Chapter Seven


“Stagnation Period” (1965—1984)


The period from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s is commonly called “Stagnation period” (Zastoy). In this period, cultural structures became settled in the Soviet Union, for example, the Composers' Union and publishing houses as powerful and influential institutions for musical life. However, the (political) term “Stagnation period” is somewhat misleading in the case of Soviet music in general and clarinet music in particular. Concerning the use of the clarinet, radical changes appeared in this period, including new playing techniques and the upswing of works for unaccompanied clarinet. A plentitude of clarinet works was published in this period, especially Sonatas for clarinet and piano, but also concertos with orchestra and chamber music. Regarding clarinet playing in the Soviet Union, the most remarkable change in this period was without doubt the introduction of playing techniques such as micro-intervals and multiphonics, in combination with serial and aleatoric composition techniques.

It remains difficult to outline the clarinet repertoire from this period as a whole: On the one hand, a certain standardization of the Soviet clarinet repertoire took place: the same state publications were spread over the country and any other repertoire was hardly available at all. Still today in music libraries of the former Soviet republics one can see how far-reaching the unification of repertoire and music education was. The editions are not very appealing by print quality, and the canonization of the educational material is far-reaching. On the other hand, the immense number of clarinet compositions from this period, often even bundled in unpractical “albums” or “anthologies”, makes it difficult for the performer to find specific works and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One can outline two main categories of clarinet music from this period: the "modern/ avant-garde” works and the more “traditional/ mainstream" compositions. However, categorization into official, unofficial or semi-official compositions is problematic and strays from the scope of this doctoral project. The discussion continues, however, in recent music history writing (for example, by Zuk, Frolova-Walker, Walker, Schmelz, Hakobian et al.).


“Khrennikov´s Seven”

Edison Denisov's Sonata for clarinet solo is among the most performed works for clarinet solo within the entire clarinet repertoire (see 7.2). Surprisingly, much less known and performed are the other works with clarinet by Denisov or by the other composers of the so-called "Khrennikov Seven". In 1979 Tikhon Khrennikov, general secretary of the Soviet Composers´s Union, in an official speech degraded the music of a number of Soviet avant-garde composers. Khrennikov mentioned seven composers by name, among them the well-known Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina, plus five of Denisov´s students: Elena Firsova (see 7.3), Dmitry Smirnov, Vyacheslav Artyomov (see 7.1), Aleksandr Knaifel and Victor Suslin. The speech was even published in the main newspapers and quickly led to the term “Khrennikov´s Seven” for this particular group of composers. The Soviet Composers´ Union was an influential organ to determine which compositions were “right” or “wrong” according to the Soviet music doctrine. This speech of Khrennikov evoked bad memories of the Stalin era, when in his speech from 1948 Zhdanov accused Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian of musical formalism. However, at the end of the 1970s Khrennikov´s words did not have such a heavy impact on the life of the composers, as Zhdanov’s speech had against Shostakovich in Stalinist times. Besides the personal defamation, the main consequences for the composers of the “Khrennikov´s Seven” were limitations of travelling abroad and rejected performances of their compositions. Edison Denisov was at that time already an established composer who was allowed to travel abroad regularly, though not always. His music had also been performed in western countries by the 1960s. But Gubaidulina, for example, was allowed to travel abroad for the first time only in 1984, even though her music was already much appreciated and performed in western countries. Her first visit abroad was to Finland at the Helsinki Festival (Kurtz 2001, 247).

The central figure in the avant-garde movement of the 1960s was Edison Denisov. He was teacher for Orchestration at the Moscow conservatory—even though the title of composition teacher was never awarded to him during his lifetime. In Denisov´s orchestration class, composition students from other teachers had the possibility to listen frequently to contemporary works from western countries, which was not otherwise possible due to the restrictions by music officials. Scores and recordings from the west were not easy to access in the Soviet Union. Denisov’s visiting artist-friends brought music with them, and he brought himself material from his travels to show to the students: from Hindemith to Messiaen to Boulez. Denisov also invited local musicians to perform new music for the composition students. For example, clarinetist-saxophonist Lev Mikhailov played the Sequenza IX by Berio for the students. Both Denisov and Firsova dedicated several works, including their clarinet sonatas, to Lev Mikhailov, who was eager for new playing techniques on the clarinet and the saxophone. Despite limitations for avant-garde music from the official side, Denisov succeeded in creating in his class an island of artistic freedom; a laboratory for open-minded musicians and composers “hungry” for new ideas in an experimental sphere. In the aftermath of Denisov´s Sonata for clarinet solo (1972), a multitude of solo clarinet works was composed, using more or less experimental playing techniques.

Ensemble "Astrea"

In the 1970s Sofia Gubaidulina regularly got together with Viktor Suslin and Vyacheslav Artyomov for group improvisation sessions, experimenting with time and sounds (Kholopova 2002, 203). Artyomov, who had a great interest in folk music, also collected folk music instruments from all over Russia. The Astrea ensemble even used quite uncommon instruments in their sessions to explore different sound possibilities. Some of these improvisations were recorded and, much later, even released on cd. Such an improvisational and experimental spirit can also be encountered in the clarinet and chamber music works not only by Gubaidulina and Artyomov, but also other composers such as Firsova and Smirnov. 


Semi/official concerts 

Before being performed in public, all works needed to be approved by a state commission through the official Composer´s Union. Not many avant-garde pieces  were approved for official concerts, but that does not mean that this music was not played in the Soviet Union at all. There was a second layer of musical events: unofficial concerts; at somebody´s home, among friends to perform new works; in small clubs, or even in concert halls, but, for example, after a rehearsal, when everybody else had left. These were concerts by personal invitation and therefore also not possible to forbid, as it was perfectly legal to meet in private circumstances. Another way was to give some “clean” and conformist compositions for approval to the state commission, but then to change the concert program at the last moment to avant-garde music – without announcing that officially, of course. By this means, new works were even performed in official concerts from time to time. One remarkable composer in this context is Grigory Frid (see 7.4). He led the “Moscow Youth Music Club”, where numerous new works by young composers were performed and discussed (Schmelz 2009, 180). Even in other cultural fields, especially in painting and visual art, it was very common to have such unofficial events; these, combined with new musical performances, enjoyed an astonishingly broad popularity.