Alexander Mossolov

"It was the first time ever when a new world in art — constructivism — came not from France, but from Russia". Vladimir Mayakovsky

Russian avant-garde of the twentieth century

Russian avant-garde of the twentieth century is probably the only trend in the Russian art which influence on the world culture is indisputable. It is called fundamental and even messianic with good reason. Displayed in the best halls of the largest art galleries of the world, the pictures of the abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky and the suprematist Kazimir Malevich attract a lot of attention of the visitors. At Christie’s and Sotheby’s art auctions works of these painters are sold at the highest prices. Architects from all over the world come to Moscow to look at the amazing buildings designed by the constructivist Konstantin Melnikov, who gained the reputation of the best Russian architect of the 20th century.

Having appeared on the wrecks of the old academic art after the events of 1917, constructivism developed in the direction of constant search for new shapes under the slogan of refusal from "art for the sake of art". Straightforwardness of constructivism and its focus on industrialism were not just the reflection of the new political and cultural reality — they shaped that reality, creating a new type of a human being. A human was seen as a screw, as a cog-wheel — while the country appeared to be a huge production area where bright future was being built. Art — solely as constructivism — served this production area, being accompanied by music. Constructivism needed its own music, and it was composed by Alexander Mossolov. At the beginning of the 1920s his name was mentioned alongside with such names as Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. "His early works surpass everything composed by Prokofiev at the same period in the level of talent and brightness", — said Edison Denisov. Alexander Mossolov, a forgotten genius...

His fate is tragic and mysterious, his creations are the code of the epoch which we can try to decode and understand the essence of the time — guessed, heard and expressed by Mossolov.

Sergey Prokofiev, who was in Europe at that time, wrote to Dyagilev in the middle of the 1920s: "...there are three best Soviet composers: Shostakovich, Mossolov and Popov".

Professor Myaskovky said about his favourite student: "Alexander Mossolov is fantastically gifted, elegant and smart, but he is audacious...". "...Aren’t you scared, my friend, to put everything upside down, aren’t you feared to kill music?..."

Mossolov is politely blunt: "One has to overcome fears to open new horizons. Do we really need to know what is there? Do we really need to be afraid of abyss?"

His contemporaries fell in love with Mossolov immediately and irrevocably: he was exceptionally good-looking — an elegant lion — warm, openhearted, brave and generous. He had something in common with Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Myshkin. It was really interesting to talk to him — he was brilliantly educated, easily switched from French to German, from English to perfect Russian. His ideas and arguments were witty and deep.

In the second half of the 1920s constructivists were at the top of the artistic ladder, in the avant-garde of art, reveling their superiority. They did not feel any danger and did not seem to realize that the the epoch of denying "art for the sake of art" was coming to the end. Konstantin Melnikov did not hide his emotions: "Starting from 1927 my authority has grown into exclusive capture ...this is how love will treat you if it chooses you". Alexander Mossolov echoed him in music...

A. Mossolov: "The epoch has exhilarated us. We are feeling new rhythms, shapes, thoughts... You need to manage to catch...the speed, the movement, the rhythms. Faster, faster... One must not stop".

"You are a revolutionary in music, while we are revolutionaries in life. We should work together", — enthralled Lunacharsky archly.

Professor Myaskovsky kept repeating with surprise and bitterness: "The epoch tempts you, and you give in readily. Aren’t you ruining you soul? For the sake of what?" The kindest Myaskovsky wanted to caution his favourite student, Sasha Mossolov, against speedy composing: "You are like a cornucopia: sonatas, concerts, symphonies, romances, eccentrics... Probably, it makes sense to slow down?"

His student replied: "There is not enough time. I am afraid there will not be enough energy. The war has taught us a lot: in the artillery we killed and were killed. I saw a lot of dirt, pain and death... After that it is not possible to return your former self to the former world. I feel arrhythmia of time... I want to convey it. I want to understand where God is".

"The war has taught us a lot" — probably, these words are the key ones for Mossolov. The regiment where he served during the civil war took part in suppressing the Tambov rebellion, in which thousands of people were poisoned to death by gases. This fact was merely mentioned by the composer in his biography, which still contains a lot of uncertainties. In his family archive, however, there is a document which states that in June 1920 the Special Commission at First Moscow Psychiatric hospital declared Mossolov unfit for military service because of a concussion. About the same time in the Tambov area the Аnti-Bolshevic uprising broke out. The Red Army applied chemical weapons against rebels. Commander Michail Tukhachevsky ordered: "Civilians who refuse to give their names are to be shot on the spot without trial. Hostages are to be taken and executed from those villages where weapons are found. The oldest working person in the family is to be executed in those households where guns are found or bandits are hiding. The other members of the family are to be arrested, and the family property is to be confiscated. The forests where the bandits are hiding are to be cleared by the use of poison gas. This must be carefully calculated, so that the layer of gas penetrates the forest and kills everyone hiding there. The order must be carried out severely and unsparingly".

