Родион Константинович Щедрин
Composer  Rodion  Shchedrin

A conversation with Bruce Duffie



When we think of Russian musical giants of the 20th century, names like Shostakovich and Rostropovich spring to mind.  Another name, perhaps not quite so well-known is Rodion Shchedrin.  A fine composer, a respected performer, a provocative member of the musical community, Shchedrin was friends with both of those other giants, has outlived them and now continues in the new musical and political age of the 21st century.

For more details about his history and his current projects, click the link at the end of the brief biography which is included later in this presentation.

In October of 1990, Rodion Shchedrin came to Chicago for performances of a new work.  It was a great pleasure and privilege for me to have a chance to sit down and chat with him in the offices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was a time of transition in his life and he spoke freely, happily and bitterly about many topics. 

Throughout our conversation, he was a delight to talk with.  He shared a big smile, lots of laughter and a few tears.  His speech was a mixture of Russian-accented English with a better knowledge of German.  Indeed, he dropped German words into his responses on several occasions and freely admitted that he speaks English in a primitive manner, adding, slyly, that his Russian is much better.  But when listening to him - with concentration - it is easily possible to understand his thoughts and ideas.  With full respect and the highest regard for this great musician, despite careful editing and tightening to eliminate pauses and hesitations, I have left many of his mannerisms, awkward constructions and sentence fragments in the text.  When you read this, if you hear in your ear how it looks, you will get a feeling and a flavor very close to the sound of his voice. 

Bruce Duffie:  You say you are more clever in Russian than in English.  Are you more clever in music than in Russian?

Rodion Shchedrin:  Yes, I am sure.  Absolutely.

BD:  Is music supposed to be clever or enriching, or what?

RS:  I think music must be clever.  50 percent.  And 50 percent must be stupid.  But altogether it's clever.  [Chuckles]

BD:  Why 50 percent stupid?

RS:  Our poet, Pushkin, said that poetry must be a little stupidity.  Then this is really great poetry.  But I think because music is some part of mathematic, not only your feeling.  [Pauses for a moment]  All, without any exception, genius work, possible to make mathematic.  Without this, this is just impossible.  This is just improvisation.  This is difference between improvisation and real composer, if you give some mathematic.  But if it's only mathematic, this is not music.  This is something very difficult to explain, but I think that music must be clever.

BD:  Is it the balance between the technique and the inspiration?

RS:  Yes, of course.

BD:  Then where is that balance?

RS:  I think just with the inspiration, impossible to be real good musical work.  And without mathematic, also it's impossible.  I think that Bach music is maybe 75 percent of mathematic and 25 percent of inspiration.

BD:  I know you've derived a lot of inspiration from Bach.

RS:  Yes!  I think this is highest point of music.

BD:  Really?

RS:  Yes.  I think so, yes.  This is my opinion!

BD:  Since 1750 music has been in decline?

shchedrinRS:  Mmmm . . .  I must tell you little story.  I know Shostakovich personally, himself, because my father a few years was his secretary.  He knows me from my childhood, and we spent together summertime, two months in Armenia.  It was 1965, and we meet each other day and night, eat together, and so on.  Suddenly he
ask me, "If somebody will send you to island and possible to take for all your second part of life only one score, what you will took with you?  But I give you only ten seconds."  And I said, "Kunst der Fuge by Bach.  And you?"  And he told, "
Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler." 

BD:  That's the only thing he would take?

RS:  Yes, yes.

BD:  I see, the "desert island" question.

RS:  Yes.  And I was in his dacha, his house, two month before he died in '75.  I took my coat, and last moment suddenly I ask him, "You remember our conversation in Armenia?  You change your opinion about Mahler?"  And he told, "No.  And you changed your opinion about Bach?"  I say, "No."

BD:  So those have stayed with you, then.

RS:  [Without hesitation]  Yes, yes.

BD:  We are, of course, the beneficiary of not having to have just one score.

RS:  Yes, of course.  It's just test, it's just little test.

BD:  Exactly.  Let us focus now, for a few minutes, on the score that you have written for the Chicago Symphony, the Old Russian Circus Music.  [Concerto for Orchestra no. 3, "Old Russian Circus Music" (1988)]

RS:  Yes, that's right.

BD:  Were you a patron of the old Russian circus?

RS:  [Thinks for a moment, then chuckles]  I must say to you that after I received this commission, I know that reputation of Chicago Symphony.  This is the number first in the world.  Everybody speak about this.  I never hear this orchestra, only in record.  Some of the records which I heard, for example, Wagner with Solti, it was really more than great, really unbelievable.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]  I'd long think which work I must do for this Qualität class of orchestra, and I decide it must be very virtuosic piece for each player in orchestra, for each group of orchestra.  And then I decide that maybe take this aspect of old Russian circus because it was symbol of Russia.  Our literature full, Chekhov [Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)], Pnin [Ivan Pnin (1773-1805)], Turgenev [Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)], full of this story.  What happened with some city, some little town, the circus company come, and every city was like crazy, and then it go away and everybody was empty.  Many tragic story, of course, with joke story like Chaplin.  Something like Chaplin.

BD:  Charlie Chaplin?

RS:  Charlie Chaplin in the West.  But it was in 19th century, so it was maybe only one most important part of entertainment in Russia, because no television, no theaters in the town.

