Composer Rodion Shchedrin in Conversation with Michael Cookson, April 2014

April 26, 2014

  Composer Rodion Shchedrin in conversation with Michael Cookson, April 2014

Rodion Shchedrin

Rodion Shchedrin

It’s not often one gets to meet one of the most renowned composers in the world who is also a former concert pianist and has lived for many years in both Soviet Russia and Western Europe, gaining tributes from both political systems. Earlier this month I met the Moscow born composer Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) at his Munich apartment where he has for a number of years divided his time between the Bavarian capital and Moscow.

Since 1958 Rodion has been married to the Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya widely recognised as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. In 1960 Maya became prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre working for the company for forty-six years during the Soviet era. Inspired by his wife’s remarkable success on the ballet stage Rodion has written five ballets, including the Carmen Suite,all of which were premiered by the Bolshoi.

Few composers from Rodion’s generation have been awarded as many honours including the USSR State Prize, the State Prize of the Russian Federation and served as chairman of the Composers’ Association of the Russian Federation. Rodion mentioned with pride his election to membership of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts who have their headquarters at the Königsbau of the Munich Residenz close to his home. Shchedrin spoke keenly of this award which I guess marks his recognition in Munich civic and academic circles. Prestigious commissions keep on coming with the year 2013 seeing the world premiere of Rodion’s opera Levsha (The Lefthander) a Mariinsky Theatre commission for the inauguration of the new stage at the Mariinsky II. At Maestro Gergiev’s suggestion the Chamber Music Hall at the new Mariinsky Theatre (Mariinsky II) will be named the Shchedrin Hall in the composer’s honour.

It would be unfair to judge Rodion solely on his world famous arrangement of the music from Bizet’s opera Carmen into his ballet the Carmen Suite for strings and percussion. There is so much more to this greatly talented composer than a mere single work. The work list Rodion gave me from his publisher Schott demonstrates his broad scope. To single out just four more works that have received acclaim there is the a-cappella sacred choral work The Sealed Angel a masterwork of the genre, the melodic 3 act ballet Anna Karenina, the wonderful high jinks of the First Concerto for Orchestra Naughty Limericks’ and also his controversial three act opera Dead Souls praised as a great twentieth century work. In decades to come I believe it will be the wonderful operas that will establish Shchedrin’s greatness.

Blessed with a warm engaging smile Rodion welcomed us into his attractive city centre apartment and seemed eager to get down to the business in hand. Shchedrin has lived in Munich for over twenty years and his German will clearly be excellent. I have seen a YouTube interview with Rodion using English but he has not lived in an English speaking country and I did wonder if there may have been communication problems. With me was Monika Henschel, a member of the renowned Munich based Henschel String Quartet, who has a keen interest in Rodion’s music. A native German speaker who has exceptional English Monika might have proved invaluable to assist with any language difficulties. I needn’t have worried, Rodion’s English although having a heavy Russian accent, is admirable. Seeming a touch nervous Rodion repetitively tapped his finger on the glass table we were gathered around as if beating time. An innately positive person it wasn’t long before Rodion’s alert intelligence became evident and I was struck by the gratitude he expressed for the good fortune he has experienced in life.

Michel Cookson: Mariss Jansons, who you know well, says that you “have a tremendous ear for the orchestra. Knowing the potential of each instrument so well”. Where did this aptitude come from? How much of it was learned and how much is instinctive?

