Tag Archives: classical

Soundtrack to a revolution: Russian music in times of revolt

Drag pianos out into the streets
Drums with boat hooks from windows dash.
Smash pianos and drums to smithereens
Let there be thunder –

Vladimir Mayakovsky, ‘An Order to the Art Army’

One hundred years have passed since the October Revolution, one of the last century’s defining events with profound repercussions that can still be felt to this day. Its far-reaching social and political implications aside, the revolution also had a powerful impact on Russian culture and art. Music, in particular, would play an important role both emotionally and ideologically in this tumultuous new chapter of Russian history.

Folklore and ideology

In the decades directly preceding the revolution, the writings of thinkers like Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy had a considerable influence on the debate surrounding the meaning and purpose of art.

A Shy Peasant (1877), by Ilya Repin

According to Chernyshevsky, “the true function of art is to explain and comment on life”, an idea that lies behind many depictions of peasantry and everyday life in Russian realist art of this period.

Furthermore, the views expressed by Tolstoy in his book What is Art? (1897), wherein he stresses the moral as well as social function of art, would remain highly influential well into the Soviet years. For Tolstoy, art is not about emotionalism, pleasure or entertainment; it is, rather, “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

Despite Tolstoy’s stated preference for the simplicity and sincerity of folk music, he was far from indifferent or knowledgeable regarding more refined forms. He admired Chopin and also liked listening to Mozart and Haydn. His more ambivalent relationship with Beethoven is reflected in some of his writings, such as his famous novella The Kreutzer Sonata (named after Beethoven’s violin sonata of the same name).

An amateur pianist himself, Tolstoy also knew personally several distinguished musicians who at times visited and played for him, including seminal figures of Russian classical music such as Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Tolstoy playing

Leo Tolstoy at the piano

Meanwhile, the late 19th century saw the rise of folk music ensembles. Folk choirs, in particular, were extremely popular and song was thus turned into a powerful ideological force. Favorites included several revolutionary songs, and a musical collection of Russian Revolutionary Songs was even printed in Berlin prior to 1905. In Soviet times, the distinction between folk and art music would play a crucial role, along with the demarcation of “the people’s” or “proletarian” art as opposed to “bourgeois” and “formalist” tendencies.

“Art belongs to the people”

Although Lenin considered himself a “barbarian” with regards to new tendencies in art, he took a keen interest in cultural affairs. He admired much of Beethoven’s music, as well as pieces by Chopin, Bizet, Gounod, and Tchaikovsky.

In a characteristic incident related by Maxim Gorky (which was dramatized for Soviet television in the 1960s), the famous writer records Lenin’s reaction after listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!”

According to Gorky, however, Lenin continued on a somewhat darker tone: “But I cannot listen to music too often, it affects one’s nerves, makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty. Nowadays if one strokes someone’s head, he’ll get his hand bitten off! Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head, although ideally we oppose the use of force in human relations. Hm, hm, our task is infernally hard!”

Above all, Lenin was concerned with the ideological and educational aspects of art. As he put it: “Art belongs to the people. It must penetrate with its deepest roots into the very midst of the broad working masses. It must unite the feeling, thought and will of these masses, must elevate them. It must awaken the artists among them and stimulate them.”

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin appointed Anatoly Lunacharsky as People’s Commissariat for Education, responsible for cultural and educational affairs. An art connoisseur and prolific critic, Lunacharsky shared Lenin’s admiration for Beethoven. Stressing the revolutionary and heroic aspects of Beethoven’s music and -with the notable exception of the 9th Symphony- centering on the works of his middle period (thus excluding the more “difficult” late works), this led to the appropriation and glorification of the German composer as one of the pillars of Soviet musical culture.

The rise of the avant-garde

The period following the revolution was an extraordinary one for Russian culture. It was during this time that the groundbreaking Russian avant-garde would reach both its creative peak and widest appeal. While many musicians left Russia after the revolution (including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Feodor Chaliapin, and Jascha Heifetz) or were already working abroad (like Igor Stravinsky),  a new wave of avant-garde composers was emerging, mirroring the revolutionary developments in Russian art and literature as expressed in the works of Kandinsky, Goncharova, Rodchenko, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Blok and many others.

