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Neil Edmunds
Aleksandr Davidenko and Prokoll
As a result of the October Revolution, the ideas
and activities that had been confined to an
artistic, intellectual, or aristocratic minority,
became overnight the property of the masses. In
September 1918, the musicologist and educationalist Nadezhda Bryusova spelt out the role of
music in the new society - 'Music should give a
capacity to live and a capacity to build life'.1 Led
by the musical departments of Narkompros (the
Ministry of Education and Culture) and
Proletkul't (the proletarian cultural-education
organizations), concerted efforts were made to
break down the barriers between professional
musicians, composers, and the general public.
Attempts were also made to raise the standards of
musical knowledge amongst the new audience.
However, it soon became apparent that there was
a need for a new breed of composer who was in
tune with the desires and aspirations of the new
society. A group of politically-minded composers
which soon fell into this category was formed at
the Moscow Conservatory in January 1925 as a
result of a competition to compose a work
commemorating the first anniversary of Lenin's
death. That group was known as Prokoll, an
abbreviation of Proizwdstvennii kollektiv (Production Collective).
The specific aims of Prokoll were firstly 'to
search for new musical forms consonant with the
times and based on the achievements of past and
present musical culture', and secondly 'to create
new mass musical forms (marches, mass songs,
placards, and others) designed for mass performance'.2 The founding members of the group
included Aleksandr Davidenko, Genrikh Bruk,
Boris Shekhter, Viktor Belyy, Sergey Ryauzov,
Marian Koval', Nikolay Chemberdzhi, and Zara
Levina. By the time the group had disbanded in
April 1932, several of its founding members had
joined the like-minded Russian Association of
Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). But they were
Quoted in Rosenberg, W.G. (ed.) Bolshevik Visions: First
Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Ann Arbor:
Ardis, 1984) p.453.
Unsigned. 'Prokoll' in Muzykal'noe obrazovanie 1-2 1926,
replaced by younger composers, including Aram
Khachaturian and Dmitry Kabalevsky.
The group met collectively to discuss topics
that ranged from how to imitate intonations of
children's speech in music to the nature and
character of proletarian music. Resulting from
these meetings were published a number of
works, or collections of works, that were
accredited to the Collective as a whole. These
included collections of mass songs, children's
songs, and children's piano pieces. The group also
published a collection entitled Songs of Exile and
Hard Labour. Within these collections works were
often the labour of one composer. But they were
subject to discussion which would have affected
the final result.
By far the most important work accredited to
the Collective as a whole was the oratorio Put'
Oktyabrya (The Path of October).3 This work was
written in 1927 to celebrate the tenth anniversary
of the October Revolution. It was intended for
performance by workers from music circles of
the many clubs which had appeared after the
Revolution. 32 songs and choruses were written
to texts by numerous revolutionary poets. In
three sections, the oratorio told the story of the
revolutionary movement in Russia from 1905
until 1927. The original scoring was for piano,
organ (ad lib), trumpets, percussion, and
accordion. In that edition the work was
premiered on the 18 December 1927, in the
Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. An
orchestral edition was then produced by the
group and the work was performed in that form
on two occasions in January 1928. Despite
encouraging reviews,4 the work fell into neglect
for over 50 years. It was resurrected in a slightly
shortened form and performed to celebrate the
sixty-sixth anniversary of the Revolution in 1983,
and once again in the following year. That
performance in October 1984, given the present
Put' Oktabraya was actually described as a 'Grazhdanskaya
oratoriya' ('Citizen's Oratorio') in the first edition of the
score published in 1928.
See Keldysh, Yu. 'Put' Oktabraya' in Proletarsky muzykant 1
1929, pp.40-41; or Veprik, A. 'Put' Oktabraya' in
Muzykal'noe obrazovanie 1 1929, pp.35-37.
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Aleksandr Davidenko and Prokoll
climate, may very well have been the work's last
in the former USSR.
