On Russian Music

On Russian Music

by Richard Taruskin

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520942806
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/02/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Richard Taruskin's many books also include The Oxford History of Western Music, and Defining Russia Musically.

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On Russian Music

By Richard Taruskin


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94280-6


Some Thoughts on the History and Historiography of Russian Music

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), Milos Velimirovic (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 was "What Is to Be Done," but being no Chernïshevsky, still less a Lenin, I took it on with reluctance. I know only too well the fate of research prospectuses. All the ones I've seen, whatever the field, have within only a few years taken on an aspect that can be most charitably described as quaint, and the ones that have attempted to dictate or legislate the activity of future generations of scholars cannot be so charitably described. It is not as though we were trying to find a long-sought medical cure or a solution to the arms race. We are not crusaders, nor have we an overriding common goal that demands the subordination of our individual predilections to a team effort. We are simply curious to know and understand the music that interests us as well as we possibly can, and eager to stimulate the same interest in others. I, for one, am content to sit back and await the discoveries and interpretations of my colleagues, the direction of whose research I am in no position to predict. I love surprises.

Nevertheless, it seems fair to predict that the main contribution of American scholars to the study of Russian music will be interpretive and critical rather than philological or factual. This for two reasons: one simple and obvious, the other very complex.

The simple factor is practical. We will never have the freedom of access needed to do fundamental source research on a grand scale. Those of us who are passionately drawn to problems of textual criticism or "creative process" will do better to concentrate on Ives or Beethoven than on Chaikovsky or Musorgsky—and I say this in full recognition of the accomplishments of scholars like John Wiley and Robert Oldani, Americans who have done excellent work on precisely these two Russians. I have even done a little tex-tological work on Musorgsky myself. But I think it significant that the Musorgsky sources I investigated are located in Paris and the Chaikovsky sources Wiley took as his starting point are in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We Americans will never gain freedom of access to the mother lode, the archives of Moscow and Leningrad. We had best leave them to the Soviets, who, as we all know from our personal experience, are determined that if major discoveries are to be made there, then they will make them. And I think, in all fairness, we should let them, for it is in the area of empirical source research that Russian scholars are under the fewest constraints, and I think we can all agree that by and large their publications in this field—I am thinking, of course, of Findeyzen, Lamm, Dianin, Orlova, and Gozenpud, among many others—have been impressive and (given the realities of Soviet life) reliable enough. Needless to say, we will never be able to document Balakirev's anti-Semitism or Glinka's monarchism from Soviet published sources, but it would be unrealistic to expect that any of us will be shown to the relevant documents in the archives, either.

This brings me to my complex factor, on which I will spend the rest of my time. There is no area of music historiography that is in greater need of fundamental revision than that of Russian music, and here the corrective can only come from the West. I am not just talking about sensational but trivial matters like the circumstances surrounding Chaikovsky's death. Nor am I talking about such matters of recent controversy as Shostakovich's purported memoirs, which, however tempting as a source of scurrilous information and opinion, are at present a source no one among us would touch, in any professional capacity, with the proverbial barge pole, thanks to the work of one of my colleagues on the aforementioned panel. What I am talking about is our general understanding and interpretation of the whole phenomenon of Russia's emergence as a producer of art music, and our cultural evaluation of the music she has produced. Here we must confront not only the extremely mendacious and tendentious historiography that emanates from the U.S.S.R., which many Western scholars have relied upon far too uncritically, but also a great many unexamined assumptions that can cloud our own consciousness and have prevented our view of Russian music and musical life from fully outgrowing its infancy.

In 1939 Stravinsky asked, at the beginning of his lecture on "The Avatars of Russian Music," "Why do we always hear Russian music spoken of in terms of its Russianness rather than simply in terms of music?" The question remains relevant four-and-a-half decades later, though of course Stravinsky's use of the word "simply" is questionable. It is precisely because it's easy that we talk about Russian music in terms of its Russianness; and as we all know, nothing is harder than to talk about music "in terms of music." I'm not at all sure we even want to do that, if the result is going to be the kind of blinkered, ahistorical and jargon-ridden discourse that often passes for "theory" or "analysis"—but that, of course, is another story.

