A mini colloquium about inherent or perceived quality of guitar music. Part II

Published by Legacy of Matanya Ophee on

By Matanya Ophee

As I promised, I am posting today the continuation to the Mini Colloquium I posted here a couple of weeks ago. On several occasions in the past few years, I have presented similar Colloquia on this web site. The one about the editing of 19th century guitar music was probably the more successful of the bunch, having drawn some of the top editors in the guitar world, and generated a great deal of discussion. This one, it so appears, was a total flop. Only three people responded, and no substantive discussion followed. Somehow people must have smelled a rat and stayed away. And a rat it was.

It is no great secret that the title of the mini Colloquium derives from the recent spat I had with the Russian composer Nikita Koshkin. The details of this affair are spelled out in various blogs in the Live Journal site, in both Russian and English. If you are interested in the gory details, you can start here.

A fair warning: if you do not care for personal polemics, read no further. If you are interested in the background for this entire affair, proceed at your own risk. Here goes:

Chapter 1

Moishe Zuchmir is a temporary pseudonym I have assigned to the composer of the One Day in the Country Suite,  the Cherkess/Russian composer/guitarist Vladimir Vladimirovich Slavsky (1926-1987).

I met Slavsky completely by chance. I began my study of the History of the Guitar in Russia in the mid 70s, at about the same time I began my inquiry into many other aspects of guitar history. One subject that interested me then was the Tripodison that was invented by Dionisio Aguado. I built, from parts of a drum set, a sort of replica of that contraption, in which I tested Aguado’s claim that it facilitated for him playing the guitar at an advanced age. I lectured about this device at the 1979 Guitar Symposium of ASTA and in several other venues. One such venue was a master class given in that year by Michael Lorimer at the Hartt College of music in Hartford, Connecticut. After the lecture, Michael and I got to discuss our mutual interests, a conversation in which I mentioned my interest in the guitar in Russia. I knew that Michael was the first American guitarist to tour the Soviet Union and perhaps he knew some people there who could help me in my research. He certainly did, and even promised to send me some addresses. I got two. One was of a fellow named Ayk Sarkisian, and the other one was of a Vladimir Slavsky, both in Moscow. My Russian at the time was next to nil and I needed the help of a native speaker to correspond. This was arranged and I wrote to both guitarists. Never heard from Sarkisian, but I got from Slavsky a wonderful letter, plus the photo above, in which he wrote: Ìîåìó äðóãó ã. Îôôè, Â. Ñëàâñêèé, 1980 ã. (To my friend Mr. Ophee, V. Slavsky, 1980).

A sort of correspondence developed, he sent me some of his Soviet publications, I sent him some music he wanted and it was all very friendly. At about the same year, Jack Duarte came to see me in Boston. We spent an evening together, he smoking his pipe and talking, and me smoking my cigar and listening. Then he pulled out of his briefcase a cassette tape and asked me to listen. Vladimir Mikulka, in a concert in Cannington, Duarte’s then annual summer school,  playing a piece by a young Russian composer named Nikita Koshkin called The Princes Toy’s Suite.

I liked what I heard. It sounded fresh and exciting and I could very well share Jack’s enthusiasm for it. I told Jack about my recently established contacts with Slavsky, who seemed to be a person of some importance in the Soviet Union, so Jack asked me if I would mind trying to help arrange for Koshkin a trip to Cannington, so that he can appear in concert himself. I said I’ll look into it.

I finally met Slavsky at the Esztergom guitar festival in 1981. A swarthy looking fellow, a double amputee, and one who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes guitar. By this time my Russian was rapidly improving and we did get on famously during this two week event. When I left, he gave me his guitar as a present. It was a flamenco type guitar made by Nikolai Eshchenko. I still have it. During the event, I asked him several times if he knew Koshkin, and consistently, he pretended not to understand my question. I finally dropped it.

I next met Slavsky in 1982, during my first research trip to the Soviet Union. We spent four wonderful days in Moscow, during which he threw a party in my honor in his apartment to which he invited some of his students, took me for a trip to the country (my visa was specifically limited to Moscow city limits, but he said not to worry, he will take care of it, if anyone questions), we went to the Bolshoi together with some friends of his (Shostakovich Katerina Izmailova). At one point I asked him if he could introduce me to other Moscow guitarists. There is no other classical guitarist in Moscow but him, he assured me. Just him and his students. Everybody else I must have heard about is in other cities, not in Moscow. But…, I said hesitatingly, Jack Duarte told me that Vladimir Mikulka told him that there was one composer/guitarist named Nikita Koshkin living in Moscow. Where is he?