Rodion Shchedrin: I think for me composition is mostly instinctive, yeah, mostly. In my youth as a student at the Moscow Conservatoire and the Moscow Choral School we were totally poor as this was the end of the Second World War. I had at the music school some friends who studied simultaneously with me and who played all different instruments like double bass, percussion, clarinet, trumpet and we played together regularly. One friend, a trumpeter at the school, said to me, “Oh tomorrow I have this rendezvous with this beautiful girl. Ccould you take my place on the trumpet in the small orchestra?”  “Ok, I will do it as a favour for you.” I couldn’t really play the trumpet but I said just explain it to me primitively and I will try my best. At that time I liked to try out all the orchestral instruments occasionally, so we earned some money and at the same time it was for me a good schooling. Professionally I played the piano finishing Moscow Conservatoire as a pianist and a composer at the same time. Alexandrovich Shaporin was my composition teacher and my piano teacher there was the great Yakov Flier, if you know his name? [MC: Yes I’ve heard the name] He was one of the greatest pianists and he is mentioned in my autobiography. Flier was exactly the same level as Emil Gilels. Because in the piano competition in Vienna, Flier won first prize and Gilels came second. Then in the next completion in Brussels, Gilels came first and Flier came second and so it went on. Yes Flier and Gilels were absolutely at the same level. Then Flier developed a problem with his finger and could not play any more on the concert stage. It was a great opportunity for me to study with him. Flier was a great person, a great musician and a great pianist.

Shchedrin, from private collection

Shchedrin, from private collection

MC: Gilels is extremely well known in music circles today but sadly not Yakov Flier.

RS: In Russian circles Flier was very famous. You see there were two teams of supporters, one for Flier and one also for Gilels. Later Sviatoslav Richter came on the scene, but opinion was divided on both sides. In my youth at the Moscow Choral School where I was sent, I was there 24 hours a day and slept in the dormitory with friends because my father was in the war. We studied not only piano, of course but also choir every day, and the violin with lessons I think twice a week. This was compulsory for everybody without exception. I think it was a really good musical education. Now everybody studies music really straight – which I think is not good in my opinion.

MC: You write in all areas: orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral, ballet and opera. I was wondering if you have a favourite area of composition?

RS: As a professional composer whatever field you are working in at a particular time is the one that is particularly important you. I’ve written six operas, five ballets, three symphonies, six piano concertos, a lot of solo piano music, choral music and so on. [MC: Do you have a preference?] Oh, it’s difficult to say which I like the best really. I never think about that. At this moment for example I am working on instrumental music. Professional composers have to work at everything just like Haydn and Mozart did and like Beethoven did with his Fidelio, nine symphonies, violin concerto, five piano concertos, everything. But the great exception was Chopin who writes only for the piano except of course his Cello Sonata but this is accompanied by a piano. By the way the premiere of Chopin’s First Piano Concerto took place here in Munich. Do you know that? It was at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Oh, it’s about 300m from here. Just opposite there was the premiere of Mozart’s opera Idomeneo at the Cuvilliés Theatre. [Rodion stands up animatedly pointing out the direction of the buildings.]

MC: If the number of discs in my CD collection reflects my best loved composers they are in this order: Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. I was wondering which composers you most admire and why?

Rodion Shchedrin, from private collection

Rodion Shchedrin, from private collection

RS: It’s not quite the same as your question but I’ll tell you a story. It took place in Armenia in the year 1964. My wife and I spent one summer there together with Shostakovich and his wife. It was an unforgettable time for us all. There he asked me something like you just asked but slightly different. He said suppose the Government was to send you to an uninhabited island but because you are a musician they are so nice that they are allowing you to take just a single score with you that you can keep for the rest of your life. I give you just ten seconds to make your choice. I immediately said Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue). Then I said to Shostakovich and now it’s your turn, what score would you take to this desert island and he quickly says I would take Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). With my choice I thought at the end of Bach’s life it was so interesting of him to combine all aspects of his music. Nobody knows which instrument he wrote the work for and he didn’t manage to finish it. Someone else wrote an ending which I think is stupid, totally stupid. It’s much better for a performer to play and stop and say the master has died. It’s much more appropriate. That’s not the end of the story. You see Shostakovich knew me from being just nine years old. Two months before Shostakovich died I went to visit him in his dacha ‘Zhukovka’ just outside Moscow. By now he was very, very sick with cancer of his lungs from which he would die at the hospital. In the dacha I was able to ask him if he remembered the question he had asked me during that time in Armenia. He said yeah, yeah he remembered. He asked me if I had changed my opinion? I said no, it’s still Bach. I said and you, have you changed your mind? He said no it’s still Mahler. So between 1964 and 1975 our choices were still the same.

