemporary world. Such discussions and auditions of new music attract not only the Moscow critics and composers but also many guests from different corners of our land.

I cannot say that the listeners were satisfied with every single work presented to them. No, the Soviet public is justified in making serious demands on our composers. We still have but few operas depicting Soviet life. Also, the creative harvest of our song composers is somewhat meager this season.

And yet, as we listened to numerous concerts of works by young and established composers, Russians and Georgians, Ukrainians and Estonians, symphonic composers and contributors to the musical stage, we could not help rejoicing in the diversity of the creative output of our great family of Soviet composers. It was then that I suddenly recalled your remark about the sameness in our music, my dear Ulysses. And again I was convinced that your contention was unjustified. Of course, Soviet music is not perfect, and our composers have a lot to accomplish before they can satisfy the multifarious demands of our own listeners and listeners abroad. Nonetheless, our plenary session of last year uncovered a veritable gold mine of creative individual talents and a genuine wealth of creative diversity.

I SHOULD like to acquaint my American readers with some names new to them. Such blank spots on the map of Soviet music, as observed trom America, are many, as we found out during our American tour, although the repertory of American symphony orchestras and individual performers contains a great number of Soviet works. For this we owe them our gratitude.

Let me state at once that we understand the necessity for performing more American music in the Soviet Union. The more knowledge we acquire of the culture and art of your nation and mine, and what they have to tell us about life in the Soviet Union and the United States, the more firm is the conviction that our peoples will continue to live in peace and friendship.

And now, let us return to the names of Soviet composers who are new or almost new to America.

Let me introduce to you first of all the name of Georgy Sviridov, a remarkably talented pupil of Shostakovich. He is totally unknown in America, but his music certainly merits performance in the United States. Musical Moscow is full of talk about his most recent work, Oratorio Pathetique, which has been mentioned for a Lenin Prize. It is a genuinely bold concept, as evidenced in the use of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky for its text, for these poems are extremely complex in rhythm and unconventional in structure. A number of composers before Sviridov had tried to set Mayakovsky’s poems to music, but their attempts were unsuccessful. Sviridov was not deterred by their experience. After he had completed a large musical fresco for chorus and orchestra, To the Memory of Sergei Yesenin, he turned to Mayakovsky.

In the Oratorio Pathetique, Sviridov makes use of selections from different poems by Mayakovsky. The work opens with thunderous sonorities of the orchestra and chorus, to the words of the famous Left March. The calls to action of the narrator singing, “Left! Left!” are punctuated by sharp, impulsive responses of the metrically scanning chorus and orchestra. The mass procession reaches its climax when the giant power of the organ is added to the tremendous orchestral ensemble (the score calls for eight horns, six trumpets, and six trombones). Here, at the summit, this sonorous avalanche is suddenly brought to a halt, and from afar, like an echo, a funeral chant is heard.

Against the background of this funeral psalmody, the singing narrator enters once more; the sudden contrast is necessary in order to make a sharp transition in the dramatic plan. The picture of a revolutionary procession is followed by the chronicle of the downfall of the last bulwark of the White Army, the army of General Wrangel. Sviridov makes use of the peculiar resources of the oratorio form with extraordinary skill, in order to shift the action to an entirely different scene; the pointed and flexible recitative of the narrator, to the text of Mayakovsky’s poem Khorosho, is ended by an expressionistic outburst, when the commander in chief of the White Army falls on his knees with a cry of despair and then flees Russia under the constant pressure of the Red Army.

Equally inventive is the fifth movement of the oratorio, A Garden City Will Grow Here. This, too, tells a dramatic story, but on a quite different subject. Sviridov uses Mayakovsky’s imagery to create a highly colorful musical scene: against the patter of the rain, workers seeking shelter under a shed talk about the beautiful garden city to be built here soon. Murmurs and the soft sound of the falling raindrops are pictured in varied orchestral timbres, while the ingeniously contrived small talk of the chorus is projected upon this background. In the middle of this movement, like some spectacular tide of the future, in the chords of the brass, in the powerful pulse of the orchestra, emerges the image of Siberia in construction, so vivid that we can almost see the scaffolding of the grandiose structures. In the recapitulation, the bewitching lyrical dream of a garden city is invoked once again.

