Song of Crimea

My mailbox is filled with cards and letters, all asking the same question: “Croche, is there a classical music angle to the escalating conflict in Crimea?” My answer is: “Indeed there is!”

This past week, Kristina Karamanova, daughter of the Crimean composer Alemdar Sabitovich Karamanov (1934-2007), posted online a small fragment of his seldom-heard oratorio The Heroic Legend of Adzhimushkay Quarry with the following note:

The Heroic Legend of Adzhimushkay Quarry, for soloists, chorus and orchestra, was written to words of Boris Serman in 1983. This music, which could also be choreographed, was originally written in Russian, and then translated into Ukrainian. Though I was but a little girl, I remember the premiere at the Ukrainian Theater in Simferopol. People were crying. This work is now of great relevance, it should be heard in CRIMEA! I send this to my friends, to those who remember the horrors of fascisms, for those who find it important to preserve the independent culture of Crimea… Listen, please. Those who have ears will hear it.

Karamanov was born in the Crimean capital of Simferopol. In the fateful year of Stalin’s death, 1953, Karamanov enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a composition student of Semyon Semyonovich Bogatyrev, Dmitri Kabalevsky and Tikhon Khrennikov. The Khrushchev years were ones of new openness in Soviet musical life, and Karamanov was eager to explore them. By the early 60s, the young Crimean considered a member of the new avant-garde, along with such composers as Andrei Volkonsky, Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. Karamanov was tireless in his labors during this period, composing 10 symphonies, concertos, a ballet, an oratorio, and many works for chamber ensembles and for piano.

Despite the encouragement of Shostakovich and Khrennikov, Karamanov decided—as did so many in the 1960s and 70s—to “drop out” of the system. The composer returned to his native Simferopol, something of a backwater in the larger scheme of Soviet musical life. For the next fifteen years he devoted himself to the composition of massive “symphonic liturgies”, as well as more conventional large-scale religious works (“Stabat Mater”, “Requiem” and “Mass”).

This period of Karamanov’s work begins with the two-hour symphonic cycle “It Has Been Accomplished (Sovershishasya)” (about which more below), written from 1965-67, is made up of four independent symphonies (numbers 11-14), totaling ten movements. The composer’s “First Simferopol period” closes in the year 1980, with the six-symphony cycle “Was Made (Byst’)” (as in “the word was made flesh”). This cycle presented themes from the Apocalypse, with individual symphonies bearing such titles as “Blessed Are The Dead”, “Let It Be”, and “I Am Jesus”. (Only half have been recorded – in face, most of Karamanov’s works remain unpublished and unrecorded.)

Not only did Karamanov turn his back on Moscow’s musical life during the years 1965-80, he also turned his back on the “avant-garde”, as it was then usually defined. Drawing inspiration from his early love of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Karamanov cultivated a style we might term “Post-Romantic”, a style which careens unexpectedly between the heart-on-sleeve lyricism of pre-Revolutionary music and the structured cacophony which came to symbolize the post-war modernism.

While no single musical idea sounds unmistakably like “Karamanov”, the progression of musical styles within each of his massive works bears the unmistakable echo of his personal voice. In this, Karamanov’s musical thought somewhat resembles the polystilism of Alfred Schnittke. But where Schnittke’s music often reflects a tragic vision of existence, Karamanov’s manages to find reasons for comfort and optimism.

In the early 1980s, Karamanov managed (with the help of conductor Vladimir Fedoseev and his former mentor Tikhon Khrennikov), to have his six-symphony Apocalyptic cycle performed. As one condition for these performances, he had to retitle the work along standard Soviet lines—“Was Made” became “Poem of Victory”, “Blessed are the Dead” became “The Great Sacrifice”, and so on. Perhaps inspired by these officially-sanctioned performance, Karamanov began work on his secular oratorio “The Heroic Legend of Adzhimushkay Quarry”.

The subject for this oratorio was one congenial to the musical authorities: a terrifying episode from the Great Patriotic War in which anti-Nazi guerrillas take refuge in the catacombs of the Adzhimushkay quarry, where they are trapped and starved. (One might detect some religious symbolism in the catacombs, but that was the type of double-entendre that Soviet officials indulged.) Visitors to Simferopol can take in the city’s gigantic Monument to the Defenders of the Adzhimushkay Quarry.

The Heroic Legend of Adzhimushkay is, so far as I can tell, seldom performed. Karamanov barely mentions the work in interviews from the nineties and aughts. But Kristina Karamanova’s online post serves a reminder that the past doesn’t often stay there quietly. It is not entirely unambiguous whether she regards the Ukrainians or the Russians as the forces of resurgent fascism (though I would bet that she is pro-Russian).

What does seem clear is that a work which appeared to be marginal to a composer’s oeuvre can suddenly acquire contemporary urgency. Crimeans, no matter their political sympathies, will feel besieged. It is a great irony that a composer who emphatically withdrew from society, who worked in relative poverty and anonymity on the fringes of an empire, should suddenly appear to be so close to the center of momentous events.

Postscript: Since Karamanova seems only to have posted a small portion of The Heroic Legend of Adzhimushkay online, I thought I’d supplement this consideration of the Crimean composer with a complete recording of his symphonic cycle “It Is Achieved”, based on the Gospels. The massive first movement, 36 minutes in length, simultaneously serves as the composer’s Eleventh Symphony, as a sonata-form first movement to the whole cycle, and a foreshadowing of the musical drama of the ensuing nine movements.

The second movement, “Such is the Kingdom of Heaven”, is a luscious cello concerto and is also known as the composer’s Twelfth Symphony. The solo instrument represents Jesus, in conversation with Nicodemus. The third through sixth movements constitute Karamanov’s Thirtheenth Symphony. They depict Christ’s crucifixion, with the typical four movements of a symphony receiving the titles “In Hebrew, Greek , and Latin”, “It Has Been Achieved”, “He Whom They Have Pierced”, and “He Beat His Breast”.

The final four movements portray Christ’s resurrection. The seventh movement, “His Clothes Are Anointed With Fragrances”, has a violin solo representing Mary Magdalene. The eighth movement is an adagio on the theme “He Is Not Here. He Is Risen”. The ninth movement, “And They Were In The Temple”, features a chorus singing “Alleluiya” to the very same music which opened the whole program. A tenor then leads the chorus in an imposing rendition of the 117th Psalm “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth for ever.” Though this massive chorus might sound like the end of the cycle (a la Beethoven’s Ninth or Scriabin’s First), Karamanov tops it with a short but sublimely terrifying orchestral postlude which is titled “In The Glory of His Father.”

Think of it as a little warm-up for Easter.