Tatar and Kyrgyz Traditional Music: A Research Paper by Courtney Van Cleef


*DISCLAIMER: I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting! Although I organized the research in a cohesive manner, the information presented is not all my original work and should be reviewed with educational purposes in mind.

     Several lifetimes of research would not be enough to cover the history of Russia’s rich music culture. In part, the process is complicated by the many ethnic groups that fall or have fallen at some point under the umbrella of Russian borders and/or occupation. It can be easy to immediately consider only the cultural history of Muscovites; however, this way of thinking ignores the millions of ethnic Russians in all directions beyond the capitol. Furthermore, there are regions beyond current border lines whose inhabitants represent cultures forever changed by soviet influence. One such region includes the Tatars (an ethnic group extending from Tatarstan in the Volga region of the Russian Federation to the bordering country of Kazakhstan) and the Kyrgyz (most of who currently reside in the neighboring Kyrgyz Republic). Together the Tatars and the Kyrgyz stand as a unique bridge between eastern and western music traditions. In many ways, including a largely pentatonic tonality, eastern style instruments, and Islamic religious influences, the music is firmly rooted in the ways of central Asian life; however, evidence of the consequences of Soviet occupancy , for example the appearance of “modifications” to otherwise ancient instruments, suggest a nod to the west. This paper aims to take a focused look at the musical practices that define the Tatar and Kyrgyz people.

     Before delving into the specifics of Tatar and Kyrgyz music, it is sensible to address the forces of time and Russian contact. Although the Kyrgyz were somewhat included in the Russian empire at the end of the 19th century and later became a full republic of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, Kyrgystan is farther removed from Russian culture and influence is more subtle. More widespread Russian influence is naturally found in Tatar music as even today a significant portion of the Tatar ethnic group live within the Russian Federation’s borders. Craig Macrae writes in his review of the Luman Seidjalilov: Legend of Crimean Tatar Music recording, “Russian influence dominates the instrumental aspect of performance [including] the violin and accordion accompaniment, the ubiquitous minor key, and the nostalgic mood”. In regions on the fringe of the Moslem centers of the Tatars, for example the Tatar-Mishars living in Russia’s Volga area (also referred to as Volga Tatars), we see genres such as wedding songs. Ceremonial songs were not acceptable per Islamic law and thus one is left to conclude that they are only found in Russia where Eastern Orthodoxy is the more common religion. Kazakh musicologist M. Nigmedzianov is careful to make the distinction that although the more ancient music of the Kazakh Tatars is closer to the heritage of the Tatar-Mishars “young people choose to ignore it” suggesting that the more modern generation of Tatars within Russia are moving further away from the bonds of tradition. Despite the seemingly overwhelming Russian presence, researchers generally agree that in reality ancient traditions continue to dominate the music traditions of Tatar peoples. László Vikár in his paper on Tatar Folksongs observes that “around the mid-Volga region, the predominant ethnicity is the Kazakh Tartars” and that “this influence has always remained stronger than that of the Russians who found the Soviet state”. An immensely positive byproduct of Russian contact was the encouragement of written records of music previously kept alive only through oral passing from generation to generation. For example, the “Traditional music and musical instruments of the Kyrgyz” website credits Russia by saying that “it was only when [the Kyrgyz] came into the Russian sphere of influence that their traditional music was written down in any form, let alone in musical notation”.

          The simultaneously eastern and western features of the instruments seem to support the theory that the Kyrgyz and Tatar region’s central place in Asia effectively makes it a bridge between the two worlds. A few examples of string instruments include the Komuz (also called a “Chertek” meaning “striking) and the Kul Kyiak. The Komuz, played by a musician called a Komuzchu, is similar to a lute in that it is played horizontally and is plucked. The instrument is made from apricot wood and only three strings. The Komuzchu is usually sitting, but he can be standing.  The online Encyclopaedia of Britannia makes the special distinction of the Komuz as the instrument of choice in the development of rare polyphonic tunes called “Kernel Tunes”. The Komuz goes by several different names in other central Asian cultures, for example the Kazakh Tatars refer to this instrument as a Dombyra.

     The Kul Kyiak is a bowed string instrument with two strings made of horsehair and a “jaa” or bow made of Tabylay (a thick mountain plant) and also strung with horse hair. This instrument has a close relative to the Kobyz played by the Kazakh Tatars. The uses of horse parts in string instruments of the Kyrgz and Tatar alike seem to reflect a closeness of the equestrian focused Central Asian cultures. The bow is typically cupped from below. Modern Kul Kyiak and Kobyz instruments typically use four metal strings, likely in attempt to more closely relate to the western violin. These modifications appear around the 1930s during Soviet occupation by Russia. Vikár suggests that the introduction of four strings by the Russians is likely the cause for the prevalence in Tatar songs shifting a repeated line to the lower fifth. As he puts it “it is easier and more natural for the singer to repeat a line on the lower fourth than the lower fifth.

     One must be careful not to confuse the Kobyz with the traditional Tatar instrument, Kubyz.  The Kubyz, in contrast, is a reed-and-plucked instrument commonly referred to as a “jew’s harp”.  It is a small instrument with a lyre-shaped frame that is held between the teeth and a projecting steel tongue that is plucked to produce a twang. Contrary to early research, the Kubyz is not an idiophone as it requires use of the performers “performer’s respiratory and articulatory organs”.

     The Asa-tayak is an idiophone instrument that essentially comprises of a stick with various metal, animal bone, and fabric attachments. Unsurprisingly, these attachments are assembled with horse-hair, once more reminding researchers of these central Asian equestrian cultures. It is meant to be struck against the floor in order to generate noise.  Although the Asa-tayak is found amongst the Tatar and Kyrgyz alike, the shamanic connotations make it far less common in the more heavily Islamic influenced Kazakh Tatar region. Often it is abandoned in favor of the Kobyz or percussion instrument.

     The Kernei is a wind instrument specifically identified with the Kyrgyz as an instrument that announces the arrival and departure of official peoples (rulers of militaries). There are two types of Kernei including the Jez Kernei (made from brass) and the Muyuz Kernei (made from mountain goat horn).  Kernei are unique in that they have remained unchanged from their original form. Although the spellings vary, creating confusion in research, the Kyrgyz and the Tartar share many wind instruments in common. Most of these instruments are a kind of flute that belongs to the Choor instrument family. The Bashkir-Tatar Kurai, a five- holed example of a Choor, is particularly conducive towards a pentatonic tonality as the five fingers make it possible to play two types of pentatonic scales. The notes in both scales combined spell out a major hexachord.

     Tatars and Kyrgyz music cultures both boast of Akyns, or master improvisers, that resemble the European model of a minstrel. Akyns are most typically known for competing in Aytish during which two Akyns will accompany themselves on a Komuz (or Dombyra amongst Kazakhs) and duel in sung verse, each bouncing off the other’s words and ideas in rhythmic singing, chanting and exclaiming. A special kind of Kyrgyz Akyn called a Manaschi is tasked with the purpose of relaying the story Manas, the epic hero central to the culture of Kyrgyz peoples.  Although women Manaschi are rare, they are not unheard of.

     Yet another special kind of performer is the Kazakh Tatar Kuishi or the analogous Küü performer in Kyrgyz music tradition, who perform programmatic instrumental works called Kui (or küü) on the Dombyra (or Komuz).  The Kui is approximately two minutes in duration and composed by the Kuishi himself. Although lyrics are not provided, it is widely accepted that the story line for each Kui are typically “so well known to the audience as to need no announcement or specially provided for listeners by the performer through a verbal introduction”. In addition to storyteller, Kui performers would also assume the role of entertainer by performing tricks such as playing the instrument in unconventional manner (over the shoulder, between the knees, etc.).

     Vikár carefully denotes certain tonal and features that appear unilaterally across all genres of Tatar songs.  Like the Kyrgyz songs, the overwhelming majority of Tatar songs are pentatonic with a mere ten percent instead falling into the sol-la-do-re or la-do-re-mi tetratony. Very few songs end on Re but when they do, they typically imply a closing Sol. Interestingly, the Re and Sol pentatonic scales are related in that both are without 3rds. Additionally while the Re and Sol pentatonic scales are considered by Mongolian folk researchers to be “truly ancient”, the Do and La pentatonic scales that do contain thirds are thought to have only evolved from western influence. Although large intervallic leaps are rare, when they do appear in the form of 6ths or 7ths, grace notes are placed between the notes in a way that aid the leap without “coagulating into glides”. A byproduct of pentatonic tonality, 4ths and 2nds are far more common than the strings of 2nds and 3rds observed in western major minor modes.

