Guitar in the GULag: Guitar Music by Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev, 1888–1963

Oleg Timofeyev’s latest CD (098458000 on the Hänssler label) features the compositions of Matvei Stepanovich Pavlov (artistic pseudonym: Azancheev; March 10, 1888–January 8, 1963). Pavlov was a professional cellist and symphony conductor as well as a composer for and a virtuoso on the Russian seven-string guitar. His professional musical career started early: born in Batumi, Georgia, to the family of a carpenter, Matvei Pavlov learned guitar as a schoolboy and was already giving guitar lessons at the age of 14. In the turbulent years around the first Russian Revolution (1905), Pavlov became a student at the Moscow conservatory, studying cello with Professor A. E. von Glenn and composition with M. Ippolitov-Ivanov. Undoubtedly, Ippolitov-Ivanov’s enthusiasm for “exotic” music had a lasting influence on the young musician: Pavlov arranged for 8 guitars his teacher’s well known composition Procession of the Sardar (from Caucasian Sketches). It appears that the young composer added the pseudonym “Azancheev” in imitation of Ippolitov-Ivanov (whose real name was simply Ivanov). In 1914 Pavlov was drafted to join the Russian army for World War I, but thanks to a petition from his influential composition teacher, the young composer was soon promoted from a mere soldier to conductor of a military band. The next documented period of his life is 1924–33, when he conducted an orchestra in Vladikavkaz, under unbearable, practically super-human conditions. The contract obliged Pavlov-Azancheev to have his orchestra perform 10 compositions daily (16 on holidays) during the season and not to repeat a piece in daily performances more often than once every 1,5 months. This meant that the orchestra had to learn more than 500 pieces, and most of them were arranged or at least hand-copied by Pavlov-Azancheev himself. The best of his compositions for guitar date from these excruciating yet extremely productive years.

During a tour in the city of Sochi, Pavlov-Azancheev was slandered, falsely accused, and arrested on charges of Chapter 58.10, part two (“Anti-Soviet Propaganda”) and spent the years 1941–1951 in a labor camp. He was more fortunate than millions of others: instead of Siberia, he was sent to a small “correctional colony” in the south of Russia with a relatively mild regime. Throughout his imprisonment, the composer always had the right to keep correspondence, which he exercised extensively. During this decade, guitar and guitar playing were particularly important in his life — first, because there was apparently no other instrument around, and second, because his correspondence with the Vladikavkaz and Moscow guitarists was crucial for his survival. He sent a number of his scores out of his labor camp, some just neatly copied, others newly composed. His fellow guitarists in the “free world,” on the other hand, were helping him sporadically with food, clothes, money, music paper, pencils, etc.

One can say about this man that he was “condemned to life.” Already in the 1930s he refers to himself as an old man: in the dedication of his Elegy “Old Age” he calls this piece his self-portrait. In his letter of August 28, 1946 he tells that he was put in jail for “old man’s babble” (za starcheskuiu boltovniu). Many of his letters from the Gulag reflect his failing health and near end. In the meantime, his friends — guitarists and lawyers — apply for his amnesty several times, but every time get a firm denial. After having served his entire term, he is released in 1951 to experience yet more humiliation. His numerous applications for a miniscule pension were denied on the basis of “interrupted employment record” (obviously, in relation to his imprisonment). To his last days in the Home for the Elderly, Pavlov-Azancheev kept supporting himself with a few poorly paid private lessons.

Matvei Pavlov-Azancheev Fragment of the manuscript of the composition Parad

Related item: Link to an on-line exhibit about the GULag system in the former Soviet Union.