Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art 1925
This winter the Stradivarius Quartet gave a series of chamber concerts by the famous Moscow composer Taneyev.
Taneyev is well known in Russia and Europe as the author of the most profound and comprehensive work on counterpoint. This work and Taneyev’s merits as an artist have earned him the greatest respect as a unique mathematician of music.
However, this, too, was the reason why Taneyev was grossly underrated as a composer by the general public. What I mean by this term is the public that attends concerts, is interested in music and is familiar with it, but does not belong to the small circle of highly qualified persons with an exceptionally erudite knowledge of music.
A little rumour has been circulated about Taneyev to the effect that he is a “brainy” musician who solved his musical problems as a mathematician would solve his, and that is why, they say, he can be of interest only to professionals, but leaves his audiences cold.
The Stradivarius Quartet performed in rather small halls and thus their concerts could not acquire the nature of mass propaganda for Taneyev’s achievements in a field that was possibly his forte: chamber music. But it is important to note that these concerts invariably met with enthusiastic acclaim. I know many persons, intelligent and well versed in music, who (lacking a true knowledge of his work before) have now changed their opinion of him entirely as a result of these concerts.
I believe that more should be done for a re-evaluation of Taneyev. In but the recent past it was considered quite proper to call Tchaikovsky a sentimental, tearful intellectual, whose music could allegedly be of no use whatsoever to our generation. I believe that the writer of these lines was the first to come out against such an opinion of a great composer who has a place of honour in Russian music which, as is now quite obvious, beginning with Glinka and ending with our own young composers, justly occupies a prominent place in world music.
The great Scriabin has long since been restored in favour and adopted as it were by the revolutionary epoch. I believe it is imperative that the same impetus should be given to a similar process in respect to Taneyev. It would be most rewarding to organise a performance next year of his great oratorio Upon Reading a Psalm and his laconic, stirring and truly tragic opera Orestes.
At the request of the Stradivarius Quartet I spoke on Taneyev, introducing their concert series. The present article is the edited stenographic report of my speech.
I would like to say a few words about Taneyev the man.
In both his way of life and appearance Taneyev was a typical Russian gentleman, even with something of Oblomov about him outwardly; he liked the quiet life, the provincial calm of his remote corner of Moscow; he was rather indifferent to politics, though he was not only a liberal, but a democrat with radical leanings who welcomed the 1905 revolution, for example, quite joyously and reflected it to some extent (indirectly) in several of his works.
Though apparently in possession of a well-thought-out philosophical system in which he made ends meet quite harmoniously and without the aid of a god, in whom he flatly refused to believe, he never insisted upon nor even expressed his opinions. They were undoubtedly reflected in his music but, once again, indirectly. Taneyev was a very kind man, he tutored poor pupils without remuneration, he helped them financially from his own small income; he was never concerned with his own welfare and was satisfied to lead a modest, quiet life.
However, one must never forget that this quiet, tepid way of life, calling to mind Goncharov’s Oblomov, has nothing at all in common with Oblomov’s vacuousness. Goncharov himself had very much in common with Oblomov and much of his great novel was autobiographical. Yet, a very different sort of heart beat beneath Goncharov’s robe, and a whole world of images lay concealed by the lazy, dreamy expression on his face, so far removed from the silly sentiments which encompassed the entire world of his famous character.
Taneyev was of the same breed as Goncharov, as Turgenev. The seeming sluggishness and laxness of their lives was compensated by a tremendous, forceful inner creativeness. The work of men of this type – a type soon to be relegated to the past, perhaps – is of especial value in its fruitful, contemplative nature.
A slowness, a sweet pensiveness, a journey through ideas and emotions “in a horse-drawn carriage,” so to say, is simply a poor showing in untalented persons; but with talented persons this produces an unusual soundness in everything they create, a depth and completeness in their work.