     The primary song genre of the Tatars is the lyric-epic song called ozyn koi (also spelled uzun koj). Ozyn koi follow the traditional monophonic form without instrumental accompaniment. Even the addition of a choir is prohibited. They are typically without leaping intervals although they are often highly embellished with melismatic ornaments and rhythmic freedom. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia further defines the Ozyn Koi as having variable meter and asymmetric structure. Ozny Koi, sometimes referred to as the lyric protracted song, retain such extravagant freedom that Nigmedzianov notes performances between singers in the same village share “merely the same outlines of melody and rhythm while the words remain completely identical”.  Vikár notes the necessity of a mature male voice in singing the Ozyn Koi. In addition to perfect pitch, and an ability to mold rhythm, the singer must also have an excellent memory in order to finish the entirety of the text. Vikár provides only one example of relatively short ozyn koi, “Kara Urman” (black bear), which would typically be sung by a woman. The words themselves are typically solemn and serious as they often speak of great persons and events of the past.

     In contrast, the kyska koi (also spelled Kiska Koj) are generally shorter, light-hearted, dance songs with set metrical and rhythmic organization, absence of ornamentation, and a quadratic structure.  Vikár notes that the syllables typically number 7-12 per line. He also makes the distinction that Tatars themselves are unclear how to classify Kyska Koi in relation to the Ozyn Koi from which they typically transition. Interestingly, the The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, tries to make the claim that Takmaki (or in Russian, Chastushka) are a subgenre of Kyska Koi due to their funny, jubilant nature. Vikár, however, aligns what he calls “tak-mak” with the song genre “Baet” because “both feature text in the first place and the role of simple melodies is secondary”.

     Baet (also spelled Bait) belong to the next largest genre of Tatar songs, the Baity. They tell the stories of old men, thus it is no surprise that the words are the main feature. Four lines per strophe feature 7-8 syllables with each syllable containing no more than a single melody note. As previously alluded, these songs are typically sung by old men who Vikár observes “can convey events of the past most authentically”. Nigmedzianov adds that the Baity are typically written in a structure of arioso-recitativo. He also makes an intriguing distinction between Volga Tatar and Kazakh Tatar baity by noting that the Volga Tatar tendency to lyricize poetic images within the baet suggests a sort of unique blend between baity and the lyric protracted song, or ozyn koi.

     The other main genre of Kyrgyz song, separate from the songs of the Akyn, is the ïr. Beyond that a “striking features of Kyrgyz vocal music is the ability of its finest exponents to sustain notes at full volume for a seemingly superhuman duration”, there regrettably seems to be little or no further accessible research on this particular genre. Based on similarities in instruments utilized and close proximity to the Tatar region, the ïr genre has a high probability of at least featuring elements of the discussed Tatar genres.

     The Tatars and Kyrgyz represent only a fraction of Russian touched central Asian music and are undoubtedly linked to those cultures beyond the scope of research presented here (for example, the cultures of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.).  Furthermore, the uneven nature of readily available research in favor of the Tatars over the Kyrgyz portrays an inaccurate deficiency of Kyrgyz traditional music.  Fortunately there appears to be an ongoing movement to create more written records.  What makes the people of central Asia so peculiar and important in the history of our world is their special seat between the western reaching Russia and the east. Russian Imperialism and Soviet Occupancy in many ways disrupted the traditions of the Tatars and Kyrgyz and yet they also created a rare specimen culture that permanently falls somewhere between two otherwise separate worlds.

Unveiling Theoretical Techniques in Early Russian Music: A Research Paper by Courtney Van Cleef


*DISCLAIMER: I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting! Although I organized the research in a cohesive manner, the information presented is not all my original work and should be reviewed with educational purposes in mind.

     Many scholars will have you believe that the history of Russian Music before Glinka is sparse and ultimately insignificant. It is true that the improvisational nature of the Russian people’s folk music does not lend itself to the extensive documentation that we see in Western Europe. Furthermore, the ban on instrumental music in the Byzantium-style Eastern Orthodox Church in many ways retarded the rapid development of an instrumental body of work that would put Russia on the map. It was not until the 19th century that at last we begin to see the circulation of collected folk songs. Even today, case studies on the music of tribes located around Russia’s vast geography are not easily accessed beyond its borders. Nonetheless, one must recognize the deeply ingrained characteristics in the music of these ancient cultures on the composers that so define the Russian Repertoire. Indeed, the collections of songs compiled by Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky, not to mention the countless references in music of Soviet composers such as Shostakovich, all owe to a deep respect of the music of the people. This essay aims to explore the theoretical techniques that characterize early Russian music. In order to comprehensibly cover the most important spheres in this genre, we will explore the folk song traditions of western Russia, observe the traditions of the Nenet people as a sample of Siberian traditions, and identify traditions in Russian liturgical music.

     The largest a most diverse body of early Russian music is found in folk songs. These include but are of course not limited to byliny (heroic songs written of a type of Russian warrior, known as a bogatyr), historical songs, ritual songs, wedding songs, bytovye songs (written about Russian daily life), and lyrical songs. The songs were a part of everyday life to the peasants and are thus treated with a sort of reverence and seriousness. For example, instrumental accompaniments is simply not present as the Russians associate instruments with “light-hearted revelry” and consider them to be inappropriate in the context of the song. Furthermore, women are the primary vocalists to sing these songs.

     Rhythmically, Russian music rarely conforms to a western style formation and thus bar lines serve little purpose. Whereas in a western country, the syncopation of the Bohemians or the rattle of the castanets in the Spanish fandango have become easily identifiable as distinctly belonging to these countries, the closest we come to a “Russian” rhythm lies in a vigorous three accented pattern found in a pliassovyia (dance song). In line with the treatment of songs as serious, it is not surprising that Russian dance songs are not particularly significant to the culture. In classifying the various types of Folk songs, scholar Emily Ahrens also notes the Bytovye as another type of dancing song with strong accents on the final beat and clearly expressed rhythms.

     Harmonically, most scholars agree on the Russian folk songs being largely diatonic. In relation to choices of progression by the various voices, music historian Alfred Swan goes so far as to say that non-diatonic half-steps are utterly alien to the peasant vocalist. However, there are multiple arguments as to how exactly the music should be analyzed. Ahrens utilizes the Tinctoris treatise, De Natura et Propretate Tonorum in its discussion of the three types of diatessarons and the four types of diapentes, to explain the various pitches. Example 1 (Example 1) provides a staff representation of the various diatessarons that divide the octave by a fourth and the diapentes that divide the octave by a fifth, conveniently labeling them A-G. Simply put, the diapentes and diatesserons together form the scales observed. If we look at Example 2 (Example 2) we see that all pitches included are E, F#, G, A, B, C, and D range is from E4 to E5. Although the song begins in G and the “key signature” provided by the editor, Tchaikovsky, suggests G major, the fact that the piece ends on E suggests a different tonality. This is consistent with the Russian ideal of “peremennost” (or, mixing of tones) and its consequences stand at the crux of analytical debate. Using the ideas of Ahrens we can build a scale using all pitches by combining Diapentes D and Diatesseron B. This is considered authentic form as the scale divides the octave into a fifth on bottom and a fourth above with the first note of the octave as final and the fifth above the final as dominant.

     Swan’s approach to analyzing the folk songs uses the traditional church modes but accounts for the seemingly undulating major and minor tonal centers by speaking about “semi-chromes” where notes of the chromatic scale crop up in the course of the melody, but not successively. He proceeds to choose examples where he finds what he considers to belong to a specific mode, and then comments on distinct Russian treatments of these particular modes. For example (Example 3) in this excerpt we see what appears to be a portion of the song in a natural minor (Aeolian mode). Swan notes the Russian tendency in this particular mode to place emphasis on the VII degree, in effect implying a harmonization by a major chord. True to form, the excerpt ends on a G, and in the preceding measure a G major chord is clearly outlined. This supports Swan’s observation of the VII and its treatment in Aeolian form. Had we used Ahrens’ analysis method, we might have noted instead the G4-G5 range and then have chosen to combine Diapente G and Diatesseron A to account for all notes in the example (Example 1).

