Monday, October 02, 2006

Keys to the Revolution - The Music of Russian Futurism

The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 is highlighted in a Europalia piano recital in Brussels this week. Paul Stump reports

Russia's Futurist enfant terrible, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, called for pianos to be smashed in the street as the postlude to the Bolshevik Revolution. Hardly surprising; as the young Russian pianist Olga Andryushenko will show in Brussels' most exciting chamber recital in years, Russian music of the first quarter of last century was as exorbitantly radical and fissiparous as any other cultural and social strand of life. No pianos will be destroyed; but plenty of preconceptions about the course of 20th century musical history might be.

The maverick composer Arthur Lourié (1892-1966), whose work Andryushenko features, wrote of the desperate post-Revolutionary Civil War years of 1918-20 that "people devoured music as they would have devoured bread" and as such it became a fascinating social and cultural battleground.

From 1903 the monumental Russian pianistic tradition had been dislocated by the insane genius Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), who at his death was composing a week-long Mysterium to be staged in the Himalayas intended to bring about the end of the material world. His music had become more and more centred around a new harmonic system apparently deriving from the theosophical occult; hyper-aesthete Scriabin blended unexampled virtuosity with pearly mystical panaceas in which music became a vessel from, to and of the beyond. The neurasthenic musical children of Russia's Silver Age of aristocratic and leftfield symbolism, emboldened by such fantastic visions, unleashed their own creativity. Composers like Nikolai Roslavetz (1881-1944) and Leonid Sabaneyev (1885-1951) invented entirely new harmonic systems, in which the arcana of atonality and tone-rows created a chaotic marriage of Scriabin's ecstatic visions and Schoenberg's contemporary Viennese intellectualism. Roslavetz's outlandish and breathtakingly beautiful Preludes of 1920, perfect examples of this, are on Andryushenko's menu.

Lourié's Formes dans l'air betray an even greater tension between past and future. They are as dreamlike and insubstantively impressionistic as any piano music ever written. A born rebel, Lourie, like many of his contemporaries, loved the languid transgressiveness of French dandyism, and as such threw in his lot with the iconoclastic Bolsheviks in 1917. But Lourié, despite his Marxian radicalism winning high office in the cultural organisation of the fledgling Soviet state, quickly found, as did most aesthetes, that revolution was not merely idealistic but a matter of the here and now.

For years battles raged in Soviet culture between comfortable radicals like LouriÈ and nationalistic Left Bolsheviks who deplored the "unhealthy" tendencies of modernism and Futurism which diluted proletarian class-consciousness. A horde of acronymic factions arose- RAPM, APM and the gloriously-titled PROLETKULT. Foreign influences were decried - jazz and the tango were frowned on after 1917 (Andyushenko cheekily includes the post-Revolutionary exile Stravinsky's cheap but amusing Rag Time on her programme). Even on the far left, disputes broke out as to how and what composers should compose for the good of the new society. Some chose folkloric atavism, with its echoes of male voice choirs and balalaikas, others the uncompromising modernism of Futurism and Cubism as the true mirror of progress,, where the likes of Tatlin and Malevich were glorifying the harsh and brutal geometries of the machine age. In Baku in 1918 the local Soviet arranged a "multi-media" performance of Revolutionary songs for massed bands, factory sirens, whistles and naval ordnance, coordinated by flag signals. Was the engine of revolution not the industrial proletariat, after all? Composers like Mossolov (1900-1967, most famous for his robotic tone-poem The Iron Foundry) and Deshevev responded in kind, particularly in the latter's Rails, a remorselessly motoric repudiation of the likes of Lourié; Deshevev heard the Revolution not in the perfumed beating of angels' wings but of the rhythms of mass-produced heavy metal on heavier metal.

Lenin's cultural commissar, the tireless, urbane and humane Anatoly Lunacharsky, did his best to control the warfare and even may have relished it, given that it produced one of the most radical periods in musical history. But in 1932 this struggle was stilled by the chill hand of the Party, who declared that all cultural production should henceforward serve only one purpose; enhancing the people's consciousness of the glory of the Revolution under the umbrella style of Socialist Realism. That this did not preclude compositional greatness or originality was repeatedly proven by Shostakovich and Prokofiev (Andryushenko includes the former's caustic First Piano Sonata as a kind of raspberry against the closing in of conformism) but the hothouse of early Soviet musical creation froze over. The likes of the now-emigré Lourié were regarded as impossibly effete (what would Stalin have thought of the latter's bright green velvet suit with its button-down collar?) and Futurists of Deshevev and Mossolov's stamp were, in the language of the 1932 declaration, similarly "formalist" in that their works "could not relate" to "proletarian consciousness".

Russian music's greatness - in terms of creation and interpretation - never died, even in the blackest years of Stalin's terror, but its contrary spirit was frustrated until Krushchev's post-1956 cultural thaw. Idiosyncratic composers like Schnittke and Gubaidulina resurrected it; but the febrile craziness and unreplicated creativity that accompanied the Revolution in the first place is still to find a permanent foothold in western musical life. That Ms Andryushenko has chosen to enact her musical archaeology in Brussels is something that music-lovers in the city should give thanks for.

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