Still, the habit of speaking of Russian music above all in terms of its Russianness has ingrained many prejudices and lazy habits of thought. It is often taken for granted that everything that happened in Russian music has a direct relationship, positive or negative, to the national question, which question is often very reductively construed in terms of "sources in folk song and church chant," as Alfred Swan put it. This in turn can and often does become a normative criterion: an overtly quotational national character is taken as a mark of value or authenticity, and its absence, conversely, as a mark of valuelessness. The result is our silly tendency to use the word "Russian" in comparative or superlative forms: this is a "very Russian" tune, and so-and-so is the "most Russian" composer. Not only musicians do this, of course. One nonmusician who did it delightfully was John Updike, who, returning from a State Department tour of the Soviet Union, exclaimed enthusiastically to an interviewer, "Russia is so Russian!" But what Updike said with tongue in cheek is maintained with deadly solemnity by so many musicians about, let us say, Glinka. It is on his use of folklore that his status as founding father of Russian music is usually said to depend. And when that status gets challenged in a simplistically revisionist spirit, as it does from time to time, it is usually by noting the frequency with which earlier Russian composers, all the way from Verstovsky back to Sokolovsky and Pashkevich, quoted folk songs in their operas. A dissertation by a well-known student of Russian music, entitled "The Influence of Folk-Song on Russian Opera Up to and Including the Time of Glinka," is devoted to providing Glinka with a indigenous patrimony, turning the father, as it were, into a son. But this view distorts the picture both of the earlier music and of Glinka. What makes Glinka a founding father has mainly to do not with his being the "formulator of the Russian musical language," whatever that may mean, but rather with the fact that he was the first Russian composer to achieve world stature. In short, with Glinka, Russian music did not depart from Europe but quite the opposite—it joined Europe. In the context of the usual histo-riographical platitudes, this statement may have a ring of paradox, but it is exactly what Yury Keldïsh, for example, had in mind when he wrote that Glinka, not Verstovsky and not Pashkevich, formed "the boundary between the past and the future of Russian music." With the advent of a Russian composer whom his compatriots could regard as being "on a level (yes! on a level!) with Mozart, with Beethoven, or with anyone one chooses," Russian musicians were, so to speak, enfranchised. They no longer had to feel that theirs was an altogether insignificant, marginal, or callow culture, although at the same time no Russian "classical" musician has ever been wholly without an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the venerable musical traditions of Western Europe—and this was as true of Russian composers of worldwide prestige like Chaikovsky, or even Stravinsky, as it was of more strictly regional talents. It was a veritable neurosis that often found its outlet either in belligerence toward Europe or revulsion at Russia, and sometimes both at once.

Now this difference in perspective on Glinka—the Western view that regards him as the first authentically national Russian composer versus the native view that sees him as the first universal genius of music to have come from Russia—is a critical one. For if Glinka is valued only for his native traits—certainly not the traits he valued most highly in himself!—then a Chaikovsky will always seem an ambiguous and somewhat suspect figure, to say nothing of a Scriabin. Just look at the way these two are treated in any general music history textbook in the West. Chaikovsky, one of the most conspicuous of all composers of any country in the actual concert life of the last hundred years, is given a total of twenty-two scattered lines in the text by which most American music history students in college today are still educated, and he is introduced everywhere with an apology. In the chapter on nineteenth-century instrumental music, Chaikovsky is brought in, together with Dvorák, at the very end, thus: "They have a place in this chapter because, although their music is in some respects an outgrowth of nationalist ideas, their symphonies are essentially in the line of the German Romantic tradition." And in the chapter on "Nationalism, Old and New," Chaikovsky is sneaked in once more as a thoroughly peripheral figure: "Tchaikovsky's two most popular operas ... seem to have been modeled after Meyerbeer, Verdi, and Bizet, though national subjects and a few traces of national musical idioms occur in both of these and, much more conspicuously, in some of his less familiar works for the theater."

Poor Chaikovsky! He is implicitly denigrated for not being as "national" as his "kuchkist" rivals but all the same is ghettoized along with them in the inevitable chapter on nationalism. Confined as he is to the ghetto, Chaikovsky is rarely compared with such counterparts as Brahms or Bizet, except to note his ostensible derivations from them; he is compared only with fellow denizens of the ghetto, next to whom he is seen as "assimilated" and therefore inauthentic. The comparison is thus doubly invidious. And ironic, too, for during his lifetime Chaikovsky was accepted as a European master, honored with degrees from British universities, and invited to open New York's Carnegie Hall. My object here is not to vindicate Chaikovsky against naive and irrelevant charges—though it is certainly interesting to note that in Nina Bachinskaya's survey of Russian folk song in the work of Russian composers, Chaikovsky comes in second (after the longer-lived Rimsky-Korsakov) in the sheer number of such appropriations. And the Russians, obviously, have never had any trouble accepting Chaikovsky as a national treasure. My object is only to show how conventional historiographical attitudes and categories have made this most eminent of Russian composers a curiously difficult morsel for Western music historians to swallow, obsessed as they (we) are with the idea of the "mainstream."