     Additionally, there are distinctions to be found in the way that voices enter and harmonize. As previously mentioned, the songs were generally performed by women and thus we will often observe a solid middle range of pitches. Often a “precentor” or soloist will begin singing and complete a period of varying lengths. She will then be joined by a mixed choir that will, without fail, enter all at the same time and remain until the end of the song. Consistent with the mistrust of Russians for a regular or predictable beat pattern, the choir may not join the soloist on a strong beat and indeed could enter on what Swan describes to be a passing tone.

     One example of a Siberian music tradition is that of the Nenet peoples. Nenets inhabit western Siberia between the Kanin Peninsula in the White Sea and the mouth of the River Yenisev. The population is small, only totaling in approximately 30,000 people, and is divided between the tundra (thus the term “Tundra Nenets”) and the taiga (“Forest Nenets”). The Nenet are largely herders of reindeer and as is common in such cultures their religion centers on rituals enacted by a village Shaman. An example of Shamanism affecting rhythmic tradition is frequent use of a Manchu-like “three-accented pattern” (Example 4), thought to bring good luck and fortune. The hierarchy of the Shaman and the central position males have in Nenet society account for the distinct difference from western Russian music tradition of women leading the songs. This may also account for the low timbre of notes in recorded songs.

     Nenet music is circumpolar in style and based on a trinity of singing sound, speech-like sound, and imitative sound. In Nenet music, the meaning of the text is of greatest importance in the song. In an interview with Juri Vella, a forest Nenet from Khanty Mansi Autonomous Region of western Siberia, he specifically notes that a singer may repeat a line that he feels the audience did not understand the first time. The singer will try to provide an explanation in the melody, thus the melody is retained but not in the same way as the first time. This, however, does not account for all rhythmic deviation in a melody. In Example 5 (Example 5) an examination of the text in line 7 does nothing to further explain the previous lines, yet it has a recitative melody and is performed ad libitum.  In cases of melodies recited by Shamans as magical formulas, the songs adopt an entirely speech-like sound, imitating speech intonation.

     The focus on the text leads to many rhythmic peculiarities, for example the text will often not line up with the melody. To this end, melodies can be placed in two categories. In the first category, a phrase is repeated without change and the melody is considered an equal-length composition. In the second category, the length of the melody changes each time based on the text. Vella comments that at times a message takes up more space than one line, causing the singer to “violate rhythm and speak in a hurry”.

     Conversely, the text may be shorter than the melody and thus meaningless syllables are added. In Example 5 (Example 5), Line 2: kogda-to v proshedshchem vremeni nga nej translates to “Once upon a time nga neij” with “nga neij” acting as filler syllables. Meaningless syllables can also be greatly useful in joining 2 lines so that the song is rendered as one uninterrupted sentence. This technique is linked to Shamanistic songs as ritual dictates that interrupted singing can prevent a message from reaching the spirits.

     There are also instances where the text continues past the end of one melodic line and into the next. The point of this practice is meant to encourage a sense of continuity. In Example 6 (Example 6), the word wyek-lhaho is broken between lines 1 and 2. A technical practice that supports this call for continuity lies in breathing. Vella comments that Europeans breathe when a line ends, but Nenets breathe at random places so that breathing does not mean anything”. Ojamaa claims this is only part of the truth as there are in fact cases in European art songs where the vocalist breathes in a place other than the end of a sentence, just as there are places where Nenet breathing is not arbitrary.

     A final but nonetheless important section of traditional music can be found in that of the Russian Chant and its place in the Eastern Orthodox Church. This genre for a variety of reasons including an archaic notational system also remains the most elusive in terms of proper analysis. As stated by Schidlovsky, one discovers that “what might be called a “theory” of the music has to do primarily with questions of notation”.

     Russian Orthodoxy arrived in Constantinople during the reign of Prince Vadimir of Kiev in the 10th century. Its point of origin makes it not surprising that the theory and notation of early chants were strongly influenced by Greek theory. Specifically the middle Byzantine notation classified as the Coislin System was used for notation, characterized by tonal range symbols, strokes, and special black symbols to indicate inflections of the neumes. This Russian kind of neumatic chant was thusly termed znammeny, from the word znamia, meaning sign or neume. The earliest readable chants to be found come from the 12th century. Unlike western chants based on scales, these early manuscripts of Byzantine psalmody and hymnody suggest an organization by a system of eight church modes (echoi) referred to as the Octoe­chos. The chants appear to be diatonic and unison. In Swan’s example of the liturgical scale (Example 7), we find the pitches F, G, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, C. This means that in the lower octave there is a major triad F, A, C and in the upper octave we have a minor triad F, A-flat, C existing within the same scale. Swan’s point is that this is a commonality in folk songs and thus implies a link between the two genres. Unfortunately, the majority of these earliest texts no longer exist, most likely as the result of war and invasion of the tartars.

     By the 15th century, a ravaged Kiev had sharply declined as a Russian cultural center and Moscow was on the rise. During the reign of Ivan the Terrible from 1533 to his death in 1584 we begin to finally see manuals called azbuki that explain the neumatic system. Azbuka developed in scope to include not only short verbal descriptions, but also the “razvody”, or explanations of the more complex notation through the use of equivalent, simpler signs. In the early 17th century, Ivan Shaidurov, a west educated monk familiar with Renaissance music of Western Europe, clarified znamenny manuscripts by introducing two improvements. The first of these changes included a codified scale system of the Great Russian Znamenny Chant by firmly establishing the number of pitches in the scale as twelve. He also introduced a system of red marks to accompany the black neumes as an indication of pitch, qualitative and qualitative inflections of the neumes. These red marks create a sort of “ladder”, beginning with a bottom rung of three pitches including Low UT, Low RE, and Low MI, a middle rung of six pitches including UT, RE, MI, FA, SOL, LyA, and a high rung of three pitches including High FA, High SOL, and High LyA. If we give pitch names to these syllables we are left with C-flat, D-flat, E-flat, C, D, E, F, G, A, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, confirming that the twelve pitches create a complete chromatic scale despite a missing TI (covered by C-flat).

      The last significant reforms of the Russian chants appear around the 1660’s under the direction of Patriarch Nikon in his quest to reform the Orthodox Church. A third group of Symbols, Auxiliary Pitch Marks, were added to clarify the pitches with their tonal range signs. Nikolai Diletsky’s Musical Grammar, published in this era, not only helped explain these reformations but also encouraged western style polyphony (including clear tonic-dominant harmonic relationship). The reign of Peter the Great further brought an influx of French, Italian and German influences that obscured the techniques of the Russian tradition. On the subject of church music written during this time, Razumovsky notes that “not one of these works proved to be perfect and edifying in a church sense, because in each work the music predominates over the text, most often not at all expressing its meaning”. In the context of a culture that for hundreds of years did not allow instrumental accompaniment for concern that it takes away from the meaning of the words, this practice is in major conflict with the original traditions.

     Uncovering the theory that is so deeply rooted in passed down traditions, compounded by sizable holes in the documentation of the earliest Russian music, is no doubt a challenge for modern scholars. The various collections of songs and the conflicting manner in which their notation is treated is a testament to the unique quality of the Russian song and its ill-fitting nature when explained with the much more easily accessible western theory. For scholars who seek to understand what makes the music of Glinka and beyond distinctly special, it is absolutely necessary and in fact exciting to dig deeper for more knowledge about how the people of Russia structured their own music theory. There is still a copious amount of research to be done, but studies on sub-cultures like the ones conducted of the Nenet people may be the key to finding the answers. Meanwhile, an effort by the Russians themselves to preserve their culture in performance and church keeps the repertoire in sight and encourages more study by musicophiles and musicologists alike. Perhaps in time, we will see a picture clear as that of music theory in Western Europe.





Fresh Squeezed Ballet

I was watching one of my new favorite ballets, Prokofiev’s Cinderella, when out of no where the composer pulls out what may be my most favorite composition of all time, “March”, from The Love for Three Oranges (see post: Prokofiev Loves His Three Oranges). It sort of took me by surprise and also confounded me as to why this quote appears in the middle of a totally unrelated ballet. The setting of this scene is an elegant palace style ball and all of the sudden guests are passing around oranges… bizarre. Only in Russia right?

