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Russian Soul: Revolutions in Russian music

Features - Classical Music

Russian Soul: Revolutions in Russian music

by Clive Paget on April 13, 2017 (April 13, 2017) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
The events of 1917 changed the course of history but Russian music has had more than its share of revolutions.

Mention German music, or English, or French and most people will likely find similar sounds springing to mind. Each country’s ‘style’ developed in a fairly linear fashion with a little cross-pollination from one to the other. But think of Russian music and where does the mind settle? Mussorgsky? Tchaikovsky? Stravinsky? Rachmaninov? Shostakovich? Schnittke? Has any other musical nation gone down so many rich and rare musical rabbit holes in such a short time?

Why was that? Political volatility was part of the reason. Plus a certain lack of concern (at least in the 19th century) for formal rules and boundaries – no one embraced Beethoven and Berlioz quite like the Russians. But Russian music also has much in common with itself (beyond a misguided Western perception of gloom). The music of Tchaikovsky was at least as influential as that of Wagner for composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns, Bax or Gershwin. In some cases it even acted as a welcome alternative to what was considered German stodginess.

Australian orchestras are programming oodles of Russian music this year, but the Sydney Symphony Orchestra has chosen to binge. I asked Chief Conductor David Robertson to join me on a mini tour of Russian musical history to help sort the Medtners from the Myaskovskys and the Kabalevskys from the Kalinnikovs.

In the beginning

Looking back, Russia was mostly cut off from mainstream European musical obsessions from the Renaissance to the Classical period. There were a few Italian or German imports – check out the music adorning the courts of the 18th-century Tsaristas on Cecilia Bartoli’s St. Petersburg album – but local composers like Maksim Berezovsky (1745–1777) or Dmitry Bortniansky (1751–1825), both Ukranians, are mostly remembered today for choral music steeped in the Russian Orthodox tradition. That is the first recognisable ingredient of the Russian sound.

Mikhail GlinkaMikhail Glinka (1804–1857)

Most people agree something changes with Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857). “With Glinka it starts becoming unmistakeable,” Robertson agrees. “For the Russians it was their first sense of ‘Hey, wait a minute, this is sounding more like us’. It's not in all his pieces. My wife Orli [Shaham] played a piece for strings and piano and I kept thinking this is like the funkiest Mendelssohn. But by the time you get to the famous Ruslan and Lyudmila, there's no question that this is a different kind of thing.”

A sickly youth, Glinka took the Grand Tour, met Berlioz and Liszt, and came back fired up to do for Russian opera what Donizetti had done for Italian. His masterpiece, A Life for the Tsar, in which the hero Ivan Susanin sacrifices himself for the first of the Romanovs, is the first historical opera to fuse bel canto with Slavic folk tunes (the second identifiable element denoting Russianness in music).
Glinka’s European qualities are reflected in lesser contemporaries like Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813–1869), composer of The Stone Guest, and Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894), who wrote prolifically but is more famous today as the founder of the initially European-leaning St. Petersburg Conservatory. In tone and subject matter, however, Glinka leads directly towards the movement known as ‘The Mighty Handful’.

Quite a handful

The 18-year-old Mily Balakirev (1837–1910) was the ringleader. Along with influential critic Vladimir Stasov, he formulated a frequently disputatious agenda to promote a new and characteristically national style in music and art, rejecting Western disciplines and encouraging the use of more Eastern harmonic scales. An underrated composer, slow of composition, Balakirev’s symphonies deserve a listen even if his style hardly develops over a long life.

“I think the talents of some of the Handful lay more in polemical areas than necessarily in composition,” says Robertson, “which is why most audience members cannot immediately come up with all five. César Cui [1835–1918] does not figure very highly on concert programmes!”

However, two names definitely merit a place at the top table: Alexander Borodin (1833–1887), the chemist-turned-composer whose catchy tunesmithery produced Prince Igor plus two-and-a-half fine symphonies, and most impressive of all, Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), one of the 19th century’s most original talents (from any country). His twin operatic masterpieces – the moving and epic Boris Godunov and the under-performed Khovanschina – were truly innovative (though his later arrangers papered over some of his more unique touches).

