On Russian Music

On Russian Music

Richard Taruskin
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 416
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppqnq
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On Russian Music
    Book Description:

    Over the past four decades, Richard Taruskin's publications have redefined the field of Russian-music study. This volume gathers thirty-six essays on composers ranging from Bortnyansky in the eighteenth century to Tarnopolsky in the twenty-first, as well as all of the famous names in between. Some of these pieces, like the ones on Chaikovsky's alleged suicide and on the interpretation of Shostakovich's legacy, have won fame in their own right as decisive contributions to some of the most significant debates in contemporary musicology. An extensive introduction lays out the main issues and a justification of Taruskin's approach, seen both in the light of his intellectual development and in that of the changing intellectual environment, which has been particularly marked by the end of the cold war in Europe.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94280-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Taking It Personally
    (pp. 1-26)

    This book shares its title with another. Its namesake, Gerald Abraham’sOn Russian Music: Critical and Historical Studies of Glinka’s Operas, Balakirev’s Works, etc., with chapters dealing with Compositions by Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glazunov, and various other aspects of Russian Music, was published in 1939 and has been a foundational part of my personal musical consciousness since about 1958, when as a high-school student I began to frequent the New York Public Library’s circulating music branch (then located on East 58th Street in Manhattan) in hopes of slaking what was becoming a tormenting thirst to learn, and learn about,...

  4. 1 Some Thoughts on the History and Historiography of Russian Music
    (pp. 27-52)

    A preliminary version of this chapter was read as a paper in a symposium organized by Malcolm H. Brown on “Fifty Years of American Research in Slavic Music,” given at the fiftieth national meeting of the American Musicological Society, on 27 October 1984. The other participants in the symposium and their topics were Barbara Krader (Slavic Ethnic Musics), Miloš Velimirović (Slavic Church Music), Malcolm H. Brown (Russian Music—What Has Been Done), Laurel Fay (The Special Case of Soviet Music—Problems of Methodology), and Michael Beckerman (Czech Music Research). Margarita Mazo served as respondent.

    My assigned topic for this symposium...

  5. 2 For Ukraine, He’s a Native Son, Regardless
    (pp. 53-57)

    Say this much for nationalism: its cultural salvage missions, however perversely motivated, can yield up fascinating flotsam. In a new recording, a group of singers and instrumentalists from Lviv—formerly Lvov and, before that, Lemberg—in newly independent Ukraine has lovingly resurrectedAlcide, an opera by Dmitry Bortnyansky, a distinguished native of the Ukrainian village of Hlukhiv (Glukhov to Russians) who never thought of himself as a Ukrainian and surely spent most of his life trying to forget he ever saw the place.

    Bortnyansky wroteAlcideto an Italian text by the great librettist Pietro Metastasio during his apprentice years...

  6. 3 “Classicism” à la Russe
    (pp. 58-62)

    Five of the eleven selections in this beautifully sung recital are by Dmitry Bortnyansky (1751–1825), the Ukrainian-born, Italian-trained composer who in 1796 became the first native-born director of the Imperial Chapel Choir in St. Petersburg, and whose prolific output of sacred choral music (following an earlier period as a composer for the musical stage) formed the basis for the modern musical repertory of the Russian Orthodox church. The great value of this CD is the opportunity it affords for placing this important and often misevaluated figure in several relevant contexts: those of his direct Italian predecessors, his somewhat remoter...

  7. 4 A Wonderful Beginning
    (pp. 63-69)

    At the notorious Zhdanov-convened “conference” of Soviet musicians at the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1948, which led to the infamous “Resolution on Music” that Soviet composers could never quite live down, Yuri Shaporin contributed some interesting testimony. During a class in orchestration, he recalled,

    I recommended to one student that he look through Glinka’s scores. The student objected, “But what’s so interesting about them?” I don’t know, perhaps I exceeded my authority as professor, but I threw that student out of the classroom. Now I am a very easygoing person; the student apologized to...

  8. 5 Dargomïzhsky and His Stone Guest
    (pp. 70-75)

    “I want Truth,” wrote Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomïzhsky, in a sloganeering letter that is often cited (though it was written a decade earlier) as the theoretical document that “explains” his remarkable swan song of 1867,The Stone Guest. Fair enough, but who wants falsehood? Chaikovsky, for one: “If there is anything more hateful andfalsethan this unsuccessful attempt to introducetruthinto a branch of art where everything is based onpseudoand wheretruthin the usual sense of the word is not demanded at all, I do not know it.”

    The branch of art, of course, was opera:...

