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The worst composer that ever lived?

My album of the week on consists of four concertos by the Communist Party hack who dictated what composers did in Russia from Stalin’s time to Gorbachev’s. So is his own music any good? Read the full review here.


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  1. Faina Kamilova says:

    The name of Prokofiev’s wife was Lina, not Lena

  2. harold braun says:

    I think it isn’t bad,it;s at least tuneful and well crafted,and not for nothing his music was conducted by Stokowski,Ormandy and Bruno Walter .The worst composer ever,for me,is the still by some leftists hailed Hanns Eisler.I have never heard before or after such dull,greyish,non interesting,dreary,poorly orchestrated.non descript stuff such as his.

  3. He can’t be wrose than Puccini

  4. Tully Potter says:

    Norman, that is a very unfair summation of Khrennikov, who was only about half (or a third, or even a quarter) as bad as he is often painted. In answer to your question, however: No, he was not the worst composer that ever lived. I can think of many who were a lot worse. You should start talking to some people who really knew Khrennikov, and not listen to American musicologists, some of whom seem to have it in for every Soviet composer including Shostakovich. A number of great artists played Khrennikov’s music, including some who had no reason to love the Soviet regime.

  5. Joep Bronkhorst says:

    That looks like a three-star review to me?

  6. One can listen to Khrennikov’s Second Symphony here:

    My remarks about the Workers Republic would be more negative if the competency of this music weren’t a good bit above the usual crap level of what we hear in the oh-so-free West. The bad part is that this sort of style was enforced. Imagine the contributions Soviet composers would have made had they been free to explore a wide range of styles. What a loss.

  7. The statue pictured on the cover was built to commemorate the Battle of Stalingrad, which was quite possibly the single most important and far-reaching turning point in human history. If the Soviets had not won, every one of our lives would be vastly different now, and not for the better. The sacrifices the Soviet people made during those months defy human comprehension. I think that eventually larger historical views like this, along with more distance from the Cold War, will temper our judgments of the Soviets in spite of their inhumanity and monsters like Stalin.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      We should not confuse the enormous sacrifices made and casualties suffered by the Soviet *people* – nobody even knows how many – 20 million, 25, 30? – with the terrible Soviet *system* they had to live under before, during, and after the war.

      I wonder how many of those who fought in and survived WWII eventually ended up in a gulag or became victims of the system they had won the war for in other ways. We will never know that either.

      • True. The people were far better than the “people’s government.”

        • Could you please enlighten me who the “Soviet people” were or are?

          • Gonout Backson says:

            Good question. But there are many statements in Mr. Osborne’s two posts which beg such questions. For instance, the phrase about the Battle of Stalingrad is a highly emotional exclamation of no cognitive value, since it cannot neither be proved, nor refuted. It’s also beside the point: does it in any way justify the regime, or even the poor puppet Khrennikov? Would a free democratic Russia fight less heroically against the Nazis, without the famous input of political commisars? Would it even HAVE to fight against it at all, had not Stalin 1. helped Hitler actively before and during the first two years of the war? 2. left it wide open to aggression?

            Who are the “Soviets” in the last phrase? Whose “inhumanity”? If it all means the regime, why should we “temper our judgment”?

    • harold braun says:

      Bravo Mr.Osborne!Couldn’t agree more!

  8. Theodore McGuiver says:

    I’m sure it’s actually pretty good. The mantle of ‘Worst Composer That Ever Lived’ could be assumed by any one of a number of living candidates in the country where I live…

  9. Andrea Penna says:

    He is not a dreadful composer. Nothing spectacular but better that so many others that he favored. He was, on the other hand, a very questionable and ruthless man of power, for several decades. His story is actually still to be told and studied in details

  10. And Mozart’s music was falling out of style even while he lived in favor of larger orchestras and thicker textures. His reputation has come around but who’s to say when the pendulum will swing back or even when it will become irrelevant as the centuries pass? Ask the man on the street if they ever heard of Lassus or even Palestrina. There are hundreds of examples like this. If it’s not your taste, fine. But there is no service to creativity in labeling something the worst. Great sensationalist headline though!