I’ll keep looking for reasons as to why Prokofiev did this; however, I’m guessing it had largely to do with the wide popularity his composition gained him 20 years earlier in his career.

Here is video proof that I’m not making this up:

Cello Bonus* Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor

I couldn’t sleep with the fact that I wrote an entire article about Rachmaninov but nothing about his greatest work of all, Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19! OK, maybe I might be just a wee bit biased…

Here are the notes I included when I performed this Sonata as part of my senior recital at Stetson University in May 2012:

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19, was completed in November 1901 and premiered by the composer himself alongside cellist Anatoliy Brandukov (for whom he dedicated the music). Rachmaninov purportedly rejected the title of cello sonata as he viewed the cello and piano to be equally dynamic. Very often, the piano introduces a theme which is subsequently taken and embellished by the cello. As typical of sonatas in the Romantic period, it has four movements including a rich Lento – Allegro moderato, a fast paced Allegro scherzando, a sentimental Andante, and finally a triumphant Allegro mosso. Each movement contains a chain of melodies that focus less on thematic development than on the themes themselves.  The success of the sonata was overshadowed by the acclaim of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 which premiered in October of the same year. Nonetheless, the Sonata is considered one of the most important works for cello in the 20th century.

By the way, cello students learning this piece should give the music to their accompanists WAY ahead of schedule (I am talking months in advance). This work is a real doozy for even the most seasoned of players and they will need a lot of time/patience to feel comfortable in performance. You really have to take care not to be ridiculous with your tempos, lest you sacrifice your ensemble. This was all the information I could find given the tools available to me. What can I say? Enough said!

I will let the great Rosty and his pianist, Alexander Dedyuhkin, share this one. Enjoy!

First Movement:

Second Movement:

Third Movement:

Fourth Movement:

Bane of the Pianist’s Existence: Sergei Rachmaninov


This post, we will explore the life and times of every pianist’s worst nightmare, Sergei Rachmaninov.

Серге́й Васи́льевич Рахма́нинов, a.k.a. Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov, was born April 1st, 1873 in Semyonovo Russia (picture a suburb of its parent city, Novgorod). A boy from aristocracy, young Sergei was not the kind to suffer want. Both Rachmaninov’s father, Vasily, and mother, Lubov, were amateur pianists; however, it was Mom who gave Sergei his earliest lessons (age 4ish).  Granddaddy Arkady Alexandrovich Rachmaninoff recognized Sergei’s talent and contributed to his education by bringing in the famous Anna Ornatskaya to formally teach the piano to Sergei at the tender age of 9 years old. She remained with the Rachmaninov’s until they moved to Saint Petersburg where Sergei began lessons at the conservatory. This move marks an unfortunate time for the family. In addition to the humiliation of losing their estate in Semyonovo (due to Dad’s poor spending habits), a diphtheria epidemic killed his sister, Sofia. His parents separated shortly afterwards, leaving their three remaining children in Lubov’s custody.  Sergei struggled as a result of these domestic trials and upon failing his exams in 1885 it was suggested to his mother that he be sent away to Moscow to study.

In 1885 Sergei made the move to study at the Moscow Imperial Conservatory under the tutelage of Nikolai Zverev. Rachmaninov would later credit his teacher, Zverev, for turning his ways around and instilling the disciplined work habits which would serve him for life. Despite this reverence for his teacher, Sergei’s studies at Moscow led him to discover a greater passion for composition. His shift in focus on composition angered Zverev and led Rachmaninov to finish his studies with Alexander Ziloti (Sergei’s cousin and a former pupil of Franz Liszt). Rachmaninov studied theory under the great Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev.  Around this time Rachmaninov was also introduced to Tchaikovsky, who would serve as a profound influence in Sergei’s compositional style.  Tchaikovsky commissioned the teenage Rachmaninov to arrange a piano transcription of the suite from his ballet “The Sleeping Beauty”. This commission had first been offered to Siloti, who declined, but suggested instead that Rachmaninov would be more than capable. Siloti supervised the arrangement which became the first of many brilliant and effective transcriptions Rachmaninov would write over the course of his career. On top of all these powerful influences, Sergei learned alongside brilliant classmates including the (now) famous Alexander Scriabin (the early death in 1915 of Alexander Scriabin, who had been his good friend, affected Rachmaninov so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music). Rachmaninov was a stellar student, completing his piano studies in 1891, one year early. He used his last year to finish his composition course with Arensky by writing the one-act opera Aleko (based on Pushkin’s The Gypsies), which premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1893 (the opera remains a staple of the operatic repertoire). For this achievement, Rachmaninov accepted the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Gold Medal as only the third person to ever receive the honor.

The period between 1890 and his emigration in 1917 proved both fruitful and disastrous for Rachmaninov. Frequent summer residencies at the Ivanonka estate (with Auntie Vavara Satina) became a vehicle of inspiration from the endless rolling fields and the solitude he received. Rachmaninov completed many pieces including his First Piano Concerto Opus 1 (1891) and Prelude in C# Minor which was one of the five Morceaux de Fantaisies Opus 3 (1892). The aforementioned Prelude in C# Minor is often referenced to be the composition that put Rachmaninov on the map, both in Russia and abroad. Rachmaninov would (possibly in jest?) exclaim a distaste for his famous prelude since it was so often demanded as an encore at his recitals. In later years he sometimes teased an expectant audience by asking, “Oh, must I?” or claiming an inability to remember it. Despite this, he later wrote two further sets of 10 and 13 preludes respectively, completing the full complement of 24 preludes all in different keys. In 1893 Rachmaninov slipped into a phase of deep depression in response to the death of both Tchaikovsky and Zverev, prompting him to compose the commemorative Trio Elegiaque Opus 9. In 1896 Sergei attempted his First Symphony (Op. 13) and the work was premièred on 28 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of “Russian Symphony Concerts”.  Symphony No. 1 was brutally rejected by critics, most notably the nationalist composer César Cui (member of the mighty handful) who likened it to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt, suggesting it would be admired by the “inmates” of a music conservatory in hell. P.S. Cesar Cui is the only member of the “Russian Five” whose works are no longer regularly performed… hm. Alexander Ossovsky (side note:  he was the cousin of young Ksenia Derzhinskaia (1889–1951) whose successful operatic career as prima donna of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was initiated by Rachmaninov) in his memoir about Rachmaninov makes the claim that Glazunov, as a conductor who disliked the work, made poor use of rehearsal time. Other witnesses suggested that Glazunov (widely believed to be an alcoholic) may have been drunk at the event. Regardless of these purported reasons, the premier was a failure and did nothing to help quell Sergei’s dwindling confidence/mental health. One stroke of good fortune came from Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian industrialist and patron of the arts, who two years earlier had founded the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He offered Rachmaninov the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–8 season and the cash-strapped composer accepted. During this period he became engaged to fellow pianist Natalia Satina whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin. The Russian Orthodox Church and the girl’s parents both opposed their marriage, thus putting a halt to the couple’s plans and adding up to a complete mental breakdown. In 1900, Rachmaninov began autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, himself an amateur musician. Soon after, Sergei reentered the world of compositional renown with the premier of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18, 1900–01), dedicated to Dr. Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere, at which Rachmaninov was soloist. To top it all off, Sergei found a way to marry Natalia, using the family’s military background to circumvent the church. They were married in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on 29 April 1902 and his and Natalia’s union lasted until the composer’s death (despite a brief affair with the 22-year-old singer Nina Koshetz in 1916 but we will dismiss such a messy detail).  Their happy marriage resulted in the birth of two daughters, Irina (later Princess Wolkonsky (1903-1969)… cool) and Tatiana Conus (1907-1961). After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninov was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904. Political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he chose a cosmopolitan route and stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing, and returning to his old haven “Ivanovka” every summer. The connection to America began when Rachmaninov made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909. For this event Rachmaninov composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909) as a show piece. These successful concerts made him a popular artist; however, he was unhappy on the tour and declined requests for future American concerts until after he emigrated from Russia in 1917. P.S. this included an offer to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

