1948…the year when the world almost lost three of 20th century’s greatest composers to the power-hungry wrath of politics. The entire Soviet Union watched as Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian, and Dmitri Shostakovich one by one made their way to the platform and apologized to the people for producing corrupt and abominable music that contaminated the goodness of humanity. They had just been condemned by the Communist government for the “formalism” characteristic of their works. The punishment was brutal humiliation. Perhaps none was affected more profoundly than Khachaturian, who later said of the event: “Those were tragic days for me… I was clouted on the head so unjustly. My repenting speech…was insincere. I was crushed, destroyed. I seriously considered changing professions.”
This was, of course, not the first incidence of political censorship in the history of music. It happened to Mozart at the height of the French Revolution. And it happened to Verdi when Italy was under Austrian rule near the middle of the 19th century. The reality is that politics has been, and always will be, exerting a massive influence on how art should be conducted. But what is inspiring is that the Soviet trio, like many composers before and after them, found the courage to defy their superiors. Their creativity knew no bounds, and they persisted in their conviction that music cannot be limited by the social environment around them. Several decades after their deaths, while most of their persecutors have faded from popular history, they are still renowned as three of the world’s greatest composers, who really brought classical music into the Modernism of 20th century. Their crafty innovations allowed them to infuse into their music a sense of genuine humour that none had previously managed to achieve. It was as if they were constantly looking for a way to poke fun at the ridiculous struggle for power which was all that politicians cared about. With the coming of April Fool’s Day, I would like to share three of their famous concerti which exemplify this style so brilliantly, and hopefully we can all get a laugh out of them.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was known as the “naughty boy of Russian music”. This was originally presented to him as an insult, but as the years passed by the title came to truly represent the extent of his genius. Prokofiev deviated drastically from the traditions laid down by his predecessors Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, choosing instead to experiment with lawless harmonies and unusual, boisterous sounds. He was born in Russia, but escaped to America in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. The Americans unfortunately were not receptive of his pioneering musical style, causing him to leave and eventually return to Russia (now Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule) in 1936. Although the American years did not further Prokofiev’s career much, it did provide him a politically stable environment to write his Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921). Had the work been composed in the Soviet Union, it probably would not had lasted long before ending up in the ash pile. The reason is obvious: the piece contains lush, arching melodies so typical of the style of Western Europe, at least in the beginning. But even after listening to the first movement, one can tell that the music is that of Prokofiev, not Ravel or MacDowell. Following the romantic melody in clarinet and strings which opens the movement, the naughty boy suddenly comes in and torments us with every sort of cruel joke unimaginable. Just when we’ve about had it, the music dies down, and we are relieved that he is taking a nap. Our peace and quiet doesn’t last long however. After only two minutes, he wakes back up, but in his mad rampage of mischief…trips and falls! That doesn’t stop him though; he just won’t give up. But after limping in vain for a little while, he finally decides to take off and call it a day.
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26: 1st movement
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) was born and raised in the city of Tbilisi in what is present-day Armenia. Tbilisi was a center of touring musicians from many different countries, and for Khachaturian, early exposure to such a multicultural musical environment exerted a major influence on the rest of his compositional career. Although as a student he worshipped Prokofiev like a god, their musical styles differed immensely from each other. Unlike the open, carefree wit that characterizes Prokofiev’s music, Khachaturian’s humour is much more subtle, and one needs to “listen between the notes” to fully appreciate it. Not surprisingly however, one of the humorous elements of Khachaturian’s music is his relentless incorporation of styles from other cultures, to an extent that one may wonder if there is any nationalism present. For example, in the first movement of his majestic, one and only Piano Concerto (1936), we initially hear powerful, bashing chords resembling the Romantic passions of 19th century Russian concerti. But listen to the harmonic sound: it does not sound Russian! In fact, we really don’t know what to make out of it; it is like a mix of Egytian and Middle Eastern. After the thunderous opening melodies, we are transported to the markets of Oriental Asia, where we are (for some reason) entertained with a sneaky oboe tune that is strikingly reminiscent of…snake charmers? While Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto has been long established as a masterpiece, it is definitely easy to lose oneself amidst the hustle and bustle of its multi-nationalism. You may be thinking this to yourself as you are listening: “Just what the @#*! am I listening to?!?!?!”
Piano Concerto: 1st movement
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) reportedly possessed a passive personality. In fact, his wife described him as someone who could not say “no” to anything. Whether this directly influenced his musical style is not clear, but we clearly see within his music a nature of being irresolute and easily swayed. However, instead of the cultural mosaicism that we hear in Khachaturian, here we must deal with harmonic, rhythmic, and structural unpredictability. This musical instability was almost certainly one of the causes of his reprimand by the Communist government, since it might had been interpreted as symbolizing instability of the State. Such trait is also what makes Shostakovich’s music so funny, perhaps even more so than that of Prokofiev or Khachaturian. Listen to the final (third and fourth) movements of his Concerto for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra (1933). Here, the music literally goes everywhere. Aside from the observation that there is seemingly little pattern whatsoever, the work also features sarcastic passages, a rude interruption of the trumpet by the piano, and quotations from the music of Haydn and Beethoven, which Shostakovich totally trashed. And yet miraculously, despite this extreme state of chaos he managed to put it all together.
Concerto in C minor for Piano , Trumpet, and String Orchestra, Op. 35: 3rd and 4th movements
With the death of Stalin in 1953, political restraints on artistic expression were significantly loosened. Prokofiev, the most senior of the Soviet trio, was not granted the opportunity to enjoy such freedom unfortunately, as he died in the same year (and coincidentially, on the same day) as the Soviet leader. Khachaturian and Shostakovich lived on for another two decades, in which they continued to change the world of classical music through their inextinguishable defiance and creativity. Today the Soviet trio is best known for the revolutionary and ironic sounds which define their music. But perhaps the greatest irony is that in such times of heavy oppression, humour was able to survive.