BD:  Would each community wait for the circus to come, and live for those two days?

RS:  Yeah, they invite.  Rich people paid money that the company will come.  It's a story about this.  Russian literature is full [of these tales] - if you open one, two, three pages of Russian writers of the 19th century.  Or you will see in museum Russian painting of that times, you will see how big symbol of Russian civilized life in that time.  But [not] in music, except maybe Stravinsky, because he wrote Circus Polkas, you know.  [Circus Polka:  For a Young Elephant, composed in 1942 for George Balanchine, for a production for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus; the ballet was performed by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas]  I think it's also something like this.  I decide to make this an unboring piece.  [Chuckles]

BD:  So it's a tone poem about the circus life.

RS:  [Without hesitation]  Yes.  Yes, yes.  

BD:  And it utilizes the virtuosity of all the players of the orchestra.

RS:  I must say to you that in the past there was special kind of music, virtuoso  music.  For example, all Paganini, Liszt, and, of course, Vivaldi and so on.  This is just virtuoso music.  It's a special kind of music.  Then music come to different part of the rivers, and some was meditation music, which is full of our century.  And it's a pity that everybody forget that time when virtuoso music was very important.  I think music must be not only meditation, but it's also some overture by Weber, by Mozart and so on.  I don't say about Rossini because all his music is just virtuosity.  And our century, forget it.  It's my opinion; maybe I am wrong!

BD:  So you're trying to bring it back.

RS:  I try to bring it back, yes.

BD:  In just this piece, or in many other pieces?

RS:  No, in other pieces too.  I also wrote a piece for Suntory Hall in Tokyo.  [Suntory Hall opened in October 1986 and Shchedrin's composition was Concerto for Orchestra No. 4, "Round Dances (Khorovody)," Op. 77 (1989)]  I try to write this kind of music.

BD:  Now you've written this piece for the Chicago Symphony.  Could another great orchestra play it?

RS:  [Earnestly]  Yes, I hope, yes.  It's good, quite practical; it's not just crazy work, it's a virtuoso work.  I hope that each musician, without exception, will try to be best!  [Both chuckle]  If not, it will not be effective.

BD:  Now this was commissioned by Mr. Stetson.  [John C. Stetson (1920-2007), former Secretary of the Air Force, corporate president, and a trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra]  Is it good when an individual patron commissions the composer to write a piece of music?

RS:  In 19th century, for example, von Meck made many commissions to Tchaikovsky, and he wrote them.  [Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894), the wealthy Russian widow of a Russian railway tycoon]  I think it's very good!  It's a good chance for each composer, I think.

BD:  Do you encourage this practice, then?

RS:  Yes!  Yes, absolutely.  I think all history of music full of these examples.  All history of music.

BD:  Did the commission specify anything to you, or did it just say, "Write a piece for the orchestra"?

RS:  For me, a commission always is a very good case to be disciplined because sometimes I write music just for myself.  Sometimes a commission is a pleasure too, but not if somebody looks at you and says, "You have only one week, you must not be lazy;" [chuckles]  "time is gone," and so on.  It's very good.  It's a good stimulator.  And the story about Tchaikovsky is example of this!  He liked it.

BD:  Do the ideas always come to you when you need them?

RS:  No, it's not so simple, of course.  Sometimes it's torture to find idea which you like yourself.  This is sometimes really, really torture.  But sometimes it's comes like a drop of rain.

BD:  When you get an idea, how do you know that this idea is the right one?

RS:  I just believe myself.  [Laughter]  Just believe myself.  If you have, for example, a hand full of silver and brown coins and one is gold.  You immediately know this is gold idea.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  I see.  You pick out the gold piece from the rest.

RS:  Yes.  Yes, yes.

shchedrin &

Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin, stand next to boxes with their archives during a handover ceremony of them to the Russian State Literature and Art Archives in Moscow, Wednesday, November 8, 2006.
(AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

BD:  When you're sitting down with your score and you're writing, are you always controlling the pencil or are there times when the pencil kind of controls your hand?

RS:  I think that my score which is the best, that somebody dictate to you.  Somebody, I don't know who, told me this.  The few of my works which I like the best, somebody dictate it to me.  I just was little machine.

BD:  You're a scribe!

RS:  Just write this because somebody, I don't know, inside my head or outside, maybe in the sky, dictate me.  Nothing else.  But this is happy and lucky moment.

BD:  Is this a spirit, or is it the spirit of Shostakovich, or the spirit of Bach, or just the spirit?

RS:  No.  I think if you know that this is Shostakovich dictating to you, is not good at all!  [Laughter]  It's somebody unknown.

BD:  An unknown spirit?

RS:  Yes, yes.  Something, somebody, I don't know, maybe is God, maybe is one of his friends.  [Both laugh]  Something like this.

BD:  Are you always pleased with how the piece turns out?  Are you pleased with the result?

RS:  Yes.  In the process of the work, usually you must be satisfied, because in other case you stop it immediately.  But after you know something may be wrong, you need clean piece of paper.  Always is better like you write of him because the best idea and best realizing [of the] idea, best of all on the clean piece of musical paper.

BD:  [Surprised]  It's best when it's blank?

