Friday, January 20, 2023

I've gone Substack

I'm going to try publishing this blog on Substack; please go here to see new posts and an archive of all of my older posts. I'll have a great new interview of Gregor Tassie up soon. 

Monday, January 2, 2023

Gavriil Popov: An electronic music pioneer?

A few days ago, I purchased the above album from Presto Music (a site that has a good selection of classical music, suitable for filling in  some gaps in my collection) and I've listened to the recording several times. When I paid attention to the first piece in the suite, I thought, "Is that a theremin?"

Gavriil Popov's Symphonic Suite No. 1 dates from 1933 and was derived from film music. A theremin is an electronic instrument, dating from 1928. 

So I ran a search, and here's the answer to my question, from Laurel Fay: "Appropriately, the performance features a theremin, an electronic instrument invented in Russia in the 1920s by Lev Termen (1896-1993). In his score, Popov offset the futuristic sound of the 'electric' theremin with the 'human' voices of a soprano and tenor." And here is another article. 

The use of electronics alongside regular acoustic symphonic instruments is no longer startling; this Wikipedia piece on Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho notes, "Her work in the 1980s and 1990s was marked by an emphasis on timbre and the use of electronics alongside traditional instruments."

But Popov's piece dates to the early 1930s. Wouldn't the use of an electronic instrument in a "serious" composition back then be unusual and pioneering? Is there an earlier example? 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Review: Gregor Tassie's 'Three Apostles of Russian Music'

The Three Apostles of Russian Music: The Soviet Avant-Garde, Gregor Tassie, Lexington Books. 

I started this blog because I had discovered that I not only loved Prokofiev and Shostakovich, I also loved their lesser-known, very talented but persecuted colleagues, such as Nikolai Roslavets, Gavriil Popov and Alexander  Mosolov. I was determined to do what I could to help others discover these composers. 

Scottish musicologist Gregor Tassie must feel much the same way. His book, The Three Apostles of Russian Music: The Soviet Avant-Garde, discusses Roslavets, Popov and Mosolov, covering their most important works and providing context about their lives and work, including their 1920s and early 1930s heyday.

Tassie previously authored a biography of Nikolai Myaskovsky and of two prominent Russian musicians, the conductors Yevgeny Mravinsky and Kirill Kondashin. The biography at the back of his new book states teasingly that he's now at work on a biography about "a celebrated Russian musician." He apparently speaks fluent Russian, allowing him to quiz Russian college professors who are experts on the trio he writes about and to dig through primary source archives.

The result is a book that is heavily researched and a wonderful resource for fans of Russian avant-garde classical music of the last century. Fans of Prokofiev and Shostakovich also will learn much by finding out more about the milieu of the two best-known Russian composers.

Tassie is careful to tell the reader which of the men's works are particularly good and deserve close attention; his judgment generally seems quite sound to me (i.e., I often found myself agreeing with him.) For example, when I recently listened to a recording by the German group Trio Fontenay of Roslavets' surviving piano trio works, I noticed that I particularly liked the third trio. Tassie refers to it as an "outstanding piece."

Indeed, readers will want to pay careful attention to sentences such as this one, about Roslavets' Chamber Symphony No. 2: "In the context of symphonic works written during the 1930s, Roslavets's symphony justifiably stands with Popov's First (1934), Shostakovich's Fourth (1936), and Myaskovsky's Tenth and Seventeenth (1930)."

Many of the composers Tassie writes about were particularly edgy early in their careers but adopted a more conservative approach in their later years, and Tassie is careful to note that these changes in direction weren't solely because of pressure from the Stalinist regime. Prokofiev, for example, was already moving toward a more approachable style before he returned to live in Russia. And Shostakovich, Tassie notes, showed signs of toning down  his style even before the infamous attack in the pages of Pravda. 

While Tassie obviously admires the composers he writes about, he also points out their failings. Popov is depicted as indolent, slow to finish his work and prone to missing deadlines. Mosolov was very careless about preserving his work. And in fact, it's sad how much music has been lost or is in jeopardy. Many of the works of the three composers have been sitting in archives for years and are only known through the efforts of dedicated Russian musicologists, who are named in Tassie's "Acknowledgements."

 A careful reader will want to keep an eye not just on the text, but on the footnotes. For example, Tassie goes into considerable detail about Popov's film music, which allowed Popov to make a living when the composer got into trouble for "formalism," and at one point Tassie mentions a film director named Faintsimmer. The name meant nothing to me, but a note explains, "Alexander Mihailovich Faintsimmer (1906-1982) enjoyed a long career making his first movie in 1929 and notable for his 1934 film Lieutenant Kije with a score by Prokofiev, the suite from which became world famous."

As a kind of bonus, Tassie's final chapter discusses three more modernist Russian composers: Mikhail Matyushin, Arthur LouriĆ© and Joseph Schillinger. The conclusion also puts Russian modernism in the context of global classical music modernism and touches on Russian composers who can be seen as successors to Tassie's trio. 

The book includes a list of works for each composer and a list of recordings. Fortunately, as the trio continue to get more recordings, the list is already a bit out of date. The Popov Quartet Symphony, which Tassie apparently likes, finally got a recording. 

