Reactionary Music of the 20th Century

I’m sick of politics, in theory, and in practice, for the moment. So I want to share with you some music and some thoughts on it this weekend. The composers and pieces I will present here have something in common: they have been described, for better or (more often) for worse as “reactionary” in both form and content. And that is why I love them. While incorporating to some unavoidable extent the styles of the times in which they lived, these composers also remained committed to styles and themes that constantly evoked earlier eras of music and society. In listening to them, I can indulge in what I hope is a healthy way my romanticist tendencies without abandoning a realistic approach to the modern world and it’s problems.

1. Aram Khachaturian

Khachaturian, along with Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, was regarded as one of the three giants of Soviet music. They shared more in common than that, however: they were forced by Stalin’s lackey Andrei Zhdanov to publicly apologize for their “formalism” and “anti-popular” style of music in 1948.

I have always preferred Khachaturian to the other two “giants” for the exotic folk themes that he invoked in his music, drawing on the traditions of his native Armenia.

I think my favorite piece by Khachaturian is the adagio to his ballet Spartacus, which was unsurprisingly written some years after the Zhdanov condemnation in what had to be an attempt to work “popular” themes into his music. Official Marxist-Leninist ideology smiles upon any historical theme in which the progressive forces rise up against the reactionary regime. In spite of the ideological box in which he was forced to work, this piece evokes moods and feelings that no party bureaucrat could understand.

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2. Joaquin Rodrigo

Rodrigo has been one of my favorite composers for quite some time. Rodrigo’s music captures the glory of Spain at its historical height, incorporating into all of his most well-known works the guitar, something you don’t hear in too many of the great composer’s works. Much of the music has a distinctly medieval flavor, at least to my ears.

Living and working under the rule of Francisco Franco, it isn’t  surprising that his music was incredibly popular at the time, given the reactionary nature of the regime. Unlike the Soviet composers, there’s no hint that Rodrigo’s compositions were forced by the government.

His most well-known piece is the adagio of his Concierto de Aranjuez, which he and his wife declared “was written as a response to the miscarriage of their first child.” It also perfectly represents the medieval-Spanish aesthetic, which along with the personal element makes it one of my favorite pieces of music. It also contributes to my Catholic fascist aesthetic, of course :)

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3. Sergei Rachmaninoff

What can I say about Rachmaninoff? He is my favorite composer of all-time, no matter how much my second and third favorites rotate. And he is the most consciously and unapologetically personal and reactionary, so much so that he was reviled by the critics of his day, and condemned in absentia in the Soviet Union, even as he enjoyed popularity with audiences.

There is no doubt that Rachmanioff’s music is as backward looking as the man himself was, upon a Russia he was forced to flee, and in spite of his rejection of religion, upon a time in which spiritual values reigned. Rachmaninoff’s music is also deeply personal, reflective of a sensitive and tormented soul that hasn’t given into the aesthetics of chaos, disorder, and downright ugliness that consumed so much of the world of art in the post-modern age.

It is hard for me to choose a favorite piece. For those who haven’t heard his music, I think his second piano concerto is a great introduction to it. Though I think his second symphony is my favorite, it requires patience and attention to fully appreciate.

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  1. Love the music, love the reactionarianism.

    Is Arvo Part reactionary enough for your tastes? I discovered Gregorian chant and 16th c. polyphony through his work, which I found really “edgy” at age 20, but which I realize now is just “beautiful”.

    Re: Rodrigo: have you heard the story that Segovia publicly panned “Concierto de Aranjuez…mainly because it was written for ANOTHER guitarist? Rodrigo was embarassed, and wrote the “Fantasia para un gentilhombre” in response, dedicating it to A.S.

    I would have called the piece “Fantasia para un egomaniac,” but then again I didn’t write it.

  2. Awe-inspiringly beautiful. Sublime. It turns one’s soul inside out.

    Rachmaninoff is probably my favorite composer also, followed closely by Wagner. Without a doubt, these great artists would look on with revulsion and horror the light entertainment and degradation of today’s music. Perhaps the social upheaval in our society will again produce great artists.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  4. A few years ago, my husband and I visited our son in Moscow with a side trip to St. Petersburg. Just a few months ago, I listened to Tchaikovski’s 5th Symphony, and, much to my surprise, I found myself right back on the streets of St. Petersburg, but not in modern times but in late 19th and first decade of the 20th century St. Petersburg. Before my eyes, I saw the old black and white images of the tsar and his family in the open carriage coming out of the gates of the Winter Palace. All the elegance and beauty and refinement of that time exuded from every note of Tchaikovski’s symphony.

    Listening now, for the first time in a very long time to Rachmaninov, I was back in St. Petersburg again, except that, this time, I saw the city as it looked when we were there, Even with all the rebuilding and refurbishing and sprucing up after 75 years of Soviet repression, it was still struggling, still emerging from that darkness and pain that was visible even in the eyes of the people that we saw on the streets. In 10 days in those two cities, walking along the streets and boulevards and in the shops, the only time we saw a genuine smile was on the faces of the few people we talked to in the Catholic church in St. Petersburg–St. Catherine of Alexandria. Listening to this concerto was the first time that I heard that pain and sorrow even in the gorgeous, heart-breaking chords and melodies I will never hear it any other way again. Thank you for this post.