RS:  Yes!  Yes, because this is ideal.  This is ideal.  And you know, "Ahhh, this must be fantastic, great, unique"; and then you write, and something uncomfortable  [in a pained tone of voice]  "Ahhh, something it's a little wrong,"  so you try a little change in something.  This is difficult to explain, like make love - how is possible to explain how you make love?  It's impossible!  It's really some feeling, some ...

BD:  It's an emotional thing?

RS:  This is emotional thing.  Yes, yes.  It's difficult to explain it, yes.

BD:  Do you expect the audience to share in this emotional drive when they hear your music?

RS:  Yes, yes.  It's two things very important for me:  first is reaction of orchestra, or if it's not for orchestra, for chorus.  I see and look how they react.  If they just snoring and just want sleep [yawns] it's not good.  But if you see that the eyes is fire and they like it, then is good.  And second what is important for me:  the reaction of audience.  If I feel I took audience in my hand, that nobody cough, that everybody full of attention, then I think I win.  And then critics say, "Ohhh, this is not too good, [uses syllables the way an American might say "da-da-da-da-da" or "yadda-yadda-yadda"]  du-du-du-du-ze."  For me it's important, of course, 'cause I am human being!  But the two things most important for me is my relationship in rehearsal of the performance, and reaction of the concert hall audience.  Because then you decide, this is a live music or this is artificial music - this is just notes on the five-lines score.

BD:  Are audiences different in Moscow and the United States?

RS:  Yes, of course there's difference because it's different culture, different possibility to have received some influence from art and so on.  For example, I was here in the Chicago Symphony concert with Solti two days ago, and they played brilliantly Tenth Symphony by Shostakovich, and then Debussy and then Bartók.  They play unbelievable good, virtuosically good, and after Bartók some people - maybe many peoples - go away!  They just [claps two or three times] applause a few times and go away.  I told to my friends who was together with me that in Mosow this was impossible.  They will be stand, applause, and everybody forgets about buses, about subway, about tea, about wife, about dog who is hungry.  Everybody just will show enthusiasm.  But maybe it's because in Russia we not so spoiled.  Now it's getting better, of course.  Much more information in music and everywhere.  But for our audience, believe me when Chicago Symphony will go to Leningrad and Moscow, if they will play like that evening which I was in Orchestra Hall, [shouts] nobody, no one will go away.

BD:  Well, fortunately for everyone, that's the only way they know how to play!  [Hearty laughter]  Let's talk about a few of your other pieces.  Is the Old Russian Circus Music at all like any of your previous works?

shchedrin25RS:  No.  I am very different.  My body is the same but sometimes I am in red coat, sometimes I'm in blue shirt and so on.  Different dresses, but body is of course the same.  Sometimes you wake up and think, "How beautiful is this life," and sometimes you wake up and think, "How awful every life.  Your mood is every day changing many, many times.  And for writing music, also some periods you are so happy and everything is fantastic around.  And some times you are absolutely in tragic mood and your hands write it like diary!  Music sometimes is just diary.

BD:  But if you're in the midst of a happy piece and you're having a bad day, how can you write happy music on a bad day?

RS:  Ahhhh, you know it's many examples in the history of music.  For example, Un giorno di regno, early opera by Verdi who write when his first wife died.  It was not good work, not success.  Unsuccessful because he tried to write funny music and his hand cannot write; it did not receive his instruction.  I think it's biological, this process of writing music, like other possibility to write books and so on.  It's very difficult to try to analyze how it happen.  Sometimes I don't know myself how I write it, and sometimes I think, "How bad I write it; how impossible it is; ah, it's a pity," and so on.

BD:  Do you feel that you're part of a lineage, a line of composers?

RS:  Yes.

BD:  Bach, to Mozart...

RS:  Yes.

BD:  ...through Verdi and Wagner...

RS:  Yes, yes.

BD:  ...Shostakovich...

RS:  Yes.

BD:  ...Shchedrin?

RS:  Yes.  [Takes a deep breath]  I think that I'm composer.  I think I am composer and maybe somebody don't like me.  Why not?  But I am sure that I am absolutely professional, one hundred percent.  [Both chuckle]  I am sure of it.  For me, I think that I'm post-avant-garde composer.

BD:  Really?

RS:  Post-avant-garde composer because some of my work also was experimental work.  I try this system, but for me, reaction of audience is very important.  If avant-garde music is done much and they open new continents, it's very good.  What for me is not good is this kind of music that you come to concert and know the kind of music you will hear:  this is forbidden, this is forbidden, this is forbidden, this is forbidden, this is forbidden; only one way which is not forbidden.  [Both chuckle]  Our predecessors don't follow this way.  Sometimes they just believe themself without any control.  We know that some piece of Tchaikovsky just awful.  Just awful.  For example, his Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (Op. 56) is just awful work!  [Both chuckle] 

BD:  So it should never be played again?

RS:  No, sometimes.  Now we live in a time that each of us must know all his opuses... 

BD:  [Interjects] Even the ones that are awful?

RS:  Yes.  Even also is awful.  But this must be intuitional process.  I think that creation of music is process of intuition, but not only for your brain.  I must be in not one step on the left, not one step on the right, only straight, only with this company and so on.  Many, many forbiddens.  Many, many rules!

BD:  Too many?

