Obituary: Tikhon Khrennikov
Gerard McBurney, The Guardian, 19 September 2007
Tikhon Khrennikov: Philistine functionary who kept an iron grip on postwar Soviet music and persecuted dissident composers
The composer, pianist and emblematic Soviet functionary Tikhon Khrennikov, who has died aged 94, will be remembered outside Russia for his drearily dispiriting effect on postwar Soviet culture, his ponderous and largely unchallenged reign over musical life in the USSR from Stalin to the age of Gorbachev, and his dishonourable role in spearheading the attacks on Prokofiev, Shostakovich and other talented composers in the so-called Zhdanovshchina (or state-directed purging of musical life) of 1948.
In his native land, his reputation is more complicated. While most educated Russians would concur with this negative assessment of his career – and “career” is the word – there are some musicians even today who feel that Khrennikov was a more honourable man than he has been given credit for, that he protected his colleagues in difficult times, ensured some kind of stability in the day-to-day running of Soviet music – and that things could have been a lot worse had someone else been in charge.
His music, while it may appear to sophisticated listeners facile, badly orchestrated and comically derivative, still has a certain charm for older Russians with less demanding tastes. Perhaps this is because those lumbering, but sometimes catchy, patriotic tunes remind them of the hard times when such music provided a precious excuse for light-heartedness and celebration.
Khrennikov was born into pre-revolutionary poverty, the youngest of a large family, in Yelets, 200 miles south of Moscow. A talent for composing and playing, first on the mandolin and guitar, then on the piano, enabled him to contact the composer and teacher Mikhail Gnesin, who in 1929 brought him to his musical school in Moscow, to study composition with Gnesin himself and piano with Efraim Gelman. In 1932, Khrennikov moved to the Moscow Conservatoire, to the class of Vissarion Shebalin, one of the most talented Soviet composers of his age. Later he joined the piano class of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, who taught Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, among others.
By the time he graduated in 1936, Khrennikov had made a reputation as a serious composer with his First Piano Concerto (1933), which he performed himself, and his First Symphony (1935). He followed these with an opera, Into the Storm (1939), based on a novel by Nikolai Virta, supposedly a favourite of Stalin’s. There is a story that Shostakovich wrote to Khrennikov with critical observations on this work: if true, it suggests an origin to the long history of difficult relations between the two men.
The great stage director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko encouraged Khrennikov to turn to opera, having been struck by his earlier theatrical efforts, among them a 1934 score for Natalia Sats’s famous Musical Theatre for Children and attractively fresh music for a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Vakhtangov theatre. Thereafter, theatre and theatricality, and later cinema, remained at the heart of Khrennikov’s work.
His popular songs were mostly composed for films and plays, and several of his larger works are developments of such pieces. Much Ado About Nothing, for example, was reworked several times, ending up as a full-scale opera Much Ado About Hearts (1972) and a ballet, Love for Love (1975).
Before the second world war, Khrennikov had already made a name for himself as a willing young political activist and busybody, and the success of his patriotic music in wartime ensured he was a useful man to have around. Towards the end of 1947, Andrei Zhdanov, who had already led the postwar cultural purges of literature, philosophy, film-making and various scientific and journalistic disciplines, turned his attention to music.
Why should the dictatorship of the world’s largest country have bothered at all with composers? This was the age of radio, cinema and the gramophone record, and through these mass media music was a powerful influence on the daily life of the nation and (crucially) its loyalties. The Union of Soviet Composers, which was largely reformed by Zhdanov in 1948, was a means for the state to control in minute detail what millions of people listened to from the cradle to the grave. And Khrennikov was the man to make sure this happened.
Anyone who met Khrennikov realised that he loved power. From the crowing Stalinist vulgarity and crude threats of his 1948 onslaughts on Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian and his own teacher Shebalin, through his philistine enthusiasm for keeping knowledge of the outside world at bay in the 1960s and 70s, and his amazing influence over Soviet broadcasting, publishing, recording and concert life, he was a figure of historical and political significance. He made and broke the careers of hundreds of musical figures, and was dauntless in his opposition to any trend that threatened the hold of socialist-realist music and the stridently patriotic and à la russe manner he considered the true path in music (and the style in which his own talents were heard to best effect).
When modernism began to penetrate the Soviet Union as a result of the Khrushchev thaw, Khrennikov and his henchmen stamped on the “outrageous disgraces” being perpetrated by composers such as Alfred Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov. Later, he turned his aggressive attentions to even younger figures like Dmitri Smirnov, Elena Firsova and Alexander Knaifel.
In the early 1960s, the brilliant Italian modernist Luigi Nono was invited to the Soviet Union, on the unmusical grounds that he was a leading light of the Italian Communist party. When a young Moscow modernist, Nikolai Karetnikov, met Nono and exchanged scores and ideas about 12-note rows, he was promptly summoned to Khrennikov’s office and carpeted with the words: “You hobnob with foreigners! You give them your music! How dare you? There is such a thing as discipline!” Khrennikov was equally unrelenting in his hostility to western popular music – smuggled Beatles tapes conquered Soviet youth with astonishing speed – and jazz.
At the same time, like so much of Soviet power, Khrennikov’s rule functioned with carrot as well as stick. He helped many composers when they fell on hard times: he issued orders for families to be housed, for children to be given clothes, for food to be made available, for pieces to be allowed to be performed. Among those he protected were several talented composers who made a quiet but profitable living composing his later works from the somewhat exiguous sketches that were all he himself had time to write.
Naturally, with the Yeltsin revolution of 1991, Khrennikov finally fell from power and grace. But he never left the stage. In 1993, the newspaper Kultura published a celebration of his 80th birthday, complete with an astonishing picture of the composer on his knees in Yelets cathedral being blessed by the local bishop (after years of opposition to any composer interested in religion). He continued to compose (a ballet entitled Napoleon caused much mirth) and published two self-justifying memoirs.
The first of these, That’s the Way It Was (1994), is a surprisingly good read, with recollections of Stalin that show Khrennikov still in awe of the tyrant he served. More recently, he was decorated by Vladimir Putin. Khrennikov’s wife, Klara Vaks, is widely believed to have been a formidable influence on his success. She predeceased him; the couple had one daughter.
Tikhon Nikolaevich Khrennikov, composer and administrator, born June 10 1913; died August 14 2007