Obituary: Georgy Sviridov
Thursday 15 January 1998
The outline of Georgy Sviridov's prize-spangled career as a Soviet composer might suggest that he was a party hack, one of the cogs in the Communist wheel. As usual in such matters, the truth is less black and white: Sviridov managed simultaneously to write the music he felt was important and to deliver his political masters the socialist- realist monuments they wanted.
He was born in Fatezh, in the southern-Russian region of Kursk. After cutting his teeth in the Children's Music School in Kursk, he moved to Leningrad where he took lessons with Mikhail Yudin at the Central Music College (1932-36). He then studied composition with Dmitry Shostakovich at the Leningrad Conservatory, graduating in 1941 (the year he also finished his military service). As with many of his fellow pupils, Sviridov's time with Shostakovich marked his own music profoundly.
In his first maturity Sviridov composed with genuine vigour, although not all his early works survived the war. Two piano concertos emerged in 1936 and 1942, a symphony for strings in 1940, a piano sonata in 1944 and two partitas for piano in 1947 (two years after he had begun a career as a concert pianist); two string quartets, a piano trio and quintet date from the mid-1940s; and there were three musical comedies in 1939, 1942 and 1952, and the incidental music to a series of plays (including Othello and Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas) between 1942 and 1952.
It was after he moved to Moscow in 1955 that Sviridov's reputation as an "official" composer was born, with the first of the big oratorios much favoured by the Soviet authorities, The Decembrists (1955) and, especially, Poem to the Memory of Sergei Yesenin (1955-56). Sviridov was to write several of these distended scores; one of them, the Oratorio Pathetique (1959), was calculated to appeal to the apparatchiks and it duly gained him a Lenin Prize in 1960, in which year he also dutifully composed the Poem about Lenin.
Sviridov collected the titles necessary for progress in the Soviet hierarchy: he was awarded the Order of Lenin four times; he was a People's Artist of the RFSFR in 1963, a People's Artist of the USSR in 1970, and a Hero of Soviet Labour in 1975. Eventually he ascended to the position of First Secretary of the RFSFR Union of Composers, which he held from 1962 to 1974.
But he was much more than the political opportunist that this list suggests. The best of his music is uncommonly beautiful, and deserves a long life - and regular hearings outside Russia. The warm, sincere heart of Sviridov emerged when he was dealing with subjects that evoked an idealistic image of "Mother Russia", whose past glories, real or otherwise, had a deep (and pre-Communist) resonance for him. Indeed, Sviridov's attachment to Russia's Slavic history - an attitude encouraged by the Communists because it served their political purposes - mirrors very closely Furtwangler's German nationalism under the Nazis, and one can ascribe to both men either moral ambiguity or simple naivety. Sviridov himself put it plainly enough, in a passage that is at least ambivalent about the Communist era:
Russian music, indeed all Russian art, has for most of its history been closely bound up with the Orthodox outlook and philosophy. That is the tap-root of our culture, its originality and individuality. In the course of the last century, that connection was severed. Will it be possible to restore it? Not only the destiny of our culture depends on it, but the very existence of Russians as a nation, with a place and voice in world history. The restoration of this spiritual connection is the most difficult task facing our society. Only by taking this path do I see any future for Russian art.
He expressed these Slavophile sympathies particularly in his choral music, which can be very touching. His Kursk Songs, a far cry from the bombast of the Oratorio Pathetique, are gentle realisations of folk melodies from his native region; the cantata Snow is Falling, to texts by Pasternak (1965), is a model of how to write music of delightful simplicity; and "Reveille is Sounded", a movement from his choral concerto Pushkin's Garland (1978), is one of those achingly lovely pieces that you never forget once you've heard it. No cynic wrote music so honest.
His songs, solo or choral, are likewise highly effective, and he chose his poets carefully, perhaps to underline his Slavophile tendencies: as well as Pasternak, he set Lermontov, Pushkin and Blok. But his conservative nationalism did not blind him to other sources: one of his best-known song-cycles is a series of Burns settings from 1955. The hallmark of his vocal writing is an effortless, direct lyricism that ultimately makes unresolved questions about his political stance roundly irrelevant.
Sviridov's orchestral catalogue is not large, nor is it radical or path- breaking in a way that would draw abnormal attention to it. But it contains some true gems. One year in particular - 1964 - produced the Music for Chamber Orchestra, the Little Triptych and the infectiously appealing music for a film of Pushkin's The Snowstorm, a minor masterpiece of melodious irony.
His output fell away as he grew older, much to the displeasure of Shostakovich, who considered Sviridov one of the most gifted of his pupils and was dismayed to see his talent deployed so intermittently, even lackadaisically. Sviridov was none the less one of the few prominent ex-pupils of Shostakovich who refused to join in the KGB-organised chorus of condemnation in 1979 when Testimony, Shostakovich's disputed memoirs, were first published (in the West, of course).
Over the past few years the CD market has begun to catch up with Sviridov's music - in every case, interestingly enough, in recordings made after the fall of the Soviet Union. The UK label Olympia has now released three discs, including the music to The Snowstorm (broadcasts of which always brought a flurry of enthusiastic letters from listeners) and Pushkin's Garland; Koch Schwann offers the Piano Trio; the first instalment in a survey of the piano music has just come from Altarus; and Dmitry Hvorostovsky has recorded the song-cycle that brought Sviridov to London two years ago to hear it.
The tip of the iceberg, perhaps, but it allows the Western listener to form an impression of Sviridov's musical personality - one so attractive that any remaining misgivings about the man fall away. And it is easy for us, comfortable in the relative freedoms of democracy, to forget that it was sometimes necessary to sup with the devil to be able to sup at all.
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