It was the typically Russian prosody of a maverick like Mussorgsky that opened the floodgates to composers in other countries. “People realised, ‘I don't have to handle French the way it's been handled by Chabrier, Saint-Saëns and Meyerbeer,’” says Robertson of a ‘freeing up’ that can be added to our list of classic Russian ingredients. “They realised you can set a pedal point, and when you want to change the harmony, you just shift it, you don't have to go through the rigmarole of making a proper modulation.”

Russian composer Modest MussorgskyModest Mussorgsky (1839–1881)

Revolutionary ideas in music, then, going hand in hand with revolutionary ideas in politics, and merging with other European trends like the arrival of verismo – “where opera can be about peasants,” says Robertson, “or in theatre where an Ibsen might be writing about industrial pollution in a small Norwegian town.”

Balakirev’s freethinking musical nationalism and political liberalism was reflected most powerfully in the youngest and most influential of the Handful, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). Famous as a master orchestrator, he’s maybe less well known as a bit of a red-under-the-bed (he was sacked from the Conservatory for sympathising with his students taking part in the 1905 St. Petersburg uprising) and as a formal experimenter.

“A typical Russian quality is this wish to have things fit the natural phraseology of the Slavic languages,” reckons Roberstson, “and so phrase lengths don't need to be four bars long. I love the incredible sense of symmetry in the first movement of Scheherazade, where you have all these five bar phrases and then he collapses them down, making them three bar phrases – one and a half plus one and a half. He treats it in as regular a way as, say, Schubert, but because he's trying to show Sinbad’s boat on the ocean, symmetry is a fairly relative concept. It's done with an incredible sense of how proportions work.”

As good as it gets

Swimming both with, and at times against this tide was perhaps the greatest of them all, and for David Robertson it’s Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) who represents the real Russian moment of change. “Look at his history with the Conservatory and with his colleagues and the kinds of friendships he managed to keep despite the ideological battles that were raging within Russian musical circles,” he says. “Tchaikovsky projects a sense that not everything in European music is bad. You don't have to throw out every aspect of musical professionalism, like how you score, or writing things out in a style that people outside your own country would be able to read. These things set him apart, yet at the same time it's clear he could feel the pull of the idea that there was a music distinctly based in the soil of Russia.”

Russian composer TchaikovskyPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

For all his evident genius, Tchaikovsky’s genuine triumphs were few and far between, but looking back, none of his contemporaries could touch him in the fields of ballet or the symphony. “I think he had to work hard to find his own style,” explains Robertson, “but the more I study Tchaikovsky, the more I am impressed. Sometimes it’s his simple brilliance, and sometimes it’s just his ability to take these very human experiences and to translate them into music at an exquisite level that I don't think many composers have ever matched.”

“I love the way the Fourth Symphony is entirely connected up with his feelings and being in this unhappy marriage; or the way that he takes all of what is in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and filters it through his own personal lens. The problem is that we've all got to know these works far too well for far too long. What we end up knowing is not necessarily what is there. But no one in his day who’d been at a social dance would have mistaken the rhythm of a polonaise. They didn’t need to hear the next bar – they knew what it would be. To put that at the beginning of the Fourth Symphony, and to then suddenly break it with what is effectively a waltz. To have the two clashing right from the start – it’s mind-blowingly savvy!”

Fin de siècle

After Tchaikovsky’s premature death, a few intriguing small fry popped up around the turn of the century, their music overshadowed by the major voices who came before and the looming revolutionary schism that would shatter the history of classical music. Anatoly Lyadov (1855–1914) left a few miniature gems – his Enchanted Lake being finer than the ubiquitous Musical Snuffbox. Sergei Taneyev (1856–1915) – the teacher of Rachmaninov and Scriabin – became a good friend of Tchaikovsky after giving the Moscow première of the composer’s First Piano Concerto in 1875 under the outspoken Nikolai Rubinstein, the man who had notoriously panned the work less than a year earlier. Taneyev’s academically-informed music may not sound quintessentially Russian, but much is of quality.

