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
manner, adding, slyly, that his Russian is much better. But when
to him - with concentration - it is easily possible to understand his
thoughts and ideas. With full respect and the highest regard for
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.
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
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.
RS: Yes. I think
so, yes. This is my opinion!
BD: Since 1750 music has
been in decline?
RS: 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
"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
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.
hesitation] Yes, yes.
BD: We are, of course,
the beneficiary of not having to have just
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
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.
hesitation] Yes. Yes, yes.
BD: And it utilizes the
virtuosity of all the players of the
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
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?
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
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
BD: When you get an idea,
how do you know that this idea is the
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.
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,
(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
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
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.
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,
BD: It's an emotional
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.
and just want sleep [yawns] it's not good. But if you see that
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
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
Music at all like any of your previous works?
RS: 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
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
giorno di regno, early opera by Verdi who
write when his first wife died. It was not good work, not
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
BD: Do you feel that
you're part of a lineage, a line of
BD: Bach, to Mozart...
BD: ...through Verdi and
RS: Yes, yes.
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
hundred percent. [Both chuckle] I am sure of it. For
me, I think that I'm post-avant-garde composer.
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
BD: So it should never be
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
BD: Too many?
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
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
RS: [As if mystified by
the question] Where?
Now, unfortunately, music is some kind of industry.
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
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.
Traviata, Trovatore, Eugene Onegin and so on.
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
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!
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
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?
Personally, I am not optimistic about future of
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
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
BD: The music and the
RS: Yes. It's
together, because orchestra, good
orchestra, must cost very, very much, a lot of money.
It must be. It must be because Qualität
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
person - Stalin himself!
BD: Right. But now
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
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
RS: [Shouting] 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
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
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?
RS: Gilels play.
Gilels play, yes. My teacher, Yakov
(1912-1977) was, in my opinion, second only to Horowitz. He's not
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
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!"
BD: What about the Musical
Offering, with you on the organ? It's such a strange
RS: Three flutes, three
Fagotts, and three trombones,
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
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
(The Sealed Angel), for a
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
work for twelve voices and I think it's good idea. I will do it; he
wrote the text. [See my Interview with Yehudi
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
RS: No, I made it with
big pleasure. With big
pleasure. For me it was holiday.
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
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
"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
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
BD: Will you be back in
RS: Nobody knows.
Nobody knows. I am
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.
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
They sold my works. I am not host of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
BD: And his wife needs
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
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
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.
BD: But you still have no
to leave there for good!
RS: [Clucks tongue] It's
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...
Oh, but we could learn so much
RS: Yes, I don't know;
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
can't buy it! Anything impossible to buy. Just aspirin is
impossible to buy!
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
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
RS: Yeah, of course this
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
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
[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
BD: Thank you for
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
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.
Shchedrin was born in 1932 in Moscow
into a musical family: his
father was a composer and a teacher of music theory. He studied
Moscow Choral School and in 1955 he graduated from the Moscow
Conservatory where he studied composition and piano. His first
works were written in his early twenties.
Never a member of the Communist Party, at the collapse of
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
which include five concertos for piano and orchestra, sonatas and 24
preludes and fugues for piano. For over a decade he spent lot of
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,
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
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,
poetry and literature, is strongly evident in his oeuvre, making him a
pre-eminently Russian composer with a voice that nevertheless speaks to
Since 1989 Shchedrin is member of the Berlin Academy of
For further information
on Rodion Shchedrin and Maya
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,
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.
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
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.