Mossolov was probably just lucky not to be among those military men who had to carry out the order severely and unsparingly. However, it is impossible that he did not know about it. What did he see and feel during those years? He said nothing about it, he only composed music. What sort of music could it be after the events which had happened in the Tambov region? Where was a period in his life when he returned from the front and could not get used to silence, could not compose. Suddenly he realized that the sounds of the city, of the whole world and of time had changed — they were just waiting for somebody to hear them. The world was trying to send a signal.

Newspaper reviews from that period:

"Only the alliance with the evil force could lead the composer to those mad jumps and hellish roar his music is full of.»
"Mossolov ...bravo! Your music is the Bible of avant-garde".


"My God, Sasha, what would your father have said?" — sighed Myaskovsky.

What would have said the superfine artist Mikhail Leblan, Mossolov’s tender step-father, and his mother, the Bolshoi theatre singer Nina Miller? They were people of the old rules who loved grace and valued comfort, peace and harmony in everything. Mikhail Leblan, a well-known Russian impressionist, thought that disharmony kills beauty, while harmony makes life more attractive, that each moment of life is wonderful and the aim of art is to convey the beauty of transience...

Mossolov was growing up in the environment combining classical and modern art, a taste for which was inculcated in him by Mikhail Leblan, who was Matisse, Serov and Korovin’s disciple. Mossolov got better knowledge of Russianavant-garde at the exhibitions of Free Art — the association of Moscow artists (1912-1922), the member of which was Leblan. There Mossolov got acquainted with the new world — colorful, eventful, audacious, there he met Malevich and Tatlin who were the proclaimers of Russian avantgarde. At the school founded by Leblan Mossolov met Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the most prominent Russian constructivists in the area of design, who designed the interiors of the famous building of Mosselprom.

Mossolov’s mother, the Bolshoi theatre singer Nina Miller, turned their flat in Bolshaya Bronnaya street into artistic and musical salon. The talented people of art, such as R. Gliere with the spouse, M. Olenina-d’Algeim and many others gathered there.

The parents tried to provide Alexander with the best education, his first teacher of music was the composer Alexander Shenshin, a descendant of the famous Russian poet Afanasy Fet. At home the parents spoke with Alexander in German and French. For some time the family lived abroad — in Paris, Berlin and London. In Moscow Alexander attended one of the best and most expensive male gymnasiums — the one on the corner of Merzlyakovsky lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya street. The fee at Flerovskaya gymnasium was twice as high as in most other places, but it was worth paying — the percentage of talented teachers was very high there even for Moscow, for example, the outstanding mathematician Luzin and the prominent zoologist Ognev taught there. Mossolov’s schoolmates in that gymnasium were Shalyapin’s son Boris, Nikolai Timofeyev-Resovsky, Igor Ilyinsky and Lev Knipper.

Fight with "right angles"

The end of 1920s was marked by the beginning of the fight with "right angles" — i.e. constructivism. Mossolov lived and composed his music too straightforwardly, openly and sincerely, being unable and not wishing to serve anybody’s interests. He possessed one more enviable feature — consistency — which made him different from many of his contemporaries. He never betrayed himself. In the composer’s archive there is the first issue of the journal Music and Revolution of 1927. The critical article devoted to Mossolov "The left flank of contemporary music» is covered with his comments. Mossolov’s music was defined as harmful, reactionary and "unwanted" — it was the first warning...

Mossolov either could not understand or did not want to accept the fact that times were changing. In the letter of 15 December 1928 Boris Asafyef wrote to him: "You spoilt me by freshness and ingenuity of your music" and recommended to send his scores to the famous German conductor Hermann Scherchen, who was interested in modern music and performed it. Scherchen asked Mossolov to grant him the right for the first performance of his concert in Germany. At the same time, in the USSR Mossolov’s music was declared "anti-artistic": due to that reason the Art Board of the Bolshoi Theatre rejected the ballet "Four Moscows" which covered the period from serfdom to 2117 — 200 years after the revolution. In that unconventional ballet each of the four acts was composed by a different composer — the third one by Shostakovich and the fourth one by Alexsander Mossolov.

