Tikhon Nikolaevich Khrennikov (June 10, 1913 - August 14, 2007) held a prominent and often despised place in musical history as First Secretary of the Soviet Composers' Union for over forty years. From the moment he was named to this key cultural position by Josef Stalin in 1948 until the moment he lost it with the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev's government in 1991, Khrennikov was viewed as a fierce enforcer of Soviet artistic policy and, to many, a hand puppet of Stalinism who continued ruining musicians' lives far beyond his welcome.
Khrennikov is rare in Soviet history, having maintained a leadership position after the USSR's collapse and lived long enough to rebut historians who view his career as nothing more than pandering to the demagogues that be. Tikhon (pronounced Tee-hohn) is a name that translates into "hitting the mark," rather ironic for a man who accomplished comparatively little as an artist but played a decisive role in the fate of his colleagues. Regardless of the purely artistic merits of his 42 opus numbers, it is difficult if not impossible for those who lived under Stalin to distinguish Khrennikov's music from his blistering speeches that tore down the lives of such composers as Shostakovich, Prokofieff, and Khachaturian.
Khrennikov was born to a family of horse-traders in Yelets, a manufacturing city in the Russian province of Lipetsk Oblast. Khrennikov relocated to Moscow as a teenager, first studying with Mikhail Gnessin from 1929-32 before attending the Moscow Conservatory from 1932-6, when he learned composition from Vissarion Shebalin and piano from Heinrich Neuhaus. Khrennikov showed promise early, composing his Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 1 while a student; the symphony had enough merit that it was later conducted in Philadelphia by Leopold Stokowski.
There was a period during the late 1930s and early 1940s when Khrennikov was mentioned in the same breath as Dmitri Shostakovich, Serge Prokofieff, and Nicolai Myaskovsky. He drew considerable notice through a score for the Moscow Vakhtangov Theatre's production of Much Ado About Nothing in 1936 and music for the popular film They Met in Moscow in 1941, which earned him a Stalin Prize. Khrennikov also impressed Stalin with his 1939 opera Into the Storm, loosely based on the dictator's favorite novel Loneliness by Nicolai Virta. Into the Storm, commissioned by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, was the first Soviet opera to use Lenin as an on-stage character.
Khrennikov went unharmed during Stalinist purges that transported millions to their death in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s; his family, however, was not immune to the suffering. Two of his brothers were sent to the Gulag in 1937, with Khrennikov rescuing just one from a premature demise. Still, Khrennikov maintained his esteem with Soviet government and in 1941 was named music director of the Red Army Central Theatre, a position he would hold for 25 years. Khrennikov was helped by Stalin's admiration of his film scores, songs, and music for the stage, which were optimistic in nature and easily approachable.
In 1948, a period of freer expression marked by the Second World War came to an abrupt end. Stalin's cultural director Andrei Zhdanov ordered the reproach of artists who had become "formalists" and "popular decadents" in the liberal climate. Various cultural officials were deposed and Khrennikov found himself installed as First Secretary of the Soviet Composers' Union, a position that answered to the highest realms of Soviet leadership. Khrennikov toed the party line almost immediately, calling for a return to the ideals of "Socialist Realism" and desecrating composers who had strayed from the righteous path. "Enough," he retorted "of these symphonic diaries – these pseudo-philosophic symphonies hiding behind their allegedly profound thoughts and tedious self-analysis."
Khrennikov, who claimed that his 1948 speeches were written by higher party bosses, included teacher Vissarion Shebalin in his list of condemnations. Shostakovich, whose photograph was once kept by Khrennikov on his desk, became a prime example of everything that had gone wrong with Soviet music in the 1940s. The resulting period known as Zhdanovshchina was a humiliating one for composers who had to publicly denounce their work in speeches and articles. Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky, Shebalin, and others found their musical career in tatters, while compositions by Khrennikov and many lesser-known (and usually inferior) names enjoyed performance by the Soviet Union's major orchestras.