In our neurotic age, when history itself is dashing on headlong, and the commotion of city life has reached a stage of terrible confusion, and people are so high-strung that it seems their nerves have been pulled taut and are vibrating at a thousandfold acceleration, in this age art has plunged through impressionism to futurism, momentalism, etc. This process is quite natural, but it does not necessarily mean it is progressive.
Such fleet and instant art undoubtedly produces definite impressions; it can achieve that which is impossible in the carriage of transparent, viscous as honey ancient classical art; but much has been lost on the way.
Taneyev lived in a world of music, but he did not regard music as a world unto itself, a world ruled by its own strange laws. He did not regard it as a complex sphere of higher mathematics, as would a scholar in his ivory tower.
Taneyev was a musical philosopher in two respects. In the first place, he tried to set his musical forms into a single graceful structure by a profound, slow and sure process of thinking based on a tremendous knowledge of music. Secondly, he imbued this creation with the essence of his deep and sensitive intellect; his own world outlook, his thoughts about the universe, human life, etc., were expressed in his musical forms. I do not believe that anyone, even those who are indifferent to Taneyev, would ever take it into their heads to deny this forceful presence of a rather austere and compelling intellect that reigns in his music.
But this is not all. Taneyev was a very warm-hearted man, affected by all the passions of man’s intensive life. No matter that the old bachelor’s life appeared devoid of storms and passions; grief and hope, indignation and love, loneliness and the joy of communing with Nature and his fellow men and many, many other emotions made this stout, yet sensitive heart tremble both in his youth, when Taneyev seemed such a hearty fellow, and in his grey haired maturity, when those who knew him well all but worshipped him as a saint and sage.
That is why it is stark barbarism and sheer ignorance to judge Taneyev as a man devoid of passion. The fact of the matter is that Taneyev never stooped to sentimentality, that. he was a stranger to the slightest hint of Gypsy bathos, which sometimes, especially if performed with affectation, we even find in Tchaikovsky’s music.
Taneyev is wise; he intrusts his emotions to music only when they have become clear to him, when they have been crystallised in music. This does not mean that Taneyev merely presents an outline of emotion; no, his emotions are very much alive. After all, no musician can convey real sobbing or laughter, no artist can incorporate his own real nose in a painting. Music, as no other creative sphere, demands a reminting of one’s own material into the special gold coin. Taneyev’s minting is of the highest quality, devoid of alloys, both vital and well designed throughout.
Taneyev was a gentleman, a gentleman of slow pace, a gentleman drawn into himself, a gentleman who, through tremendous diligence and great talent, had acquired a culture that was unique, a gentleman who had reached the apex of wisdom.
We have no use for lords of the manor, we cannot stand lordliness and, perhaps, we despise Russian lordliness above all, but we cannot close our eyes to the fact that in the “cherry orchards” of the landowner fragrant flowers sometimes blossomed, when an exceptional type of culturedness, which for a long time could not be acquired outside the lordly manor, was refined into an almost ascetic cultural life, when a person gave himself up utterly to an aesthetic problem – when, at the same time, he rose above his class and began to see reality in a different light. This produced people who were exceptional in artistic merit, often combining a wonderful philosophical and social train of thought with art that was of fine emotion and forceful architecture.
The greater part of our classical literature has been created by such lords. They gave us such men as Herzen and Plekhanov. It is difficult for me to imagine a man like Taneyev coming from any other background, and not from the quiet streets of old aristocratic Moscow, which, nevertheless, were open to all the winds blowing from the West; and I would stress that this native son of Moscow is extremely important to us, and in our review of our inheritance we must regard with special care the amazing musical canvases woven and embroidered by the patient hand of this composer and sage.
In order to better understand Taneyev’s special place in music, I shall draw a parallel of sorts between him and Scriabin, a parallel which rests upon another parallel, one deeper and more general.