RS:  For avant-garde.  Many rules!  This is not good, this is impossible, this must be only that; this must be only twelve notes and then and so on.  I think that after all what has avant-garde open now for musical world?  All this possibility for notation, for colors in orchestra and colors for each instrument, and many, many worlds of rhythms and so on.  And now they give you possibility to be just intuition, nothing else with this help.  I try to believe my intuition, I try like everybody you just named before me.  I think in that case you're one leaf in the whole tree of the music.  I think so.  Maybe somebody say, [as if protesting strongly, pronouncing first word in a high tone of voice that falls in pitch]  "Noooo, it's not so green," or "Not so yellow."  I don't know.  Maybe it's too beautiful, too delicious; maybe it's too primitive, and so on, but this is my intuition and I believe it.

BD:  Where IS music going today?

shchedrinRS:  [As if mystified by the question]  Where?

BD:  Yeah.

RS:  Ohh!  [Laughter]  Ahh...  Now, unfortunately, music is some kind of industry.

BD:  Industry? 

RS:  Unfortunately.  And also, I think that we change the role.  In 19th century, 18th century, composer was the most important figure.  He was on the top of the staircase.  Next was performer and then was conductor.

BD:  Now it's completely reversed!

RS:  Now the conductor is king.  God!  Better to say "God."  Then is performer and performances, and then is composer that's like slave.  [Both chuckle]  [As if browbeating a contemporary composer]  "You must write this," or "No, this," or "You must be avant-garde.  Why you are not avant-garde?  Everybody is avant-garde; why you are not?"  Or, "Everybody is not avant-garde, and you..."  And so on.

BD:  Is the conductor a god, or is the conductor a czar?

RS:  [Chuckles]  You are right.  Maybe a tsar.  And in this case it's happened that repertoire is quite ordinary.  For example, in opera, look at each theater in the planet.  Just push a button on the computer and see:  Naples and Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Johannesburg, Saratov in Russia.  You will see:  Traviata, Trovatore, Eugene Onegin and so on.  Very, very few pieces only.  Sometimes they invite some composer to write a new opera and it runs for three or five performances, and then this opera died.  This is like jump from the plane without a parachute!  You will go just to the cemetery!  [Laughter]

BD:  Well, you've written three or four operas...

RS:  Yes, but I must say to you that I remember how I asked Aram Khachaturian, "Why you not write opera?"  "Because," he told me, "if theater guarantee me 20 performances, I will write it.  But they don't!"

BD:  But your opera, Not Love Alone was done in Moscow and then brought to the United States!

RS:  Yes.  I think to my operas I am lucky.  Dead Souls, my second opera, was performed in Boston Opera season before last.  It was in Bolshoi Theatre maybe 40, 45 times, which is enormous.

BD:  You're a hit!  [Chuckles]

RS:  Just hit, you are right.  Just hit.  And now I try to write new opera and these successes are my parachute on my back!  [Laughs]  I will see - jump or not jump.

BD:  Then is the success of each composer the reinforcement of the parachute?

RS:  Yes, you are right, I think.  I think you are absolutely right.  It's something wrong in our musical life today.  Something is wrong, I think.  I don't know.  We have such fantastic orchestras in the United States, unbelievable orchestras.  Everybody plays... [gasps by inhaling loudly, as if swooning]  Can't be better but something is wrong.  We have lost something.

BD:  Can't it be put right?

RS:  I hope!  I hope.

BD:  Are you optimistic about the future of music?

shchedrinRS:  Mmm...  Personally, I am not optimistic about future of my country because now, absolutely everything is crushed - economic is just kaput, just kaput.  And also in our music life, it's not good symptoms.  Many, many people from our best orchestra go to the West, try to run away from the ship without a bottom.  Ten years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, in Russia it was one of the greatest orchestras in the world, I think.  But now our orchestra lost discipline and they only think how possible to buy bread and how possible to receive coupons for sugar and how it will be possible to buy gasoline for cars, because this is biggest problem - long, long, long queue - maybe six hours you must take to just buy gasoline.  This is critical time, now, but the same time, of course, this is fantastic that you can speak all what you want!  This is really fantastic.

BD:  Does the purpose of music change because there is this economic catastrophe in Russia?

RS:  Yes, I think it's very together, it's together. 

BD:  The music and the economics?

RS:  Yes.  It's absolutely together, because orchestra, good orchestra, must cost very, very much, a lot of money.  It must be.  It must be because Qualität of strings, of winds, and of the percussion.  And instruments.  And acoustics.  And chairs in the concert hall.  It must be warm and must be clean.  It costs many, many, many millions and our state paid for it!  "Okay, we will pay, but you must be slaves."  This is not good.  You remember story with Stalin and Shostakovich.  [Speaks in a dictatorial tone of voice, tapping on table each time he says the word "this"]  "This is good music; this is bad music.  Only this music is possible to play; this is impossible.  This is a bad influence from awful West capitalism,"  and so on.

BD:  Well, who should decide if it's good music or bad music?

RS:  In Stalin time, only one person - Stalin himself!

BD:  Right.  But now who should?