MC: It’s a great story… Have you ever heard a work by another composer that is so excellent that you wish you had written it?

RS: Ah, for listening for me it is different from composing. For myself I like to play Mozart, sometimes Tchaikovsky and Mahler, sometimes Shostakovich, Wagner and so on. But as a professional composer, I earn money from this profession, so as a composer it is Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. Itis so interesting because you can discover something very important for you, not just information, not just enjoyment for the ears but for the soul, for a relationship with God. I think it was Bach’s confession. I like this work, I adore this work, it’s like philosophy of life, it’s unbelievable and it’s unfinished too. His son wrote on the end of the score ‘the composer has died’.

MC: Do you think that 12-tone music as written by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern served any meaningful purpose? No one seems to want it much these days.

RS: I think 12-tone music was a very important moment in the history of music. It’s something like what we call in Russia ‘strong-style’  – like the early music of Palestrina, Di Lasso, Josquin des Prez. In my time at the Conservatoire everyone studied early music which has very strong rules, very strong. I think 12-tone music is something very similar but chromatic. This shows good discipline, good control of a composer’s musical material. I think that in a Conservatoire it would be good for young composers to study and practice this technique and to get to know it. It’s an important forty-or-so year period of music because Shostakovich used this system and Stravinsky too. Not only Schoenberg, Webern and Berg; I have used it in my way too. It was an important time in music but not necessarily for listeners. Some of this music like Berg’s Violin Concerto is great work. [MC: Yes, it’s probably the most played 12-tone work.] I think it was just one chapter in music history and if you want to be a professional composer you have to know this chapter. It was a very important time with people going crazy with this technique.

MC: The Second Viennese School was certainly a controversial time in music. Although it started around a hundred years ago music of this type is still difficult for listeners today.

RS: I agree with you. Audiences do not come to concerts to hear this music apart from maybe one or two small works by Webern. It is important to study these techniques and I have played some of Schoenberg’s piano pieces a little, not on the stage, but for myself and my students to study the technique.

MC: Now a change of subject. During your time living and working in the Soviet Union just how difficult were the restrictions placed on you?

RS: This is not an easy question because more and more we are looking back to those times from an increasing number of years. Now we are sitting in the centre of Munich and we can go anywhere it is possible to go –  anywhere we wish. It was some 25 years ago I participated here in Munich at a fantastic piano festival the Münchner Klaviersommer. At that time I was never a member of the Communist party, never and neither was my wife. I have objectively to say that for me the most important thing for me is geographical freedom which is fantastic. If I have the friends and the money then I can go anywhere tomorrow –  to Amsterdam or somewhere. Now everything is possible but then it was impossible totally impossible. Yet at that time we had a great sponsor for classical music for orchestras and for composers which was the State, the Soviet State. Just like for the film industry the sponsor was the State. Now the film directors moan, ooh, ooh,I need a sponsor! I have a great idea, help me, help me! It’s the same with young composers now, it’s not easy for them. People need sponsors/backers for everything. For example orchestras need sponsors for all their running costs, wages for players and administration, rental of concert hall, ticket sellers and checkers and so on. Now nothing comes from the State, you have to find private sponsors for everything. Now a private sponsor will say, ok, you want to write an opera and they will want to know which subject you are using, how many singers you will need and the type of staging you are planning, and many, many other questions. But in those days back in Soviet Russia we were very privileged to have everything that we needed provided. In Russia today young composers have intellectual and spiritual freedom and can do anything they want. At the push of a button by using the internet it is possible to read what you want or hear as many types of music as you want. At that time in Soviet Russia it was all closed. The atmosphere was not like in Stalin’s era but later the freedom started to come from the top in waves, sometimes strong waves, sometimes less strong waves. In actual fact Perestroika was only very gradual for people living in Russia.

MC: How was it adapting to the freedom of living in Germany, in Munich?