Much has been said about the differences between “mood” music and “architectural” music. These musical poles are but two sides of one and the same music and complement each other in varying degrees. But this does not detract from the fact that we are faced with two streams of music: the objectively-architectural (epic would be more correct) and the emotionally-sensuous, or lyric. However, the words “epic” and “lyric” are less suited for an understanding of the true meaning of this difference than the terms “architectural” and “emotional.”
Music originated as an expression of human emotions. We cannot for a moment doubt that it was born of man’s cries of emotion. We know wherein the “music” of the animal world originates. Erotic music is the most objective example since, besides its cries of naked passion, it includes some elements of enticement, attracting the female by a sort of serenade. In the nightingale’s song we find not only the emotions of the male, but an art that is self-contained, unfolding in the mating process and reaching, not in the individual, but in the species as a whole, true perfection.
Every other type of song has apparently developed along similar lines: sobbing gave rise to lamentation, which in
turn became a dirge; the wild shrieking of warriors before battle resulted in military marches, and so forth. The whole significance of transforming emotional cries into music, or, more probably, into singing, lay in the fact that a purity of form was acquired, that there gradually evolved clear tones and their set combinations, the skill of producing melody, etc.
In following this course, music eventually became most complex. Man gained helpers, the most varied instruments, to express the personal or social emotions that burned in his breast.
There is good reason why in recent times, say, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, there has been such an unprecedented blossoming of music, which continues to this day. On the one hand, the individual became a most complex entity at that time, especially with the appearance of the typical petty-bourgeois intellectual, i.e., an individual who was unsettled socially, divorced from the guild, with a complex, quite individual soul, with a highly developed brain and nervous system and often with a great amount of suffering in his life. The gradual progress of democracy and individualism created this type of individual, and Jean Jacques Rousseau was one of its first bright manifestations. I believe that a careful analysis of an individual like Rousseau will do much towards providing an understanding of the central and most significant type of intellectual as an ideologist, including, and perhaps primarily, the artistic ideologist of society in modern history. The emotional, many-sided and painfully unbalanced personality of the new man, “the psychopath,” in the true psychiatric meaning of the word, became ever more complex as social relations became more complex. At the same time, this personality reached the apex of sensitive self-analysis and, finally, the most unusual flexibility and virtuoso skill in expressing all the ins and outs of its most complex inner world. Here we come upon Schumann, Chopin and their followers. However, social emotions also became turbulent and multiform at times. Thus, Beethoven, of course, not only expressed the complexities of his own personality, but reflected most forcefully the storms of the Great Revolution.
One can regard Scriabin in some ways as the supreme representative of this type. At a time when the French
impressionist school, headed by Debussy, seemed to have reached the limit of musical momentalism and miniaturisation, Scriabin, with no less diversity of emotion, was possessed by a tremendous desire for social expression, for social, national and even cosmic dimensions, which came of his belonging to a nation which had gone through the great revolution of 1905 and was now on the way towards the greatest of all revolutions.
Perhaps modern Western Europe, in becoming Americanised, is gradually beginning to lose this form; however, it is not always replaced by an architectural one, of which I will now speak, but is quite often mechanised instead.
The tendency of some contemporary West European composers to embrace machine-inspired rhythms, mechanical dance forms and music deprived of its soul but “electrifying” instead, a very normal tendency in the era of arch-capitalism and imperialism, is doubtlessly fatal for music. It is possible that the proletariat will be carried away by this movement, but it should be warned against it, for the basic principle of the proletariat is the complete subordination of machine to man, while the basic principle of hyper-capitalism is the complete subordination of man to machine.
Architectural music is something else again. Perhaps its roots lie elsewhere; perhaps its source is instrumental music, i.e., man’s admiration of the sound of a singing bow, or the ringing of a clay pot, or a metal object.
In this instance sound did not express a definite emotion. Undoubtedly, man contributed something of his own interpretation here as well: from the very start, he sensed the spirit of the singing bow and the rolling drum; in fact, he animated his surroundings, in accordance with his animistic outlook, to a greater extent than we do today. Nevertheless, he was dealing with objective beauty here, as in his gradually extending range of colour, and the human voice could now join the voices of his instruments and be regarded primarily as a source of beautiful sounds. Here we have the beginning of a process which Weber called the rationalisation of music.