Still Life with Instruments (1916), by Lyubov Popova

A major influence among many of these upcoming composers was Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), whose highly innovative and dissonant music featured overtones of mysticism and theosophy. Some of the composers who followed in Scriabin’s footsteps include Nikolai Roslavets (sometimes referred to as “the Russian Schoenberg”), Samuil Feinberg, Sergei Protopopov, and Alexander Mosolov.

Radical political developments notwithstanding, 1917 was a very productive year for the young Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), who was fast becoming one of the era’s major composers. In that same year, he completed his “Classical” Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, as well as the Visions Fugitives for piano. Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 with the blessings of Lunacharsky, would eventually return to USSR 18 years later (he died on 5 March 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin).

A champion of musical modernism and known as “the musical conscience of Moscow”, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) would become a prominent figure in Soviet musical life in the 1920s and the 1930s. The son of an ex-Tsarist general who was murdered by Red Army soldiers, Myaskovsky himself served in the Red Army from 1917 to 1921 and was inspired by the revolutionary events for his Sixth Symphony (composed during 1921–1923), the only choral symphony and the longest of his 27 symphonies. The work’s finale contains two French revolutionary songs (La carmagnole and Ah ça ira), along with the Dies Irae and a Russian Orthodox burial hymn on the parting of body and soul.

Technology and experimentation

Next to the earth-shattering sociopolitical developments, the revolution taking place in the arts often employed the use of newly developed technology. In October 1920, Russian physicist Léon Theremin invented the first mass-produced musical electronic instrument, the theremin (also known as termenvox). Theremin demonstrated his invention to Lenin, who was impressed and sent Theremin across the country in order to display this new fascinating instrument (and promote the progress of electrification which was under way in Russia).

In 1922, the Persimfans conductorless orchestra was founded in Moscow by violinist Lev Zeitlin.  A bold experiment that aspired to apply egalitarian concepts to music performance, Persimfans operated for ten years and, according to Prokofiev, “coped splendidly with difficult programs and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra”.

A sketch depicting the Persimfans conductorless orchestra with its cyclical sitting arrangement

The orchestra, which performed on stage in a circle so that each musician was visible to the rest of the group, achieved worldwide acclaim during the 1920s. As historian Richard Stites put it: “Persimfans and its seventy musicians was a Utopia in miniature, a tiny republic, and a model workshop for the communist future. Like many practicing Utopias of the 1920s, it was an island in the midst of persistent inequality, a laboratory of communism, a beacon of early idealism, an inspiration for the future, and a graphic demonstration of how egalitarian mechanisms could actually work if given the opportunity.”

Shostakovich, Stalin and the whisper of history

Throughout the 1920s, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) rose to prominence as the indisputable star among the younger generation of Soviet composers. At the age of 18 he had completed his First Symphony, which became hugely successful. His Second Symphony, subtitled To October and written in 1927 as a commission for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, was a patriotic -yet experimental- piece with a pro-Soviet choral finale that praised Lenin and the revolution. Many years later, Shostakovich would revisit the revolutionary events in his Twelfth Symphony (subtitled The Year 1917).

Following the tightening of control regarding cultural matters and the official endorsement of “socialist realism” in the early 1930s, Russian art would enter a long and troubled new era as the revolutionary ideals would be increasingly left behind. Perhaps more than any other, the case of Shostakovich represents the complicated and problematic relationship between individual creative freedom and official state censorship that would develop under Stalin’s rule (and described brilliantly in Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time).

Today, much of Shostakovich’s music remains extremely popular, his oeuvre representing a whisper of Soviet history that time has bestowed upon all those eager to listen. As Barnes puts it in his novel:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

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Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Tales of various Stradivarius

A sound like no other

When it comes to the construction of stringed instruments, no artisan has ever come close to achieving the fame of legendary Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari  (1644 – 1737). From the approximately 1,000 instruments he made during his lifetime, 650 (including around 500 violins) survive to this day, better known as Stradivarius or simply Strad.

Stradivari

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

Along with their unique sound, many Strads also carry with them a fascinating history. Like the 1721 “Lady Blunt” violin (sold in 2011 for £9.8 million), named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt who owned it for 30 years. Or the 1697 “Molitor” Strad, said to once have been owned by Napoleon himself (it belonged to Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the emperor’s army).