RS:  I must say to you that the most fantastic thing that has happened with our country is that our state lost monopoly of the taste of the art.  Not only in music, also in literature, and others.  They lost this monopoly.  In Stalin time was monopoly of style.  In Khrushchev time it was monopoly of his stupid taste and so on.  Now, everything is possible.  But if the same time possible to buy bread in shop, it will be fantastic!  But they crush this balance and now we not have new concert halls.  After Revolution, 1917, Soviet system not built not one concert house.

BD:  Not one?

RS:  Not one!  Not one philharmonic concert house for all country.  We have left only what we received from Nikolai First until Nikolai the Second.  [Czar Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855); Czar Nicholas II (reigned 1894-1917)]

BD:  So you're living in the past!

RS:  In Leningrad you will see with your orchestra; it's beautiful hall.  I think it's the last beautiful hall in our country.

BD:  So are you saying we should thank Czar Nicholas for building the hall?

RS:  [Shouting]  Of course!!!!  Of course!!!  [Laughter]  You will see how great is acoustic.  Yes.  And in Moscow - it was beginning of our century, I think 1901, something like this - it's not so beautiful like in Leningrad, but before, in Moscow, we have other beautiful hall.  But under the Soviet system, this is a place for funeral of our leaders.  Lenin, his funeral was there.  And [taps on table when speaking the name of each leader] Stalin and Khrushchev and Andropov and Chernenko, everybody.  They decide that floor must be from cement and they crushed the acoustic!  But for ceremony of end of our leaders, this is better if  [bursts out laughing]  floor is cement. 

BD:  So that's the end of the music in that hall!  

RS:  Yes, it's finish for music!  Yes.  And they decide that stage must be a little higher because Volk must be see last leader!  Much more beautiful, but this is crush from acoustic!  It is famous, our concert hall, where is Berlioz was conduct, Liszt playing piano, Tchaikovsky conduct himself, and so on.  And Rachmaninoff.  But in Petersburg, thanks Gott this is still exist. 

BD:  We're talking about performances and performance halls, but is the music itself at all political?

RS:  I think, for my life, this is first few years that music divorce with politic.  Before, always, politic dictate all strategy, all way to music,  all different possibility.  It was dictate, always and this is anarchy.  If you wanted to play 24 hours a day Opus 5 by Webern, nobody goes.  At that time it was forbidden.  It was forbidden fruit!

BD:  But if you wanted to play 24 hours of Opus 5 of Beethoven, could you do that? 

RS:  Yes, why not?  This was possible in that time because our politic decide that Beethoven was one of the greatest revolutionary of all the history.  And Stalin loves his music.  He think this is very optimistic and he looks at the future of it.  [Both chuckle]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You are also a pianist.  Are you the ideal pianist of your works?

RS:  Now I very seldom play piano because in my age I must practice, practice, and practice, unfortunately.  Now, sometimes, if I have concert, for me this is just torture.  I just see each minute on the watch and, [groaning, wearily]  "Oh, I have to practice 20 minutes; it's over?"  But my idol of piano - he never play my work - was Vladimir Horowitz.  It's the best pianist I heard in my life.

BD:  He played nothing of yours?  That's too bad.  Did Gilels play anything? 

flierRS:  Gilels play.  Gilels play, yes.  My teacher, Yakov Flier (1912-1977) was, in my opinion, second only to Horowitz.  He's not so famous, but he was genius.  He was genius.  He was second place, like Boris Becker in the tennis.  [Both chuckle]  [Becker had lost to Stefan Edberg at Wimbledon in the summer of 1990]  It's possible to say that he was natural genius of piano.  I never see more beautiful fingers nor beautiful back.  He just like together with piano; it was one body.  And he play fantastic but he has a problem with finger which was not flexible.  Maybe 10 years he don't play.  [Flier did not give solo concerts from c. 1949 to c. 1959]  And at the same time he was so lazy.

BD:  You should've written something for piano, nine fingers.

RS:  I wrote something.  In my 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano, one is for left hand only.  It's not so original idea; Scriabin and Ravel, and so on have done it, but my teacher played!

BD:  There have been a number of recordings made of your music.  Are you pleased with those records?

RS:  Some of them, yes, but some of them no, of course.  For example, one of the latest recording is Stihira with Rostropovich and National Symphony.  This is fantastic.  It's a recording and they play excellent.  Usually I afraid to hear it because usually it's a disappointment.  But sometimes this is a present.  [Gasps in extended fashion, as in utmost delight]  "How good I am!"  [Laughter]

BD:  What about the Musical Offering, with you on the organ?  It's such a strange instrumentation.

RS:  Three flutes, three Fagotts, and three trombones, yes.  This is a little musical happening because in beginning, only Orgel player play, about 15 minutes.  Then three flutes go on the stage and play alone, about 20 minutes.  And not one note solo; everybody plays - three flutes or three Fagotts or three trombones - whole time.  Or Orgel.  This is a little, no, I don't say strange, but difficult piece.  For example, our dog, he's good practice for every kind of music in our home.  But if he hear a record of this work, [makes a very loud, horrendous howling sound] "Heeooooooooooo!!!"  [Hearty laughter]

BD:  You please everybody, but not the dog.  [Laughs]

RS:  He don't like this, yes?  But I think it's something not so bad in this work.

BD:  There's a recording of choruses, with the Moscow Chorus.

