Back in 2007, on the occasion of the death of Tikhon Khrennikov, the longtime head of the Soviet Composers' Union, I offered a few thoughts on a widely maligned figure, taking note of scattered attempts to rehabilitate him. Was he the voice of ideological oppression, spreading misery through the ranks of his more gifted colleagues? Or did he quietly work to protect those colleagues from worse fates? Glancing through the most recent literature on Soviet music and composers, I don't see any clear consensus emerging. Kiril Tomoff's Creative Union, a history of the Composers' Union, yields a surprisingly positive portrait. Simon Morrison's recent work on and around Prokofiev — The People's Artist and the new book Lina and Serge, a moving biography of Prokofiev's first wife — puts Khrennikov in a generally unsympathetic light, yet records gestures of compassion on his part, such as his attempts to have Lina released from prison. (She was sent to the gulag in 1948.) Alexander Ivashkin, in the latest issue of the Paul Sacher Journal, has an acidulous account of Khrennikov's relationship with Stravinsky, exposing the bureaucrat's more absurd self-justifications. (Did you know that in 1962 Stravinsky embraced the idea of moving to the Soviet Union? So Khrennikov claimed.) Likewise, Khrennikov plays a less than heroic role in David Fanning's biography of Mieczysław Weinberg. Khrennikov often did not help his own case in his later interviews. "Don't forget there were many Jews in musical life and they launched unfair attacks on my compositions," he told Martin Sixsmith in 2006, before going on to praise Stalin.
Even the most Khrennikov-friendly scholar, though, might balk at the formulation attached to an upcoming Khrennikov centenary concert in St. Petersburg, to which David Shengold drew my attention: "Fate granted Tikhon Nikolaevich Khrennikov a long and productive life. Destiny decreed that for half a century Khrennikov stood at the helm of a composers’ organization – from 1948 as Secretary General and from 1957 as First Secretary of the Board of the Union of Composers of the USSR. During the worst years of ideological diktat he was forced to bend to the harsh dogmas of official normative aesthetics and the infringements of officials on his professional honour and the merits of musicians. The main proof of his gift as a composer, however, and the measure of him as a man remains his music." The last phrase is inarguable. Khrennikov's music, adroitly constructed but lacking in character, sums him up fairly well.
The conductor of the Khrennikov Memorial Concert will be Valery Gergiev, recently named a Hero of Labor.