Anton Arensky (1861–1906) also seems to be getting his due at last, especially for his appealing chamber works. "He will quickly be forgotten," Rimsky is said to have muttered hearing of Arensky’s death. Conversely, policeman’s son Vasily Kalinnikov (1866–1901) was a success in his day and left a pair of charming symphonies – Robertson would love to perform the First, which was rated by Toscanini – as well as some folk-infused songs.

And then there was Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915). A maverick to match Mussorgsky, he invented his own unique atonal language (without the help of Schoenberg) and had an increasing fancy for grandiose musical forms. At first somewhat forgotten after his death, Scriabin’s highly perfumed symphonies and his ecstatic tone poems have gained a decent foothold in the repertoire, while his piano works are frequently programmed and recorded.

From Russia with love

Through bilateral concert tours and festivals like Wagner’s at Bayreuth, European composers got to know and love the Russian sound and vice-versa, but the country’s great export was ballet. It may be apocryphal, but the story of Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns performing a pas de deux on the Moscow Conservatoire stage demonstrates more than just an entente cordiale. It didn’t take much, then, for the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his secret weapon, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), to turn a passion into a mania when the Ballets Russes started touring in 1909.

Russian composer StravinskyIgor Stravinsky (1882–1971)

“Diaghilev was really smart about people wanting an ‘authentic’ Russian savagery in art,” says Robertson. “He was shrewd enough to figure out what the real stuff was and, if he didn't have it, Stravinsky would fabricate it.”

Although Stravinsky would leave Russia before WWI for Switzerland, France and ultimately the United States – and his music would go through as many ‘periods’ as Pablo Picasso – those three colourful ballet scores for Diaghilev came to define a trendy new Russian sound. As Western artists looked for the ‘primitive’ by turning to Africa and the far East, so Stravinsky mined his homeland’s musical traditions. “Brilliant though it is, Les Noces is entirely a fabrication,” says Robertson. “It was stolen from musicological research of wedding rituals, and made even more savage by finding a piano and percussion ‘orchestration’ that felt crazy and unusual.”

Revolutionary matters

If Stravinsky represented one future for Russian music, it was the artistic fracture caused by the Revolution of 1917 that demanded composers pick a complicated path through the political minefield of the decades ahead.

Russian composer GlazunovAlexander Glazunov (1865–1936)

Of course, if you were in the distinguished old-guard like Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936), you could soldier on, producing work smelling of the Mighty Handful – a nationalist outlook that easily fell in line with the cultural politics of Stalin. Too easily dismissed as neither old nor new, Glazunov’s symphonies possess genuine merit, while his string quartets rank among the finest of his era. Others, like the colourful Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859–1935), could tap into a trend for Russian ethnicity – in his case the music of Armenia and the Caucasus.

“How you responded as a composer depended on your social background,” Robertson believes. “Classical music tended to be enjoyed by people with leisure time – by definition not the people who made up the proletariat.”

The more musically Eurocentric Reinhold Glière (1875–1956) might look to Russian legend and history, culminating in his folk-hero inspired Ilya Muromets Symphony, but ultimately he fell in with official policy and created the first Soviet ballet. The Red Poppy is a surprisingly entertaining listen involving Russian sailors on a cargo ship, the opium trade and a coolie uprising in a Chinese port. These strands later merged in Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978) whose crafted and tuneful symphonies, concertos and ballets represent the more upbeat side of approved Soviet composition.

The music of Dmitry Kabalevsky (1904–1987), a true believer in socialist realism, is equally catchy. His three piano concertos are still heard, though his six popular-at-the-time operas have sunk without trace. Gavriil Popov (1904–1972) was also a committed communist with some fine symphonies among his blander paeans to the Party. Even the long-lived Tikhon Khrennikov (1913–2007), Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers from 1948 until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, wrote some orchestral music worth hearing. Credited by some with saving others from persecution, a politically unrepentant Khrennikov called Stalin a genius as late as the 1990s, though (according to Shostakovich) he once soiled his pants during a terrifying meeting with the Soviet dictator.