As was the situation for many, the 1917 revolution marked an end of Russian life as Rachmaninov had known it and on December 22nd, 1917 he fled St. Petersburg for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sled (he carried only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions as well as two orchestral scores including his unfinished opera “Monna Vanna” and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Golden Cockerel”). For about a year he hung around Scandinavia performing odd jobs and laboring over new types of repertoire; however, near the end of 1918, he received three offers of lucrative American contracts. Although he declined all three, he began to think that the United States might offer a solution to his financial concerns. Upon arrival in New York on November 1st, 1918, Sergei fast chose an agent, Charles Ellis, and accepted the gift of a piano from Steinway before playing 40 concerts in a four-month period. At the end of the 1919–20 season, he also signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, the Rachmaninov family bought a house in the United States, where they consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing Russian customs. One of Rachmaninov’s regular visitors was the famous pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. Arranged by Steinway artist representative Alexander Greiner, their meeting took place in the basement of New York’s Steinway Hall, on 8 January 1928, four days prior to Horowitz’s debut at Carnegie Hall playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. Referring to his own Third Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff said to Greiner he heard that “Mr. Horowitz plays my Concerto very well. I would like to accompany him.” For Horowitz, it was a dream come true to meet Rachmaninoff, to whom he referred as “the musical God of my youth … To think that this great man should accompany me in his own Third Concerto … This was the most unforgettable impression of my life! This was my real debut!” Rachmaninoff was impressed by his younger colleague and a bromance was forged of two who were quite supportive of each other’s careers and greatly admired each other’s work. With his many performing engagements, Rachmaninov’s output as composer slowed tremendously. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six compositions. Another, perhaps greater, cause for this drought may have been a timeless case of homesickness. His revival as a composer seemed possible only after he had built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa which reminded him of his old family estate, Rachmaninov composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (one of his best known works) in 1934. He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the Symphonic Dances (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Symphonic Dances in 1941 in the Academy of Music.

A lot of musicians, including myself, will sometimes make the honest mistake of thinking great composers to be superhuman and beyond such mortal concerns as disease. It therefore can come as a shock that even the magnificent Rachmaninov could be subject to the malady of advanced melanoma (a.k.a skin cancer). When he fell ill after a series of concerts in 1942, the family was informed but the composer was not. On February 1st, 1943 he and his wife became American citizens and on February 17th, 1943 Sergei gave his final recital at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (eerily his program included the famous “Funeral March” by Chopin). A statue called “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park in Knoxville as a permanent tribute to Rachmaninoff. He became so ill after this recital that he had to return to his home in Los Angeles. Rachmaninov lost his battle with melanoma about a month later on March 28th, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, just four days before his 70th birthday. A choir sang the fifth movement of his “All Night Vigil” (praised by some as Rachmaninov’s finest achievementand “the greatest musical achievement of the Russian Orthodox Church”) at his funeral. He had wanted to be buried at the Villa Senar (his home away from home) in Switzerland, but the conditions of World War II made fulfilling this request impossible. He was therefore interred on June 1st at the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

After a century of pianists questioning why Rachmaninov would choose to torture their kind, there may be a simple explanation. In addition to his evident virtuosity, Sergei possessed physical gifts including exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch (he could play the chord C Eb G C G with his left hand… meaning he could play an interval of a 12th with one hand SUPER IMPRESSIVE). This and Rachmaninov’s slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain (possibly the result of myopia), and bruising of the fingertips. Although Rachmaninov did not suffer the common cardiovascular ailments of the syndrome, studies show that about 40% of Marfan patients will likewise never appear to have this symptom unless echocardiography tests are conducted. Additionally, there is no indication that his immediate family had similar hand spans rendering any familial evidence unlikely.  A possible alternative diagnosis of acromegaly, a long-term condition in which there is too much growth hormone and the body tissues get larger over time, may be evidenced by the defining coarse facial features of later photographs.  Rachmaninov’s repeated bouts of depression are also consistent with a diagnosis of acromegaly. We will never know for sure if Rachmaninov’s hands were indeed a result of a medical condition; however, if it helps a piano student sleep at night I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea!

Below I have included a hilarious performance that is both amazingly done and witty in that it pokes fun at Rachmaninov’s ridiculous expectations for Prelude in C# Minor:

*You more often see old Rocky’s name spelled Rachmaninoff. I dislike this spelling because it is completely unnecessary. For the Russian spelling of Рахма́нинов (with the exception of the letter “х” which is close to the “ch” we insert in it’s place), each Russian character has an English equivalent (Р=r а=a х=ch м=m а́=a н=n и=i н=n о=o в=v). Oh silly Cyrillic translations…

Awesome Clip from Shosty’s Katerina Ismailova

For those who do not know this great opera by Shostakovich, I thought I would share this clip that I stumbled upon from Katerina Ismailova. Katerina is the epitome of the traditional Russian trophy wife. Ignorant and bored out of her mind, she feels trapped and desperate for real affection in her loveless marriage to Zinovy. That’s where Sergei comes in. He’s the farm hand who got fired for sleeping with his last boss’s wife (you can assume what kind of character this playa playa is).
In this particular scene Sergei is paying a late night visit to Katerina under the nose of her father-in-law Boris and while her husband is away on a business trip. He asks for a book but obviously his real intentions are less innocent…
Consequently Katerina kills Boris by serving him poisoned mushrooms and later she and Sergei kill her husband when he catches them in the act… yeah that’s about the place in the opera where Stalin apparently stormed out of the auditorium in disgust (off to the frozen tundra with Shosty over that one). Then the couple gets caught and sent to Siberia. Sergei dumps Katerina for another labor slave, Katerina loses it, she grabs Sergei’s new girlfriend and pulls the both of them to their death by raging/freezing river.
Well, nobody said Russian married life in the old days was easy…

Real or Not Real: Stravinsky’s Puppet Tale


This time around we delve into the complicated visual and aural spectacle that is Stravinsky’s ballet, “Petrushka” (a.k.a Petrouchka or Петрушка).  Like Stravinsky’s other ballet, the Firebird, the plot is decidedly Russian focusing on the traditional Russian puppet (Petrushka), taking place during a carnival celebrating the Maslenitsa (Russian lent), and even featuring a dancing bear (note: bears are a big deal in Russian i.e. the name of the former president, Medvedev is very close to the word “medved” or “bear” resulting in relentless teasing via newspaper cartoons). Petrushka, is a stock character of Russian folk puppetry (a.k.a rayok) known at least since the 17th century. Petrushkas were used as marionettes, as well as hand puppets and were traditionally identifiable as a kind of a jester distinguished by red dress, red kolpak, and often a long nose.  Stravinsky began work on the ballet in 1911 and premiered the work at the Théâtre du Châtelet on June 13, 1911 under conductor Pierre Monteux. The production was a feature of the Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballets); an itinerant ballet company from Russia directed by Sergei Diaghilev and widely regarded as the greatest ballet company of the 20th century. Incidentally, the title role was danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, cited as the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century.

Musically the ballet is characterized by a specially created “Petrushka Chord”, consisting of C major and F♯ major triads played together, heralding the appearance of (you guessed it) Petrushka! The ballet as we know and love it today is likely played with the regards to the considerable re-orchestration by maestro Stravinsky that took place in 1947. He purportedly penned the revised version of Petrushka for a smaller orchestra, in part because the original version was not covered by copyright and Stravinsky wanted to profit from the work’s popularity. The ballerina’s tune is assigned to a trumpet in the 1947 version instead of a cornet as in the original. The 1947 version provides an optional fortississimo near the piano conclusion of the original. Stravinsky also removed some of the difficult metric modulations in the original version of the first tableau from the 1947 revision.

In case you were interested…

Compared to the 1911 version, the 1947 version requires: one less flute; two fewer oboes, but a dedicated English horn player instead of one doubled by the fourth oboe; one fewer bassoon, but a dedicated contrabassoon; neither of two cornets, but an additional trumpet; one fewer snare drum and no tenor drum, thus removing the offstage instruments; no glockenspiel; and one fewer harp.

In 1921, Stravinsky created a piano arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein entitled Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, which the composer admittedly could not play himself for lack of adequate left hand technique.

An interesting cultural aside, the Russian Children’s Welfare Society (RCWS) hosts an annual “Petrushka Ball”, named after Stravinsky’s star-crossed Petrushka who fell in love with the graceful ballerina.

