For well over half a century now, Rodion Shchedrin (he turns 90 on December 16 of this year) has ranked as one of Russia’s leading composers. While well-known contemporary colleagues of Russian origin like Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Edison Denisov long ago chose to live abroad, Shchedrin retained strong ties to his homeland. He has managed to avoid overstepping Party-approved artistic guidelines, yet also managed to create a body of work that approaches contemporary stylistic endeavors in the west. During the 1960s he even dabbled in atonality, serialism and aleatory devices, procedures that would have earned most composers scathing criticism. Throughout the years of strong Party control he was known, in the west, at any rate, as the Soviet Union’s “token modernist.”
Shchedrin is known to western audiences primarily through his spectacular Carmen Suite (1967), a ballet score for strings and a huge array of percussion instruments fashioned after Bizet’s opera and written as a star vehicle for his wife, the renowned ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Other ballets include* The Little Humpbacked Horse* (1956 ), Anna Karenina (1971, after Tolstoy), and The Seagull (1979, after Chekhov). His seven operas includes* Lolita* (1993, based on Nabokov’s infamous novel), and, most recently, A Christmas Tale (2015, after a fairy tale). Then there are three symphonies, six piano concertos, five concertos for orchestra (each premiered in a different foreign city: Warsaw, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, London), and many more concertos for solo instruments including a Double Concerto for piano and cello (2011) first performed by Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky. There is also much chamber, choral, and piano music, the latter including a full set of 24 Preludes and Fugues inspired by Bach’s and Shostakovich’s efforts in the genre.
Stanley Krebs, in Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music (1970), summarized Shchedrin’s music as displaying “impresive technical mastery, preoccupation with sheer sound, use of a folk idiom, eclectic harmony, avoidance of introspection and formal depth, an overwhelming emphasis on program music and vocal-symphonic genres, and point blank communicative aim at the mass audience.”
In Les Grands Ballets' repertoire:
From 1973 to 1990 Shchedrin was chairman of the Union of Russian Composers. He has amassed an impressive list of prizes and honors both at home and abroad, including the USSR State Prize (1972), the Lenin Prize (1984), and the State Prize of the Russian Federation (1992). There is even an asteroid named after him: asteroid 4625 Shchedrin.
Notes by Robert Markow