Born: Dec 3, 1898 in Tiflis
Dead: Jul 30, 1974 in Moscow
Lev Konstantinovich Knipper was an initially self-taught pianist and composer who came of age in the era of "Russian Futurism." He was encouraged in his early efforts by his aunt, the famous Russian stage actress Olga Knipper-Chekhova. Knipper served for five years in the Red Army before undertaking formal training under Reinhold Gliere at the Moscow Conservatory in 1921. During this time Knipper varied his interests by serving as a stage manager at the Moscow Art Theater. Knipper continued his studies in Berlin with Busoni's associate Philipp Jarnach in 1924.
With his matriculation, Knipper burst onto a Russian musical scene that was brimming with new ideas and experimentation. Knipper's early "futurist" music is tart, satirical, and edgy, betraying the influence of Western composers such as Hindemith. Leopold Stokowski took an interest in Knipper's Op. 1 suite, Legends of Plaster God (1924 - 1927), giving its American premiere in Philadelphia. Knipper's futurist-era music includes the ballet Satanella, Op. 4 (1924), the operas Candide, Op. 15 (1926 - 1927), and North Wind, Op. 25 (1930), and his First Symphony, Op. 13 (1927). North Wind, likely Knipper's masterwork, was also the piece that first got him into trouble with Soviet authorities. Scored in a light, expressionistic style, the opera contains long sections of speech-like, declamatory writing for the voice and a minimum of dramatic underscoring. At the time, this approach was regarded as suspiciously Western by the Soviet government, and Knipper "voluntarily" departed to Tajikistan to collect folk songs, "pledging to do better."
In the early 1930s, Knipper redeemed himself by introducing a type of "song-symphony" which incorporates professional and amateur choruses. This format was so limited that it was doomed to be nothing more than a fad, but it was conceived to appeal to Stalinist sympathies, and was highly successful in this regard. Knipper's Symphony No. 4 "To the Komsomol Fighters" (1934) contains the song "Meadowlands" which has become one of the primary Russian patriotic anthems, long outlasting in popularity both the symphony that introduced it and the regime for which it was created. With his Symphony No. 6 "To the Red Army" (1936) Knipper incorporated elements of his older, more aggressively modernist style, an attribute which hardly escaped the notice of the Soviet State. Knipper was roundly attacked, even by Shostakovich, who may have hoped to regain some ground with the authorities in doing do. Shostakovich frequently confronted Knipper on matters of political "rightness" at several points in their respective careers; this is a startling fact in view of their shared status as composers working within the repressive Soviet regime. Knipper was painfully aware of the situation and attempted to find a voice for it; in 1948 he wrote "we are asked to democratize music, to write more simply and intelligibly. Democratic musical language is not such a simple matter. New conceptions require new words. We cannot speak today in the language of Borodin or Tchaikovsky."
Lev Knipper composed 20 symphonies, 10 operas, concertante pieces for various instruments, including the Concertino-monologue (1962) for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, film music, choral works, chamber music, and songs. He was a longtime member of the Union of Composers, once serving as its vice-president, and the Soviet State bestowed upon Knipper a number of honors. Gerald Abraham once characterized him as a "Soviet Mahler"; however, this did not save Knipper from being practically forgotten by the time of his death in 1974 at age 75. Since then, a groundswell of renewed interest has been growing, and his big tune "Meadowlands" was featured in the soundtrack of the hit film Cast Away (2000).
- Uncle Dave Lewis (All Music Guide)