This is a book aimed at the academic market and is unfortunately therefore rather expensive, so that perhaps some readers may have to resort to asking their local library to acquire it. That would also make the book available for others; good for Cleveland Public Library, where I found my copy, although (full disclosure) on the strength of this blog, the publisher agreed to let me have a review copy. I really wanted one; I am sure I will be referring to Tassie's excellent book many times. 


Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Gavriil Popov's hard luck story


Film poster for She Defends the Motherland. Gavriil Popov wrote the score for the movie and recycled much of the music into his second symphony.

Is this one of the saddest stories in classical music, or one of the weirdest?

Imagine that you are best known for a very long first symphony. Except that after one performance, it was banned, and you never got to hear it again. There have been at least four recordings of your symphony -- not bad for an obscure composer -- but you never got to hear them, because they weren't made until years after your death.

I am referring to Gavriil Popov (1904-1972), one of the three Soviet composers featured in the new Gregor Tassie book, The Three Apostles of Russian Music, which I have not been so much reading as carefully devouring page by page.

I knew the outlines of the story about Popov's symphony, but Tassie fills in details. The symphony was premiered in 1935 to a "mostly hostile audience" and Popov noted in his diary that the symphony was under rehearsed and poorly performed. That was the last performance and the last time Popov got to hear an orchestra playing it. The score resurfaced a decade after Popov's death, according to Tassie.

That wasn't Popov's only bad experience. Tassie reveals that Popov had hoped to write the score for Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky movie. Of course, Prokofiev got the job instead. Popov tried to write an opera about Nevsky instead but ran into numerous obstacles and was never able to finish it. 

Tassie's book also has depressing passages about the two other composers he focuses upon, Nicolai Roslavets and Alexander Mosolov. Shostakovich and Prokofiev managed to largely survive the system, but Tassie's trio had their troubles. But they also had their successes, and Tassie writes about that, too. 

I did feel somewhat better about Popov's journey after I read the section about him on Tassie's book. The fate of his first symphony is sad, but despite the ban and the criticism he received for being a "formalist," he continued his composing career. He made a living largely by writing film scores, often recycling the film music into his symphonies and other compositions. I listened again last night to his second symphony, the "Motherland," and it's a very enjoyable potboiler. It was a comeback symphony, akin to Shostakovich's Fifth, and Popov had great success with it, which he understandably enjoyed. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

Exciting new book on Russian avant-garde composers

I read dozens of books every year. Every once in awhile, I will run across a new book title and get the odd sensation that the author has written a book just for me.

While that doesn't happen often, it has just happened to me again. The Three Apostles of Russian Music by Gregor Tassie is not, as you might guess from the title, about Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Myaskovsky. It is in fact about three composers I focus upon at this blog: Nicolai Roslavets, Gavriil Popov and Alexander Mosolov.

I have only had time so far to read the Introduction and the first chapter of the library copy I managed to get my hands upon, but I can already report that the book is the product of immense research and that Tassie really knows his subject (he knows Russian fluently, he's in touch with all of the top Russian scholars of the three composers, he got help from staff at museums and institutes in Moscow and St. Petersburg, etc. etc. 

This is the sort of book in which even the footnotes require careful study. Here is footnote No. 40, which points me to some Myaskovsky works to try: "Myaskovsky's Tenth, Eleventh, Thirteenth symphonies, and Fourth String Quartet did experiment with serialism -- author." 

Friday, November 4, 2022

Larry Sitsky's Russian Futurism book and music recordings

Larry Sitsky is a prominent Australian composer; the guy who does the myaskofiev 2 Twitter account, Melvyn Madigan, tells me Sitsky is well known as a composer in Australia, although perhaps most respected as an academic, writer and pianist. He's also Australia's most commissioned composer, Madigan tells me. 

Sitsky has tried to promote the music I write about  here in two different ways.

His book, Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929, covers the music I write about in this blog. It is written for musicologists, but I was able to understand parts of it, such as Sitsky's contention that Alexander Mosolov's piano sonatas are just as good as Prokofiev's. It's a pretty expensive book, unfortunately, and I can't afford it. 

Sitsky also has recorded an album, Russian Rarities, which has almost four hours of piano music. The composers featured on the album are Vladimir Deshevov, Arthur Lourie, Alexander Mosolov, Nicolai Obukhov, Leonid Polovinkin, Vladimir Rebikov, Nikolai Roslavets, Anton Rubinstein and Vladimir Scherbakov. 

Sitsky's notes on the album are available online. He writes, "Were it not for the eventual Stalinist suppression, the group of composers represented on these CDs could well have led and surpassed their European counterparts in their sheer audacity and exuberance." If you stream the album, you can download the digital booklet. 

Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Roslavets album that makes me both happy and sad


I was happy to find this album of Nicolai Roslavets' second, third and fourth piano trios by the German group Trio Fontenay.  I've enjoyed the album, available on Hoopla Digital. I particularly liked the third trio. 

I was curious why the trio had chosen those trios of Roslavets. Well, it turns out that they are the only ones that could be recorded -- the first and fifth piano trios are lost, according to the list of Roslavets' works on Wikipedia. 

This sort of sad discovery is not unknown for the composers I am interested in. Alexander Mosolov wrote five piano sonatas, and I've listened to four of them again and again, but the third has been lost. 

I've gone Substack

I'm going to try publishing this blog on Substack; please go here to see new posts and an archive of all of my older posts. I'll h...