Nevertheless, the dismal history of Prokoll's
Put' Oktyabrya as a complete oratorio in the
concert hall should not hide its significance. It
was not only the first Soviet oratorio, it also
embodied the spirit of the age, and can be
considered as the musical equivalent of the early
films of Eisenstein, the 'Agit' theatre of the Blue
Blouse, or the work of Meyerhold. It was a
musical montage of songs, choruses, and declamations which almost cinematographically
depicted revolutionary events. Contemporary
reviewers were in no doubt as to the importance
of Put' Oktyabrya. The composer Aleksandr
Veprik wrote that 'The performance of Put'
Oktyabrya is a significant date . . . the work of this
group [Prokoll] undoubtedly heralds new musical
methods that meet the requirements of our
epoch'.5 Separate numbers from Put' Oktyabrya
which were particularly popular at the time
included Belyy's Dvadtsat' shest' ('The Twenty
compose a large scale work to commemorate the
tenth anniversary of the October Revolution was
Davidenko's. He conducted the premiere, and,
by the other members of Prokoll's admission, was
their leader and inspiration.7
Of all the works of the Prokoll composers,
Davidenko's were the most popular within the
Soviet Union.8 It was also claimed in 1934 that
'Davidenko is one of the first among composers
of the Soviet Union to receive international
fame'.9 Unfortunately, Davidenko's early death
in 1934 ensured that his popularity soon waned
both inside and outside the country. The problem
was that his music typified the spirit of the late
1920s and early 1930s, and it was soon superseded
by the works of Aleksandrov, Blanter, the
Pokrass brothers, and Novikov, which reflected
more contemporary events. Despite attempts by
Six'), Shekhter's Po rel'sam sibirskoy dorogi ('Along
the Rails of the Siberian Railroad'), and
Chemberdzhi's Kakposhli nashi rebyata ('How our
Children went'). But the two numbers from the
oratorio that achieved longer lasting popularity
were Davidenko's Ulitsa volnuetsya ('The Street is
Aroused'), and Na desyatoy verste ('At the Tenth
Verst').6 This was most apt, because the idea to
Veprik, A. p.35.
Both these pieces were re-orchestrated by the conductor
Aleksandr Gauk in 1957 and Dmitry Shostakovich in 1962.
They also appear with their original accompaniment on a
recent Olympia C D . , OCD 205, along with the 'Vocal
Placard' Pro Lenina ('About Lenin').
Marian Koval', for example, in his article 'Ryadom s
Aleksandrom Davidenko', in Sovetskaya muzyka 2, 1967, p. 10,
or in Martynov, N.A. (ed.) Aleksandr Davidenko. Vospominaniya.
Stat'i. Materialy. (Leningrad, 1968) p.69, describes Davidenko
as 'nash vozhd' ('our leader').
Davidenko's Nas pobit' pobit' khoteli ('They Wanted to
Defeat Us') was found to be the most popular song of its kind
amongst marchers at holiday demonstrations in the early
1930s. Bekman, V. and Zarzhevskaya, M. 'Oput' ucheta
muzykal'nogo oformleniya Oktyabraskoy demonstratsii' in
Muzykal'naya samodeyatel'nost' 1, 1933, p.6.
Mal'ter, L. 'Pesni Davidenko za rubezhnom'
Muzykal'naya samodeyatel'nost' 7, 1934, p.30.
Members of Prokoll, photographed in 1927. Back row, left to right: N.Y. Vygodsky, Dmitri Kabalevsky, D.V. Zhitomirsky; third row: G.I.
Utinsky, M.V. Koval', K G . Fere, E.I. Messner, B.E. Ferman; second row: N.P. Chaprygin, B.S. Shekhter, A.A. Davidenko, V.A. Belyy,
G.S. Bruk, V.M. Tamopolsky; front row: N.K Chemberdzhi, Z.A. Levina, A.P. Koposov, S.N. Ryauzov
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Aleksandr Davidenko and Prokoll
his fellow composers in Prokoll and RAPM, and
primarily the musicologist Nikolay Martynov, to
stimulate interest in Davidenko, only a plaque
outside his apartment on the Arbat remains as a
tribute to the composer.
Davidenko was born in 1899 in the Ukrainian
port of Odessa. By the age of eight, he was
orphaned and subsequently brought up by his
grandfather's family. This religious family sent
the young Davidenko to a seminary, where he
began his musical education. In 1917 he entered
the Odessa Conservatory to study composition
with Witold Malishevsky. He remained at the
conservatory for two years before his political
convictions came to the fore and he joined the
Red Army. In 1921 he resumed his musical
education at the Kharkov Musical Institute whilst
working on the railroad as a medical orderly. The
following year he arrived in Moscow to study
with the composer and folklorist Aleksandr
Kastal'sky at the People's Choral Academy, one
of the new institutions funded by Narkompros.
