Posts Tagged 'russia'

How Big Brother Changed Music

Michael Oliver considers the widespread effect of state control on music this century.

Barely two years to the millennium and we still have no idea of how the twenty-first century will view the music of this. Will serialism seem central or just a weird aberration? Of the scores of ‘isms’ currently in vogue which, if any, will survive? Was Stravinsky the century’s Beethoven or is it Meyerbeer? Of one thing we can be quite sure: any judicious history is bound to conclude that totalitarianism had more effect on Western music than any writer or critic; possibly more than even the most influential composer. Italy for over 20 years, Germany for a dozen, Spain and Portugal for half a century, Russia and its satellites for even longer: all were ruled by dictators or totalitarian regimes, and in all of them music was subject to censorship and political control.

The reason that we study history, so they say, is so that we can make sure that it doesn’t repeat itself. The creepily fascinating thing about the great dictators and their attitudes to music is that although they all had much the same effect – music was banned, composers silenced, performers controlled – they each went about it in quite different ways. So if we’re guarding against it in the future, we must keep our eyes peeled.

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Wordless Wednesday: Rising Star

How Not to Write an Opera

While Ruslan and Ludmila‘s influence on nineteenth-century music was exceeded only by Wagner’s Tristan and Beethoven’s Ninth, dramatically Glinka’s work is a mess. Michael Oliver wades in.

If you wanted to give a young composer advice about how not to write an opera, you couldn’t do much better than tell him how Mikhail Glinka went about putting Ruslan and Ludmila together. Firstly choose a subject so fantastic that it’s hard to imagine how it can be put on stage at all (one of its principal characters is a vast Head without a body attached).

Next, arrange for a drunken friend to dash off a draft synopsis, removing several characters from the original plot and adding a few more. Then write a lot of the music before a single word of the libretto has even been drafted. When you do find a librettist, send him what you’ve written and tell him to fit his words to it. Look through the bottom drawer of your desk for off-cuts from your last opera and works you’ve never got round to finishing: they’re bound to come in handy somewhere. Now take five years over writing the opera, because you’re busy and easily distracted and besides, you’ve just left your wife and your domestic life is in chaos. And above all don’t bother about the dramatic continuity of the piece, write numbers almost at random: you can worry about the plot later. In the light of all that you won’t be surprised that although Ruslan and Ludmila is quite popular in Russia it’s very rarely staged in the West. And there’s more: not only was the Head a singing character (portrayed by an off-stage chorus: beat that for impracticality), but also the more important figure of Chernomor the evil dwarf only appears in one of the five acts and never sings.

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The Great Russian Music Trail (Part 2/2)

The ultimate romantic
Tchaikovsky is usually set apart from The Five on account of his more cosmopolitan style. But you can’t make such generalisations. The last movement of his underrated and very lovely Second Symphony (1872/80) is entirely in the Kamarinskaya mould, right down to the use of folksong, and the Russian spirit invigorates the superb finale of the First Piano Concerto (1875) and many of his operas. Drawing on such diverse influences as Mozart, Schumann and Liszt, Tchaikovsky went beyond the relatively simple symphonic ideas of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov to produce some of the finest orchestral music of the nineteenth century, especially in his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique (1893). His ballets are the finest examples of the genre in existence.

The twentieth century
Far from declining after so much creative talent in the nineteenth century, Russia went on to produce one of the two seminal musical geniuses of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky – the other was Schoenberg – and one of the most-played composers of our time, Dmitri Shostakovich.

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The Great Russian Music Trail (Part 1/2)

Gutsy rhythms and soulful music that go right to the heart – it could only come from Russia, a country of great political and social change. Simon Trezise finds the real roots of Russian music.

While the political future of new Russia is anything but secure, there is no question about its musical genius. Its established figures continue to exert an intense influence on late twentieth-century musical life and new composers such as Schnittke appear all the time. They follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest geniuses in western music, but Russia’s musical history is not as well rooted as you might think.

Two vital ingredients ensured Russian music had a voice long before the art music we know today came to the fore – chant composed for the Byzantine liturgy and folksong. It is as well that this heritage was there, for in the eighteenth century Russia was dominated by the Italians, who provided the musicians and taught such native talent as there was. The demand for music in St Petersburg, for example, was minimal. Tzar Peter I had little appetite for it, so it was to satisfy his army’s need for marches that he brought in German instrumentalists. In 1750 a new court theatre was opened for Italian opera which Empress Elizabeth hoped her courtiers and other dignitaries would fill; when they didn’t, she invited leading members of the merchant class to attend; still beset with numerous empty seats she ordered her ladies-in-waiting to attend.

Continue reading ‘The Great Russian Music Trail (Part 1/2)’


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