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Sound and vision: Mikael Tariverdiev, the most famous Soviet composer you’ve probably never heard of

Sound and vision: Mikael Tariverdiev, the most famous Soviet composer you've probably never heard of

A superstar in his day, Mikael Tariverdiev composed the soundtracks to some of the best-known Soviet films, developing a style that he dubbed “cinematic impressionism”. Colm McAuliffe explores his genius and colourful life

12 April 2016
Text Colm McAuliffe

The history of Soviet music throughout the 20th century is teeming with accounts of dissenting mavericks, spurned or banished by the governmental hierarchy for producing works of bourgeois decadence or daring invention. And, so the story goes, this draconian state control discouraged the creativity that is the hallmark of any great artist, leading instead to works that were banal and obsequious. However, the story of Mikael Tariverdiev, one of the era’s most accomplished and popular film composers, doesn’t quite fit this narrative. Tariverdiev created the soundtracks for some of the Soviet Union’s most popular film achievements — most notably through his work with film director Mikhail Kalik — which, though spellbinding in their evocative nature and artful eclecticism, are relatively unknown in the west.

Tariverdiev was born in Tbilisi in 1931, by which point Soviet culture, coinciding with the explosion of the film industry, had already developed significantly. Lenin believed that film was the supremely important art form, and it was logical that Soviet composers should work in this new “proletarian” medium. And several of the pioneering Soviet film directors — Sergei Eisenstein especially — possessed a significant degree of musical sophistication and conceived of the role of music in film in new and highly theoretical terms. Their intellectual approach to the film score as an art form and their eagerness to respect the composer as a collaborator on equal terms led “serious” composers to view film music as a worthwhile and unique genre.

As cinema evolved rapidly, Soviet film composers demonstrated great courage and determination to find a new expressive language for film music. Mikael Tariverdiev was at the centre of this, a remarkably gifted artist, uniquely skilled in his ability to write scores that could illustrate a film’s subject matter and style while standing on their own as powerful and interesting music. He did not feel constrained by the visual and technical limitations placed on a film composer; instead he exploited them to his artistic advantage, often weaving natural and diegetic sounds (ie. originating from the action of the film) into his compositions. His output was abundant, penning over 130 soundtracks and a range of vocal cycles, operas and myriad other musical works. He was a veritable superstar in his native country, his fame on a par with the pop stars and actors of the day.

Crucially, Tariverdiev did not lend his skills to ideological projects; his only true disagreement with the state occurred when Mikhail Kalik, accompanied by Tariverdiev, was denied permission to leave the country for Paris. Tariverdiev refused to travel alone and was banned from leaving the country again for another ten years. Aside from this, his work in film played an important role in establishing him as a truly “national” composer, thereby assuaging any fears the Soviet hierarchy may have had over his commitments to the official principles of socialist realism.

While Tariverdiev skilfully negotiated the neutral ground in his artistic works, his personal life was somewhat more reckless. Despite being christened “Bottle” at school — due to his thin build accentuated by strikingly wide shoulders, resembling a wine bottle — Tariverdiev was an imposing and classically handsome figure by his mid-twenties, as he embarked upon a number of romantic liaisons, some of which quickly blossomed into marriages before abruptly ending. Yet Tariverdiev’s reckless approach to his personal affairs soon resulted in his imprisonment. During an affair with Lyudmila Maksakova, the Soviet theatre and film superstar, the two were involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident. Maksakova had been driving but before the police arrived, Tariverdiev swapped places with her and ended up spending two years in prison while the case was investigated. Tariverdiev was eventually pardoned for his role, but this showdown with mortality irrevocably altered his worldview and led him to adopt a near-monastic devotion to his work.

This extreme dedication resulted in Tariverdiev’s evolution as a daring soundtrack composer. His work on Kalik’s Goodbye, Boys! is exquisite, a bittersweet mélange of period music and natural sounds, punctuated by delicate piano melodies, a combination which Kalik himself described as “cinematic impressionism”. Tariverdiev became synonymous with a form of musical dramaturgy, based on a synthesis of chamber and dance music. His overall aim was to remove the distance between the music of the past and the present, a highly original move hinging on the destruction of the musical and stylistic harmony that had become a distinguishing characteristic of film music in the preceding period. Tariverdiev proclaimed this as the “third direction”, layering the classical idiom with modern sensibilities.

Tariverdiev’s dedication to calibrating the old and the new, the experimental and the mainstream brought him to mass prominence and acceptance throughout the 1970s as he scored Eldar Ryazanov’s seminal musical comedy The Irony Of Fate — one of the most successful Soviet productions of all time and one which remains staggeringly popular in modern-day Russia — and Seventeen Moments of Spring, the 12-part Russian television series for which Leonid Brezhnev reportedly moved governmental meetings in order not to miss an episode (he ended up watching the entire series 20 times). By this point, Tariverdiev was very much part of the official Soviet establishment; he was the head of the Composers’ Guild of the Soviet Cinematographer’s Union and anointed as the People’s Artist of Russia in 1986. Herein lies the key to Tariverdiev’s absence from the annals of film music reverence outside of the east; western critics and scholars have tended to understand Soviet culture in a black and white, dissident-and-patriot dichotomy, and artists such as Tariverdiev, who adeptly walked a fine line between dissidence and patriotism, are discounted due to their apparent lack of overt dissent. Yet Tariverdiev invested all his radical and dissenting energies into his work: his only confrontation was musical.

Tariverdiev’s success continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He won three Nika awards for Best Composer in the years leading up to his death in 1996, and the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, the largest national film festival in Russia, named its prize for Best Music in Tariverdiev’s honour. Interest in his work is gradually growing in the west, aided by the efforts of his widow Vera and the specialist record label Earth Recordings, who recently released a lavishly designed 3 LP box set simply entitled Film Music, the first comprehensive release of Tariverdiev’s works in the west. Finally, his music will begin to receive the global exposure it has surely always deserved.

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