S(tr)ad stories

Given their extraordinary reputation and sky-high value, it is perhaps not surprising that several Strads have gone missing or stolen over the years under obscure circumstances. One such case occurred only last month when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was attacked shortly after a performance by two thieves who disappeared together with his precious Strad.

The stolen violin is known as the “Lipinski” Strad and was built in 1715 (which is during Stradivari’s “golden period”, i.e. 1700- 1725). Its first known owner was no other than Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), whose Devil’s Trill sonata remains hugely popular to this day.

Another famous Stradivarius violin with a tumultuous past is the “Gibson” Strad, named after its early owner George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. On February 28, 1936 it was snatched backstage at Carnegie Hall during a recital by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had left the Strad in his dressing room while performing on his -equally precious- Guarnerius  (a violin made by Stradivari’s contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri). When Huberman went backstage after the show, his “Gibson” Strad was gone.

Bell’s Strads ringing

Some 50 years later and after a deathbed confession by the thief, the “Gibson” Strad was finally recovered and bought by American virtuoso Joshua Bell. Its unique tone can be heard in Romance of the Violin, Bell’s first recording with the long-missing Strad.

Bell’s former violin had also been a Stradivarius. It was the 1732 “Tom Taylor” Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin (1998), an absolute must for violin aficionados. And what a score that was…

Modern-day Mozarts

Masters from the cradle

I was always fascinated by stories of music prodigies: Mozart composing already at the age of five, 10-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns offering to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory as an encore at his debut public recital, or Hungarian virtuoso Georges Cziffra entering the Franz Liszt Academy at age nine, after four years performing in a traveling circus.

Several instances of young children displaying extraordinary musical talent have been recorded in recent times. Among them one can find famous performers such as Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould, and Yehudi Menuhin, to name but a few.

The Canadian Mozart

However, the list also includes many less-known musicians whose early promising careers did not always match the expectations of their patrons and audience once they reached adulthood. One such case was Canadian pianist and composer André Mathieu (1929 – 1968). While still 7 years old, Mathieu gave a recital of his own works in Paris. His performance was received enthusiastically and critics unanimously hailed him as “Canadien Mozart”.

However, the aftermath of WWII found Mathieu a changed man and his return to Montreal was followed by alcoholism and emotional problems that led to his premature death at the age of 39.  Mathieu’s life story is explored in the film L’enfant prodige (2010) by Luc Dionne, which features much of his beautiful music performed by -also Québécois- pianist Alain Lefèvre.

Rise and fall (and rise again)

L’enfant prodige bears a close resemblance to the film Shine (1996) by Scott Hicks, which deals with the formative years of Australian concert pianist David Helfgott and his subsequent struggle with mental illness. Both films explore similar themes such as the beginnings of a promising music career, the strong influence of family on the child’s character, and the early claim to fame followed by a sudden fall.

There is, however, a crucial difference. While L’enfant prodige is the tragic story of one’s descent to alcoholism and despair, Shine is essentially a film about overcoming seemingly unsurpassable obstacles and surviving life’s misfortunes.

A great challenge even for the most phenomenal talents, no doubt.

Wagner’s 200th and the adventures of the Ring

I was first introduced to the Nibelungenlied (‘The Song of the Nibelungs’) through Fritz Lang’s magnificent Die Nibelungen, a series of two silent fantasy films (I. Siegfried & II. Kriemhild’s Revenge). Based on an epic poem written around 1200 AD, the screenplay follows the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried, his murder by Burgundian warrior Hagen of Tronje, and finally the revenge of his wife Kriemhild.

File:Nibelungen film1.jpg

Siegfried on horseback with Alberich, king of the dwarfs (still from Die Niebelungen by Fritz Lang)

Wagner’s famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (‘The Ring of the Nibelung’) is also based, however loosely, on characters from the Nibelungenlied and the Norse sagas. Not long ago, I happened to come across a wonderful 2-volume edition of Wagner’s Ring with some exquisite illustrations by Arthur Rackham that date back to 1910-11.

‘Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde’, illustration by Arthur Rackham

Lang’s visual artistry and Rackham’s captivating images notwithstanding, the most remarkable and ambitious work of art related to the Ring and the myth of the Nibelungs by far remains Wagner’s monumental opera cycle itself. I have wanted to watch Wagner’s operas on stage for a long time, and the opportunity finally arose this year on the occasion of the composer’s bicentennial. So far, I’ve had the chance to watch Siegfried in Amsterdam’s Muziektheater, which also stages the Ring cycle in its entirety.

