Leonid Desyatnikov: What i wanted to express in the Rite of Winter

“Stories for Boys and Girls”, an English reading book for 5th grade students of the seven-year secondary school (the 3rd year of studying English), Moscow, 1949

I found this shabby little book either in the basement or in the attic in a dacha near Moscow in the mid-1990s. I did not know then that for the conceptualist game such kind of garbage archeology is an essential condition. I showed my find to my friends and A. S. said, “Why don’t you set it to music?”

That was the first impulse.

“All art rests on intellectual premises and they are always misleading intellectual premises.” (Lidiya Ginzburg) If it is true — and it really is, as comrade Lenin used to say — so the premises may be deliberately misleading.

Let us pretend that we understand the word “premises” as, let us say, “game rules”. Let us establish the irregular rules.

Let us imagine that the paltry prose and helpless poems were not written 70 years ago, but came to us from deep antiquity.

Time has ennobled them, sanctified them. The primitive “basic Soviet English” turns into a sacred dead Latin.

It is vaguely implied that this is a translation from the equally dead “basic Soviet Russian”, which, in its turn, is unknown to the author of the music.

The composer’s personality is also schizophrenically stratified. On the one hand, he is let’s say a Handel (for the sake of the discussion), reverently interpreting the sacred text. The distance from the composer to the text is so great that our Handel occasionally makes mistakes; however, these errors are not very easy to spot, for he is a professional.

“Handel,” like a matryoshka doll, fits inside “me”, for whom this piece is very personal and confessional. Fanfares, marches, the life-affirming motorics and lyrics of “kolkhoz freedom”, young pioneer songs and dances, as well as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, pseudo- and quasicitations from American minimalist music, whose radiant idiocy reveals a paradox affinity with the aforementioned “Soviet cut”; all this is part of my listening experience, my — pardon my saying so — destiny.

The 2006 version of the symphony consists of six movements.

Text 1 (Prologue) contains a quote from Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, as well as the title of the work chanted in every key.

The main theme of the 2nd movement (Moscow is our Capital) is slightly reminiscent of the main theme of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture; the general character of the part and Shostakovich’s work alike is pathologically gleeful.

Lengthier than the previous one, the 3rd movement (Moscow is full of Wonderful Things) is also devoted to Moscow. The text is a catalog of the Soviet capital wonders, and the general mood is devout and reverent (the movement opens with an a cappella chorus).

The final section before the outro is a thorough, rather illustrative description of the Moscow Metro. The author(s) find(s) it difficult not only to justify, but even to explain the sudden appearance of the opening theme from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) in the climax.

The 4th movement (From Chaikovsky's Childhood) tells the story of one of the protagonists of Soviet cultural mythology; the text used here represents this mythology in its, so to speak, most purified form. The music, of course, is very reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, but there is no direct (at least conscious) quotation here.

The exception is the middle section, where the instrumentation and the general rhythmic contours of the popular and avlso unspeakably beautiful theme of Pyotr Tchaikovsky are quoted almost verbatim.

The 5th movement (Sport) is the culmination of the “totalitarian theme” and the disastrous (just like on the screen when a high-speed camera captures the collapse of a Moscow high-rise) climax, in which the musical themes of the previous movements run in reverse order (from the 5th movement to the second one), and the chorus recites the questions in order to “reinforce what you have learned” in the same manner. These questions used to be placed at the end of each text; that was customary for the textbooks of my childhood.

In the 6th movement (Three Wishes), a brief sentimental finale “from the author” (the Handel and the chorus disappear), there is a soprano solo in the manner of an orphan’s song and a limited orchestra — no brass instruments (only French horns), drums and double-basses.

Based only on the lyrics and this short description, we can conclude that The Rite of Winter 1949 simply translates the ideas of social art into music. However, I do not want this piece to be perceived only as a satire on the Stalinist style. I think the meaning of this music is deeper than that, and it is impossible to cover it with words.

The symphony is dedicated to my mother.