The central motif of the sixth movement is a heart-to-heart talk with Lenin, in which the narrator, thinking aloud, addresses himselt to the portrait of the great leader of the Russian Revolution. This is followed by the grand finale, based on selections from the poem entitled “An Extraordinary Adventure that Vladimir Mayakovsky Had One Summer in the Country.” The sun addresses itself to the poet, inviting him to join it in illuminating the course of people’s lives. “Come, poet, let us soar like an eagle, let us sing!” the sun exclaims. Sviridov’s music utilizes all available means in order to create the feeling of space flooded with sunlight. To the massive sonority of the orchestra and the organ there is added a vibrant pealing of bells, and the voice of the narrator brings the oratorio to a conclusion with Mayakovsky’s words: “To shine always, to shine everywhere, such is my slogan, and the sun’s!”

It is difficult to overpraise Sviridov’s oratorio. It is unmistakably modern in its musical language. In it are boldly brought together the most varied resources: scenes that are almost theatrical, choral polyphony, symphonic interludes, and simple melodies. Rumbling sounds, murmurs, whispers, reverberations, lamentations are reproduced in interesting and novel instrumental colors. And integrating the entire work is the singing narrator, embodying the mighty figure of the Poet of the Revolution, Mayakovsky himself. Perhaps Sviridov’s greatest accomplishment in this oratorio is that he has been able to find for Mayakovsky’s dynamic, but at times angular, verses the means of melodic realization, colored in rich national tones. Sviridov is undoubtedly one of the most talented lyric composers. He has an extremely fine feeling for Russian melody, not only in its ancient peasant form but in its contemporary aspect.

QUITE different tone color infuses another important work in Soviet music, the suite for voice and orchestra, The Path of Poets, by the Georgian composer Otar Taktakishvili. It speaks of the destinies of the people of Georgia. The textual basis of the work suggests an anthology of Georgian poetry, comprising verses ranging from the classical Georgian poet Vazha Pshaveli to the contemporary poets Irakly Abashidze and Galaktion Tabidze. It is a cycle of poetic tableaux, impressive in their imaginative lyrical quality, emotionally rich harmonies, and brilliant orchestral palette. The dramatic development of Taktakishvili’s work is astutely built on contrasting alternations of dramatic and lyric images, permeated by a profound patriotic feeling. The suite is concluded by a triumphant song of collective endeavor. The Path of Poets had excellent success at a concert of the plenary session in the series “Music and the Present Day.”

Another Soviet composer of Sviridov’s generation is Kara Karaev of Azerbaidzhan. Until quite recently, the people of Azerbaidzhan had no professional standards of musical culture. Now a young, strong school of composers is active in Azerbaidzhan. Its leaders are Kara Karaev and Fikret Amirov. American audiences had an opportunity to become acquainted with Amirov and his music during the tour of Soviet composers to the United States in November, 1959.

Kara Karaev studied with Shostakovich. He is a brilliant musician, well versed in modern symphonic technique. Among his works are two ballets, The Seven Beauties, after the national epic of Nizami, and Path of Thunder, after the novel by Abrahams; a number of symphonic works and film scores; and Nocturnes, to the words of the American Negro poet Langston Hughes, for voice and jazz band. The authentic modes of indigenous music, its capricious rhythms, its peculiar timbres, are combined in Karaev’s compositions with the dynamism of contemporary musical language, with the broad expanses of intensive symphonic development. Kara Karaev is well acquainted with European symphonic literature and with the musical traditions of other nations. To cite an example, in his ballet Path of Thunder, Karaev makes skillful use of the folk music of African Negroes, as well as of modern resources. As director of the conservatory in Baku, Karaev is in charge of the education of a new generation of composers in Azerbaidzhan.

Sviridov, Taktakishvili, Karaev — these are only three names from the galaxy of Soviet composers of the middle generation. They are all genuinely modern; they have a deep feeling for the intensely dynamic tempo of twentieth-century life. Their unifying trait is the method of socialist realism. Their music is addressed to the masses. Their varied subject matter is drawn from the life of the people, their moods and sentiments, their sorrows and joys. All of these composers strive to reflect stirring, progressive ideas of our contemporary life, to observe and to trace their development and their realization. At the same time, the musical personality of each of these three composers is profoundly individual. This distinction is determined by the national color of their music, the predilection for this or that musical form. In Sviridov’s music, the dramatic element is almost invariably tinted with lyricism; with Taktakishvili, it assumes an epical tone; Kara Karaev often conceives his dramatic expression in the forms of the dance. Thus, the general tendency of contemporary music in the direction of terse and dynamic expression, greatly varied meters and rhythms, enhancement and sometimes transcendence of modality manifests itself individually, above all, in the utilization of the national musical riches. For instance, Kara Karaev makes fine use of the sharp rhythms of Azerbaidzhan dances, and Taktakishvili of the emotional intensity and distinctive harmonies of the Georgian national idiom.