RS:  I must say to you that my education comes from the chorus music, because I began my musical education in the Moscow Choral School of Music.  And still I write music for chorus, many scores I wrote for this.  My biggest last work is a Liturgy for two choruses and wood pipes.  [Zapechatlyonnïy Angel (The Sealed Angel), for a cappella chorus and shepherd’s pipe (1988) (Orthodox texts, after N. Leskov); the work calls for a "shepherd's pipe" (svirel'), which is actually a Russian fipple flute similar to a pennywhistle, not a panpipe, although it may be substituted by a Western concert flute.  The work's U.S. premiere took place in May 1990 by the New England Conservatory Camerata and the Longy Chamber Singers under the direction of Lorna Cooke deVaron.]  Now I received commission from Yehudi Menuhin.  He want that I write choral work for twelve voices and I think it's good idea. I will do it; he wrote the text.  [See my Interview with Yehudi Menuhin.]

BD:  Let me ask you one last question about the Carmen Ballet.  Is that at all a burden that you have written this work, or is it something you rejoice in? 

RS:  No, I made it with big pleasure.  With big pleasure.  For me it was holiday.

BD:  Holiday?

shchedrin and PlisetskayaRS:  Holiday, yes.  I wrote it very quickly.  It's a little story how it happened.  My wife, she's ballerina.  [Maya Plisetskaya (b. 1925)] It was her idée fixe to dance Carmen.  I refuse because I was too busy to write it.  She ask Shostakovich and at first he say, "Okay.  I will write it," but then he telephoned.  For him, always it's very difficult to say "No."  He telephoned to say, [in a very regretful tone of voice]  "Oh, no.  Sorry, I refuse because I'm afraid is impossible to be better than Bizet."  And then I tell to my wife, "You must make ballet using just Bizet's music.  Why special music?  It's enough good."  Then she tell me, "Something is wrong, because we want to make some accelerando and morendo...  Come to rehearsal and see how it would be possible to help us."  And I come, and it was so beautiful!  I just begin write it in the rehearsal hall because they need different motivation for moving.  Bizet's music is genius, but it was against this motivation.  [Chuckles] I just correct his genius to work in ballet class.  And then, like the appetite, you eat and appetite comes to you more, more, and more and... 

BD:  And eventually it was written.

RS:  Yes, [chuckles] yes.

BD:  Good, 'cause it's been picked up a lot!  Are you surprised that it has been picked up so much?

RS:  A little, yes.  A little, yes.  They play it everywhere, yes.  [Both chuckle]  Chicago Symphony will play it here with Leinsdorf.  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]

BD:  Will you be back in Chicago?

RS:  Nobody knows.  Nobody knows.  I am fatalist.

BD:  Fatalist?

RS:  Fatalist, yes.  Everything is difficult.  In Germany, in England, they have other works, but we are not civilized country.  We are still slaves.

BD:  Even though you are still writing and there's perestroika, you are still a slave?

RS:  Still slaves.  Absolutely.

BD:  To whom?

RS:  [Thinks for a moment]  I think we born slaves!  Our state, for example, in our country, they sell us.  Our state!  All writers, all composers, all performers, all dancers.  They sell us before we are born!

BD:  So your life has been sold.

shchedrinRS:  Absolutely.  They sold my works.  I am not host of my works!  For example, Schirmer, in the United States, they have monopoly of Soviet music and they think that if I write something it must be only Schirmer!  They speak with me like with slave because they know nobody say, in Soviet Union, "Why you so speak?  This is our good composer," and so on.  Officially they received 50 percent of all money of Shostakovich, of Prokofiev, or every one of us.  The monopoly is [taps hand on table while speaking publisher's names] Schirmer in the United States, Sikorski in Germany.  I don't know every one.  In Japan, 50 percent officially!  They received money because they have monopoly.  This is a slaves!  Now, for example, I received commission from Steinway to write a piano concerto, and Schirmer say, [shouts]  "No!!!  You mustn't.  It's our work!!"  I say, "Why???"  The police said  it's impossible speak directly.  I just tried to have contact directly with Steinway but it was impossible to speak to them.  I ask Schirmer, "In which month and which year I must write it?  How long this piece must be?  Who will perform?  In which city?"  And they answer to me - I have this copy of this telex in my room!  "We answer for you.  You give rights for this [strikes hand on table] work to us."  And signed it!!!  Signed it!

BD:  Signing your life away.

RS:  Yes!  And our state think this is quite normal relationship.  Somebody from this organization VAAP organization, this is our writers' organization.  Like your ASCAP.  [The VUOAP (Vsesoiuznoe upravlenie po ochrane avtorskich prav, "All-Union Administration for the Protection of Copyrights") was founded in the 1930s to centralize all collection and payments of royalties.  The VUOAP was replaced by a new agency, the VAAP (Vsesoiuznoe agentstvo po avtorskim pravam, "All-Union Agency on Copyrights," which took over the VUOAP's function as a collecting society, but additionally held the state monopoly on foreign trade in copyrights.  All licensing contracts with foreign publishers had to be concluded through VAAP; authors and Soviet publishers were forbidden to negotiate directly with foreign publishers.  The monopoly of the VAAP was abolished in 1989.]  Most of  this is a general or colonel of KGB people.  People who retire from KGB go to this organization.  For example, chief of musical department was very big general of KGB.  He's retired now from VAAP, too.  If you read book about KGB which is printed in the USA, on the first page you will see his portrait.  He is big, big chief of the KGB, one of the biggest.  He is chief of lie department of KGB.

