The Great SHCH of Russian Music
“Shchedrin is the big Russian letter “shch” (Щ) in Russian music. This letter does not
exist in any other alphabet – either in English, or in German. His relentless new music is
powerful, poignant and always cringing from pain or from laughter... What an immense
talent one must have in order to create treasures out of the trash and horror of our lives!
Go, Shchedrin, go!”
The poet, whose words are taken as the above epigraph, had a special gift for
alliteration, for in the Russian language all these characteristics – relentless, powerful,
poignant, cringing, immense, treasures – contain this remarkable “Shch”. Everyone who
writes about Shchedrin can see the “golden middle way” in the composer’s music and his
person, between being rooted in his native soil and his openness to “foreign” influences,
between traditions and the avant-garde, between a deeply personal expression, always
prone to elitism, and the desire to be understood, meaning to be valued by the wider
public – I won’t mince my words – and win popularity. Valentina Kholopova, a researcher
of the works of Rodion Shchedrin even named her own book about him The middle way,
meaning that Shchedrin could happily avoid extremities, sailing between Scylla of lofty
traditionalism and Charybdis of unbridled modernism.
It seems to me that, when encompassing Shchedrin’s music, there is insufficient accent
on unity (and not just antagonism!) in those seemingly polar tendencies. Alexander Herzen
once propitiously noted of “Westerners” and “Slavophiles” that “We were two hearts
beating in one breast” (what a lesson for our young radicals these days, whichever party!).
Shchedrin truly captured both hearts, not in a medical sense but in a purely musical
sense. It is enough to compare his Musical Offering for organ, three flutes, three bassoons
and three trombones with the orchestral concerto Naughty Limerics. The Musical Offering
is a kind of musical monument to Johann Sebastian Bach, symbol of European music
culture, while Naughty Limerics may be compared to a Russian village house decorated
with carvings and a horse on the roof (albeit constructed using the most contemporary
Chastushkas (folk ditties, limerics) were composed and sung in such houses. Russian
chastushkas are somewhat over one hundred years old. According to historians, the word
was first introduced by Gleb Uspensky in 1889, and it is even missing in Dal’s dictionary.
Initially the academic philologists were hostile towards this new genre and describing it
as “the perversion of people’s singing”, not to mention classical musicians who compared
chastushkas to a magpie, obviously by contrast to true Russian singing which was likened
to a beautiful swan! However, those crafty, witty or sometimes merely rude chastushkas
were extremely popular everywhere, from villages to city gatherings! Let me add that the genre was free, uncensored and thus unsafe for the authorities and the “leaders.”
It was Rodion Shchedrin, then a student of the Moscow Conservatoire, who first
introduced chastushka into the noble symphonic repertoire. “On a completely subconscious level the name Semyonovna appeared along with this capricious, malicious, shameless and simple music (just five notes!) ”the composer said of the finale of his First Piano
Concerto. Soon afterwards Shchedrin transferred this “simplicity” to the Bolshoi Theatre,
and Varvara’s chastushkas from the opera Not Love Alone were performed at Russia’s most
important stage and then at the Maly Opera house... Then came the dazzling score of
Naughty Limerics, a declaration of love to the “street” genre.
To obtain the current, shortened version of The Little Humpbacked Horse Shchedrin
thoroughly revised his early score but tried to keep its charm and freshness of youth,
as well as its loyalty to the “low” musical genres of gypsy song and folk ditty. In The Enchanted Wanderer (after the tale by Nikolai Leskov) the composer raised those genres to
an ancient tragedy. The opera was premiered at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Those who saw the production of the opera (conducted by Valery Gergiev, staged by Alexei
Stepanyuk and designed by Alexander Orlov) already find it hard to differentiate between
the visually sober production and the ascetically severe score as they are so harmoniously
combined in one.
But Shchedrin’s music is enough in itself – both in the tense choral episodes and in
the dramatic monologues and duets. Those were the basis of the Parabola concertante for
cello, strings and kettle drums, just as the ballet The Lady with The Little Dog gave life to
Music for strings, Oboes, French Horns and Celesta and the ballet Anna Karenina gave life
to Romantic Music for Orchestra (another example of Shchedrin’s unity of stage action and
orchestra). Generally speaking, Shchedrin is a homo ludens, and we can clearly see that in his concerti for various solo instruments, his orchestral concerti and his Carmen Suite, a sparkling transcription of Bizet’s opera of which Bella Akhmadulina said “Here the music
kisses the music...”
Here, too, Shchedrin has a piercing “X-ray” view that draws Russia’s past into the
present. While commenting Dead Souls Valery Gergiev noticed that “This is Shchedrin’s
greatest opera... From the very first moment we observe ourselves in Gogol’s characters...
Surprising as it may be, this opera is perceived even more sharply today than it was in the late 70s when it was first staged...” And in fact, the phrase “Shchedrin’s satire”, that all
of us remember clearly from our school-days, referring to the Russian outstanding 19th century writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, now acquires a new, musical, meaning.
Returning to Herzen’s words about “two hearts in one breast”, Rodion Shchedrin can
fully justify himself to be a “European Russian.” As a supreme professional, he makes use
of every composition technique, such as dodecaphony, in his Second Piano Concerto. He
can choose a sharply dissonant language, which can be hard for the audience, such as in
his Third Piano Concerto, though he argues with the avant-garde which is “locked in its
ivory tower”, since “great music should have great audiences.”
For German orchestras, the composer has written commissions, such as Preludium
to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the symphonic piece Beethovens Heiligenstadter
Testament, and he has brilliantly arranged pieces, such as Two Tangos by Albéniz. When
asked what folklore means to him, he once resolvedly replied that “A composer is only
interesting to other nations when he has a connection to the soil which gave him birth
and power”. An element of Russia can be felt throughout Shchedrin’s works. In addition to
the aforementioned pieces we can quote The Chimes, Round Dances, Four Russian Songs,
the Third symphony Scenes from Russian Fairytales, the liturgy The Sealed Angel (after
Nikolai Leskov) and the choral opera Boyarina Morozova. Only a “Russian European” could
have written Shepherds’ Pipes of Vologda for woodwind and strings dedicating in to Bartók,
or the dramatic scene for voice and symphony orchestra Cleopatra and the Snake to the text from the final scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy Antony and Cleopatra translated by Boris
Pasternak... The ellipsis means that the maestro still has new ideas about his future work.
So, while praising Shchedrin, let’s join the poet in saying: “Go, Shchedrin, go!”