Kastal'sky facilitated Davidenko's entry into the
Moscow Conservatory and was a role model for
the young composer, encouraging him to take an
interest in children's music, folk music, and to
undertake 'societal' work.10 Hence, Davidenko
made substantial contributions to Prokoll's
collections of children's songs and piano pieces,
went on an expedition to Chechen in the
Caucasus to study the indigenous music of the
region, became a music teacher at a home for
orphaned children called the 'Young Commune',
as well as music director at the Nogin Workers'
Davidenko's compositions showed the influence of Kastal'sky and, at first, another composer
who worked for Proletkul't, Dmitry VasilevBuglay. His first published work was the winner
of the competition that prompted the formation
of Prokoll. That work was Pro Lenina ('About
Lenin'), described as a 'vocal placard' by the
composer, for unaccompanied bass voice. This
was music that would 'build life'. Its specific
purpose was to convey a message to an audience
Aleksandr Dmitrievich Kastal'sky (1856-1926) was one of
the first composers of the older generation to pledge
allegiance to the new regime. He was a member of both the
children's and ethnographical sections of the musical
department of Narkompros, and devised the curricula for
Moscow ProletkulYs musical studios, as well as the People's
Choral Academy, of which he was the Director. He firmly
believed that revolutionary proletarian music must have its
roots in folk music. From the time of the Revolution until his
deadi he wrote over 50 works, including the first Soviet
cantata on a revolutionary theme, 1905 god (The Year 1905) in
1925 to words by Aleksandr Bezymensky. For more details on
Kastal'sky see Zhitomirsky, D.V. (ed.) A.D. Kastal'sky. Stal'i.
Vospominaniya. Materialy. (Moscow, 1960).
in the clearest way possible. Davidenko, who
gave the first performance, instructed on the
score that the performer should 'walk along the
edge [of the stage] in order to communicate with
the audience'.11 Davidenko followed Pro Lenina
with his first mass song Konnitsa Budennogo
('Budenny's Cavalry'). This was one of the first
works that fell into the category of'mass song', a
term that had only been adopted the previous
year. It provided the model for his later works in
the field, including the extremely popular Mis
pobit'pobit' khoteli ('They Wanted to Defeat Us'),
and the songs of the composers who were to
supersede him.
Although best known for his short choruses
and songs on a wide range of subjects that
covered the events from the 1905 Revolution to
the period of the first five year plan, Davidenko
also wrote two operas. The first of these, 1919 god
(Die Year 1919), concerned the activities of an
elderly machinist and his young helper who
derailed a train that was carrying detachments of
the White Army to the Front. The libretto was
written by Davidenko himself and his friend, the
theatre director I. Ya. Ispolnev. Unfortunately,
after one performance most of the music was lost
and only one episode was published called
'Podem Vagona' ('The Hoisting of the Wagon').
This work was particularly significant because it
was considered by RAPM, of which Davidenko
became a member in 1929, as the archetypal piece
of proletarian music. It was, in their opinion, the
future of Soviet music, a work to be copied and
assimilated.12 Davidenko wrote his second opera
1905 god (The Year 1905) with Boris Shekhter, a
fellow member of Prokoll and subsequently of
RAPM.13 It was written for an All-Union opera
competition planned for the end of 1933 to a
libretto by S. Mstislavsky. It was a large work,
almost two hundred and fifty pages long, of
twelve episodes which covered the major events
of 1905 while at the same time charting the
preparation, realization, and suppression of a
strike in Rostov-on-Don. As in Put' Oktyabrya,
Davidenko and Shekhter strove to create a
montage that merged the techniques of the filmmaker and the composer. Despite Konstantin
Stanislavsky taking an active interest in the
composition of this experimental work and
Quoted in Martynov, N.A. A.A. Davidenko (Leningrad/
Moscow, 1977), pp.17-18.
Hence, whole editions of journals published by RAPM
were devoted to an analysis of Podem vagona. (Proletarsky
muzykant 9, 1931 and Za proletarskuyu muzyku 21, 1931.)
Fortunately, the music for 1905 god was saved and edited
for publication in 1963 by RAPM's chief ideologist L.N.
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Aleksandr Davidenko and Prokoll
promising to stage it, it was never performed in a
theatre before a live audience or workers as
intended. However, it was performed on one
occasion on radio to mark the celebrations of the
thirtieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution.
Both Prokoll and RAPM disbanded in the
wake of the Government Resolution 'On the
Restructuring of the literary-Artistic Organizations' of April 1932. But this did not stop
Davidenko and his friends from continuing the
'societal' and organizational work that they
believed was an integral part of a Soviet
composer's activities. Davidenko immediately
became an active member of the Defence Section
of the newly founded Union of Soviet
Composers, which led him to carry out mass
musical work with the Black Sea Fleet. In the last
months of his life, he performed a similar task on
a collective farm at Medvedka. Even on the day
of his death, May Day 1934, Davidenko was
organizing the demonstrators' musical activities.
Unfortunately, Davidenko's enthusiasm for his
work combined with the unusually hot weather
led to exhaustion and he collapsed and died later
that evening. The doctor diagnosed the cause of
death as heatstroke. It was a fitting, if ironic, end
for one of the few revolutionary composers who
personified the spirit of the age and used his
political convictions to create truly original works
of artistic importance. He should not be forgotten.
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