  11. Aww, c’mon, I listened to a bunch of his stuff this afternoon. Sounds better than 99% of the new American composers we have to play these days. So he was a socialist suck-up, so what? Are you telling me all these crappy yet famous composers of today wouldn’t throw their colleagues under the bus to get more commissions or performances? They are all suck ups, too. This composer has imagination and chops. ANY great composer is highly derivative of the giants who came before him, and is wise to try to stand on their shoulders.
    Can we please stop expecting composers/conductors/musicians/sopranos to tow the latest PC company line?
    BTW, thank you for introducing me to a new composer who’s music is quite good. There are gems out there!

  12. A critic stating words like “worst” and “hack” in order to get attention?!
    In other news…water is wet.

  13. I recently came upon this shocking 2007 interview of Khrennikov by Jeremy Eichler @ the Boston Globe (please see link below). It seems Khrennikov not only victimized Prokofiev and Khachaturian, and may have driven Shostakovich almost to the brink of suicide, but he is also widely rumored to have been the cause of Schnittke’s stroke and demise, all while in this same interview Khrennikov astonishingly claims to have been a victim of communism himself… A very interesting interview, in which Khrennikov’s victim (now London-based) composer Elena Firsova also participated (by phone). I recently recorded for the Urlicht label the CD “Violin declamations from the twilight of the socialist workers’ paradise” with solo violin works written during the last 20 years of communism, including pieces by Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov, Aram Khachaturian and Alfred Schnittke, and in connection with this CD I did some research on Khrennikov’s victims. Elena Firsova and Dmitri Smirnov were part of the so-called “Khrennikov Seven”, a group of seven composers, denounced by Khrennikov in 1979 at the Sixth Congress of the Composer’s Union. At that congress Khrennikov called their music “pointlessness…and noisy mud instead of real musical innovation”. According to Dmitri Smirnov, an administrative punishment was made as a consequence of the denunciation, preventing the “Khrennikov Seven” from being performed on radio and television, and prohibiting the publication of their scores. (The “Khrennikov Seven” also included composers Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov). Khrennikov’s tone for his denunciation speech at the Sixth Congress in 1979 is reminiscent of his condemning proclamation (“Enough of these symphonic diaries – these pseudo-philosophic symphonies hiding behind their allegedly profound thoughts and tedious self-analysis… Armed with clear party directives, we will stop all manifestations of formalism and popular decadence”) at the First Congress in 1948 (the year, in which Khrennikov was chosen personally by Stalin to lead the Union of Soviet Composers – a job he would keep until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). At that First Congress in 1948 Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian were victimized and forced to apologize publicly for their music (Khachaturian later said: “Those were tragic days for me…My repenting speech at the First Congress was insincere. I was crushed, destroyed. I seriously considered changing professions.” ) As a consequence of this First Congress, Shostakovich was dismissed from the Conservatory and most of his works were banned, while Shostakovich himself waited for his arrest night after night out on the landing by the elevator, as to spare his family the disturbance…Prokofiev’s upcoming opera projects were promptly cancelled by the Kirov Theatre, and that contributed further to Prokofiev’s already declining health and caused him to progressively withdraw from active musical life. Such were the dire consequences of this First Congress, headed by Khrennikov, who, even much later, wasn’t ashamed to describe Stalin as a “genius”, and to express pride that he “was Stalin’s Commissar. When I said No! it meant No” (2006 interview by Martin Sixsmith for BBC’s radio show “Challenging the Silence”). With all his power and influence, Khrennikov did not try to prevent Prokofiev’s wife Lina being charged as a “spy” and did not attempt to alleviate her fate when she was sent to the Gulag, nor did he interfere when Prokofiev’s sons were forcibly evicted from their home. When Lina Prokofieva was invited personally by the French culture minister to the opening of Prokofiev’s memorial board in Paris, Khrennikov, as head of the Composers’ Union, refused to allow her to go, and instead, went himself, with his entire family, to take part at that ceremony. Shockingly, in a 2004 interview, Khrennikov angrily refuted the suggestion that he may have contributed to the persecution of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others, and asserted that composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, when arrested in 1953, had been discharged immediately because of his (Khrennikov’s) protection, when in fact Weinberg was released and saved from probable execution only because of Stalin’s death.