There were very different reviews dedicated to Mossolov’s music: "His sonata is a real Bible of modernism which contains in the concentrated form all the harmonious tricks typical of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and western polytonists", "Mossolov is a bourgeois urbanist", "This music is the music of a class enemy". The last definition belonged to Mossolov’s colleague from the different flank, Marian Koval, who was famous for his unbridled nature. Koval wrote an annihilating review for Mossolov’s chorus "1924". Here is the extract from Nikolai Bukharin’s article written in 1925: "The author is so alien to our Soviet reality that he can not join it and feels a loner".

In March 1932 Mossolov wrote a big letter to Stalin, which fully reflected his personality. There was no servility in it, Mossolov did not ask — hedemanded. "I’ve been persecuted since 1926. I am not ready to tolerate it any longer! I must compose, and my music must be performed!" In fact, he presented Stalin with an ultimatum: either you give me a chance to work or I will leave the country. Stalin definitely was not accustomed to getting such letters. There had been very few similar cases — in 1930 the leader got a letter from Mikhail Bulgakov, and in 1931 Evgeny Zamyatin wrote to him. Mossolov occupied a comparable position in this short list. He raised his voice: "I do not want to be deprived of my right to compose! I compose because I want to do it!" To prove his position Mossolov sent to Stalin a file with clippings of foreign reviews dedicated to him and his music. "The Factory" was performed in almost all European and American capitals — in Paris, London and New York. In Vienna 2000 workers who came to listen to "The Factory" applauded tumultuously demanding to perform it encore. "I am highly evaluated abroad, my music is performed there — although they call me a Bolshevik". The last remark is especially amusing.

Surprisingly, Stalin appreciated Mossolov’s courage, and after three years of neglecting his works started to be published: "Three songs", a new edition of "The Factory".

It is not widely known, but in 1934 Mossolov was on a business trip in GULAG to work on the sound track for the film "Prisoners" based on Nikolai Pogodin’s play "Aristocrat". He stayed in Medvezhyegorsk — the former camp on Onega lake shore — for more than two weeks. The prisoners of the camp sawed wood for Belomorcanal. We can only guess if Mossolov had any premonitions that soon he would have to change his suit for the prisoner’s clothes...

The film was a propagandistic one — it showed how criminals changed radically at Belomorcanal construction. The roles of the criminals were played by the best actors: Mikhail Astangov and Mikhail Yanshin. They just could not play badly, therefore their characters appeared to be extremely charismatic. Stalin looked through the working materials and got furious — to his mind, instead of revealing the right and truthful image of the Soviet secret police officers (chekists), the authors of the film got carried away by naturalism and criminal jargon, playing into the enemy’s hands. The film was declared the "direct crime against art". Mossolov’s music was also defined as faulty and vicious.

Mossolov’s originality, his brightness arouse a lot of envy in his colleagues from the opposite flank and attracted close attention of the secret police. In 1936 for the drunk scandal in a public place he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Composers (later he was reinstated).

In 1937, when Soviet newspapers were full of transcripts of big trials held in Moscow, the newspaper "Izvestia" suddenly found some place for the composer. The newspaper satirists brothers Tur (who were not in fact related) wrote a dirty lampoon entitled "Deviations of the genius": "The member of the Moscow Committee of composers Alexander Mossolov, rather a gifted person, gained scandalous reputation for being a reveler and a rowdy. His drunken escapades were repeatedly discussed at the meetings. However, the false policy of non-interference in the "deviations of the genius" seems to prevent his colleagues from giving the right assessment of Mossolov’s behavior. On request of one of the departments of art Mossolov went to one of Central Asian republics to collect materials for the opera based on national realities. The Moscow guest was greeted with a lot of honours. However, the hosts found it rather strange that the creator of the future national opera was collecting materials for it in such inappropriate places as Intourist restaurants and beer bars. For several weeks in a row Mossolov kept drinking and debauching in the hotel, terrorizing the staff. He left with several thousand rubles from the modest republican budget, having written just one phrase referring to the opera: "When the curtain goes up, trumpets sound the note la".

The authors of the lampoon shamelessly misquoted the events that happened in Turkmenistan. Mossolov commented on it ironically in his letter to Myaskovsky: "I am rearranging the Turkmen musical themes to fit into Spanish language". Even support of the Moscow Committee of composers in the "Izvestia" issue of 28 September 1937 —"Issuing a flat denial is necessary as the authors of the lampoon misquoted the facts" — did not help.

Mossolov realized that it was useless to try to defend himself. The lampoon at that time was equivalent to a verdict. There was one more important thing: the piece of music he was working on in Turkmenistan was called... "The Turkmen song about Stalin".

On 4 November 1937 the composer was arrested. He was sentenced to 8 years in the camp in accordance with Article 58 item 10 (Counter-revolutionary propaganda). His new address was: Volglag NKVD USSR, 1st site of Sheksna hydro-electric centre, column 11, town of Rybinsk Yaroslavl region.