RS: Of course it was a problem at first for my mentality having this freedom. But it was by a lucky chance that I had the opportunity to participate here in a great piano competition the Münchener Klaviersommer, even playing some of my own music – which was really fantastic. Such a wide range of piano music was played  – classical music even jazz, improvisation and so on. At that point I fell in love with Munich as it is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe in my opinion. The city is not too big and not too small either, it’s so green with cool, fresh air. Important for me is it’s one of the most important music centres in the world. Three great orchestras with wonderful conductors; it’s unbelievable for music. I think London is not as rich as Munich for orchestra standard, and from next year Gergiev is moving from the LSO to the Munich Philharmonic. And also there is the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra with conductor Mariss Jansons. Without any doubt Munich is a great city for orchestras. But my decision to come to Munich is a long story. I just didn’t decide to come to Munich. I had lots of friends in Munich and a number of musicians that all helped me; they were all German people too. Munich was a special place for me back then much more than it is now. Back in 1976 I was elected member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste (Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts) an important organisation of which I am very proud. On my election the president said I was the third great Russian composer in the twentieth century after Stravinsky and Shostakovich. It also gave me the possibility for a visa with permission to be in Munich. It was a lucky chance. I think everyone deserves a chance in life.

MC: Of the current crop of contemporary composers who do you consider most worthy of attention?

RS: It depends what you mean by modern composers? If we are including those composers who have died in recent decades, well I became a friend of Luciano Berio whose music I admire. Luciano was very positive towards my work and I was interested in his compositions too. But it is impossible for me to say which composer is better than this one or that one. It is very difficult to answer. There are some younger composers whose music speaks to me but it is not so easy for me to be specific. For example, the great writer Leo Tolstoy who wrote ‘War and Peace’ was asked about modern literature, that would have been over a century ago, and his reply was “When I write I am working for eternity not just for today”. I feel it is the same principle for composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. In this art of composing music, I am a ‘modern’ composer but not just a composer of ‘modern’ music, I think it can be a negative term.

MC: If you were having one of your works performed, out of all the conductors and orchestras you have worked with, which would you want to perform it?

RS: I have been very lucky throughout my life and have had some really great conductors perform my works: names such as Bernstein, Maazel, Leinsdorf, Gergiev, Jansons, and in Russia Svetlanov and Temirkanov. Many commissions come from orchestras and these conductors are their music directors. I have had some commissions from Maazel who was chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and also of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Leonard Bernstein too commissioned me when he was with the New York Philharmonic and Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg. I think they are all really great conductors. Maris Jansons is currently chief conductor of two great orchestras-  the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I recently I wrote for them ‘Beethoven’s Heiligenstädter Testament’ commissioned by Mariss Jansons and for the premiere I knew he would be conducting his orchestra here in Munich. My latest work the opera Levsha (The Lefthander) was a commission by Gergiev at the Mariinsky. Again I knew Gergiev would be conducting the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and we have all worked together before which helps.

MC: So you knew the music was in safe hands?

RS Oh yes! In very safe hands! But I don’t say, “Oh, I want the New York Philharmonic to play my works,” you see. Now I have no real connection with them as I had like before when Maazel and Lenny Bernstein were music directors there. My connections now are more with the European orchestras. I must say how fortunate I have been in my life to have such wonderful orchestras and conductors performing my works.

MC: Munich has such a rich music life. I was wondering if you like to attend concerts and opera?

RS: Yes I do like to attend regularly but not every week. You see I’m not always in Munich but if I’m here and it looks like an interesting concert or opera I will try to attend. For the last 3 weeks or so we have been to several concerts just for pleasure. Recently we have seen the Russian National Orchestra. A few days ago Maazel and the Munich Philharmonic played a Richard Strauss programme that included Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Ax playing the Burlesque. I find Maazel’s forthcoming concert at the Philharmonie interesting because I like Strauss’s orchestral lieder and they have a fine singer in Anja Harteros. Maazel is giving three concerts of the programme at the Philharmonie but I won’t go on the Sunday because football is also being played. With regard to the opera I last went to see Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Bavarian State Opera with Kirill Petrenko. Petrenko is a Russian conductor and I know him; he is now music director of the opera.