Here is a recap of the plot:

The ballet opens on St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square during the celebratory Shrovetide fair (a Russian Mardi Gras if you will).  An organ grinder and two dancing girls entertain the crowd to the popular French song “Une Jambe de Bois” (notice the reference to the French, reflecting Russia’s obsession with French culture) before giving way to drummers introducing the enchanting Charlatan (magician). To the amazement and curiosity of the crowd, The Charlatan plays a short diddy on the flute, bringing to life three puppets that then proceed to dance a rigorous Russian Dance. Of these puppets is (obviously)”Petrushka”, a rather uppity “Ballerina” (more on this later), and a “Moor” (unfortunately the character was traditionally performed by a white dancer painted in black face, causing quite the racial uproar… this is beside the point).

Following this joyous performance, the mood becomes considerably darker when we are taken to the scene of Petrushka’s backstage prison. The walls are painted in dark colors and decorated with stars, a half-moon and jagged icebergs or snow-capped mountains. With a resounding crash, the Charlatan kicks poor Petrushka into this barren cell. Through some virtuosic and often, well, interpretive choreography we learn that Petrushka is magically possessed with human feelings including bitterness toward the Charlatan for his imprisonment as well as love for the beautiful Ballerina. To add insult to injury, a frowning portrait of his jailer hangs above him as if to remind Petrushka that he is a mere puppet. The understandably indignant clown-puppet shakes his fists at the portrait and then proceeds to attempt escape from his cell but, alas, he fails pathetically. This is about the time the Ballerina enters randomly through the door (I think we are to believe the magician sends her in?). Petrushka tries to impress her and share his true feelings but she cruelly disregards all his gestures of adoration. Apparently, even as they are entrapped in the same cell, Petrushka is too low for miss high and mighty on the totem pole.

Next the audience is transported to the far superior, spacious, and lavishly decorated room of the Moor. Rabbits, palm trees and exotic flowers decorate the walls and floor. The Moor reclines on a divan and plays with a coconut, attempting to cut it with his scimitar. When he fails he believes that the coconut must be a god and proceeds to pray to it… what? Anyways, the Ballerina again magically appears but this time her attitude is transformed. Attracted to the Moor’s handsome appearance she plays a saucy tune on a toy trumpet and dances a happy jig (is it me or is this character just more unlikeable by the minute?). Petrushka finally breaks free from his cell, and he interrupts the rather embarrassing seduction of the Ballerina. Petrushka attacks the Moor but soon realizes he is too small and weak. The Moor beats Petrushka. The clown-puppet flees for his life, with the Moor chasing him, and escapes from the room. So basically the bigger, prettier, shallow character gets the girl while poor Petrushka, with a heart burdened by hopeless unrequited love, is defeated in spectacular fashion. Not sure this is a great lesson to take home to the kids…

In the final scene we are again brought to a festive scene at night, complete with an array of apparently unrelated characters including the Wet-Nurses (who dance to the delightful tune of the folk song “Down the Petersky Road”), the peasant with the previously alluded to dancing bear, a group of a gypsies, coachmen, grooms, and masqueraders. Suddenly a frightened Petrushka runs across the stage, followed by an irrationally violent Moor brandishing his sword, and finally the Ballerina who watches in horror from the sidelines. The crowd is ablaze with outrage when the Moor catches up to Petrushka and slays him with a single blow. The police question the Charlatan about the apparent murder but in a rather reasonable move the magician holds the “corpse” above his head, shaking it to remind everyone that Petrushka is but a puppet. Satisfied, the crowd dissipates and the Charlatan begins to tow away the ruins of his property. All of a sudden, Petrushka’s ghost appears on the roof of the little theatre, his cry now in the form of angry defiance (to really drive the point home, Petrushka’s spirit thumbs its nose at his tormentor). Now completely alone, the Charlatan is terrified to see the leering ghost of Petrushka. He runs away whilst allowing himself a single frightened glance over his shoulder. The scene is hushed, leaving the audience to wonder who is “real” and who is not. Hm…

Allow me to include a youtube presentation of the ballet. If the plot is a little wacky, the music is extraordinary and the choreography is very eye catching:

Prokofiev Loves His Three Oranges


This time around we will visit one of our favorite little Russian Geniuses, Sergei Prokofiev (OK fine he was technically Ukranian, but most music historians still consider him to largely be an important Russian composer), and talk about his most famous opera, “The Love of Three Oranges”. This work of art is charming as it is witty in making fun of the government officials without being outright scandalous.
Although the opera pokes fun at that powers that be in Russian it is important to make the distinction that this Opera was written originally in America for a Chicago audience. In 1918 Prokofiev was allowed to travel to the USA in hopes that he would spread the word about the success of Russian art in America. Needless to say this trip went swimmingly. After presenting a recital including the famous Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by the composer himself, Prokofiev caught the eye of Cleofonte Campanini(principal conductor and general manager of the Chicago Opera). He awarded Prokofiev a commission to compose a new opera for the company and thus the work in progress Prokofiev had in his repertoire was completed, “The Love of Three Oranges”. Although this opera does have a Russian libretto, it would have been quite inappropriate to present a Bolshevik themed opera in the Russian language to an American audience, thus the libretto was translated and premiered in French.
The plot of this opera by nature makes little sense and is more importantly meant to entertain through the use of satire. Just FYI, it is based on an old Italian Fairy Tale. Well here goes…

Act 1:
The King of Clubs and his adviser Pantalone are worried about the health of the Prince, a hypochondriac whose symptoms have been brought on by an indulgence in tragic poetry. Apparently his ailment can only be cured with laughter, so Pantalone summons the jester Truffaldino to arrange a grand entertainment, together with the (secretly inimical) prime minister, Leandro.
The magician Tchelio, who supports the King, and the witch Fata Morgana, who supports Leandro and Clarice (niece of the King, lover of Leandro), play cards to see who will be successful. Tchelio loses three times in succession to Fata Morgana, who brandishes the King of Spades, alias of Leandro.
Leandro and Clarice plot to kill the Prince so that Clarice can succeed to the throne. The supporters of Tragedy are delighted at this turn of events. The servant Smeraldina reveals that she is also in the service of Fata Morgana, who will support Leandro.
Act 2:
All efforts to make the Prince laugh fail, despite the urgings of the supporters of Comedy, until Fata Morgana is knocked over by Truffaldino and falls down, revealing her underclothes — the Prince laughs, as do all the others except for Leandro and Clarice. Fata Morgana curses him: henceforth, he will be obsessed by a “love for three oranges.” At once, the Prince and Truffaldino march off to seek them. Yeah really…
Act 3:
Tchelio tells the Prince and Truffaldino where the three oranges are, but warns them that they must have water available when the oranges are opened. He also gives Truffaldino a magic ribbon with which to seduce the giant (female) Cook (a bass voice!) who guards the oranges in the palace of the witch Creonte.
They are blown to the palace with the aid of winds created by the demon Farfarello, who has been summoned by Tchelio. Using the ribbon to distract the Cook, they grab the oranges and carry them off into the surrounding desert.
While the Prince sleeps, Truffaldino opens two of the oranges. Fairy princesses emerge but quickly die of thirst. The Ridicules (Cranks) give the Prince water to save the third princess, Ninette. The Prince and Ninette fall in love. A body of soldiers conveniently turns up and the Prince orders them to bury the two dead princesses. He leaves to seek clothing for Ninette so he can take her home to marry her, but, while he is gone, Fata Morgana transforms Ninette into a giant rat and substitutes Smeraldina in disguise.
Act 4:
Everyone returns to the King’s palace, where the Prince is now forced to prepare to marry Smeraldina. Tchelio and Fata Morgana meet, each accusing the other of cheating, but the Ridicules intervene and spirit the witch away, leaving the field clear for Tchelio. He restores Ninette to her natural form. The plotters are sentenced to die but Fata Morgana helps them escape, through a trapdoor and the opera ends with everyone praising the Prince and his bride

I warned you…

Anyways Below is a recording of one of my personal all time favorite compositions, the “March” from “The Love of Three Oranges”!

Shostakovich’s Great Big Serious 9th Symphony… PSYCHE!