Nah, that’s nothing to worry about, he said. Just some kid who suffers from graphomania and completely devoid of talent. Not worthy of wasting your precious American time on. And then he took me to the local music store so that I could stock up on some of his own editions. By this time Editions Orphée was in full bloom and importing rare music did seem like a good business idea. Prices were ridiculously low. At the store, just around the corner from the Lubyanka prison and in full view of the Dzherdzhinsky monument, I found that Soviet edition of Koshkin’s The Prince’s Toys Suite. They only had ten copies on hand, and I bought all of them, all the while ignoring Slavsky’s carping about Koshkin. Already then, I sensed that there was more to Slavsky’s dislike of Koshkin than met the eye. It would be some years later until I found out what it was.

Chapter 2

When I got back home, I immediately put the Soviet edition of the Prince’s Toys Suite into my catalogue. I had to prepare a special page of translations of the titles, playing instructions etc, since everything there was in Russian. I also had to point out to my customers that two pages in the Soviet edition were printed out of sequence. (I did screw up the translation of one playing instruction, and it was Jack Duarte who pointed this out).

The 10 copies went like hot cakes at the 1982 GFA Festival in Denver and I had to get some more. All Soviet publications were sold overseas by a Soviet organization called Mezhdunarodnaia Kniga that was represented in the US by the Kamkin agency. I ordered from them 500 copies of that edition of the Prince’s Toys Suite, which I received fairly quickly  and in a short time, people who only have heard about this new Russian talent, could now sample his music first hand. The name of Nikita Koshkin was thus established in the West. There is no question that Vladimir Mikulka’s performances, and later, his recordings of this music, were in fact the major catalyst in this entire new phenomenon. There is also no question that Jack Duarte’s various writings on this subject were also a significant factor. However, a composer and his music can only get a place in the hierarchy of the repertoire, when the music becomes available to everybody.

A year later, August 13th, 1983, and we are back in Esztergom, the focal point of the guitar’s East-West conduit, like a tunnel dug under the Iron Curtain. This time, there is a large Soviet delegation consisting of some 50 guitarists, teachers and their students. It was also the first time I read a lecture in Esztergom. The subject was:

The Guitar in Russia, a look from the West.

This was more or less the same lecture I gave a month earlier at the GFA festival in Quebec City, assisted by Leif Christensen and Maria Kämmerling who played the music examples for me. In Esztergom, they were played by Laszlo Szendrey-Karper. I read my lecture in English, then there were Hungarian and German translations, and then I read it in Russian. The entire procedure took almost four hours to complete. It was a lively event, and no one left in the middle. The entire Soviet delegation sat there with a look of wonderment on their faces. A foreigner, and an American to boot, is telling them something about their own heritage.

At dinner, after the lecture, I found myself dining with my new Russian friends, the Moscow teachers Alexander Frauchi and Nikolai Komolyatov, and the composer Igor Rekhin. With typical Russian flair, Frauchi then pulled out a large manuscript of a new composition by his student Nikita Koshkin, dedicated to him by the composer, his Porcelain Tower, and presented it to me, adding there his own dedication to me. Remembering Jack Duarte’s request to find a way to bring Koshkin to Cannington, I broached the subject with my dinner companions. Not realizing what it was I was actually doing, I was astonished to find them completely unresponsive. Either they did not understand me, or pretended not to understand me, or they were uncomfortable about discussing this. I persisted as best as I could, and finally Rekhin told me:

___We are not authorized by our government to discuss with foreigners anything substantive. The only person who can talk about such matters is the official leader of our delegation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Slavsky.

Rekhin had then a fairly good command of English and German and it was easier to communicate through him. So asked him to accompany me to the next table where Slavsky was dining and present to him, on my behalf, this question.

___Can you please help me find a way to send Nikita Koshkin to attend the Cannington Summer School in England run by John Duarte?

Once he understood the gist of the question, he looked at me kind of cock-eyed and said:

___There is only one place I am going to send this jerk to, and that is a Siberian labor camp.

It is good to remember that in Soviet times, the senior leader of a delegation to a foreign country, was necessarily also a KGB operative. This was no laughing matter, and I quickly backed off. Later, in a private eye-to-eye discussion in his room, with no witnesses to overhear, Slavsky really gave it to me. He already noticed that for the third time we meet, all I can talk about is Koshkin. He was not amused, and actually quite pissed off, because, so he said, this Koshkin guy is a jerk  who is being promoted in the West by traitors like Mikulka. Besides, he is completely devoid of any talent and his music, The Prince’s Toys Suite in particular, is nothing but a collection of cheap tricks. Not only that, it mostly contains quotations from the work of other composers, and as such, it is nothing but a plagiarized pastiche.

