The Kennedy Center

Sonata No. 2

About the Work

Alexander Veprik Composer: Alexander Veprik
© James Loeffler

Alexander Veprik was one of the boldest in his cohort of early Soviet Jewish composers, both in his political independence and his music. For that courage, he later paid one of the heaviest prices. He ended up perhaps the most severely persecuted of all of his peers, deported by Stalin to the Siberian gulag during the postwar anti-cosmopolitan campaign. His music, once highly acclaimed in both the Soviet Union and the West, fell into obscurity. Only now, with interest in both the early Soviet avant-garde and the Russian Jewish school growing, have artists and audiences begun to rediscover his penetrating, emotional modernist masterpieces.

Born near Odessa, Veprik moved at an early age first to Warsaw, then with his family to Leipzig. There he studied piano with Karl Wendling at the Leipzig Conservatory before returning to Russia with the outbreak of World War I. After 1917, he trained formally in composition at the Petersburg and Moscow conservatories. Upon his graduation in 1923, he was immediately offered a position on the Moscow faculty. He taught there for the next two decades, rising to dean shortly before World War II.

Both Veprik's connections with Western composers such as Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Ravel and his Jewish oeuvre drew the attention of European and American audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. During the 1928-29 season, the Berlin Radio Symphony performed the vast majority of his work. In 1933, Arturo Toscanini conducted the debut of his Dances and Songs of the Ghetto at Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, at home, Veprik began to encounter political difficulties because of his Western taint, avant-garde style, and his Jewish national themes. Nevertheless, he openly defended Shostakovich during the 1936 Stalinist attack on the composer's music. The events of that year would be a dress rehearsal for a more widespread cultural purge to come after World War II. In 1950, Veprik was arrested and charged as a "Jewish nationalist." After a horrible stint in prison, he was sentenced to hard labor in the gulag. Eventually, he was allowed to form a camp orchestra. In 1954, with Stalin dead, Veprik was exonerated and released. He returned to Moscow a broken man, dying a few years later.

Like his colleague Krein, Veprik assertively blended audibly Jewish motivic and intonational elements with modernist techniques and harmonies. He also exhibited a preference for miniatures, offering sweeping tonal portraits. Tonight's featured composition, the 1924 Second Piano Sonata, employs the one-movement form he so favored. From Bartók, a strong influence, he borrows a repeated-note motive and a percussive rhythmic pattern that drives forward the piece in an aggressive fashion. Jewish recitatives composed of spiky melodic intervals alternate with dense mid-range chord clusters, rumbling bursts of bass, and clear melodic patterns. It is difficult to hear this piece and not think of Mussorgsky's famous Pictures at an Exhibition depiction of "Two Jews." In that work, the anti-Semitic composer crudely mocks the Jews of his day by invoking sonic stereotypes of the tittering, high-pitched "assimilated" Jewish voice and the lugubrious bass sound of anguished Jewish moaning. Veprik's Sonata, by contrast, avoids sonic clichés. He offers instead something more akin to an abstract homage to the sound of traditional Jewish prayer in the synagogue: an urgent, propulsive din swells and crests, while a stately melodic voice, concise and elegant in its clarity, shines through.