The music of all peoples who have achieved even the slightest degree of culture is a refinement of the world of sounds, singling out elements and then constructing various combinations from these elements to correspond to man’s desire. Just as man builds cathedrals, palaces or tombs from tangible and visible material, so does he build monumental works from sounds; combines them with dances or other ceremonies, especially of a religious or court nature, and also with the epic themes of the first heroic songs, of individual or choral hymns to the gods.
This music does not develop of its own accord. It satisfies definite social demands, as does monumental construction. Primarily, it increases the pomp of religious and royal ceremonies. One must remember that these ceremonies have a very definite social significance: to strengthen and elevate the self-awareness of the rulers, and astound and conquer their subjects by the magnitude, beauty and perfection of the state and heavenly systems, as reflected in art. It is striking that just as it was possible to create great architectural works of art on this basis, so it was obviously possible for great masterpieces of music to be created.
Indeed, the ruling class in its more or less golden age wishes its architecture, and its musical architecture as well, to express solemn grandeur, a deep sense of inner stability and harmony. There was good reason why the aristocrat Pythagoras, who strove to establish a dictatorship of a group of the most highly placed families, stressed the great significance of the structural principle in music. It was he who expressed most clearly the idea of the existence in the heavenly world of profound and magnificent order which is distorted in the earthly world. Pythagoras attempted to express this order in terms of musical harmony.
Such is the social origin and social significance of architectural music. It could not but develop wherever there was a well-established social order. That is why the Catholic Church made such extensive use of it, as the Protestant Church did later, relying on the magnetic powers of music: the organ and singing by the congregation.
Unfortunately, social order has until now usually been expressed in a religious form, in the form of a monarchy, more rarely in the form of various religious and knightly orders, guilds, etc.
It is not difficult to see that a socialist society is destined to create the most grandiose collective order. It is not difficult to foresee as well that this grandiose order of an entirely new and unprecedented type will call to life truly
exalted music which I call architectural, i.e., the majestic combination of chorus and orchestra to produce an idealised expression of the gigantic agreement of forces.
We should note in passing that this can be presented most fully only in contrast to some negative entity which it has conquered or which threatens it, and which, in accord with the victorious light of harmony and unity, usually constitutes the inner essence of all architectural musical structures.
The advances to socialism and a true realisation of the present lack of unity and ills of humanity inspire its finest sons to a mighty surge towards this order. They may realise clearly that there is a world of wise, exalted life in their dreams, a world without racial and class contradictions. Or they may not realise this, they may even deceive themselves and relegate this ideally construed world beyond the grave, to another world or to an imagined celestial time and place. At any rate, the appearance of such musicians who strive for order is possible and even inevitable in our time.
It is most interesting to see that the Western bourgeois world is likewise striving towards order, the social expression of which is reflected in the neo-monarchist, fascist, etc., movements. This has found its expression in music as well. Vincent d’Indy, who stressed so eloquently the two poles of music I am speaking of here, who censured Debussy and considered himself to be an architectural musician, was actually an active monarchist.
The new tendencies in Western art, especially in French art (neo-classicism, purism, etc.) may be a reflection of the bourgeoisie’s desire to supplant democracy and individualism with a dictatorship; but the tendency of the proletariat to replace a capitalist system by a truly social system, i.e., a well-ordered socialist system, can also lead to architectural music.
Scriabin, so greatly influenced by Chopin, but who later fanned Chopin’s fire with such unusual passion that it became a roaring holocaust, is undoubtedly a musician of mood.
He himself writes of the great pleasure he derives from the knowledge of his power over musical matter, the unusual
force with which he can make the obedient sounds reflect the deepest emotions.