As First Secretary, Khrennikov was the policeman of Soviet music, judging which compositions fit Zhdanov's guidelines. Khrennikov, in direct contact with Stalin and Zhdanov (until his death in 1948), had final say on whether a composition belonged in the repertoire or not; it was only with his approval that a work could be performed, recorded, or published. In his last years, Khrennikov boasted that the Composers' Union was less oppressive than other Soviet artistic bodies, kept Soviet composers visible throughout the world, and saw no members put to death under his leadership. All of these claims, however, are under debate. Certainly, Soviet composers were heard worldwide, but out-of-favor composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofieff feared for their lives and were barred from attending performances of their music in the West. London Times columnist Bernard Levin remarked that Khrennikov's zero-death claim is "almost certainly a lie".
Even during the 1960s cultural "thaw" under Khrushchev, and well into the 1970s, Khrennikov maintained a hard-line artistic stance. Despite the Zhdanov era having come and gone, he banned compositions that seemed anything like the "formalism" of past decades. Khrennikov added to his notoriety in dealing with Alfred Schnittke, whose highly-regarded First Symphony managed just two performances in the Soviet Union. As Schnittke's international reputation grew, a jealous Khrennikov rejected nearly twenty requests by the composer to travel abroad; Schnittke's health deteriorated until his passing in 1998. Khrennikov suppressed works by a generation of new composers that included Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov, and Alexander Knaifel.
Unless composers were "rehabilitated" from their past sins, they at least suffered economic hardship, as Shostakovich and Prokofieff did after 1948. Prokofieff, in fact, was on the brink of starvation before cellist Mstislav Rostropovich demanded Khrennikov's assistance. Khrennikov, meanwhile, enjoyed considerable wealth and security through his overbearing position. His 1994 autobiography That's the Way It Was claims living at the Soviet system's mercy, just as others were. Khrennikov was at least in fear of Stalin; in the controversial memoir Testimony by Solomon Volkov, Shostakovich tells of when Khrennikov soiled his pants and experienced a nervous breakdown after being stared at by the dictator. Certainly, any person near Stalin was treading dangerous ground.
Khrennikov did reach out to fellow composers such as Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Jew whose First Symphonietta he commended at the 1948 meetings. Khrennikov, whose wife Klara Vaks was also Jewish, took a major risk in endorsing Weinberg while Stalin was in the midst of his last anti-Semitic purge. Khrennikov also helped to rebuild Shostakovich's career by recommending him for a Stalin Prize in 1950 and led an invitation for Igor Stravinsky to visit the Soviet Union in 1962. But the decision to maintain such narrow artistic views and censor works years after the death of Stalin was largely his own.
Khrennikov's compositional output was modest, writing symphonies, concerti, ballets, operas, piano works, art songs, and film scores. He was decorated regularly with such honors as the Stalin Prize, Honored Artist of the USSR, and Order of the Red Banner of Labor, while being elevated to the Supreme Soviet in 1974. His works were performed by leading Soviet musicians such as Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Evgeny Mravinsky, and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, although their willingness may have been fueled by the need to remain in good stead.
When Mikhail Gorbachev's government reached its demise in 1991, Khrennikov left behind his position as First Secretary in what had become a mausoleum of the old order. But Khrennikov stayed visible in artistic circles; he remained director of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, a tournament that made pianist Van Cliburn famous in 1958, and composed intermittently. He continued to receive awards from the Russian republics, including a President Prize from Vladimir Putin.
Through his memoirs and support from friends, Khrennikov attempted to "rehabilitate" his career in the eyes of critics who wrote him off during the Cold War as a pandering hack and are equally suspicious after his death. All that remains of Khrennikov are his compositions – which are seldom performed in the Russian republics let alone in other parts of the world – and his legacy as one of Stalin's right-hand men. Even if there are strong points in Khrennikov's music, they may forever be overshadowed by his willing participation in the repressive Soviet political machine.