BD:  Lie department?

RS:  Lie department.  [He is probably referring to the KGB Fifth (Ideological) Chief Directorate.  Soon after the Prague Spring in 1968, Andropov set up a Fifth Directorate whose express purpose was to monitor and crack down on dissent.  The Fifth Chief Directorate, which was also responsible for internal security, originally combated political dissent; it later assumed tasks of the Second Chief Directorate, such as controlling religious dissent, monitoring artists, and the censorship of media.  It was renamed Directorate Z (to Protect the Constitutional Order) in 1989.]  Then he was ten years chief of music in the VAAP organization.

BD:  So if you are a slave, why do you write music?

RS:  If you ask me, my situation is much better than Shostakovich situation.  His situation, he was in handcuffs.  He write music with handcuffs.  His legs was like this, also.  But how bird sing in the cage?  Because this is a bird! 

BD:  Do you feel you're in a cage?

RS:  Yes.  Absolutely.  Still in the cage.  Absolutely.  First of all, my music is not my property.  It's not only my example, but for everybody!  For everybody.

BD:  You're one of the few from the Soviet Union who have made a good foothold in the West, and your music is played here regularly.

RS:  Yes, but I must say to you that I never think about this.  Only now, when door is open at last.  A few months ago I was in Canada for a big, big tour and each city I come, every day they say, "We play this, your work.  This your work, see?"  In Vancouver, Mario Bernardi, who is very good conductor, he tell me, "But very expensive.  We ask about your Carmen Suite, and Schirmer said, 'Send 700 dollars and we give you permission to play it'.  How much dollars you will receive?"  I say, "Not one cent!!!  And nobody inform me!!  Nobody! [Taps table rhythmically along with his speaking every few words] I not received not one cent from any compact disc for any record."  I just not say about myself.  For everybody!!  It's absolutely the same situation.  We still slaves because the state has this monopoly!  And why???  Because these people from KGB who work there now receive very little fee - maybe 200 rubles which is impossible to live on.  At the market, one kilogram of meat is 35 rubles.  It's impossible to live!  They live because they went abroad and received presents.  This is technique.  They come to France or to United States, and this person from Schirmer or from Chant du Monde ask, "And what does your wife ask you to bring when you come back to Moscow?"  They say, "Ohhh, excuse me, she want shoes."  "Which size?" they said.  And they received the shoes.  And then he ask, "Please give me the rights for this and this and this."  And he signed everything.  If I say, [Indignantly]  "Why you give this rights??  I am alive!!"  [In strongly defensive voice, caricaturing a corrupt Soviet official]  "Ohhhh, this is monopoly.  Our state needs currency!!  You must know now it's very difficult moment for economy.  We must...", and so on.

BD:  And his wife needs the shoes!

RS:  Yes  His wife needs the shoes!  Yes, yes.  It's always absolutely idiot situation, but now I feel that's impossible to change it because really, we still slaves.  Maybe new generation will be more happy with this because they will begin from zero.  But we beginning this perestroika full of dust, full of dirt, full of... excuse me, [raps on table with knuckles while saying word] shit.  We beginning from this.  We try to clean it, blow it out, but it's very difficult!  We not have a soap for this.  [Both chuckle]  It's really a bad situation.  For this example, I sent, myself, a letter to Steinway and say, "I agree, but I want to know for which year, for which month, who will play..." and they answer me immediately by telex, because if they send me a letter, it will be received next year!  It's possible only now with cables, with telex, and they answer me immediately.  A gentleman from Steinway will come on Saturday and I will try to have direct contact.  For example, Stihira I just give it like present for Rostropovich!  It was my present for his 60th birthday.  Schirmer sent a million telegrams to Rostropovich and to National Symphony saying,  [in intimidating and overbearing tone of voice]  "This is our work!"  And I say, "Why???"  "This is our work because we have monopoly."  And I say, [pounds foot on floor while saying word]  "Why???  I swear to you, I am not your husband, I am not your son, I am not your uncle.  Why?  It's my present for Rostropovich.  This is my music!"  "Ohhhh!"  And so on.  I don't know; maybe with dog it's possible to speak in this manner...  It's not only with me.  I am not so always in my life.  I am enfant terrible.  I am not so good schoolboy.  [In overly mild, obsequious tone of voice]  "Yes, thank you; ...please."  No!  But the same times I am still slave, still slave.  And my wife only just now try to receive her own contract!  After all her long career, herself!  Just only now.

shchedrinBD:  But you still have no desire to leave there for good!

RS:  [Clucks tongue] It's difficult question, it's difficult question.  [Thinks for a moment]  Maybe it's too late.  Before I never think about this concretely.  Now I received some invitation to be professor of something, but it's stupid at end of the life to begin to be teacher...

BD:  [Interjects]  Oh, but we could learn so much from you!

RS:  Yes, I don't know; it's possible...

BD:  Have you done any teaching at all?

