Obituary: Nikolai Karetnikov

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The Independent Online
Nikolai Nikolayevich Karetnikov, composer: born Moscow 28 June 1930; married fourthly 1969 Olga Negkina (two sons); died Moscow 10 October 1994.

NIKOLAI KARETNIKOV was one of the most talented of that rich generation of Soviet composers (including Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov) who came to maturity in the years immediately following the death of Stalin. Like his friends and colleagues, Karetnikov profited from the slightly greater freedom of the period of the Khrushchev Thaw that enabled him to make the acquaintance of something of the vast swathes of Western music from which Soviet musicians had been almost entirely cut off since the Stalinist clamp-down in the early Thirties.

Out of the shock of his encounter with music that he was able to hear for the first time only in his mid-twenties - 'new music' that included the works of Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Debussy, not to mention the religious works of Bach or Beethoven's Fidelio - Karetnikov constructed for himself a defiantly individual musical language that glowed with a passionate if idiosyncratic devotion to the laws and the example of the great Austro- German tradition while retaining a natural flair for the traditional Russian musical virtues of colour, vigour and emotional directness.

His finest works, his Fourth Symphony (1963) and his two great operatic ventures, Till Eulenspiegel and The Mystery of the Apostle Paul (completed in 1983 and 1986 respectively), will stand among the most impressive achievements of Russian music of our time.

Nikolai Karetnikov was born in Moscow in 1930 into a family steeped in the traditions of Russian music and of the pre-

revolutionary enthusiasms of the Russian intelligentsia. His grandmother Maria Deisha-Sionitskaya was a star of the Imperial Opera, famous, according to her proud grandson, for her performances in Prince Igor alongside Feodor Chaliapin. From his parents, Karetnikov inherited an intense distrust of the rhetoric and values of the Soviet Union. The young composer grew up surrounded by those who deeply resented their enforced isolation from what they considered to be the main streams of European culture.

Enrolled when still young at the Moscow Central Musical School, Karetnikov was lucky enough to fall into the hands of the distinguished composer and teacher Vissarion Shebalin, who instilled in him the highest standards of musical honesty and a respect for technique which enabled him to withstand the political pressures that confronted him when he moved on to the Conservatoire.

Naturally enough, Karetnikov's earliest works reflected the influence of the only worthwhile models that lay to hand: Prokofiev and Shostakovich. It was only in May 1957, when Karetnikov, with various of his young friends and colleagues, including Schnittke and Denisov, went to the Small Hall of the Conservatoire to hear an even younger Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, play music by three composers he had never even heard of (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), that he began to catch a glimpse of the kind of music he really wanted to write.

Karetnikov's earliest works brought him some success and a measure of official approval (he wrote several ballets for the Boishoi Theatre). This meant that his sudden change of direction towards an interest in the language of European modernism made him a particular target for public censure and menacing pressure from the authorities of the Composers' Union. Undaunted, Karetnikov wrote a stream of works in the early 1960s in which he explored and developed his new-found language. These included the dramatic and powerfully communicative Fourth Symphony and the intense and intimate String Quartet, both of 1963. By the late 1960s, Karetnikov was coming under ever greater pressure and sustained disapproval. He found himself further and further isolated from concert life and the possibility of performance. None the less, he managed to complete an abrasive Concerto for Wind Orchestra (1967) and a numbly despairing Chamber Symphony (1969) - neither of these works has ever been performed in public - before retreating into apparent silence for nearly 15 years.

All that time Karetnikov, like other composers in his situation, survived thanks to the enlightened patronage of the Soviet film industry which gave employment to many composers who had no chance of concert performance. Only in the mid-1980s did it emerge that, far from not writing his own music, Karetnikov had been engaged on the simultaneous composition of two grandiose musico-dramatic utterances, the 'singspiel' Till Eulenspiegel (to a libretto by his friend Pavel Lunghin, director of amongst many other films, Taxi Blues) and the opera-oratorio The Mystery of the Apostle Paul.

Both these works have an obvious and notable political content, dealing as they do with the clash between an individual and a repressive tyrant (the emblem of Flemish nationalism Till Eulenspiegel/Philip II, St Paul/Nero). And, perhaps inevitably in the age of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, it was this aspect of Karetnikov's work that brought him in the last years of his life some measure of international respect and attention. But both Till and Paul rise above their immediate political context to make musical and dramatic statements that are profoundly impressive and moving in themselves.

Karetnikov's discovery in his early sixties that there were in Russia and elsewhere those who were interested in and believed in his music encouraged him to return to the domain of abstract and concert music. In the last three years he had completed a Concerto for String Orchestra and a powerful Piano Quintet, and was working on a Second Chamber Symphony at the time of his death.

Recent performances of his music - a staging of Till Eulenspiegel in Germany in 1993, a concert of his chamber music in Paris and a performance of his Fourth Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra earlier this year - brought Karetnikov at last the opportunity to travel to the long-dreamt-about cultural capitals of Western Europe. Despite the ravages of a heart disease and diabetes both of which were to contribute to his death, he greeted with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy the opportunity to return day after day to look at his favourite pictures in the Louvre or the chance to hear Sung Evensong in Windsor Castle.

In 1990 Karetnikov published a book of reminiscences, Themes and Variations, in which he recorded a number of fascinating stories of his encounters with the great and infamous, including Shostakovich and the pianist Heinrich Neuhaus. This book has been published in France and in Moscow where it created something of a scandal by its open discussion of the way in which certain composers had pursued their careers through the patronage not only of the Composers' Union and the Communist Party but of the KGB. In 1991 the French firm Le Chant du Monde issued Till Eulenspiegel on CD. This proved an unexpected critical success leading directly to the German staging and to suggestions of further performances in other opera theatres around the world. Since then Chant du Monde has followed with two further CDs, one a collection of Karetnikov's chamber music, the other including some of his deeply felt and characteristically Russian religious music. Sadly there is still no performance in view of the composer's beloved St Paul, which he so longed to hear.

In his youth Karetnikov experienced considerable domestic disappointment, but found great happiness in the last 20 years of his life with his fourth wife, Olga, and their two young sons. In his tiny study in their flat, into which he so warmly welcomed any one who wanted to talk about and listen to music, Karetnikov had made a miniature iconostasis out of photographs of his heroes: Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Joyce, Mann and President Kennedy. And under the glass on his desk he had a headline, cut from an English newspaper that someone had given him: 'Think today, speak tomorrow'. His music did just that.

(Photograph omitted)