This is a problem of long standing. Carl Dahlhaus, whose taste for illuminating paradox is well known, has observed, in the challenging discussion of nationalism and music in his "studies in the music of the later nineteenth century," that "the national substance of Russian ... music was a condition of its international worth, not an invalidation." He was speaking from an idealist (today we might be inclined to call it an essentialist) point of view and went on to say that "it would surely be inappropriate to say 'coloring' instead of 'substance,' and 'commercial success' instead of 'worth.'" But these distinctions do not stand up in the face of actual reception history. On the contrary, we often find that it was precisely the surface color that attracted international audiences, sometimes to Russian chagrin. Diaghilev, for example, recognizing that the music of his beloved Chaikovsky was box-office poison in Paris despite what he perceived to be its profound national substance, suppressed his desire to present The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty in his first ballet season (1909) in favor of ephemeral, highly colored "salades russes" (as Walter Nouvel sneeringly called them) drawn from scores by Glinka, Arensky, Taneyev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, Glazunov, and Cherepnin, plus a couple of little snippets from Chaikovsky's great Mariyin-sky ballets. The featured Chaikovsky work, the finale of the divertissement entitled Le Festin, was the last movement of Chaikovsky's Second Symphony, a set of variations à la Kamarinskaya on a "Little Russian" dance tune, perhaps Chaikovsky's most "kuchkist"-sounding score, and therefore unrepresentative. Like so many others after him, Diaghilev sneaked Chaikovsky in with apologies, fearful lest his lack of national coloring threaten the "commercial success" of the Paris venture.

But what shall we call the "national substance," then? Can it be defined in any but mystical, preternatural terms? Dahlhaus most likely meant the presence of traits that define a "national school." But need these be quotational or coloristic at all? And do they necessarily derive from lower-class traditions? Any connoisseur of nineteenth-century musical styles would certainly recognize the musical idiom of Stravinsky's early Symphony in E-flat (1905–07) as emphatically "Russian," despite its near-total lack of any resonance from chant or folk song, for it is saturated with reminiscences of the styles of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and Chaikovsky. The sophisticated personal styles of these men—for example, Chaikovsky's technique of orchestration, or Rimsky's very characteristic devices of chromatic harmony and modulation—as manifested both in their own works and in those of their disciples and epigones, are what largely determine our sense of a Russian "school" in the late nineteenth century. And our sense of this school style can in fact be pushed back retrospectively as far as Glinka. To recognize as Russian only an oral or vernacular tradition and its conscious (usually superficial) assimilations in "high art" is narrow-minded, often absurd. We can see this easily enough in the case of the fatuous Moscow critic who complained of Alexander Serov's opera Judith, which is set in ancient Judea and peopled by Hebrews and Assyrians, that its music was not Russian enough. But before we scoff at him we should check to see what our own house is made of. Are we not still liable to mistake national subject matter for national style; to call, for example, that mockkuchkist finale to Chaikovsky's Second his "most fully Russian" work? Or to think we have made a critical point about Scriabin merely by noting the lack of folkloric influence on his style? By Scriabin's time, Russian music had been quite thoroughly "denationalized," though its "school" spirit had, if anything, increased. And in any event, listing the things a given phenomenon is not will never tell us, after all, what it is.