  9. 6 Pathetic Symphonist: Chaikovsky, Russia, Sexuality, and the Study of Music
    (pp. 76-104)

    These comically contrasting opinions pertain to the same symphony, Chaikovsky’s Fourth. The first is from a review of the English première, which took place under the composer’s baton at a London Philharmonic concert on 1 June 1893. (Chaikovsky was passing through on his way to Cambridge, where he was to receive an honorary doctorate alongside Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saëns, and Grieg, certifying his status in the company of the contemporary great.) The review appeared six days later inThe World, over the byline of its regular critic, one Corno di Bassetto, who had just started writing plays under his given name,...

  10. 7 Chaikovsky and the Literary Folk: A Study in Misplaced Derision
    (pp. 105-113)

    “My desires are modest,” said Vladimir Nabokov, in his famousPlayboypseudo-interview with Alvin Toffler, the future futurist. (“Pseudo-interview” because, like all Nabokov interviews, this one was conducted completely in writing, with considered and composed answers to submitted questions, and a few composed questions, too.) Asked to define his ideal state, he continued: “The social or economic structure is of little concern to me. Portraits of the head of government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions.” No surprises there.

    But then he added, “No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.”...

  11. 8 The Great Symbolist Opera
    (pp. 114-124)

    At the beginning of the year 1888, a composer named Nikolai Semyonovich Klenovsky (1853–1915), who worked as a staff conductor at the Moscow Bolshoi Theater and had produced several ballets there (of which one,The Delights of Hashish, had been sensationally successful), decided it was time to try his hand at an opera. At the recommendation of his boss, Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, the intendant of the Russian Imperial Theaters, Klenovsky turned to Modest Ilyich Chaikovsky, the famous composer’s younger brother, who had begun making a name for himself as a dramatist, with a request that Chaikovsky furnish him with...

  12. 9 Chaikovsky as Symphonist
    (pp. 125-138)

    In the nineteenth century the realm of opera and the realm of symphony, once adjoining districts in the empire of music, became separate worlds. Those with long historical memories know that the opera gave birth, through its overture, to the symphony; but by the end of the eighteenth century, the symphony had run away from home. With only the rarest exceptions there is no nineteenth-century composer known equally for his operas and his symphonies. The very idea of a symphony by Verdi or Musorgsky, or an opera by Brahms or Bruckner, brings titters. Beethoven was a one-opera man, Wagner and...

  13. 10 Russian Originals, De- and Re-Edited
    (pp. 139-150)

    Musorgsky, who either didn’t finish his operas or finished them twice, has always been a yammerer’s delight. His works inspire interminable discussion as to who he really was, what he really meant, which (or whose) version is best and why. Any review of a performance ofBoris Godunovhas to start with a description of just what it contains and an evaluation of the performers’ textual choices before the quality of the performance can even be broached.

    A new recording by the Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg, conducted by the indefatigable Valery Gergiyev (Philips 462 230-2; five CDs), seeks to...

  14. 11 A New, New Boris?
    (pp. 151-155)

    When the Metropolitan Opera revives Modest Musorgsky’sBoris Godunovon Friday evening under the baton of Valery Gergiyev, it will be introducing a new orchestration by Igor Buketoff to supersede the composer’s original scoring, reinstated at the Met with a great deal of “authentistic” fanfare under Thomas Schippers in 1973. Why the backsliding? Is it backsliding? We are probably in for a new installment of an endless debate.

    Musorgsky died of the effects of alcoholism just one week after his forty-second birthday. Thus, although it is rarely noted or remembered, he was—like Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Mendelssohn—a romantically...

  15. 12 Christian Themes in Russian Opera: A Millennial Essay
    (pp. 156-165)

    The millennium to which my title refers is that of the Christianization of Russia, which took place in 988, and which was recently celebrated the world over, not least in newly broad-minded Russia herself. (This essay was prepared for and read at an international symposium, “The Millennium of Christianity in Rus’: The Impact of Christianity on the History of the Eastern Slavs,” held at the Library of Congress on 26 May 1988.) And yet the designation is somewhat imprecise: the millennium was really that of a sovereign’s baptism. After considering and rejecting Judaism and Islam (so the legend goes), the...

  16. 13 The Case for Rimsky-Korsakov
    (pp. 166-178)

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great composers for the lyric stage, even if no one outside Russia wants to believe it. His fifteen operas are the largest such body of work ever composed by a Russian for Russian consumption. (Anton Rubinstein composed even more, but not just for Russia.) Most remain in active repertory at home, although onlyLe Coq d’Or, his very atypical last opera, is internationally famous. When you add that Rimsky-Korsakov was responsible for the original or standard performing versions of Dargomïzhsky’sThe Stone Guest, Musorgsky’sBoris GodunovandKhovanshchina, and Borodin’sPrince Igor, and recall...