It was the experience of an artist, capable of transmitting his passionate change in mood so swiftly and forcefully into objective reality, into music that charmed the souls of others, that suggested the strange philosophical wanderings which provide the key to the music of Scriabin’s second and third periods.
The essence of Scriabin’s philosophy is now well known. Scriabin believed that the universe was the free creation of a certain personal spirit, a creation, however, full of contradiction and tragedy, a sort of sorrowful, passionate, bitter, exciting game of the spirit with ghosts it itself had called to life.
Scriabin conceded the existence of a god-artist and considered the universe to be the work of this artist, created by his dream as it were for his own exalted “pleasure.”
But how does a creative individual, Scriabin himself, his ego, appear in respect to this god? In viewing his own personal world, his ego, as a creative centre, and his surroundings as its game, Scriabin, as is often the case with idealists, descended to genuine solipsism, i.e., to imagining that this god was none other than Scriabin himself and that in relation to his ego the rest of the universe was his own free but terrible artistic game.
Proceeding from these concepts, which he kept secret from the public, Scriabin built his dream, truly bordering on the insane and surpassing in scope the flights of the imagination of composers of all time.
Scriabin believed he could create a musical mystery which would actually evolve into the solemn chords of conciliation, of the triumph of the spiritual essence of creation, so that after the fantastic performance of this all-encompassing mystery, there would actually be no reason for the universe to exist any longer. The colourful phantasmagory would shrivel and vanish, and the spirit would enter a new phase of existence which would be an extension of itself, its complete self-knowledge and, at the same time, its release from the glittering, seductive nightmares it alone had created.
If this construction of Scriabin’s is translated into social language, we shall see the social experience that is reflected
in his philosophy, in his musical plans and, therefore, in his works.
Scriabin sees the world, and primarily the human world, as a unique and exciting kaleidoscope of events, in which diversity is bought at the price of rupture, ugliness and suffering.
The world Scriabin perceives through our present bourgeois civilisation attracts him, on the one hand, by its wealth, its noise, its combination of pleasures and horrors and, on the other hand, it seems to be a temporary, unacceptable world that must undergo a basic revolutionary upheaval which would replace it by universal calm and order immersed in itself.
Thus, we see in Scriabin an interest in the very tempo of life, both internal and external, in the chaotic era of imperialism, a deep understanding and the ability to respond to all the exciting and burning contradictions of psychic and social life; and, on the other hand, a tremendous desire for order. However, Scriabin perceived the one and the other in his own individual way. Scriabin enjoyed how objective life, so tormenting and dizzying, played on the strings of his unusually sensitive heart and how the flutterings of this heart were later reflected in music. He perceived this picture as his own creative dream, as his own self-delight and self-torture and, therefore, the serenity and order for which his soul yearned he also perceived as his own serenity and order, as his personality absorbing all the vagaries and contradictions, as absolute self-assertion.
However, it is most characteristic that Scriabin approaches this state of serenity in a revolutionary way, i.e., he does not visualise a situation in which his creative ego would gradually reconcile the universal discord or in which he would build another structure in music, one of stately harmony, to counteract the noisy confusion of the universe, and humanity in particular. Nothing of the kind! It was characteristic of Scriabin that he considered self-incineration in the fire of excesses, which he visualised during his greatest interest in solipsism, as the incineration of the world.
Scriabin’s god is one of self-incineration who, in the fire of passions that have reached their peak, destroys his own
body and frees his true essence; that is why the great mystery which Scriabin perceived in somewhat hazy outline took on the nature of such a wild frenzy of passions, such a wanton orgy, when the elements of the soul and, therefore, the universe, begin to disintegrate at a definite stage, and only after this extreme explosion of destructive passion does there dawn a new calm morning of other-worldly order, quite unfathomable to us.
What social force, what social experience is reflected in these features of Scriabin’s work?
