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Contentions

Stalin’s Music Master

Press reports recently announced the death, at age 94, of Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). For four decades, Khrennikov headed the Union of Soviet Composers and advanced his own career, while terrorizing musicians like Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. In 1949, Khrennikov scorned Prokofiev for creating works that “smell of the marazm (decay) of bourgeois culture” and failing to draw the “necessary conclusions from the decree of the Central Committee.” Khrennikov expected musicians to “reorganize” themselves and “rebuild their work” to suit Stalinist requirements; he also dismissed Shostakovich as “frantically gloomy and neurotic,” and persecuted recent modern masters, like Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, by denying them teaching jobs, performances, and travel permits.

Yet Khrennikov’s own music is still feted with annual festival concerts in Moscow. In 1995, the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002), who recorded many of Khrennikov’s pieces (including his drab, plodding Violin Concerto), was asked by Le Monde de la Musique if he performed Khrennikov’s music “for artistic or political reasons.” Svetlanov candidly replied: “Both.” The star baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b. 1962) included on his recent CD of Russian songs for Delos Khrennikov’s syrupy Moscow Windows.

Why should Russian performers and CD companies continue to perform and record Khrennikov so adamantly? One answer may lie in the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a big Khrennikov fan; Putin arranged for Khrennikov to receive UNESCO’s Mozart Medal “for contribution to world peace through music and the arts” (ha!) on his 90th birthday in 2003. This award was bestowed years after UNESCO supposedly had reformed, after long and harsh criticism for its service as a blatant platform for Communist propaganda.

Khrennikov outlived the composers he tormented, and even appeared in several documentary films—such as 1997’s Shostakovich Against Stalin and Khachaturian: A Musician and His Fatherland—trying to justify his own actions. In Shostakovich Against Stalin, Khrennikov claims that the fear under which Shostakovich lived in the USSR “has been terribly exaggerated. There was nothing for him to be afraid of.” To which another persecuted interviewee replies: “The wolf cannot speak about the fear of the sheep.” In the gospel of Matthew, the Lord divides the “sheep from the goats.” Posterity already knows to which category Khrennikov belongs.


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