  17. 14 Kitezh: Religious Art of an Atheist
    (pp. 179-183)

    Igor Stravinsky once defined sincerity in art as “a sine qua non that at the same time guarantees nothing.” Is it even a sine qua non? Audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will have a chance to ponder that question when they attend the Kirov Opera performances ofThe Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia, by Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This opera of 1904, Rimsky’s fourteenth and next-to-last (and, many think, greatest), was first performed at the Kirov, then called the Mariyinsky, in St. Petersburg in 1907. It is a remarkable work of religious...

  18. 15 Sex and Race, Russian Style
    (pp. 184-189)

    Unless we take the proper steps, the New York City Opera’s new production of Alexander Borodin’sPrince Igor, that baggy monster of hormone-enriched Russian cabaret, that steamy borscht of harem girls, church bells, high nationalism and basso profundo, could get us thinking. For along with the pretty tunes that Broadway stole (forKismet) and the sweaty male dances that made Parisian ladies swoon, the opera broaches some matters that have grown touchy since the innocent days (or so we may imagine them) when it was new, 100 years ago.

    Don’t worry, be happy, some critics advise. “Suspension of moral indignation,”...

  19. 16 Yevreyi and Zhidy: A Memoir, a Survey, and a Plea
    (pp. 190-201)

    I spent the academic year 1971–72 in Moscow, researching a doctoral dissertation on Russian opera in the 1860s. Like many dissertations, it became my first book.¹ The purpose of my stay, like that of any other exchange student, was educational. But my real educational experiences—again, as in the case, I daresay, of most exchange students on their first extended stay abroad—took place outside of the library, on the streets, in the dormitory, and in the homes of acquaintances and (in my own, especially privileged case) relatives.

    The most poignant one of all took place in the big...

  20. 17 The Antiliterary Man: Diaghilev and Music
    (pp. 202-213)

    For the last two decades of his career Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was dogged by a devoted Boswell, a banker and musical dilettante named Vasily Yastrebtsev, who kept a diary of his almost daily contacts with the composer that is for historians a treasure trove of (sometimes unwittingly) revealing glimpses of the musical and cultural scene in fin-de-siècle St. Petersburg. Here is a choice item, dated 22 September (O.S.) 1894:

    Rimsky-Korsakov told us about the curious visit he received from a certain young man … who, though he probably already considers himself a great composer, nonetheless wished to take theory lessons from...

  21. 18 From Fairy Tale to Opera in Four Moves
    (pp. 214-222)

    The Love for Three Oranges, the only one of Sergey Prokofieff’s eight operas to enjoy unqualified success and repertory status during the composer’s lifetime, is indebted for its title, and for the general outlines of its plot, to the celebratedfiaba teatrale, or “fable for the theater,” by Carlo Gozzi, first produced in 1761. It is, to be precise, an adaptation of an adaptation of Gozzi. But Gozzi’s work was itself an adaptation. With each telling the tale became further encrusted with theatrical artifice and literary doctrine, even as the tellers advertised naive simplicity.

    The end product of this most...

  22. 19 To Cross That Sacred Edge: Notes on a Fiery Angel
    (pp. 223-232)

    Nina Petrovskaya, born in Moscow in 1884, was one of those writers who never write anything, without whom no literary movement is complete. Her name would be forgotten by now even by the most intrepid historians of Russian Symbolism were it not for her having been endowed, as the poet Vladislav Khodasevich put it, with a gift for living—and loving—out of all proportion to her gift for art. Half of literary Moscow was smitten with her, he wrote. Nor was it an unrequited passion, to judge by the number of Russian poets, great and small, whose lives became...

  23. 20 Prokofieff’s Return
    (pp. 233-245)

    In January of 1990 Kurt Masur, soon to be appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led the San Francisco Symphony in a program that included Sergey Prokofieff’s familiar cantata based on his music to Sergey Eisenstein’s 1938 filmAlexander Nevsky. The program had been set long in advance, and I was hired to write the notes for it. I did so during the summer of 1989, and was forced to confront anew the old problem of “political” art.

    Ostensibly celebrating the victory of a thirteenth-century Russian despot over an alliance of Germanic and Finnish invaders, both the...

  24. 21 Tone, Style, and Form in Prokofieff’s Soviet Operas
    (pp. 246-269)

    When Prokofieff returned to Russia he never imagined that he was turning his back irrevocably on the West. A world-famous composer and pianist, he foresaw only the continuation of a brilliant international career. Although Soviet historiography dates his return to the year 1932, Prokofieff maintained an apartment in Paris until 1936. In 1938 he made a lengthy concert tour of Western Europe and the United States, and he planned another for 1940.

