Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Russian Music for Chameleons

Fran Leibowitz, famed writer for the Village Voice, called her historic but hilarious column, "I Cover the Waterfront." She took the title from Tennessee Williams, who once responded only slightly cryptically to an interviewer's question about his sexuality by using those same wonderful words. Well, as my better readers know (and there are better and worse readers, Charlotte), Soviet Roulette and I similarly attempt to "cover the waterfront." Even so, we don't know music. So it was a wonderful coincidence when I observed one of my college's great lecturers, Adam Gustafson, on the subject of Russian music in the 19th century.

Gustafson is a wonderful teacher. He's confident, entertaining, and frenetic. His theme today dwelt on the differences between the Russian Conservative and Nationalist Schools, which apparently mirrored the Westernizer versus Slavophile debates that overtook most of Russian literary society at about the same time.

According to Gustafson, the Conservative School were reacting to European stereotypes about Russia. At the time, Western Europeans saw Russia as a vast, dirty, ignorant, drunk, dark, cold, and utterly disorganized nation. (If only they had known how far Russia had come from the days of the Mongol Yoke!). In response, the Conservative School thought that Russia's music ought to become truly European, indistinguishable from the civilized music of Germany, Italy, and France.

The St. Petersburg Conservatory--naturally the Conservatory was set up in the country's most Western city--was the cradle of the Conservative attempt to emulate or even someday surpass Western models for musical excellence. And one of its first students--Tchaikovsky--quickly established himself as one of its greatest exponents. The middle class Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, nearly conquered the world with his universal aesthetic. His Swan Lake, Sleepy Beauty, and Nutcracker continue to delight (or haunt, depending on one's perspective--and see the Will and Grace episode where the two are ultimately unable to sit through the mawkish performance despite their longing for a holiday tradition) the world with their popular melodies.

As Gustafson reminded his class, Tchaikovsky was a virtuoso and wrote lots of first-class music, but he is especially well known for creating music for ballets. But to understand what this meant to Russians in the 19th century, Gustafson tell his students that "one has to think in terms of the NFL." At the time, everybody (and of course he means the middle and upper classes) loved ballet. The ballet was "special, popular, sophisticated, complex, and above all, athletic."

The Russians, of course, quickly became masters at the art of ballet. Then, and today, Russian dancers dominate the art. The most famous ballet of all of course is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. In Gustafson's summary, this is a supremely moving--if also "emotional, romantic, and crazy"--piece of Romantic theater. There's a princess, Odette, who is captured by the evil Rothbart. Rothbart captured Odette and changes her into a Swan, at least by day. Odette lives in a world of swans, other captured women, on a lake that has been created from the tears of Odette's grief-stricken mother.

One day, a hero named Siegfried is out hunting and notices Odette changing from a Swan into a beautiful princess as the evening falls. The two frolic all evening and fall in love. Siegfriend decides to pledge his eternal love to Odette in front of everybody at a grand ball. This pledge would signify the end of Odette's curse. Unfortunately, the evil Rothbart substitutes his daughter, an imposter, for Odette. Thus Rothbart's pledge of eternal love is made to the wrong person, and Odette, peering inside the windows of the ball, is devastated. Her curse can no longer be lifted--ever. Naturally, this being a Romantic work of art, the lovers kill themselves, freeing the other swans from their curses in the process.

Tchaikovsky's ballet, and his tonal music in general, was "easy on the ears," and his melodies, the basis of so much Disney music, were nothing short of infectious. But there was a backlash. Eventually critics of the composer came to see his Romantic approach to music as melodramatic, kitschy. More immediately, work like this was criticized by the "mighty handful", the five chief composers of the largely self-taught Nationalist School. These composers saw Tchaikovsky as a "sell-out," someone not capable of recognizing the special genius of the Russian people or its music. The "mighty five", and Mussorgsky in particular, believed that Russia's music had to be distinctly Russian. Their music was site-specific, predicated on Russian locales, Russian folk tales, and Russian folk tunes.

Gustafson used Mussorgsky's "Night on Bare Mountain" as an example of this other type of music. "Bare Mountain", whose orchestration was created with the help of Nikolas Rimsky-Korskokov, took place at a specific site of memory for Russians, or at least Ukrainians--a mountain that was alleged to be the home of evil demons or the devil himself. In "Bare Mountain" a master demon by the name of Chernobog runs everything. He summons demons demons and only disappears when a church bell rings and the sun rises slowly over the Ukrainian landscape.

Next time, Gustafson promises to tackle Stravinsky. With enough of these wonderful lectures under my belt, Soviet Roulette will truly "cover the waterfront."

1 comment:

  1. I would say there is no better Russian symphony than Tchaikovsky's 6th (the Pathetique). Anyone who could listen to that and think he was a lightweight must be a raving Slavophile.

    Speaking of which, hasn't that division between the westernizers and the Slavophiles outlived its usefulness? Dostoevsky used to be treated as a prime exemplar of the latter, but now it seems people recognize that the distinction doesn't do justice to his work. I imagine it's true in music too. For contemporaries it may have been a good stick to beat your enemies with, but for analytic purposes today does it really have much to contribute?