Russian composer Shostakovich on a postage stampA Soviet postage stamp issued in commemoration of Dmitri Shostakovich a year after his death.

Then there were those who grappled with marrying form, content and the party line. Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881–1950) created a fine body of symphonies (clearly his forte), and managed a record five Stalin Prizes despite being accused of "individualism, decadence, pessimism, formalism and complexity". And, of course, there is that most talented and ambiguous of composers, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), about whom so much ink has been spilled, and whose career was a constant battle between adulation and censure.

“Shostakovich was young enough to be at the cutting edge when the Revolution was about breaking the boundaries,” Robertson explains.
“But then suddenly the pendulum started to swing back and he was fighting for his very survival.”

Typically, the Iron Curtain muffled Western ears to the work of many. Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919–1996) is a good case. A friend of Shostakovich, he never quite fitted into the USSR, but a series of fine recordings now reveal him to be a genuinely forgotten master.

Don’t forget the émigrés

Not every Russian composer could stomach the Revolution. Alexander Gretchaninov (1864–1956), who wrote fine, if traditional symphonies and orthodox-infused choral music, got out smartish in the 1920s, winding up in America. So too did Dimitri Tiomkin (1894–1979), who became one of Hollywood’s greatest film composers. The extreme piano music of eccentric futurist Leo Ornstein (1893–2002), reviled and mocked in its day, is now championed by Marc-André Hamelin.

Alexander Tcherepnin (1899–1977) chose France as his home where he developed a singular harmonic language mixing pentatonic scales with Russian modal melodies. A more accepted figure is Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951) who made his home from home in England. Considered old-fashioned for decades, his attractive piano music now makes regular appearances on concert programmes.

Russian composer RachmaninovSergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

It is Medtner’s good friend Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) who, next to Stravinsky, is probably the best known émigré to the States. A musical conservative of patrician stock, his symphonies, and especially his four piano concertos, have proved immensely popular despite initially struggling to find supporters at home.

His younger compatriot, Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953), started out as an apostle of European modernism. He also left Russia for popular stints in the U.S., Germany and France, before being tempted back ‘to Uncle Joe’ where at times he struggled to compose music that was ‘acceptable’ to the State. Nevertheless, much of his finest work – the later symphonies, the opera War and Peace, and his film work with Eisenstein, come from this final period.

The here and now

The post-Stalin thaws allowed the later and current generations at last to experiment in line with trends in European music. Some, like the "Anti-Collectivist" Edison Denisov (1929–1996) and the polystylistic Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) took advantage of the approach of Perestroika to create edgy, even anarchic works. “Schnittke was a remarkable character in his way,” says Robertson. “When I was a student, the BBC, which seemed to have endless budgets, did a performance of his First Symphony. It was the wildest piece I have ever heard!”

Today’s senior voices would have to include the complex yet spiritual Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931), the more tonal Rodion Shchedrin (born 1932), the improvisational, jazz-influenced Nikolai Kapustin (born 1937) and the neoclassical Valentin Sylvestrov (born 1937). “I've worked with Sofia Gubaidulina and she's remarkable,” says Robertson who recommends her 12-movement symphony, Stimmen... Verstummen.

With plenty of composers working in Russia today, and such a rich tradition on which to draw, it will be fascinating to see what the future holds. However, for anyone wanting a tip-off, try the music of UK-based Elena Firsova (born 1950), husband Dmitri Smirnov and their composer, pianist and conductor daughter Alissa Firsova – now there’s a dynasty to rival the Romanovs.


ABC Classic FM is celebrating Russian music this Easter long weekend with Russia: Romance & Revolution every day from 9am April 14 – 17.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Russian season continues with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique at the Sydney Opera House May 10 – 15.

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