Undoubtedly, the revolutionary experience of 1905, the imminent revolution. Scriabin refracted this through a very original prism, perceiving a world charged with a tremendous force, at one and the same time both destructive and directed towards supreme order, a force which in exploding would destroy the neurotic, uneasy kaleidoscope of the world.
But once again, as an individualist, Scriabin perceived this simply as a mood, as a definite trend of emotions and conveyed it with unusual, half-insane and brilliant boldness, as the identification of this force with his own personality. It was he who was the great revolutionary, it was his work that would destroy the world, it was this work that would produce the harmony.
Scriabin, however, was not mad. Essentially, he was a very sane and intelligent man.
Later (not long before his death, unfortunately), he realised his mistake and in clear and logical entries in his diary he destroyed his solipsism and acknowledged that the world exists objectively, that, therefore, other human beings and other creatures, and other organisms, bodies and things exist – undoubtedly, actually exist; since this was so, he would obviously have to say good-bye to the mystery, to the belief that one mighty work, one individual could change the world. Scriabin then wrote the Preliminary Act instead of his mystery; true, it was still overflowing with individualism and idealism, but the very fact that he views his new majestic musical poem of the world as a solely preliminary act to something else is most significant and gratifying.
But when Scriabin thus freed himself of the extremes of individualism and realised that the world is an objectively existing ocean of matter, when he more or less came to understand mankind’s place in it – did he then reject his idea of the tortuous kaleidoscope of our present social life, of the necessity of an explosion within it, of the necessity of achieving a true, wise order in life? I do not think so. Naturally, I do not have direct proof of this, but I think that Scriabin, channelling his thoughts towards a healthy outlook on life (from subjectivity to objectivity, which could lave later taken him from idealism to materialism), was forced once again to translate his hopes and plans from the language of mood into social language.
At any rate, Scriabin did not do this as a musician: as a musician he remained the only genius of his kind, i.e., in constructing music as something entirely personal, as mood music, “Chopinising,” as it were, he imbued this subjective music, owing to the peculiarities of his philosophy, with social and even universal force. Moreover, the entire world, seen through Scriabin’s moods, acquired the features of a stirring fanfare, terrifying though delightful in its diversity and strength, the features of the concerted struggle of the elements – with the elements of human consciousness in the forefront, naturally – among themselves and the rush of this entire mass to an imminent explosion, which will be tortuous but will be a final absolution. A new, truly harmonious order is the final goal of this ravaged universe (society!).
Thus Scriabin, despite his individualism, advanced towards a portrayal of the revolution or a prophecy of it through the portrayal of passion. He prophesied it in music and herein lies his social significance. Inasmuch as the reader will agree with this analysis, he will accept the fact that this significance is great, indeed.
From what I have said of Taneyev it is apparent that he was a very different type of man.
First of all, Taneyev, unlike Scriabin, was an architect in music.
Taneyev does not regard music as an expression of tumultuous passion; it is not a human cry, transformed, yet bearing all the features of its origin.
Taneyev considers music to be a self-sufficient element with its own inner laws, its own order, which must be clearly defined lest one be led into wretched contradiction. One can build more or less freely in the wonderful and shining material of music, but the more perfectly the artist knows the laws of his material and the closer he conforms to them, the greater his freedom. The matter that is music seems to seek combinations of its own accord, to align itself into a beautiful, convincing, logical and shining structure.
Even if man were simply to play with these singing combinations as a child plays with blocks, without thwarting the inner qualities of these magic blocks, in a way that would guide his creative hand according to the will inherent in the musical forms themselves, even then the result would be elements of a very special world, far more orderly and pure inwardly and, therefore, more beautiful than ours.
Music is the transformed life of matter which Taneyev considered to be striving towards order in its very essence. In those of his works which are most complete and most in keeping with his philosophy, he raises his own concealed moods to the pinnacle of music. He transforms the world of human passions, he does not let it ring out acutely to all but wreck the golden forms of music, he tries not to deprive the fits of despair or terrible clashes of the elements of their force, but translates them in toto into the exalted language of music.