    Then, on 23 August 1939, the curtain fell. With the signing of the Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany became (in a popular phrase of the...

  25. 22 Great Artists Serving Stalin Like a Dog
    (pp. 270-276)

    Like so many works of Soviet art, and like their creators,Ivan the Terrible, a zealously nationalistic film by the great director Sergey Eisenstein with music by the great composer Sergey Prokofieff, had a difficult life. It was planned as a monumental trilogy. Part 1, released in 1944, won Stalin Prizes (first class) for both Sergeys. Part 2, completed in 1946, was banned. Part 3 was never made.

    Unlike the score forAlexander Nevsky, Eisenstein’s and Prokofieff’s previous nationalistic epic, the one forIvan the Terriblewas never turned into a concert work by the composer. The second part of...

  26. 23 Stalin Lives On in the Concert Hall, but Why?
    (pp. 277-282)

    One of Vladimir Nabokov’s truly immortal passages lies buried in one of his least-known books, his critical study of Gogol. In a dozen pages of pure hilarious poetry, inventing one unforgettably ludicrous image after another, he impresses on his non-Russian-speaking readers the amazing range of nuances the Russian language makes available in one fabulous word:poshlust(pronounced PAW-shlust; it’s hardly posh).

    There is no space for such a tractate as Nabokov’s within the cramped confines of these columns, and hence no chance of conveying all the marvelous resonance of the word. The best capsule definition I can come up with...

  27. 24 The Last Symphony?
    (pp. 283-287)

    The most hallowed cliché of musical biography is the one that assigns three periods to every composer’s career. Even Schubert, who died at thirty-one, has a late period in most accounts of his life. The reason is obvious: Beethoven had three periods, or so his influential biographer von Lenz insisted in 1852, when he publishedBeethoven et ses trois styles. Since then, all composers have been created by their biographers in Beethoven’s image.

    Perhaps the only composer who would have had three periods even if there had been no von Lenz, or no Beethoven, was Prokofieff. Dramatic biographical events gave...

  28. 25 For Russian Music Mavens, a Fabled Beast Is Bagged
    (pp. 288-293)

    I have never encountered a work by Nikolai Myaskovsky in the concert hall, and I doubt that I ever will. In this way, if in no other, I’m just too young.

    During the 1920s and 1930s this Russian composer, whose name has three syllables (miss-KAWF-ski), was prominent on the international musical scene. He was published, alongside Bartók and Schoenberg, by Universal Edition, Europe’s number 1 prestige firm. He served on the board of the International Society for Contemporary Music, then the world’s leading new music forum. Big-time conductors—Sergey Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Artur Rodzinski, Frederick Stock (to name only those...

  29. 26 Restoring Comrade Roslavets
    (pp. 294-298)

    In 1924 the Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Roslavets, then at the height of his creative powers—and at the height of his power as a cultural bureaucrat in the fledgling Soviet Union—published an article, “On Myself and My Work,” in the Moscow journalSovremennaya muzïka(Contemporary music). It described the “powerful inner impulse” that had led him “to break with academic traditions and techniques” and find “a new system for the organization of sounds.” Never a modest man, Roslavets (pronounced RAW-sluh-vyets) declared that his system was “destined to replace the old classical system, whose resources we have now finally...

  30. 27 When Serious Music Mattered
    (pp. 299-321)

    The signal fact of Dmitry Shostakovich’s career was his eventual status as the one and only Soviet artist to be claimed ardently, and equally, by the official establishment and the rising counterculture alike. The achievement was not his alone. It was the convolute result of the enormous talent that he was dealt, the all too interesting times in which he lived, the nature of the medium in which he worked, and his capacity for maintaining a poker face. His music was at once an irresistible expressive conveyance and a tabula rasa on which all and sundry could inscribe their various...

  31. 28 Casting a Great Composer as a Fictional Hero
    (pp. 322-328)

    The full houses and rapturous critical response that greeted the Emerson String Quartet’s recent Shostakovich cycle at Alice Tully Hall gave further evidence that Shostakovich, a giant of twentieth-century music, may yet be accorded, in the twenty-first, the recognition long withheld out of irrelevant geopolitical and musico-political concerns. Now the Emerson’s wonderful performances of all fifteen quartets are available in a Deutsche Grammophon recording, and we are invited as we listen—and as we await the imminent return of Shostakovich’s gripping, if morally worrisome,Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Districtto the Metropolitan Opera—to reflect at leisure on his...