Now just as it is assumed that Russian music is, or ought to be, ipso facto "colored Russian," it is further assumed that nationalism (or national character, or the striving for a native idiom, or call it what you will) was something unique, or at least especially endemic, to Russia—and if not to Russia, then to Eastern Europe, and if not to Eastern Europe, then to "peripheral centers" generally. It is one of the assumptions, in fact, that keeps these centers peripheral in our minds. But is it true? Was there any greater nationalist in nineteenth-century music than Wagner ("that German Slavophile," as Stasov called him)? Not unless it was Verdi. Indeed, we could add the names of any number of leading "mainstream" composers to the list of nationalists: Weber, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Berlioz, practically anyone you like, from Beethoven to Debussy. It was precisely because nationalism was universally held to be a positive value in nineteenth-century Europe—because nationalism, to put it ironically, was international—that Dahlhaus could maintain that the "national substance" of Russian (or Czech, or Spanish, or Norwegian) music was "a condition of its international worth." Nineteenth-century Russian nationalism, in fact, and not just the musical variety, was itself a foreign import. And the precise way in which Glinka's use of folklore differed from that of earlier Russian composers—namely, that it came from the mouths of main characters, not just decorative peasant choristers and coryphées, and that it provided a medium for tragic action, not just comedy—was precisely the way in which the typical Romantic opera differed from the operas of the eighteenth century, and reflected above all a change in viewpoint on the nature of folklore—one that emanated not from Russia but from Western Europe (i.e., from Rousseau and Herder)—that folklore represented "the nation" and not just "the peasantry." That the latter idea died hard even in Russia is reflected in the oft-quoted but little-understood comment overheard and repeated at the première of A Life for the Tsar—that it was "de la musique des cochers." And it is further reflected if we compare A Life for the Tsar with an opera that was written more than forty years later—Yevgeniy Onegin, where the folkloristic element is presented exactly as it might have been in a court opera of the eighteenth century. Especially telling is the third scene, where a group of berry-picking peasant choristers provide a decorative frame for Yevgeniy's rejection of Tatyana, one of the turning points in the drama that concerns the "real people" of the opera.


Excerpted from On Russian Music by Richard Taruskin. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

preface: against utopia / ix

1. Et in Arcadia Ego; or, I Didn’t Know I Was Such a Pessimist until I Wrote This Thing (a talk) / 1

From the New York Times, mostly
2. Only Time Will Cover the Taint / 21
3. "Nationalism": Colonialism in Disguise? / 25
4. Why Do They All Hate Horowitz? / 30
5. Optimism amid the Rubble / 37
6. A Survivor from the Teutonic Train Wreck / 43
7. Does Nature Call the Tune? / 46
8. Two Stabs at the Universe / 51
Away with the Ives Myth: The "Universe" Is Here at Last / 51
Out of Hibernation: Ives’s Mythical Beast / 55
9. In Search of the "Good" Hindemith Legacy / 60
10. Six Times Six: A Bach Suite Selection / 66
11. A Beethoven Season? / 71
12. Dispelling the Contagious Wagnerian Mist / 81
13. How Talented Composers Become Useless / 86
14. Making a Stand against Sterility / 94
15. A Sturdy Musical Bridge to the Twenty-first Century / 98
16. Calling All Pundits: No More Predictions! / 104
17. In The Rake’s Progress, Love Conquers (Almost) All / 109
18. Markevitch as Icarus / 118
19. Let’s Rescue Poor Schumann from His Rescuers / 124
20. Early Music: Truly Old-Fashioned at Last? / 129
21. Bartók and Stravinsky: Odd Couple Reunited? / 133
22. Wagner’s Antichrist Crashes a Pagan Party / 138
23. A Surrealist Composer Comes to the Rescue of Modernism / 144
24. Corraling a Herd of Musical Mavericks / 153
25. Can We Give Poor Orff a Pass at Last? / 161
26. The Danger of Music and the Case for Control / 165
27. Ezra Pound: A Slim Sound Claim to Musical Immortality / 181
28. Underneath the Dissonance Beat a Brahmsian Heart / 186
29. Enter Boris Goudenow, Just 295 Years Late / 191

For the New Republic, mostly
30. The First Modernist / 195
31. The Dark Side of the Moon / 202
32. Of Kings and Divas / 217
33. The Golden Age of Kitsch / 241
34. No Ear for Music: The Scary Purity of John Cage / 261
35. Sacred Entertainments / 280
36. The Poietic Fallacy / 301
37. The Musical Mystique: Defending Classical Music against Its Devotees / 330

From the scholarly press
38. Revising Revision / 354
39. Back to Whom? Neoclassicism as Ideology / 382
40. She Do the Ring in Different Voices / 406
41. Stravinsky and Us / 420

42. Setting Limits (a talk) / 448

index /

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[Taruskin's] command of this subject is surely unparalleled. . . . This is an authoritative, consistently challenging, deeply engaging volume of essays - very strongly recommended."—Classical Music Magazine

"Very entertaining."—New York Review of Books

"[Taruskin's essays] demonstrate his . . . rare gift for conveying complex information in a concise, accessible manner. . . . An essential compendium."—Notes

"Whether [Taruskin is] validating Susan McClary's sexist charges at Beethoven or implicitly acknowledging his debt to Donald Francis Tovey, reading his essays will make you a better, smarter person."—Huffington Post

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