I always love an opportunity to present the great Dimitri Shostakovich as the mastermind he is. His Symphony No. 9 is most def. a case in point!
Educated music historians are aware of the so-called composer’s curse. Beginning with the late Ludwig Van Beethoven, it seemingly became a pattern that upon the completion of his ninth symphonic masterpiece a composer would croak. This is evidenced in the death of Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams who all died within weeks of reaching this ill fated number in their composition repertoire… ok so maybe this is a bit of an over simplification but the point is that #9 is a significant number to the “greats” who followed in their predecessor’s footsteps.
When it came time for Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 9, the Russia music community was practically teeming with excitement over the possibilities Shosty would explore in his music. Many expected him to pull out the big guns and write a symphony to include choir like the massive Beethoven counterpart. These suspicions were bolstered by the composer’s declaration in October 1943 that the symphony would be a large composition for orchestra, soloists and chorus which the context would be “about the greatness of the Russian people, about our red army liberating our native land from the enemy (the Nazi’s)”. The government who had their fingers in all matters of art (because government officials surely know everything about everything when it comes to evaluating music) expected a nationalistic wonder full of serious sentiment and dignity. Of course they were all woefully disappointed…
Despite initial sketches presented by Shostakovich in April of 1944, he ultimately lost inspiration for his originally intended work. Following a long break, during which he dropped the project completely, he resumed working and finished the real Symphony No. 9 on August 30th, 1945. This symphony turned out to be a completely different work from the one he had originally planned, with neither soloists nor chorus and a much lighter mood than expected. He forewarned listeners, “In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the 7th and the 8th. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates.”
As predicted by Shostakovich himself, many of his colleagues praised the symphony as charming and overall successful, whereas the government critics believed it to be “Ideologically weak” and “misrepresenting of the Soviet attitude”. Surprisingly the West reacted unfavorably as well, believing it to be a childish celebration over the defeat of Hitler. This was a very tender time for the world so certain considerations for their error in judgment can be excused… Symphony No. 9 was nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1946, but failed to win it. By order of Glavrertkom, the central censorship board, the work was banned on 14 February 1948 in his second denunciation together with some other works by the composer. It was removed from the list in the summer of 1955 when the symphony was performed and broadcasted.
In Beethoven-like fashion, the entirety of the work spans 5 mvts (note: the Beethoven 9th Symphony is technically four movements but the nature of the fourth movement lends itself to being broken in two parts making it seem as if it were five movements) . On a personal note I have recently performed this Symphony and have found it to be delightful. It is sweet and joyful while still retaining that creepy tombstone quality that is found in all music of Shosty (he dedicated the entirety of his works to the thousands who were killed in Stalin’s purges). My favorite moment would certainly be the theme in the first mvt. played as a violin solo (In my performance our concertmaster/violin soloist was a tall blond Russian guy by the name of Igor Kalnin so I couldn’t help but bask in the awesomeness)!
Below I am including a video of said 1st Mvt:

Glamorous Glinka


Most incorrectly, many people regard Russian Music pre-westernized to be just about non-existent. If you review my past post on the “History of Early Russian Music” you will surely realize the error of your ways and be enlightened. However, I can recognize a clean revolution in Russian music history at the beginning of the 19th century when the east met the west. For the purposes of this blog, I will introduce you to the composer that many music historians refer to as “the first important Russian composer”, Mikhail Glinka.
The early life of Glinka was, well, privileged. Born (June 1st, 1804) to a high-ranking military family in service of the Tsar, Glinka enjoyed an easy childhood of sweets, furs, and a doting babushka. He was so coddled that indeed he developed a fragile disposition and remained in frail health throughout his life. Glinka was often exposed to Russian Folk music via traveling musicians. He heard the church bells tuned to dissonant chords, thus shaping his early understanding of harmony. Glinka was lucky enough to have had a private teacher who introduced him to Russian, German, and French language as well as their respective geographies. This also put him in touch with the popular western style music that he studied as a pianist and violinist. At 13 Glinka was sent to St. Petersberg to study under the piano professor Charles Meyer and it was not long before the young Glinka was recognized as a virtuoso. In 1830 he was even taken on a meandering tour through Italy where he took lessons at the conservatory in Milan (this was the thing to do if you were an up and coming composer in Russia because even its own people disregarded their own music for some misguided reason). Obviously this trip had a profound effect on the development of Mikhail’s musicality; however, Glinka fast became disenchanted with the Italian ways as he recognized that his duty was to his homeland in Russia and Russia’s own music culture.
In 1834, when Glinka was in Berlin, he received a fateful message that his father had died. This prompted him to return to his hometown in Novospasskoye. While in Berlin, Glinka had become enamored with a beautiful and talented singer, (for whom he composed Six Studies for Contralto). He contrived a plan to return to her, but when his sister’s German maid turned up without the necessary paperwork to cross to the border with him, he abandoned his plan as well as his love and turned north for Saint Petersburg. There he reunited with his mother, and made the acquaintance of Maria Petrovna Ivanova. After courting her for a brief period, the two married. The marriage was short-lived, as Maria proved to be utterly without tact and uninterested in his music. The silver lining here is that Glinka used his nagging ex-wife as inspiration for his most famous opera “A Life for a Tsar”.
The significance of “Ivan Susanin” (the original title for “A Life for a Tsar”) lies in the fact that this was the first Russian Opera sung in Russian Language. The work was premiered on December 9, 1836, under the direction of Catterino Cavos, who had written an opera on the same subject in Italy. Although it still retained a plethora of characteristics distinctly European, Glinka’s work was a grand success. In essence, he paved the way for future Russian composers (including of course the “Russian Five”) who would dedicate their lives as composers to writing Russian nationalist music in the traditional style.
Glinka lived his last years in Berlin. He died suddenly on 15 February 1857, following a cold. Glinka was buried in Berlin but a few months later his body was taken to Saint Petersburg and reinterred in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Below I am including a recording of Glinka’s Grand Sextet for piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. You’re welcome 🙂

The East Meets the West: 18-19th Century Russian Music History and the Rise of Glinka (a research paper by Courtney Van Cleef)


*I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting!

