Tuesday, August 29, 2006

I'm Spartacus! Pecs and the Cold War

In 1957 Sputnik soared up through the troposphere to its shiny half-hour of fame. Around the same time the Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian was putting the finishing touches to a cyclopean ballet score, a four-hour epic detailing the struggle (a big word in Krushchev-land, remember) of the Roman slave Spartacus - interestingly, although quite coincidentally, at the same time as Hollywood's own take.

The original Jacobsen production fizzled; only Grigorovitch's reduced revision in 1968 made it the international hit and box-office bling that the Bolshoi toured for years.

Watching it - on the 1985 video with Mukhamedov and Bessmertnova - one is struck by the gayness of it all and how on earth the Politburo didn't intervene. Freddie Mercury would cringe at the mincing campness of Crassus. But maybe they didn't because it's a thing of wonder, an astonishing feat of choreography, and also utterly symbolic of the time and place of its conception and gestation. It manages to be propaganda, period piece and art at once. And yes, Khachaturian's score is 80 years behind the times - but that doesn't stop it being absolutely glorious.

Grigorovitch's symbolism is (sorry) crass - goosestepping legionaries, promiscuously decadent shagging and shimmying (Charlotte Kasner's article on www.ballet.co.uk in July 2004 was the best piece ever written about Spartacus ). But wait, listen to the music - it shimmers and sparkles, lots of tuned percussion, divisi strings outdoing Korngold - like the ballet, it is all brash broad- brush. Like all Socialist Realism, it ostensibly echews subtlety in favour of rhetoric, bold technique and screw everything else - but as with the best Socialist Realism, it elevates craft in the service of well-turned melody and a mastery of tension and release. Of course it isn't great music, it is much more acceptable than Western critics would have us believe. Of course it's bombastic - that's the point. Do we decry Tiomkin or Steiner's film music for bombast? We do not. Is anything by Minkus memorable? Who actually wrote the score to Giselle? How many people know?

Of course they weren't communists, and therefore don't receive the usual critical innuendoes. It's probably naive to assume that Khachaturian's blastingly virtuosic, look-at-me-ma score and its freakish energy and gongs and sweeping harp glissandi was anything but paradigmatical of contemporary Soviet propaganda (you might not able to buy bathplugs, but listen to what the USSR can create!). But boy, does it do its job. It leaves anyone with even half a heart emotionally drained. It shines like Sputnik's steel - it has the relentless athleticism of the contemporary great Soviet distance trackmen, Kuts and Bolotnikov.

Of course it's kitsch - as if Hollywood's pecs and brass fanfares weren't coincident American posturing. The chariot race in Ben Hur and the multiple entrances of the (naturally)-red-clad Spartacus are spiritually one. Of course I prefer the latter - Grigorovitch's spectacular conjuring of Spartacus at the end of Act One as the slaves unite and the orchestra breaks out in blazing brass triplets - a moment that brings audible yells of delight from the Bolshoi faithful - and the famous death scene with the thicket of spears are unforgettable. Pure entertainment. That's all.

Both the Hollywood movie and Khachaturian's ballet got up and said 'I'm Spartacus' on behalf of their respective cultures.

Note to lovers of Socialist Realist musical OTT-ness ; Kha's 3rd.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog: not sure if I deserve the falttery of writing "the best piece ever written about Spartacus", but thanks anyway. Still beg to differ on the score and the third symphony. As far as the Spartacus score is concerned, it should be compared with the synopsis of the original Jacobsen (alas all that is left of the first production) as its subtelties and references disappear to a large extent in Grigorovich's much shorter version.

Glad that you like the third - have you tried any of the rest of his work. You may be surprised at how dark his later works are, mostly chamber pieces for violin. 'cello etc.

Charlotte Kasner