These were harsh words, spoken with vehemence and passion, and they caught me completely by surprise. Obviously, the general opinion of this music in the West, by this time, was mostly favorable. Like myself, a lot of people thought very highly of it, and many were beginning to perform it. Obviously, there was some underlying background for this demonstration of hatred and despise, and as is often in such cases, one never knows what this is really all about until you hear to other side of the story. Often enough, even that does not clear up the situation. But the charge of plagiarism is a serious one so I asked for examples. What was borrowed? and from whom?

Slavsky would not say, but he did say this:

___to demonstrate this I can easily write a piece a la Koshkin, using some cheap tricks and borrowing from others left right and center. I’ll send it to you soon.

About a year later, he sent me a large package of manuscripts, asking me to put them all into an anthology under his name. Mostly, they were xerox copies of several pieces from his many Soviet anthologies, each one with a hand written dedication to a Western guitarist. There were also several manuscripts. Among others, the package contained this:

There was no accompanying text and to this day I do not know if this was the example of composition a la Koshkin Slavsky promised me, or if in fact it was a genuine offer of an original work of his which he dedicated to me. From all the manuscripts in the package, this one was the most likely to have fulfilled the promise. Either way, it did not seem like something I would want to publish, in spite of the flattering dedication, and I let it live these 20 years quietly among my vast collection of unpublishable manuscripts.

Chapter 3

A few years later, at the 1988 Krakow festival in Poland, I got to hear a concert by the young Russian guitarist Anastasia Bardina. She was, and still is, one of the few Russians who play the Russian seven string guitar. In the first part of her program, she played some of the standards of the old 19th century Russian repertoire, pieces by Sychra and Vyssotsky. And then she played a few pieces by a 20th century composer whose name I have never heard before—Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev. Among other, she played a piece by this composer titled Procession. Here is a link [DGA Editor: old link, doesn’t work] to her recording of this piece. (No. 5 in the play list).

As I was listening to her, I knew I have heard this before. At about 38 seconds into the recording, we get this motif:

Now where did I hear this? Right here:

That is, of course, mm. 57-60 of the Mechanical Monkey section from Nikita Koshkin’s The Prince’s Toys Suite. The score has also an underlying percussion accompaniment, which I removed here for clarity purposes. Does this in fact constitutes an arrogation? a borrowing? a plagiat?

Personally, I do not believe so, even though on first hearing the Pavlov-Azancheev Procession, it is hard not to make the association. While the triad structure and the chromaticism are very similar, the rhythm is entirely different, and the percussive polyrhythmic accompaniment lends this section an entirely different aura. Yet, in the 250 years of the History of the Guitar in Russia, friendships were destroyed, reputations demolished and lives were lost on a lot less than that.

We will never know what exactly was behind all of this anti-Koshkin campaign by Slavsky. But some curious facts lend themselves to be speculated upon. Matvei Stepanovich Pavlov-Azancheev (1888-1963) was a resident of the city of Armavir in the Krasnodar region of South Russia. He was a player of the Russian seven string guitar. Vladimir Slavsky was born in the same city where he grew up and where he too, learned to play the Russian seven-string guitar. Only upon his arrival in Moscow, he switched over to the Spanish six-string guitar and became one of its most ardent promoters in the Soviet Union. These two citizens of the city of Armavir certainly belonged to different generations, different social strata and different ethnic back grounds. Pavlov-Azancheev spent ten years in a labor camp, Slavsky became entrenched in the party system. Yet, this curious, admittedly fuzzy episode, leads me to think that there was some connection between these two. It would require an extensive research in archives that are not normally available to the general public in Russia, to figure out what it may have been. The best we can do, is wait for a talented and imaginative writer like George Warren to write the true history of this affair.

PS. Slavsky eventually settled his account with me, and did so from the grave. When I put the final touches on Vol. V of the Russian Collection, the one devoted to Soviet composer and where I first published Nikita Koshkin’s Usher Walse and the Elves, I decided to honor him by including some of his music in the volume. I chose one set of variations on a Russian folk song, and a one page  Canzona in Memory of Piotr Agafoshin. Agafoshin, who was Segovia’s main contact in Soviet  in the 1920-30s, was Slavsky teacher. The Canzona was a doleful dirge, full of sad emotions and a fit tribute to a beloved teacher, and it was quite beautiful.

A few years after the publication of the volume, it was Michael Lorimer, the person who introduced me to Slavsky in the first place, who called me to say that here Slavsky really pulled a nasty trick on me. The Canzona was not an original work by Vladimir Slavsky, but a transcription of a Canción y Danza by Federico Mompou.

As for the One Day in the Country Suite, it would be interesting to figure out where it was stolen from…

But I am not up to the task myself.

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