MC: Out of all your compositions, of which are you the most proud?

RS: Well I would say my last opera Levsha (The Lefthander). It was a commission by Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre for the recently inaugurated stage of the new Mariinsky-II. It has been recorded but it’s not been released yet. It had a great cast and of course the Mariinsky Theatre company has an incredibly high level of performance. I thought it was an exceptional production that really exploited the possibilities of the new Mariinsky stage. It was premiered in June last year and I think up to now it has had 10 performances, all of which were sold out which for today is a big thing. You might be interested to know that Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera company will give its British premiere at the Barbican, London in November.

MC: If I can I’ll try to attend at the Barbican. It should be a great event… Now I’m wondering if you can tell me about your current music projects?

RS: Currently I’m working on one or two projects but really it’s hard for me to discuss them here today. Maybe it will be a boy or maybe it will be a girl, nobody yet knows!

MC: So you are fully occupied with compositions?

RS: Oh yes, fully occupied.

MC: In a few days back in England I’m attending a Manchester Camerata performance of your Carmen Suite. It remains so extremely popular and I’m curious to know if it would bother you to be known exclusively for your Carmen Suite?

RS: I couldn’t say I was the most proud of this work. Each score has its own fate; a very unpredictable fate. You see at the time of writing my Carmen Suite I never thought it would be performed anywhere and there have been other works that I believed or dreamt would be great successes yet that was not so. But I believe composers have great possibilities with their music. For example Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 Unfinished ’ was forty-two years or so before it was first performed. Suddenly life can come into a score. It’s really something when that happens. There is always the chance, the possibility that recognition for a work will come later after the composer’s death. Yes there is always the chance for future success. Like J.S. Bach who was completely forgotten until Mendelssohn performed his Saint Matthew Passion. There are many similar examples in the history of music. Of course my Carmen Suite has been good to me and I’m extremely happy about that.

MC: Just to move away from the subject of music for a while. I was wondering what interests you have when you are not composing?

RS: Well Michael I’m usually so very busy with my work. But you might be surprised at what I like to do. [At this point Rodion goes into another room and soon returns with a photograph.] Here I am on a lake waterskiing but I’m getting a little old for this activity now. Fishing is something that I like to do to when I have the time. But here in Germany first you have to take a fishing course and then sit an examination to obtain a fishing licence to be able to fish. Things are very thorough here. But there are all these temptations around me here in Munich. We also sometimes go to the Allianz Arena to watch Bayern Munich play football. [MC: I had guessed this as I had seen some Bayern Munich flags in a corner of an adjoining room.] With Moscow Dynamo it is not the same there now with so few Russian players in the team.  It’s so full of players from all nations. It doesn’t feel very Russian now, not as I knew it.

MC: If you could change anything in your life, both on a musical and on a personal level, what would it be?

RS: No, I would not change anything. I think God sent me in the right direction. I’m happy with my wife and we have a good relationship together. I’m pleased to have good friends too, although I am at an age when many of them have passed away. I would like a little more life to live but of course I realise that a second life is not possible. [MC: No regrets then?] No regrets. Not even during the Soviet time in Russia. Thankfully I was not put in a prison cell or anything like that. Like everyone else we had difficulties with the Soviet authorities but that was mostly my wife who had really big problems. Before perestroika we were never allowed to perform outside the country simultaneously. When my wife Maya was abroad I was at home. When I was aboard then she was at home. That’s how it was. But after perestroika we could come and go. I remember Maya went to work in Madrid with the Rome National Ballet company, and ooh, it was so fantastic. It only happened once in Soviet time that we were away together. That was in France and the French Communist party had to guarantee that we would return back to Russia together. Now it has all changed and sometimes I have to pinch myself when I remember what has happened. It all seems so unbelievable now.

Michael Cookson

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