When one listens to the more pathétique passages in Taneyev’s quartets and trios, one realises how masterfully he used the elements of suffering, gentle sorrow or heroic struggle. Taneyev understands and accepts them; but when Taneyev the musician depicts all this, you feel that the fingers of a master have touched the waves of the storm, knowing beforehand that these waves are as yet the unpacified and unco-ordinated elements of a given whole which cannot but be co-ordinated.
Taneyev did not really think there was a hereafter in which supreme happiness would be achieved; he did not really believe in a providence that would provide a happy end; and, least of all, did he suppose he was a magician like Scriabin and think he could solve, for his own benefit, the discord of existence in one thunderous chord of a magnificent finale.
No, Taneyev considers music and his deep knowledge of music as proof that the universe is already just in such a state of harmony, that the world and Nature are actually a symphony, a state of accord, although at present this world is passing through certain stages of development which tend to remove it from its own true essence. I believe that Taneyev’s outlook is probably closest to that of the great German idealists – to Fichte, Schelling, and especially Hegel. As is known, Hegel insisted that his idealism was an objective idealism, i.e., that in his opinion the idea as a concept is not in opposition to matter, to the world; that the development of the idea proceeds concretely within the concrete phenomena of the concrete universe.
Returning to our simile of magic blocks, one can put it thus: the world is actually a magnificent system of such blocks, as is music. It lends itself to – perhaps multiform, if not singular – construction, i.e., to the realisation of accord and and happiness on various levels; but the builders are clumsy, and the magic blocks seem scattered about in confusion. Taneyev feels that a musician possesses a different set of magic blocks than those of which the real universe is built. A musician’s magic blocks are simpler, clearer and in closer harmony with each other. It is much easier to construct the higher forms of accord and happiness from musical magic blocks. They can both reflect how disintegration and discord harmonise and show how all grief and sorrow strives towards happiness.
This is the musician’s true calling. That is why he can be a pure artist and why he must be a formalist musician. He must give precedence to form, because it is the formal side of music that determines the social role of the musician as one who advocates the elimination of contradictions. At the same time, Taneyev firmly believed that music is a socially significant phenomenon and he was always a staunch supporter of meaningful, ideological, philosophical music.
This brings me to the following conclusions: If Scriabin depicted so brilliantly the pathos, the passions without which no revolution is ever possible, Taneyev revealed its other side, which in the present year of 1925 is no less close to our hearts: the constructive side, the side of eliminating contradictions, achieving harmony, unity and the creation of the highest form of order.
Despite Scriabin’s passionate dedication, we do not find this state of order in his music. He is too much of a romanticist. However, the revolution is not only romantic, but also classical in its constructive nature.
Taneyev the classic evolved a truly musical philosophy of usefulness and order which included freedom as one of its elements. But there are times when Taneyev lacks Scriabin’s passion. If, on the other hand, Scriabin achieved certain degree of objectivity in his way of thinking towards the end of his days, in his life and in his music he remains an individualist. Taneyev, on the other hand, relegates his personality to the background, he is to a very great extent an objective and epic personality.
We have in Scriabin’s music the greatest gift of musical romanticism of the revolution, and in Taneyev’s music the greatest gift of the same revolution – musical classicism.
I would like to add several remarks on the social role and social significance of Taneyev’s music which I find necessary even in such a brief essay as this.
I have already said that Taneyev was a formalist and I praised him as such. Nevertheless, any reader in the least bit familiar with my writings knows that I am a sworn foe of formalism and consider it to be one of the sins of a decadent culture.
