Written by: Kevin Rogers
On 14 August 2007 the 94-year-old Stalinist overlord of Russian musical life died. His name was Tikhon Khrennikov, and the position he held was First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. Whilst claiming to protect composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Schnittke, they felt dread. In April 1948, at the height of the cultural purges, he proclaimed, of Shostakovich’s music: “we find all sorts of things alien to realistic Soviet art, such as tenseness, neuroticism, escapism and repulsive pathology.” For Prokofiev: “natural emotion and melody has been replaced by grunting and scraping.” After the fall of Communism, like night follows day, Khrennikov claimed not to have written this speech and that he was simply following orders.
Shostakovich complained in Solomon Volkov’s controversial book Testimony that: “It didn’t matter how the audience reacted to your work or if the critics liked it. All that had no meaning in the final analysis. There was only one question of life or death: How did the leader like your opus?” Earlier, Shostakovich and Khrennikov had even been close friends, but Khrennikov never allowed this friendship to stand in the way of his own political ambition, which was helped by Stalin’s favourable reaction to his film scores and his 1939 opera Into the Storm. The New York Times branded his Second Violin Concerto as “expert claptrap by a party hack.”
Perversely, and ever-wanting to be the centre of attention, when Shostakovich and Prokofiev died (the latter’s death was on the same day as Stalin’s, in 1953) Khrennikov was there to deliver a eulogy. In recent years, Khrennikov seemed to pine for the ‘old days’, reminiscing that once Russia produced the world’s greatest pianists and violinists, but no more, because of a lack of subsidies. Perhaps he had not heard of Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin, Boris Berezovsky or Evgeny Kissin, and the many others.