A few days before traveling to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1984, I had a vivid dream: I was standing in the vast forecourt of a preposterous Stalinist wedding-cake skyscraper that I knew to be the main building of the University of Moscow. The sky above and behind was dark with the threat of thunder, and the grotesquely menacing edifice, glowing a weird gray like a lead roof at dusk, lowered over me as though in a moment to engulf me.
When, a short time later, I found myself living and studying in, and walking the dusty, metalled streets of Moscow, and actually saw that gigantic university building, I was astonished at how precisely it resembled what I had seen in my prophetic dream. The explanation, I now see, must in reality have been quite simple: I suppose I’d previously seen a photograph of it in some book or other, and that that image had lodged itself in my mind. But I have no memory of having seen any such photograph before, and so the dream seems still — even now — to me to possess a certain supernatural quality.
Or, as the great 19th-century poet Tyutchev put it, in a hackneyed phrase beloved of generations of the Russian intelligentsia (and also of that intelligentsia’s more sentimental Western fellow travelers, among whom I enthusiastically count myself):
Умом Россию не понять.
Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone.
On my first full Moscow day, disorientated and with that curiously weightless feeling one experiences in a totally unfamiliar place, I found my way to the apartment building of one of the composers with whom I had come to study: Edison Denisov. He received me graciously and — in the Russian fashion — took me straight into the family’s cramped little kitchen, where he gave me tea and kefir, with a small plate of tvorog with smetana. Three milk products at once. And a saucer of homemade jam to one side.
We talked in French, as my Russian was not then fluent enough for conversation. And as we sipped our china cups of black tea — so bitter and delicious — and he patiently and quietly answered my no-doubt painfully naive questions, I gazed out of the tall double window of the tiny room along a wide avenue stretching back toward the center of the city, Red Square, the Kremlin, and more importantly for me, the Tchaikovsky Conservatory.
At one point, I asked him why — as I put it — music was so “different” there. He gestured with his eyes out of the same window and answered: Parce que nous vivons dans cette atmosphère. (Because we live in this atmosphere.)
Once again — and this time I was not asleep — I seemed in my enthusiasm to see the skies grow dark and threatening, and the long lines of Stalinist buildings weirdly glow, now not only gray, but pink and ochre (shades of the 18th- and 19th-century architectural traditions of Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire).
And somewhere in the back of my consciousness, I immediately connected this pleasantly alluring sensation to what I had come all the way from London to Moscow to find: a music not only “different” from what I was used to, but somehow richer, bleaker, thicker, more filled with heart, more saturated with different meanings. In other words, I had set out from the U.K. with an image in my head of what I already thought I would discover in the USSR.
It’s mystification, of course. And we all know mystification is bad. Hitler mystified, Stalin mystified, and President Putin is busy even now — to the delight of millions of his “Russian” supporters — mystifying his annexation of the Crimea as a matter of ancestral rights and destiny. My American great-grandparents mystified American exceptionalism, my British great-grandparents mystified the Pax Britannica. “Patriotism,” snorted Dr. Johnson with derision in 1775, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He might have added that mystification runs it a close second.
In recent years, scholars — historians and musicologists — have rightly devoted much high-minded energy to demystification, revisionism, the task of clearing our minds of quantities of embedded, cherished and delusional — and often racist and nationalist — assumptions about, for instance, the supposed mystical Russianness of Russian music, the unique Italianness of Verdi, or the unimpeachable “greatness” and “apartness” of “The Canon” of the Austro-German peoples.
Such demystification has played an especially keen part in the arguments around the music of Shostakovich that have raged in recent years. I am old enough to remember the old Shostakovich demonized by Western musicians as a craven conservative, a lackey of the Soviet regime. With the publication and ensuing scandal of Volkov’s Testimony, there entered a “new Shostakovich,” one whose every note expressed some kind of “hidden,” “coded” emotional resistance to Soviet power. Now, with a mass of fresher information and discussion about more nuanced ways of listening — not to mention more nuanced ways of reading 20th-century and Soviet history as a whole, we begin to see that this composer’s relationship to the society inside which he spent his entire life cannot be reduced to such Cold-War crudités.
For the fact is, like any work of art, a piece of music cannot simply be for or against. Its significance cannot be thinned down to a two-dimensional matter of truth or lies. And the responsibility for “understanding” it lies not only with the composer and the performers … but, just as much, with you and me, the listeners. All of us have to participate in the act of understanding. Musical meaning comes alive only in three dimensions, somewhere in the coordinated space between the little black dots trembling on the pages of a score, the precise moment of the articulation of the down-bow of a violinist, and the energy — and this is crucial and far too easily forgotten — that flows out from us in the audience toward the musicians through our ears.
M y own journey into Soviet music had its twists and turns. As a teenager, I narrowly missed a personal meeting with Shostakovich (he was on a visit to Cambridge, England), prevented by a schoolmaster who felt I had “more important things to do.” Around the same time, my father returned from a scientific expedition to Moscow with handfuls of old Melodiya LPs, including the world-premiere recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 14 (1969). I remember, at the same period, hearing the Fitzwilliam Quartet giving one of the first U.K. performances of (I think) the Twelfth Quartet. I cannot say that I then “got” this music, although I found the Mussorgskian colors of the symphony impressive (I was already fascinated by Boris Godunov). And I am sure that about Prokofiev I knew even less. He was still to me a composer of ballet and children’s music.
When I set out for Moscow in 1984, it was not in search of either of these men, but in order to find out about living Soviet composers (Denisov, Gubaidulina, Schnittke and their colleagues) and also about the so-called lost avant-garde of the 1920s (Roslavetz, Mosolov and the rest). Shostakovich and Prokofiev seemed to me too much part of the respectable, middle-aged concert life in which I had little interest.