Wagner’s 200th birthday was celebrated through a series of events and festivities booth within and outside Germany. Meanwhile, the composer’s strong anti-Semitic views and later association with the Nazis have continued to spark controversy up to this day. Same goes for the staging of his works, as it was made apparent this year in Bayreuth. Powerful as Wagner’s music may be, it seems to carry with it such a heavy load of historical allusions and connotations it often becomes impossible to be freed thereof.

125 years of sublime sound

On April 11, 1888 an orchestra of 120 musicians together with a chorus of 500 singers performed works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven in a new building in what was then called Nieuwer-Amstel. It was the beginning of the story of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous and much beloved concert hall. And no doubt it’s been a long, fascinating story…

This year, the city’s oldest and grandest classical music venue celebrates its 125th birthday. Due to its remarkable acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls worldwide – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to attend a concert in the magnificent Grote Zaal (‘Big Hall’) is familiar with the unique aura and enchanting atmosphere of the venue.

The Concertgebouw in 1902

The Concertgebouw in 1902

Throughout its long -and at times turbulent- history, the Concertgebouw has been host to an astonishing string of world-renowned composers who came along to present premieres of their works, such as Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók.

But by no means is the list confined to the classical genre alone. Legendary figures from the world of popular music have also performed in Amsterdam’s historic venue. Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey have all been guests of the Concertgebouw, along with rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Personally, I always regard a visit to the Concertgebouw as a kind of pilgrimage to one of the world’s unique music temples. Along with Vienna’s Musikverein or London’s Royal Albert Hall, it ranks as one of the most beautiful concert halls I have ever visited. But more importantly, it is a place where music can be experienced most fully and intensely, and thus I think the word ‘temple’ should not ring too much out of place.

In all my years in Amsterdam, I’ve had the chance to see some truly amazing performances at the Concertgebouw. I was there for a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim for the celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. I saw Earl Wild performing shortly after his ninetieth birthday, attended recitals by some of the world’s greatest pianists (Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Grigory Sokolov to name a few) and saw celebrities like Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang showcasing their extraordinary skills and virtuosity on stage.

One of the most-visited concert halls worldwide, the Concertgebouw seems to have not only a glorious past but also a promising future. And I look forward to being part of the experiences it yet has to offer.

Changing of the seasons

Antonio Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons (‘Le quattro stagioni’) in 1723. A work of unmatched artistry and elegance, it would become one of the most popular pieces of baroque music, if not classical music in general. It is also an early example of program music, with the four concertos named after the different seasons and following closely a set of corresponding sonnets.

The Four Seasons is an integral part of the violin repertoire, a work literally hardwired in the brain of every violinist. As might be expected, there is an abundance of recordings: approximately 1,000(!) different recorded versions of The Four Seasons have made their appearance since 1939 by various soloists and orchestras.

My personal favorites include the recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Camerata Lysy Gstaad from 1981, as well as Nigel Kennedy’s popular 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. Kennedy had studied with Menuhin as a child, and his recording of the The Four Seasons would become one of the best-selling classical works of all time. An eccentric figure, Kennedy has never hesitated to introduce improvisatory elements in his playing, which often makes his live performances electrifying.

Inevitably, some approaches to Vivaldi’s great composition have proved to be more daring and stylistically innovative than others. This is the case with French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier (b. 1934), whose main claim to fame have been his magnificent jazz adaptations of J.S. Bach. Apart from its sheer musicality, the fact that Loussier’s rendition manages to capture the essence of the original work by means of a piano trio alone is impressive.

More recently, British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) offered us a truly astonishing re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (its premiere was on 31 October 2012). In describing the 1st movement of his Summer, Richter talks about “relentless pulsed music”, adding that perhaps he “was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming.” He has also referred to the connection between the harpsichord’s sound in the 2nd movement of his Autumn and the style of various pop recordings, including Abbey Road and several albums by the Beach Boys.

The metamorphoses of The Four Seasons throughout the ages show how a baroque masterpiece can survive in modern times through assuming different forms and incorporating elements from such diverse genres as jazz, pop, hard rock and minimalism. Seasons may keep changing, yet Vivaldi’s music remains.