But here one must clearly draw the line between two types of formalism. The individual formalism of an artist-competitor in an era of the decay of the ruling classes takes on the nature of a mad race for originality, ostentation and affectation. This race for originality is all the more disgusting, because the eccentrics are not after originality of thought or emotion, but solely after originality of form, i.e., after a bizarre effect, shock value and sometimes even sensational nonsense. The last link in this type of race are the various Dadaists or outright charlatans, and there are various degrees of this which not only smell of decay, but which are fully decomposed already. That is why Hausenstein, an excellent historian of German literature and a Marxist, in attempting to defend expressionism was later forced to admit it was undeniably decadent in form.
Taneyev’s formalism is something quite different. In his letters to Tchaikovsky, which are in themselves of tremendous interest, he tries to explain the great work he has done in studying the origins of music and its classical canons. “Why am I searching in the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “why am I seeking an established language, why am I seeking a well-defined, complete form of music? Because this is not scholasticism at all, but the more significant, well-moulded treasures. Each form, evolving organically from generation to generation, has a complete universal significance and, in the end, rests on the foundation of folk art.”
What does this mean? It means that Taneyev is not trying to produce a bizarre effect at all; it means Taneyev wants to learn the language of music, which he regards first as a product of the collective creative effort of a people, then of generations of skilled masters, of entire guilds, and, finally, of a number of brilliant individuals who lived, however, in an organic era, who did not jump from place to place, but derived their logical conclusions from the work of their predecessors in this gigantic, collective, objective undertaking.
A scientist is a poor one indeed, if he does not grasp the whole of his science as just such an organically growing tree, nurtured constantly by new experiments. Being a scientist of great erudition certainly does not mean having nothing to contribute oneself. On the contrary, it is possible to add something organic – at times even great perhaps – to that which has been created by humanity only if this past has been fully understood. One can judge how lawful this continuity appears to us Communists from the fact that even the gigantic rupture that comes with the proletarian revolution does not disrupt this continuity, and Lenin, the world’s greatest revolutionary, triumphantly states once again that the process of building a culture of the new class, the process of changeover to an entirely new universal culture, can only take place on the basis of a complete understanding of the old culture.
Thus, Taneyev is a formalist in the sense that he does not set his all-too-transient personality – as the skilled contemporary Bohemian heroes do – in opposition to the age-old structures, but, on the contrary, arranges and generalises the creative achievements; he does not invent a personal abstruse language but studies the great language of the people, its inner laws and its infinite wealth, and, naturally, his purpose is to further enrich it.
In another letter to Tchaikovsky, Taneyev says most significantly: “He who does not understand the inner, ideal language of music will certainly create dead values.” Thus, there can be no break between form and content in Taneyev’s works. The musical form itself is full of meaning. This was the nature of Taneyev’s research in music for himself and for his pupils in order to fully understand the true meaning, the psychological and social significance of each musical formula.
Some music critics have noted with surprise that Taneyev first completed the various parts of a composition and them seemed to join them along the lines of the magic blocks I have spoken of.
But why are these music critics (Karatygin, for example) surprised? Because they are used to evaluating music from a lyrical, emotional point of view. Naturally, such music must come from several basic determinants, it must grow organically, as a plant from its original seed. Architectural music is quite different. If a critic had approached the Cathedral of Milan when it was under construction, he would certainly have been amazed by the fact that in one place they were working on a plinth, in another they were carving a statue, in a third they were cutting stones of the most capricious shape and form, etc., but all this was being done because these various parts were just that – parts of a planned whole.
Taneyev could borrow much from completed musical material and could slowly prepare rational forms for his subsequent constructions, because he knew so well that these forms belonged to some higher unity.
Thus we revolutionaries can expect future titanic songs of revolutionary passion, but for the present we will not find a more passionate musical language, not only in Russian music, but perhaps in all of world music, than the language of Scriabin in such of his works as Prometheus and others, similar to it.
As builders, as champions of the communist order and enemies of the pseudo-democratic chaos of capitalism, we will yet hear great songs of construction and the accord of peoples, but perhaps even in world music we will have difficulty in finding songs of such deep, significant and constructive wisdom as those which Taneyev has given us.