After hearing the work of only these few representatives of the middle generation of Soviet musicians, it is difficult to understand how anyone can speak of uniformity in Soviet music.

ANOTHER generation of composers has appeared on the Soviet scene in the past few years: our creative youth from the various republics. The Russians, Rodion Shchedrin and Vladlen Chistyakov; the Ukrainians, Georgy Maiboroda and Igor Shamo; the Georgian, Sulkhan Tsintsadze; the Armenians, Alexander Arutunian and Dzhon TerTatevosian; the Estonians, Eino Tamberg and Jan Rjaets; the Uzbek, Mutal Burkhanov; the Uigur, Kuddus Kuzhamyarov; the Tuva, Chirgal Ool, and many others make up the constellation of young talents that strengthen our hopes for the future.

“The promise of youth. . .”Glazunov composed his first symphony when he was sixteen, and Shostakovich achieved world fame with his rollicking First Symphony when he was nineteen. The important thing is to find oneself, to see clearly the creative path ahead.

At the session devoted to the music of our youth, Rodion Shchedrin presented his First Symphony. We had already heard his sprightly piano concerto with its galloping popular dance in the finale; his ballet Little Hunchbacked Horse, after the wellknown fairy tale by Yershov, which had its first performance at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; and also his chamber music.

The symphony revealed a new facet of Shchedrin’s talent; from the very first bars the listener is overwhelmed. The symphony opens with a climax, but this opening is justified by the dramatic tension of the music. The images of the war continue to nourish our art. They were responsible for Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies; Shchedrin’s symphony is also circumscribed by the visions of war. Two worlds are revealed here: the evil world of aggression and invasion; and, opposed to it, the world of Russian lyrical song. Time and again, there are intrusions of battle episodes, and each time they are shattered and dispersed by the constant poetic lyricism of Russian song. The conflict is depicted with particular power in the second of the three movements. Here one can feel the influence of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony with its cataclysms of horror and anguish. The finale of Shchedrin’s symphony is the lyrical focus of the entire cycle; it is cast in the form of variations on an inspired folk tune of the Vologda region. One might call it a lyrical requiem. In the nine variations, the elements of Russian polyphony, with its characteristic supporting voices, are utilized in many ways. In the concluding part of Shchedrin’s symphony, the music literally melts away; it ends, as it were, on a series of dots.

The symphony evoked considerable discussion. The composer was perhaps justly criticized for his abuse of climaxes and his unconvincing finale. But no one could deny the vividness and drama of individual episodes, the stirring Rachmaninofflike lyricism. Shchedrin has his entire career still before him. His symphony demonstrates his ability to write dramatic music, and this is of the utmost importance for a composer of a truly broad inspiration.

At the plenary session there were heard other, more debatable compositions. Among them was the oratorio Nagasaki, a graduation work by the Moscow Conservatory student Shchnitke (class of 1958). The score abounds in challenging and topically strong images. The atomic explosion, pictured with tremendous effect, was, in the opinions of many, needlessly naturalistic. The novel tone colors, produced by electronic instruments, are impressive. Unforgettable is the fourth movement, Among the Ashes, the monologue of a mother seeking her son among the ruins. The tragic solo of the heartbroken woman is overwhelming in its emotional impact. The chorus responds with a passionate appeal to all mankind, warning the world against the possibility of such disasters in the future.

The war, with its ominous dark specter hovering over the world, determines the imagery of the second symphony by the young Armenian composer Ter-Tatevosian. Its subject matter is suggested by the epigraph: “Upon reading Sholokhov’s story ‘The Fate of a Man.’ ” Ter-Tatevosian’s work aroused considerable friendly criticism. However, those who took the floor at the plenary session pointed out that many of the episodes in the symphony showed undeniable talent, and stressed the dramatic force of climaxes, the moving lyricism of the solo passages in the woodwind instruments, imparting the feeling of joy in man’s aspirations and the depths of human sorrow. An ardent temperament and an emotional directness of utterance are the most poignant qualities of Ter-Tatevosian’s music. These qualities were already apparent in his First Symphony, which brought him wide renown in the Soviet Union.