One can imagine Mossolov’s future at the felling. However, even in the camp Mossolov remained himself — he started working on a concerto for harp in three parts! He wanted to compose that concert for Vera Dulova, a good friend of his and an excellent harpist. She was one of those who did not renounce him, remaining his friend for long years.

Luckily, there were people who were not afraid to support the prisoner by signing letters and intercessions on Mossolov’s behalf — Myaskovsky and Gliere. In March 1938 they applied to Kalinin Soviet Music. There were only two categories of composers who were allowed to participate in it: those of proven reliability and those the authorities could not do without, having to forgive them all their crimes and faults. Mossolov dedicated that concerto to its first performer, Vera Dulova. According to one of the contemporaries, even the dress rehearsal caused huge interest: "The hall was full of critics, composers, musicians... During the performance the expression of curiosity on the listeners’ faces was replaced by the one of surprise and later, by admiration». At the first performance the Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatory was also full: "People were standing in the aisles. After the second part, although it was not supposed, the audience started to applaud. The concert was a huge success, both in terms of the composition and performance. People kept applauding, shouting, stamped their feet with delight and called the author... during the interval they talked excitedly, exchanging their views." It was the first time in many years when Mossolov was not criticized in newspapers — his concert was noticed and received positive feedback from official critics: "The composer made a sharp turn to socialist realism with a touch of impressionism and with a request to review his case saying that Mossolov was a great talent and he was imprisoned either by mistake or because of being defamed.

And the miracle did happen: at that period the new NKVD police chief Lavrentiy Beria was reviewing the cases of the prisoners sentenced by his predecessor Nikolai Ezhov and his staff. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book "The GULAG Archipelago" this short period was called the "reverse flow". Most probably, the composer was discharged because of his popularity and support of his older colleagues. Anyway, he was lucky as very few people were liberated then...

Here is the text of the certificate which was issued to Mossolov on his liberation on 25 August 1938: "Issued to citizen Mossolov Alexander Vasilyevich ...sentenced by the verdict of three judges of NKVD of Moscow region on 23 December 1937... amending the previous verdict, to prohibit A. Mossolov to live in the cities of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev until 04 November 1942".

Right after his liberation Mossolov sat down to work composing the concerto which he had planned at the felling. A year and a half later Mossolov was awarded the highest mercy: his concerto was unexpectedly included in the Ten-day Festival of sophisticated orchestration."

On 21 December 1939 an unprecedented thing happened. The country was celebrating the leader’s anniversary with a lot of gifts and the warmest wishes from all its corners, including the most remote ones. A lot of monuments were opened, plenty of streets and squares were renamed. On the very same day the newspaper "Izvestia" which had drawn the authorities’ attention to Mossolov’s unacceptable behavior two years before, published his "At the table" song, the lyrics to which were written by Alexander Zharov. Although it would be the only publication of Mossolov’s score before the war (his Concerto for harp would be published only in 1972), it looked as if Mossolov, an ex-prisoner, was forgiven by the authorities. They left him in peace.

Having gone through hell of the camp, Mossolov experienced all the vicissitudes of the epoch, the beginning of which seemed so encouraging to him. His life experience changed him a lot, he became a different person — stem-broken, deprived of the right to compose his favourite music. The only thing he was allowed to do was to collect folklore — which, in fact, had been the reason for his arrest.

Mossolov became similar to Pechorin — if thelatter had been given a chance to grow old. "Music has gone, — he wrote to his friends, — I do not hear it any longer. Everything I have composed before, everything I have looked for seems haughty and stupid now. Probably, this is punishment.... probably, everything I looked for was a mistake?"


"Once, — recalled Mossolov, — I heard a tender voice was an old sad song... the voice called me, and I followed it".

"I fell in love immediately, — wrote Nina Konstantinovna Meshko, People’s artist of Russia, the head of the Russian Northern folk choir, — he was quiet, handsome, passionate... There were a lot of rumours about him: a drunkard, a rowdy, a bourgeois... We lived happily for many years".

"He sang his music to me, — recalled Mossolov’s wife. "We would go for a walk when he suddenly stopped, hugged me and started to croon. Sometimes he hummed music all day long... He used to go to his room, locked it and stayed there for several days — composed".

He became taciturn and used to say about himself: "Here I am, the late Mossolov".

"Do I return to my previous, eventful life in my memories? Well, I don’t know. Audacity was punished — we tried to destroy something which required veneration... But probably what I hear and compose now is the reward for rebellion, for my way in life...".

Gregory the Theologian wrote: "It is a great thing to speak about God, but it is better to purify oneself for God".

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Alexander Mossolov: Music composer

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