Yuri Kholopov

Dissenting voice in Russian musicology
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The Independent Online

Yuri Nikolayevich Kholopov, musicologist and teacher: born Ryazan, Soviet Union 14 August 1932; married (one son, and one son deceased); died Moscow 24 April 2003.

Yuri Kholopov was one of Russia's leading musicologists, a man with an encyclopaedic mind, and a teacher whose courageous refusal to follow the lines of Communist Party theory made him a beacon for the emerging generation of modernist composers.

Born in Ryazan, south-east of Moscow, in 1932, Kholopov attended the Regional College of Music in his home city before studying at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatoire between 1949 and 1954, taking a postgraduate degree in 1960, when he also began to teach there. It was his doctoral thesis, an examination of Prokofiev's harmonic practice, that brought his run-in with the musical apparatchiks of the Communist Party.

Marxist-Leninist music theory insisted that the content of a piece of music - its extra-musical "meaning" - was more important than the form in which it was expressed; music could thus be used to communicate non-musical (that is, political) ideas to its audience. Kholopov knew that this assertion was nonsense and duly ignored it, underlining the importance of form in Prokofiev's compositions. But "formalism" was what had run Shostakovich, Myaskovsky and Prokofiev himself foul of the Party machinery in the famous congress in 1948, resulting in a ban on performances of their music.

Kholopov's revolutionary book Sovremenniye chert' garmonii Prokofieva ("Contemporary Aspects of Harmony in the Music of Prokofiev"), published in a tiny edition in 1966, thus flew in the teeth of what Soviet musicology could accept and his argument ran into fierce ideological criticism in the official organs, such as Sovietskaya Muzyka. When in 1975 Kholopov presented his analysis as part of his PhD requirements, his doctorate was withheld.

This setback notwithstanding, the quality of Kholopov's teaching ensured the steady advance of his career. He became a docent (assistant professor) at the conservatoire in 1972, and a full professor in 1983; he also taught at a number of other musical institutions in Moscow. His early students felt the ill wind blowing them some good: before Kholopov was allowed to lecture to entire classes, they benefited from small, personal tutorials.

As a teacher, his ambit embraced all aspects of music, not least form and harmony, of course. He passed different systems of music theory under the lens, too: the theories of Hindemith, Schenker, Messiaen and Schoenberg were all dissected for the benefit of his students. He taught courses in counterpoint, instrumentation, analysis, music history and contemporary music - where he became a guiding light for his students, who were denied official access to developments elsewhere in the world.

Kholopov wasn't quite the only voice in the Soviet Union prepared to speak about musical modernism: he readily acknowledged the superior knowledge of Philip Hershkowitz, a Romanian-born former pupil of Berg and Webern and, in 1939, as a Jew, a refugee from Nazism. Hershkowitz (usually called Gershkovich in Russian) was an outcast from official musical life: he was an otkaznik - a refusenik whose request to leave the Soviet Union had been turned down - and was thus ostracised and survived, with difficulty, from private teaching. But there was tension even between these two brave souls: Kholopov readily admitted how much he owed to Hershkowitz's example but knew there was no point in acknowledging his influence in print, since the censors would strike it out, and he thereby innocently earned his mentor's resentment.

Yuri Kholopov leaves two musical legacies. The first lives on in the several generations of students he taught: some 80 of them now occupy major positions in Russian musical life, as composers, teachers, writers, theorists and historians. One of them, the composer Dmitri Smirnov, remembers the clarity of his mind:

He was a very precise person in all the disciplines he taught. He organised his subject in his head with computer-like precision, so that when he said something, it was very clear. It was like a scientist's approach.

As a result, he could appear dry in his classes, although the students who later became his friends found a warmer personality behind the exactness. Moreover, the single-mindedness with which he worked outside of the classroom may have been a front to hide his vulnerability: after an early divorce and the tragic death soon after of his musicologist wife and one of his two sons, he lived a monk-like existence in a single-room flat piled high with books.

Whatever its cause, his assiduity was astonishing. As well as some 16 books, among them studies of Webern, Denisov and Boulez and a seminal textbook on harmony, he wrote a staggering 1,000 articles. If his importance is not generally recognised in the West, outside specialist circles, this second part of his legacy is still only partially apperceived in Russia itself: although some 700 of those texts were published - mainly in Russia, obviously, but also in a slew of other countries - the other 300 have yet to see the light of day.

His writings were immensely influential in the Soviet Union, well beyond the bounds of his classroom. The cellist Alexander Ivashkin reports that

my generation of musicians learnt about the major ideas of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Xenakis, Bartók - as well as the theoretical systems of Hindemith, Messiaen, Schenker - from Kholopov. I was never his student, but his articles and his books taught me to understand the music of the 20th century.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union Kholopov at last began to garner the honours due to him. He was awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation in 1990 and was named an "Honoured Worker in the Arts" in 1995. His 60th and 70th birthdays were marked with Festschrifts.

Yuri Kholopov, a mild-mannered, gentle man, made his first visit to Britain as late as April 2000, when he spoke at a conference on "Russian Avant-Garde Music - Past, Present and Future" at Goldsmiths' College, London University. He returned to the UK in February this year, to deliver a paper on Prokofiev's Classical Symphony at the Prokofiev 50th-anniversary conference in Manchester.

Martin Anderson