Living in the USSR changed my lazy, flaccid attitudes, as it so often changed the hearts and minds of Westerners who went and studied there. A couple of stories:
One morning in the deep winter of 1984-’85, there was a tap on the door of my shared room in the conservatory hostel, just as I was getting ready to leave for class. A musician friend told me to skip lessons and get into his car. Word had got out, it seemed, that the great Sviatoslav Richter had woken up that morning after weeks of refusing to play concerts and decided that today he would play. He had summoned three friends — the violinist Oleg Kagan; his wife, cellist Natalia Gutman, and the flutist Marina Vorozhtsova — and together they were to give a free morning recital, not in a concert hall, but in the assembly hall of an elementary school in a bleak industrial suburb.
When we got there, it became clear why my friends had asked me to go along. In that magical Moscow way, word had spread like wildfire, and there were crowds of people struggling to get in. My British passport worked like a charm and we were ushered to the front row of an auditorium already crammed with excited schoolchildren in their uniforms (the real audience Richter wanted to play to) and now with jostling adults from all over town, pushing in behind us.
How vivid it still seems! Richter began with a Haydn piano sonata, then came the Prokofiev Flute Sonata, and finally the Second Piano Trio of Shostakovich. All this I heard with the performers maybe 10 feet in front of me.
It was the Shostakovich that truly swept me away. I had the impression that, for the first time in my life, I “understood” this music. What prompted that “understanding” was the shock of hearing that music at such a strange time and in such a strange place; the astounding physical intensity of the shared concentration of the three performers, their intakes of breath as they approached each phrase, their eyes flickering secret signals to one another across the tiny space, and the palpable physical excitement of every human being in that overcrowded room, from 8-year-old children to someone’s babushka, each person hanging on every note as if the lives of all in the room depended on everyone sharing in the collective concentration.
Two curious details at the end: one was my hostess whispering to me, when I told her in my excitement that I thought I had indeed “understood” “this music”: “Shostakovich speaks to us, he speaks to us of what we have experienced”; the other was her husband immediately pooh-poohing that remark: “No! Shostakovich is just history and politics. It’s the Prokofiev that is the real music.”
What I didn’t know then was that those two opposed attitudes were but echoes of an old debate that can be traced back to as early as the late 1920s and the first uneasy personal encounters between these two very different great composers.
My second story came next spring, in May of 1985. The winter had been long, but was now broken by the warmth and lushness of the coming summer. The famous conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his wife, the pianist Viktoria Postnikova, invited me to stay the weekend in their datcha in the countryside. Rozhdestvensky drove me out through the suburbs, sweeping recklessly past traffic cops, who saw his sleek West German car — a great rarity in Moscow in those days — and saluted, assuming that the driver must be someone of importance.
The datcha was in the village of Nikolina Gora, the same village where Prokofiev had lived and composed for the last part of his life. We even drove past Prokofiev’s house, so that Rozhdestvensky could point it out to me. (You can see the inside of that house, and the composer playing the piano and talking about his music, by going to this YouTube video. And through the windows, you will even catch a glimpse of that same lush countryside.)
At the datcha, Rozhdestvensky sent me straight out into the garden, a green, shoulder-high and tangled jungle of cow parsley, goose grass and dock leaves, a scene from one of the more bucolic of Chekhov’s short stories. I sat on the swinging garden seat by the summer house, dangling my legs and looking around at a “Russian” countryside I had only ever read about before.
Suddenly, Rozhdestvensky appeared, dressed in a bright weekend shirt, smiling broadly and carrying a tray on which stood two of the largest gin-and-tonics I had ever seen (he was the only person I knew in Moscow who served such an exotically Western drink). We took our glasses and he passed me a brown paper papka, a file. “Take a look at that and tell me what you think it is!” After the first celebratory sip of G&T, I opened the file to find a wad of photographs of about 30 pages of a manuscript piano score.
“I know it’s Shostakovich’s handwriting,” I said, “but I have no idea what piece it is.”
“Good that you recognized the handwriting!” he said. “It’s a music-hall show he wrote in 1931, but the original orchestral score is lost. What I want you to do is orchestrate it, and we’ll perform it.”
Twenty-nine years have now passed since that moment. But that day was, I now know, one of the most important of my life, the start of a deeper journey into a music than any I had previously experienced.
I could dwell further — and to my own lighthearted and nostalgic pleasure — on the autobiographical consequences of this story. But for now, I would like to draw one more-than-personal lesson from the great gift that Rozhdestvensky offered me that spring day: He was opening a door for me, inviting me to step into a long-vanished world of Soviet music and to play an active role in what he — as a performer — had already begun to imagine.
As with Richter’s concert in the elementary school, this was one of those key moments in my life when I caught a glimpse of what it really takes for all of us — composers, performers, and listeners, all of us equal to one another — to discover music, to make music, to understand music, to take music actively into our innermost selves.
I understood that for all our modern and scholarly reservations at the mystification of the musical experience, without mystery there would be no music.
And I know that I was lucky that my particular mystical and personal experience took place in the Soviet Union. For despite the manifold and heavy injustices and oppressions of that country and that society … or perhaps precisely because of them … the USSR was certainly a country — and this should never be forgotten — where the mystery of music had a chance of being understood.
Gerard McBurney is artistic programming advisor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and creative director of the CSO’s Beyond the Score series.
PHOTOS: Moscow’s Red Square (top). FIRST INSET: Gerard McBurney. SECOND INSET: Alfred Schnittke and McBurney in 1989. THIRD INSET: Dmitri Shostakovich (circa early 1970s).