  32. 29 Shostakovich’s Bach: A Pill to Purge Stalinism
    (pp. 329-333)

    And in the fallen twentieth century, man created Bach in his image. In the image of God he created him. And recreated him again and again. The last of the many vicarious twentieth-century Bachs will be on display on 30 October and 3 November at the 92d Street Y, when Tatyana Nikolayeva, the distinguished Russian pianist and composer, performs the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues (op. 87) by her countryman Dmitry Shostakovich.

    In the sanguine nineteenth century, every composer’s handpicked progenitor was Beethoven, not Bach. For Wagner, Beethoven was “the human evangel of the art of the future,” that is, Wagner’s....

  33. 30 Five Operas and a Symphony
    (pp. 334-339)

    Perhaps I’d better begin straight out with the Full Disclosure. I was present at the creation of most of the essays that have gone into this absorbing book. They were mainly conceived during the halcyon era when the author’s presence in the Berkeley Slavic department, together with Simon Karlinsky and Robert Hughes, made that department virtually a second music department on campus, which I (as the Slavist in the “first” department) happily frequented as a colloquium speaker and discussant, as they did ours. Those discussions were the incubator for a lot of thinking on both sides about the musical and...

  34. 31 Hearing Cycles
    (pp. 340-356)

    “How far is anyone justified,” asked Charles Ives at the outset of hisEssays Before a Sonata, “in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?” Ives’s answer, the inevitable answer of anyone who needs to ask the question, was (I paraphrase) “Far enough to serve my interests.” For unless we use music only as something to dance to, or unless we can savor its purely sensuous beauty with the sublime detachment Immanuel Kant called “disinterestedness”...

  35. 32 Of Mice and Mendelssohn
    (pp. 357-365)

    The Moscow Conservatory, so the story goes, was infested with mice. After all known means of extermination had failed, the rector, People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R. Alexander Sveshnikov, put an ad in the newspaper, promising 1,000 rubles to anyone who would rid the building of its pests. A little man appeared, guaranteeing success but demanding half of the reward in advance. After some initial resistance, the desperate rector handed over 500 rubles, whereupon the man took a little wind-up mouse out of his pocket and sent it scurrying through the halls and stairways of the conservatory. Minutes later it went...

  36. 33 Current Chronicle: Molchanov​’s The Dawns Are Quiet Here
    (pp. 366-375)

    A central problem in Soviet esthetics is memorably illuminated by a fleeting vignette from Solzhenitsyn’sIvan Denisovich. Two prisoners debating Eisenstein’s merits over their daily mush reach a classic impasse. “It’s notwhatbuthowthat matters in art,” insists the first. “No!” thunders the second. “Yourhowcan go to hell if it doesn’t raise the right feelings in me!”¹ The question to pursue here, of course, is not the hoary imponderable about art’s purpose and its relationship to the emotions. That one was no doubt debated in the Altamira caves, and by now it is probably being debated...

  37. 34 The Rising Soviet Mists Yield Up Another Voice
    (pp. 376-379)

    For any composer who may be in need of it, here is a terrific scenario for an opera. Call it “The Story of a Real Man” (with apologies to Prokofieff), because it is in fact the life story of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, whose music will be featured today in a recital at the 92d Street Y.

    Act 1. A boy grows up in Warsaw, in the family of a Jewish violinist and theater composer. He early reveals musical gifts of his own and is sent to the local conservatory, where he studies alongside Witold Lutosławski and graduates as a pianist in...

  38. 35 Where Is Russia’s New Music? Iowa, That’s Where
    (pp. 380-385)

    Russians of a certain age are apt to regard the state of Iowa with slightly mordant nostalgia. Nikita S. Khrushchev passed through during his 1959 official visit to America. He took home some Iowa corn, ordered his collective farmers to grow it, produced a historic crop failure and … well, you know the rest.

    But that was not the reason fourteen Russian composers and musicologists gathered recently for a long weekend at the University of Iowa. Khrushchev’s corn mania was nurtured at Iowa State, which has a famous agricultural college. The Iowa City institution (best known, perhaps, for its writers’...

  39. 36 North (Europe) by Northwest (America)
    (pp. 386-392)

    Ever-looming questions about classical music’s future (is there to be one? what will it look like?) lured some curious critics and historians to the Northwest in February, when the Seattle Chamber Players, assisted by Elena Dubinets, the Seattle Symphony’s formidable music research coordinator, were putting on a festival and conference called “Baltic Voices.” The main attraction was the chance to hear the work of about two dozen unfamiliar composers ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties. Curiosity was amply repaid. It was a gratifyingly lively affair, and some answers did emerge.

    Say the word Baltic, and three little...

  40. INDEX
    (pp. 393-407)
  41. Back Matter
    (pp. 408-408)