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Notes interdites: scènes de la vie musicale en Russie soviétique (review)

From: Notes
Volume 65, Number 3, March 2009
pp. 567-570 | 10.1353/not.0.0110

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WARNING: Viewers may fall in love with a central figure from the first film and the subject of the second film: conductor Gennady Rozhdenstvensky. I certainly did while watching him in this video describe Stalinist repressions and musical conditions, but mostly I loved his playfulness when he conducted and the sincerity he expressed when talking about conducting or when watching the video of himself conduct Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet. He was deeply moved by the love theme and moments later commented on instrumental balances and tempi.

This DVD contains two films plus "DVD extras" which presents complete performances of Rozhdenstvensky's "tragico-burlesque suite" arrangement of Dead Souls (a film score by Alfred Schnittke) and Zdravitsa (a choral cantata for Joseph Stalin's sixtieth birthday by Sergey Pro kofiev). Scene V from the film score has comic scenes with two metronomes ticking at different speeds and Rozhdenstvensky plays "against" his wife pianist Viktoria Postni kova to the delight of the audience.

The first film, Notes interdites, which translated literally would be Forbidden Notes, is here entitled Red Baton; Scenes of Musical Life in Stalinist Russia. It projects images of soldiers, farm workers, school children, concert audiences, railroad cars, industrial activities, marching revolutionary crowds, parades, futuristic experimentation, and a "madness" scene from a slapstick film episode shown to illustrate the "madness" of censoring Dmitry Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony.

Narration and interviews provide descriptions of the repressions which composers and performers experienced during the Stalinist period. Stalin is first seen as a waxen figure, later smiling and waving at the adoring crowd; at one point he mimics beating time like a conductor.

Rozhdenstvensky begins the film by describing the repression and censorship which Russian musicians experienced during Stalinist times and even afterward. Later conductor and violist Rudolf Barchai explains how they experienced the "edification of communist ideals." Music must express joy not sadness. After the 1948 decree banning dissonance, conservatory students were seen frantically erasing seconds and sevenths from their compositions.

Performers were well-supported by the state and won many international prizes. Even though some compositions were acclaimed abroad, they were not allowed to be played in Russia. Regarding one of the bans, Prokofiev defined "formalism in music" as "All music that one does not understand on first hearing." Composers who left Russia were encouraged to return or to visit. Prokofiev was promised many things when he returned from his Paris exile in 1937 and Stravinsky was invited to visit in 1962. Both met with criticism after they arrived.

By 1937 international travel was restricted. Sviatoslav Richter was not allowed to tour, even though he was one of the best pianists in the world and would bring fame and money to Russia (artists were not allowed to profit from tours), he was considered a risk because of his family history. Postnikova describes how a performer could be pulled off a plane ready for departure because of suspected transgressions.

Rozhdenstvensky explains the "10% rule" which required any traveling ensemble to cut 10 percent of their touring members; tours had to plan for replacements. Fifteen days before departure he received the list which included cuts for nine woodwinds and three strings; he went to a KGB official to explain the makeup of an orchestra so they agreed to cut more strings and no woodwinds; on the next trip—another list of cuts still included woodwinds.

Musical performance clips feature David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, Richter, Postnikova, Igor Stravinsky, and Prokofiev playing or conducting. Two unique clips are of piano playing—one is a young Shosta kovich (1931) playing his Les monts d'or with a dance band orchestra (never looking up, he appears to be shy or sad and uncomfortable) and the other is Tikhon Khrennikov playing and singing his Aliochka song. Khrennikov was the head of the Union of Soviet Composers, 1948–92. In a 1994 interview video clip Khrennikov denies being political: "politics not my business" but Rozhdestvensky recalls him as a virulent prosecutor. To perform Schnittke's First Symphony they needed permission from Khrennikov who replied "how can I authorize what I have never prohibited?" His role in Russian music is being reevaluated.

In one video clip, Shostakovich, as the...



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