RS:  Five years, I was professor in Moscow Konservatoriya.   But it's not the best five years in my life.  You must love it.  You must like it.  And something like this, I don't know.  Maybe another age is better.  But unfortunately we still economic slaves.  I need gasoline; I can't buy it!  Anything impossible to buy.  Just aspirin is impossible to buy!

BD:  Aspirin?

RS:  Aspirin in pharmacy.  I read, myself, in Tomsk [Siberia] city that doctors write letter to the newspaper that tell citizens, "Sorry, excuse us, we not have knife for operation.  We not have disinfectant for operation.  Be careful yourself!  Sorry, excuse us.  We not have anything in our hospitals."

BD:  In other words, they have the knowledge but not the tools.

RS:  Yes!  And we are sliced, too, at this moment.  Unfortunately is not optimistic!  [Laughter]

BD:  Well, we pray for you, and we pray for your liberation.

RS:  Yeah, of course this new move is fantastic!  It's really something happened!  Something happened!  In the East Europe it's miracle!  It's miracle, but our tradition, we are 72 years of this meat grinder!  They had only 40.  It's not ended there, but for us, everything is ended.  I'm afraid that Russian Volk is absolutely crushed!  Morale crushed. 

BD:  Devastated?

RS:  Yes!  Absolutely!  Before, people believes in God.  Now they believe in communism idea.  This next generation everybody will be equal; everybody will have this.  Now, in the last 20 years, nobody believe in anything because everything is lie!  Everybody knows it!  Now they try religion again, but this is very difficult because this tradition has been interrupted.

BD:  Is there any connection, is there a parallel between communism in economics and atonality in music?

RS:  Atonality?  [Thinks for a moment, and takes a deep breath]  Mmmm.  I think that art is very connected with economics.

BD:  But I mean is the communist system, and its oppression, like the atonal, or the 12-tone system, oppressive in music?

RS:  Mmmm.  I think that the communism system, this is not only twelve-tone system, in music; this is also a twelve tone system in rhythm, timbre, color, every aspect of music.  Then is quite the same.  But it's not like in prison.  Communism system is a big, big prison for everybody.  Somebody a little top, somebody a little lower, but everybody's prisoners!  This includes winners who is the same with slaves!  It's everybody is all together!  Not one free people.  Nobody is free.  Now you are really free, spiritual free.  If you go on the street and say, [shouts]  "Gorbachev is shit!!!", nobody take you in prison.  Nobody take you to prison.  And this is absolutely miracle!  Absolutely miracle.

BD:  Is this not happening also in music?

RS:  In all place now there is absolutely freedom in music, too!  In one very curious work, they crushed a piano.  It's 25 years after Cage, and so on, but they think this is new!  Something like this!

BD:  Thank you for everything.

RS:  [Chuckles]  Thank you to you.

At this point, one of the Public Relations staff of the CSO reminded Shchedrin that the things he said about Schirmer and the KGB were being recorded for radio, and wanted him to be sure it was OK, and if not, to let them know right then.

RS:  I will say it for [raps on table with knuckles while saying word] everybody!  It's not secret!  Maybe is not good that I am so emotional, but I am too old to be afraid of this. 

BD:  [To the PR person] No, it's absolutely correct that you check on this with him.  I appreciate your concern.  [To Shchedrin] Good luck with the piece, the Old Russian Circus Music.  I look forward to it very much.

RS:  Thank you so much, thank you so much.  I think that Russian life is circus.  [Short pause, then hearty laughter]  Yes, our life, old and new, this is all a circus!

BD:  And you are one of the rings of the circus?

RS:  Yes!  Yes, yes, it's true.  It's true, unfortunately.

Rodion Shchedrin was born in 1932 in Moscow into a musical family: his father was a composer and a teacher of music theory.  He studied at the Moscow Choral School and in 1955 he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition and piano.  His first major works were written in his early twenties.

Never a member of the Communist Party, at the collapse of the Soviet regime Shchedrin was able to participate more fully in musical life world-wide.  He now divides his time between Munich and Moscow.

A virtuoso pianist, Shchedrin has often performed his own works, which include five concertos for piano and orchestra, sonatas and 24 preludes and fugues for piano.  For over a decade he spent lot of his time and energies on heading the Russian Federation of the Union of Composers having succeeded its founder, Dmitri Shostakovich at the request of Shostakovich. 


In his opera Dead Souls (after Gogol) and the ballet Anna Karenina (after Tolstoy), he introduced classics of Russian literature to musical theatre.  All were performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, making Shchedrin the first composer to have had seven works staged there in its 200-year history.  Shchedrin`s choral works, set to texts of Russian poets, are widely performed, as are his two symphonies and five concertos for orchestra.


In 1992 President Boris Yeltsin awarded Shchedrin the Russian State Prize for his work The Sealed Angel.  Shchedrin has succeeded in synthesising traditional and new forms by using every contemporary technique of composition including aleatoric and serial.  His attraction to Russian folklore and folk music, Russian poetry and literature, is strongly evident in his oeuvre, making him a pre-eminently Russian composer with a voice that nevertheless speaks to all humankind.

Since 1989 Shchedrin is member of the Berlin Academy of Arts.

 For further information on Rodion Shchedrin and Maya Plisetskaya, please visit  www.shchedrin.de.

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 22, 1990.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1992 and 1997, and on WNUR in 2004  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2008.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.