Tikhon Khrennikov

Biography

Born: June 10, 1913; Elets, Orlov Province, Russia   Died: August 14, 2007; Moscow, Russia  
Russian composer Tikhon Khrennikov is probably the most controversial figure in the history of Soviet music. In his capacity as Secretary to the Union of Soviet Composers, Khrennikov both denounced and elevated the reputations of his fellow composers, attempting to climb what was apparently a rather slippery slope. As a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and a representative of the Supreme Soviet Council, he was a Soviet Read more insider of a very high magnitude, and, according to Khrennikov, did what he could to satisfy Soviet authorities while privately protecting composers and musicians in whom the Secret Police entertained an interest.

Khrennikov studied composition with Mikhail Gniessen at the Gniessen Academy in Moscow and studied piano with Heinrich Neuhaus; his first major work was his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1932), the first of a cycle of four, the last appearing in 1991. Khrennikov's Symphony No. 1 (1935) gained the notice of conductor Leopold Stokowski and premiered outside Russia; it remains Khrennikov's best-known work in the West. In 1939, Khrennikov premiered the opera Into the Storm, the fruits of a three-year collaboration with producer Nemirovich-Damchenko. The enduring success of this revolutionary-themed, patriotic work established Khrennikov as a major voice in the Soviet socialist realism style as it applied to music. Khrennikov more firmly cemented this reputation with his Song of Moscow written for the film They Met in Moscow (1941), earning Khrennikov his first Stalin Prize; three more would be awarded him in his lifetime. Khrennikov's experience with the intrigues of the Soviet political regime came early; during the "Great Terror" in 1937, two of Khrennikov's brothers were arrested by the Secret Police. While he was miraculously able to save one of them, the other vanished in the Gulag system.

In 1948, Khrennikov was named Secretary to the Union of Soviet Composers under Andrei Zhdanov, the primary instigator of socialist realism under Stalin. With Khrennikov's cooperation, Zhdanov quickly commenced a purge of the Union of Soviet Composers. During this time, Khrennikov denounced both Sergey Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich, among others, for practicing compositional styles linked to anti-revolutionary, formalist concepts derived from Western influence; Khrennikov later stated that he was reading from a prepared speech given to him by the Kremlin. With Zhdanov's sudden and unexpected death later in 1948, the situation gradually cooled, but these days are remembered as the darkest in the lives of both Prokofiev and Shostakovich; biographers of these famous composers have been quick to point to Khrennikov as an adversarial figure in this crisis.

Nevertheless, Khrennikov held onto his position as Secretary to the Union of Soviet Composers until the position was dissolved after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, a gradual thaw toward musical styles in the Soviet Union arrived somewhat earlier than in other artistic disciplines; in 1962, arch-modernist Igor Stravinsky was invited back to the Soviet Union for his first visit since before the October Revolution, mostly at Khrennikov's behest. Khrennikov also helped establish the careers of high-grade concert virtuosi such as Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonid Kogan. Khrennikov himself enjoyed a very active concert career as a pianist, being named People's Artist of the U.S.S.R. in 1963. In his later music, Khrennikov adopted some measure of the "modernist" techniques he had denounced earlier in his career as composer, though these coalesced rather uncomfortably with the "na_ve optimism" (Grove's) that had characterized his music since the 1930s.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Khrennikov was widely vilified by experts on Soviet music as a kind of pariah, but when pressed about his role in the Zhdanov purges, Khrennikov stated that he had no regrets; he wrote a memoir, That Is How It Was, in 1994 to answer all such questions, supported by state documents. He continued to compose up to about the year 2001, producing at least 10 operas; three symphonies; numerous ballets, concertos, and songs; some chamber music; and 22 film scores, the last genre in which Khrennikov seems to have gathered the most acclaim in his home country. Read less
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