The Armenian school of composition is one of the strongest, most talented, and most productive. Apart from Ter-Tatevosian, I should mention Edgar Ovanesian, who has written a remarkable piano quintet and a symphony, Alexander Arutunian, Eduard Mirzoyan, and Arno Babajanian. The latter is already known in America through recordings of his piano trio and Heroic Ballad for piano and orchestra. He has recently completed a polyphonic sonata for violin and piano. The young generation of Armenian composers have all passed through a Khatchaturian phase, having experienced to a greater or lesser extent the influence of Aram Khatchaturian, but now each of them has found his own creative path. True, they all possess common characteristics: the vivid dance quality, the utilization of folk songs with their inimitable capricious rhythms. But there is little resemblance between the classically restrained manner of Arutunian and the psychological expressionism of Ter-Tatevosian and the emotionalism of Arno Babajanian.

ANOTHER strong group of young talents is developing in Estonia. Its most mature exponent is the twenty-nine-year-old composer Eino Tamberg. His creative works include a cantata on a historical subject, a Concerto Grosso and Symphonic Dances (both of which have become widely known), as well as a number of miniatures of chamber music. Tamberg has an instinctive understanding of his native musical element and of the folk genres, and he knows how to utilize them in a novel way. How fresh is the sound of his Symphonic Dances! How many subtle harmonic inventions they reveal! The Concerto Grosso is a serious work of a highly professional standard, which has entered the repertory of many symphonic ensembles.

A different personality is presented by the twenty-six-year-old Estonian Jan Rjaets. This youthful composer is fascinated by the romantic quality of the achievements of Soviet science in outer space; his music pulsates with a dynamic beat of modern life. In his Third Symphony there are tone pictures of huge factory shops, the gay music, the cascade of rhythms generated by modern technical accomplishments. In the slow movements of the symphony we seem to be looking into the silent laboratories where the searching mind of man is busy at its great job.

Rjaets has entitled his score A Cosmic Symphony. Heated debates took place during the discussion of this work at the plenary session. Some opponents criticized the rationalistic tendency of the music, its strivings after naturalistic effects. These elements are easily explained by the composer’s youth, and he will undoubtedly find a way out of his difficulties in the near future. However, the subject matter selected by Rjaets is of genuine interest. It is not by accident that many young composers are attracted by cosmic lore. For instance, the Russian composer Alexander Flyarkovsky has written a symphonic poem, Sputnik. Indeed, what can be more alluring and more romantic in its appeal for a young modern composer than this satellite made by Soviet men, blazing new trails through the skies?

New composers have appeared in nearly all of our republics. It would be a serious omission, for instance, not to mention a remarkable young man, Andrei Eshpai, who represents a very small nationality, the Mari. His violin concerto, his symphony, his excellent songs can stand comparison with productions by many well-known Soviet musicians. At one of our plenary sessions there was heard a symphonic composition by the first composer of Tuva, Chirgal Ool.

In our land, all doors are open for new talents. Gifted young composers have every opportunity to develop and to enrich their creative individuality. All that is asked of them is that they serve our humanistic aims, that they help the people to experience more fully the joy of life, that they inspire the people in their labors and their struggle for an even brighter future.

These ethical requirements of true art ought to be instilled in the young generation during school years. We consider this educational process no less important than the development of technical mastery. It is only when these qualities — ethical and technical — are combined that the composer begins to understand clearly the responsibility he is assuming in his noble calling: the mission of awakening the best in man, of aesthetically enriching his soul. Each artist, each composer performs this mission according to his own insight, just as he has his own vision of the world, expressing this vision in his work. True variety of artistic creativity depends on this.

It seems to me that it is far more difficult to distinguish between two dodecaphonic composers, as we had an opportunity to observe in the music of some young students of Harvard University. And yet there is a great deal of variety in the works of their teachers, Walter Piston and Randall Thompson. I am willing to raise both hands in an affirmative vote for the fine stylistic variety among American composers, such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Roger Sessions, Howard Hanson, William Schuman, Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, GianCarlo Menotti, and many other talented representatives of American music. But I vote against the gloomy and stereotyped expressionism of some youthful followers of the contemporary musical avant-garde in America. Their sprinklings of sound, with all their apparent novelty, are distressingly monotonous.

That is why, my dear Ulysses Kay, while I am ready to admit some shortcomings in our Soviet music, I can hardly agree with you that it suffers from uniformity. The facts, as I see them, decisively refute what you say.

Translated by Nicolas Slonimsky.