The musical past does not always recede at a uniform speed, measured coolly in years or decades. Sometimes an artist’s death can make an entire era feel suddenly more distant.
That was the case with the passing this month of the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, one of the last prominent links to a legendary chapter of Soviet musical life.
As the dominant female vocalist of the postwar era at the Bolshoi Theater, Vishnevskaya was also one of the great sopranos of the 20th century. This was due not only to her voice — earthy yet lustrous, flecked with silver, and capable of a prophetic intensity — but also to her astonishing theatrical gifts, an ability to create a burningly vivid reality within the life of a single song.
Together with her husband, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she had a presence in the inner circles of Shostakovich and Britten, both of whom wrote important works for her. On the opera stage, she was best known for singing iconic roles from the Russian repertory, including Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin,” Lisa in “The Queen of Spades,” and Natasha in “War and Peace.” She also starred in a remarkable film adaptation of Shostakovich’s potent yet ill-fated opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (under the title of its revised version, “Katerina Izmailova.”)
Vishnevskaya’s performances caused a sensation when she began appearing in the West, first on official Soviet-sanctioned tours, and later as an exile, stripped of her Soviet citizenship for supporting, with her husband, the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Locally, she performed in Boston several times in the 1960s and ’70s, appearing with ensembles and in recital, and with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood.
As with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, another vocal giant who died earlier this year at 86, I was too young to have heard Vishnevskaya live. But I treasure several of her recordings that have been looping through my home in the last few days: performances of Shostakovich’s moon-drenched Blok Romances, Mussorgsky’s “Songs and Dances of Death,” Prokofiev’s haunting settings of Akhmatova poetry, and Britten’s “War Requiem,” whose affecting soprano solo part was written expressly for her.
There must surely have been no substitute for hearing Vishnevskaya in person. But even through recordings, her singing can still quicken the pulse with its ancient depths of tone, solitary beauty, and declamatory power. Technically speaking, she could manipulate timbre and vibrato in ways that gave her an uncommonly vast expressive range. Hers was also a style tethered to older Russian vocal traditions, dating to the legendary bass Feodor Chaliapin. “What is Russia?” she once told an interviewer. “For me Russia is Chaliapin.” Listening through her recordings, one after another, makes you want to say: Russia is also Vishnevskaya.
Which was of course part of the twinned strength and fragility of her life and career.
Amid strife from childhood
Born in 1926 in Leningrad, she glimpsed as a young girl scenes of Stalin’s brutal collectivization of Russian agriculture. Her father, as a zealous communist, had killed fellow countrymen as part of the infamous suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion, and years later he denounced his own daughter. A naturally gifted singer, she was raised by a grandmother, who sometimes placed her in a warm oven to protect her from the cold.
She survived the gruesome years of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, growing accustomed to the sight of frozen corpses in the streets. Not long afterward, her first and only son died in infancy and she contracted life-threatening tuberculosis. Doctors wanted to treat the disease by collapsing one of her lungs, which would have ended her singing career. She survived by obtaining streptomycin injections on the black market, at a price that required selling off her belongings. After one farsighted voice teacher gave her the gift of her technique, she auditioned for the Bolshoi, arriving at 25, already having endured enough sorrow for many lifetimes.
It became part of the ore from which she extracted her own art. When she began at the Bolshoi in 1952, Stalin was still in power, and her singing became a site of personal refuge. “The only place where I could be myself was the stage,” she once told filmmaker Alexander Sokurov. “I could permit myself to do anything. I opened myself completely. . . . It was possible to confess in public, just like that, aloud. And nobody knew that I was making a confession. It was a great happiness.”
Beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet Union’s most prominent musicians were often showcased abroad and used as pawns in the larger Cold War diplomatic game, as apparent proof of the humanity and greatness of the Soviet system. The pressure experienced by the touring artists themselves could be overwhelming. “As ever, I felt behind me the whole of Russia: if I sang badly, everything was finished,” Vishnevskaya later wrote in her autobiography. “Abroad we go on stage as if we are baring our breasts to a machine gun.”
Her book, “Galina,” ends with scenes from her exile in 1974, including a wrenching farewell with Shostakovich, whom she would never see again. The book’s final chapter is prefaced with grim lines from Akhmatova: “I have a lot to do today: I have to kill my memory, I have to turn my heart to stone, I have to learn to live — again.”
Perhaps inevitably, the final years of her career in the West brought her far less artistic prominence than she had enjoyed in earlier decades. She had essentially been cut off from the Russian language and culture that was the wellspring of her art. Her singing in other languages and styles rarely attained the same vertiginous heights. Meanwhile at home, as a Soviet non-person, her name was deleted from film credits and removed from the jubilee album of the Bolshoi Theatre, which, chillingly, even tossed her photos from its archives.
Yet of course through their work, performers like Vishnevskaya leave behind a record of an era that cannot be airbrushed. Her career is a stark reminder of how Soviet repression and censorship poisoned music while also freighting it with unusual powers as an antidote to the struggles of daily existence, an antidote that was craved by some of its citizens with an intensity that can be difficult to fathom today in a society so far removed from that time and place. She also embodied an approach to singing as history, whether personal or collective. “Everything you have gone through in your life can be heard when you are on the stage,” she once observed. Indeed, Vishnevskaya’s audiences encountered much more than an electrifying voice.