    Khrennikov not only remained for many decades at his position at the helm of the Composers’ Union, as well as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and chairman of the Tchaikovsky Competition, but he was also richly rewarded with a museum and a statue in his city of birth, as well as with three Stalin Prizes, one Lenin Prize, four orders of Lenin, and numerous other orders and medals (including a 2003 UNESCO Mozart medal).

  14. As a composer, despite his position and conformity, he was respected.And members of the Composer’s Union had really nice working facilities and forums provided for them for free
    this music full of passion and he could certainly play piano:

  15. Michael NYC says:

    “Aww, c’mon, I listened to a bunch of his stuff this afternoon. Sounds better than 99% of the new American composers we have to play these days.”

    Andrew, sounds like you are living in the wrong country in the wrong century, and what’s more, you’ve chosen the wrong profession . At least that is what you communicate th rough such an ill-tempered post.

    Please Andrew, take a deep breath next time an American composer appears on a program and consider how lucky you are to be part of a living, creative process.

    Have a sense of decency as well as historical perspective! But if totalitarian composers truly rock your boat, there must be a Russian orchestra out there who could send you a plane ticket and lend you a seat. Indeed, there may be a future exploring more ideologically-infused meisterstuecke of Khrennikov and his ilk. Would you be satisfied now?

  16. It is evident that our judgement of the quality of a composition or a performance is strongly influenced by our preconceptions. Not only the general public but also professional musicians, journalists and musicologists are affected. In Khrennikov’s case the general impression of him as a person might be wrong (as suggested by Shchedrin in the interview posted by John), but even if it isn’t, we should try to hear the pure music.

    Shchedrin seems to think highly of Khrennikov’s First Symphony, which was written at the age of 22 and was his graduation piece from the Moscow Conservatory. Based on this piece only it’s safe to say that Khrennikov was a very capable composer.

  17. Louis Blois says:

    Thank you, Ms. Darvarova, for this detailed report and the link to a very fair and objective article on the enigmatic figure of Tikhon Khrennikov. It’s not so easy to brush off the man and his music in the presence of such diverse perspectives. Politics aside, Khrennikov’s robustly lyrical music unswervingly adheres to a well-defined aesthetic, is by all means technically competent, attractive, and is blessed with enough stylistic fingerprints to be recognizably his own.

  18. Allan Green says:

    Worst composer ever ? This “accolade” was bestowed on Sibelius (whose music I like very much) by a French critic. Other candidates for the title ?

    • Gonout Backson says:

      By two: René Leibowitz (excellent conductor and writer on music) and Antoine Goléa (violinist and colourful critic).

    The irony is, that in the former Soviet Union traditional, tonal styles were forced upon composers while in the West composers were free to give-up such ‘outdated’ concepts, with the result that something of the great tradition lived-on in Russia like a ghost in a dungeon, and in the West composers joyfully set-out to destroy anything that reminded them of a great past, resulting in the current aesthetic confusion, and the ‘invasion’ of sonic artists into the musical field. In the fifites and sixties of the last century, the West was as dominated by ideologies as the Soviet Union, with the difference that in the West, there was no totalitarian government dictating musical styles. In those times, the Western world of contemporary music showed a mirror image of the totalitarian mentality of the East. I don’t know what is worse…. also in the West composers were driven out of their profession, performances blocked, their income taken away, their work ridiculed and condemned – there were as strong party lines as in the Soviet Union.

    Just a few examples: very gifted composers Ernst Toch, Walter Braunfels, Bertold Goldschmitt, tried to restore their career after the war, in vain because their work was deemed ‘outdated’ while recently this music has been dug-out and it appears to be just very good stuff. Also, while Benjamin Britten was successful in the (very traditional) UK, he was slandered all his life by the modernist pundits as ‘reactionary’, as Shostakovich was. But with the withering of modernism, their music has found a place in the repertoire of the central performance culture.

    If there is one little, faint, ephemeral point of a somewhat not-all-too-negative factor of this truly sickening Soviet barbarism, it is the importance the Soviet Government gave to art in general, which is not a typical Soviet characteristic but an important part of Russian cultural identity. In contrary to the West, Russians think that art, and especially music, is an essential part of life, of society, while in the West such notions have eroded. We live now in a society where art, music, is merely part of an extensive entertainment industry with no special claim on funding, status, etc. etc. So, crime on one side and decadence and decline on the other.

  20. Judge the music, not the composer.

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