Despite Russia’s rich musical life (demonstrated in the volumes of folk-songs that date back hundreds of years), Russia is a country whose music history is largely abandoned before the 18th century. In fairness, the separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian adopted Eastern Orthodox Church can be largely to blame for the gap in time before Russian music arrived on the western radar. Unlike the extensive rise of the Mass that catapulted change in Europe, the Eastern Orthodox Church imposed strict restrictions on its music rituals, thus thwarting development such as the kind observed in the west. Towards the end of the 18th century, however, Russia began to see great changes in its political atmosphere. The Tsars, particularly Tsarist Catherine the Great, suddenly adopted a sincere interested in the affairs of their European neighbors. The opening up of this previously isolationist society naturally led to a demand for western art and all its modern trappings in opera, dance, and instrumental music. Under these circumstances, it was to be that Russian music would finally escape obscurity and eventually (in the 19th century) begin its own historically significant developments as a unique nation. Success was mainly achieved through the prevailing musical movement of the time, “nationalism”. This paper aims to examine the events of late 18th century and 19th century Russian music history, including its historical context, the construction of a new music society, and the rise of Russia’s first significant composer (in western terms) Mikhail Glinka.
In order to understand Russian composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the “romantic era” in terms of music, one must first understand what was happening in the surrounding world at the time.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Europe (including Russia) became a region of great instability due to its disruption of previously established borders. In order to assist in the reduction of tensions, the leaders of all the major states of the time convened to Vienna for the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815).
The goals of the Congress of Vienna were to mainly restore the status quo of powers before 1792 without punishing France. This was in order to prevent revenge and hostility from the French people. The main powers to convene included Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later France. Although the meeting did accomplish its immediate goals to scale back France’s conquests and return to its 1792 borders, it tragically failed to address the cultural borders of the individual states. For example, Russia’s prized acquisition as a result of the meeting included the Duchy of Poland, regardless of Poland’s clear cultural distinction from Russia. Such violations prompted an attitude of rebellion by the people that would ultimately lead to World War 1.
The important consequences of these tensions in art were the rise of nationalism. The basic sentiment was that a citizen owed his/her loyalties to his/her nation before government, creed, dynasty, etc. In music the folk music was considered higher than all other national music as it is most closely related to the people. An important thing to note is that while the beginning of the nationalist movement began as people who identified themselves as citizens of a larger world, it later turned into a much more aggressive and almost competitive attitude of people aligning themselves with specific identities. Also important to mention is that although nationalism in theory refers to all classes of people within a society, the movement was entirely a movement of the bourgeois in order to establish their patriotism. Although nationalism affected different regions in different ways, Russia is unique in that its revolution during the 19th century failed to displace the Tsar and lead to democracy. The music lends itself to more themes of monarchy and the other popular practice of nationalism including exoticism. In reference to the Tsar’s power over nations in central Asia, many Russian composers wrote their music
with exotic Asiatic themes that distinguish their works as uniquely Russian.
As many of the Romantic composers turned to folk music as a center piece of their compositions, it became necessary that the music change to accommodate the flavor to such old tunes. Since folk music is largely monodic and does not fit cleanly into the harmonic structures defined during the classical era, composers were forced to explore new tonalities and move away from the traditions that had dominated in Italy, France, and Germany, for centuries. For example, most Russian folk music contains a dubious tonic and employs generous amounts of parallel 5ths, octaves, and other dissonant parallel intervals. Whereas music previously imitated earlier works, and borrowed from previous success, it was now considered inauthentic to engage in such practices and composers were pressured to conceive of entirely new and unique ideas. As previously mentioned, the nationalist movement was largely identified by the more educated bourgeois and ironically, its authenticity and folk characteristics were generally lost on the less sophisticated audiences from which they supposedly drew their inspiration.
Specifically, the Russian nationalist music began the process of unearthing its roots in its first printed collection of Russian folk songs by Chulkov. With appearances of his work beginning to appear from 1770-1774 under the title of “Sobraine Raznukh Pesen”, the entirety of Chuklov’s collection was organized in four volumes. Unfortunately, however, the collection was primitive and made little to no attempt in dividing the mass of folk songs by genre. Nonetheless, the 800 pages of text containing over 400 peasant songs either from existing manuscripts or indeed written out by Chuklov himself, established a pattern for future Russian folk-song collections into the 19th century. Finally a more organized and systematic collection was realized in the “Collection of Russian Folk Songs” assembled by Nikolai Lvov and written out by Ivan Prach in 1790. Unlike the collection of Chuklov, the Lvov-Prach collections was perhaps the first collection to extensively divide and classify folk songs into the categories “protracted songs, dance songs, wedding songs, Khorovods, Christmas carols, and Ukranian songs”. Main contributions of this anthology also demonstrate features of the peasant chant including “shifting tones and uneven rhythms that would become prominent features of Russian musical style from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky”; however, the songs are adapted to western musical traditions in order to be more pleasing to the ears of Russia’s “piano-owning classes”. “Despite its inaccuracy, Lvov-Prach’s work provides many important insights into transcription methods, classification criteria, and theories that explain what exactly separates Russian music from its western counterparts”. As a result many of the “original folk tunes” used in nationalistic repertory are taken from the Lvov-Prach collection. In essence it paved the way for more skilled arrangers (for example, Balakirev and Rimsky- Korsakov) to revive their rich musical heritage.
Before diving into the significant literature of the 19th century, it is necessary to examine one more significant historical development, the appearance of Italian Opera from 1731 and onward. Like all Russian music, once again the tradition dates back to encounters with the all-encompassing western art of opera, derived from Italy. In 1736, St. Petersburg was presented her first fully staged production of Francesco Araja’s “The Power of Love and Hate”. The theatrics combined with the western musical style that was becoming increasingly popular in Russia dazzled its audience with its grandness. The opera was naturally sung its original Italian. It was not until 1755 that an opera was finally translated to the Russian mother tongue and acted out by young Russian native performers. The first opera “Cephalus and Procris”, translated by Sumarkov, was merely rearranged by its original Italian composer, Araja, and thus failed to change fundamentally to include Russian national themes to match its changed Russian libretto. Well into the 18th century, Russian opera continued to be written by foreign composers, though in in the last year folk elements finally began to appear in the material. Seaman reports that “of about 100 operas written in the course of the last years of the 18th century, 30 survived 15 of which make use of Russian or Ukrainian Folk music”. More specifically these operas employ a total of about “55 clearly identifiable folksongs”. Evidence suggests that the first Russian
opera written by a native composer on a native topic was “Anyuta”. Musicologists speculate that a man by the name of Pashkevich composed the opera, though the music itself is tragically lost and thus it is difficult to determine definitively. Important to note, despite all attempts to produce authentically Russian opera of high quality, efforts were largely hindered by a lack of trained native musicians capable of delivering technically challenging performances.
Perhaps more notable include the accomplishments in Russian opera by Catterino Cavos. In the beginning of his career Cavos was enthusiastically dedicated to promoting Russian opera’s with Russian subjects. This evidenced in his first opera in his “early national opera, “The Invisible Prince” (1805)”. Such a work, however, pales in comparison to the success of his opera “Ivan Susanin” and is the only one of his opera to clearly employ Russian folk music. This particular opera is not only important in that it tells the patriotic story of a Russian man who offers his life for the sake of his Tsar, but also it would later be virtually the same plot Glinka uses for his first operatic masterpiece “A Life for a Tsar”.
The death of Empress Catherine II marks the next significant transition between the 18th century and 19th century. Under the reign on Paul I, the next Tsar, the citizens of St. Petersburg were suddenly placed under a series of strict new laws intended to “curb the moral laxity of the Russian population”. As a result art and the fledgling attempts at Russian opera came effectively to a halt due to censorship and the reduction of private ensembles. In 1801, Paul I was assassinated and rule was passed to the much more liberal Tsar Alexander. His appreciation for art and literature proved a much more nurturing environment for development in Russia and new works in all forms of art began to appear at increasing speed with “marked national coloring”. Unfortunately, it was not long before Alexander also made himself unpopular among his people and political organizations began to prepare a reaction. Ultimately the tensions led to the Decembrist risings of 1825. Despite the inevitable suppression of these rebellions by Tsar Nicholas I, the effects on artists were represented in contemplation of issues including “suppression, the world of bureaucracy, the growth of merchant middle classes, and the desire for reform and the abolition of serfdom”. These ideas resulted in a realism that dominated the Russian art for the duration of the 19th century.
With the inspiration and the expanding ideas of realism and nationalism it fast became necessary for music education institutions to train Russian musicians. Music schools were based almost exclusively in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as were the large theaters and concert performance series. Foreign teachers continued to be brought into Russia’s borders and in fact made up the majority of the faculty. According to Seaman, among these visitors were such names as “Clara Schumann, Liszt, and later Hummel (a man who had considerable influence on the development of Glinka)”. Many of the greatest musicians in the world indeed moved to Russia permanently or for large periods of their career in anticipation of Russia’s growing potential. Important pedagogues include John Field who was largely responsible for his creation of a new school of piano playing in Moscow. Again, his music would go on to have great influence on the music of Glinka.
Between Moscow and St. Petersburg it can be fairly argued that St. Petersburg was the larger of the two music spheres in Russia. To begin St. Petersburg in during the 19th century represented the capital of the country and thus had front row seats to exposure from the west via the Tsar. Ridenour sums up the political climate by stating that “as with virtually all public activities in Tsarist Russia, the dominate force directing all activity was the government, in this case the Imperial Theater Directorate”. This department controlled two of the largest opera companies in the state, the St. Petersburg ballet and drama theaters, and from afar the Imperial ballet in Moscow. Furthermore, all public performances were to be approved by the department, with the exception of Lent “when the imperial theaters closed and private organizations and individuals could arrange concerts”. The Theater Directorate as a government department had access to large sums of money and was able to ensure that St. Petersburg’s opera company had the best of all stage equipment, producers, and performers in Europe. In 1862, “Giuseppe Verdi was paid 20,000 rubles for a production of his opera “La Forza del Destino” and the leads of the cast purportedly earned 10,000 rubles”. These figures were astronomical for this time. Important to note here is that the Italian opera company in St. Petersburg was considerably more respected than its Russian rival on the other side of town. Ridenour writes that indeed the “while the Italian company occupied the Grand Theater, St. Petersburg’s best Russian Troupe was relegated a building originally constructed for a circus”. Interestingly, the building burned down in 1859 and in 1860 the building was reconstructed as the now famous Mariinsky Theater.
Now that a suitable music environment had been established in Russia, and despite the popular view that Russian produced music was substandard to the west, a few Russian composers began to arrive on the scene. Perhaps the clearest example of the first significant composer is in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka.
If Pushkin “formulated the Russian Tongue”, Glinka comparably is said to have “formulated the Russian Musical Language”. Glinka primarily is celebrated for his innovations in harmonic and orchestral writing as well as his extensive knowledge of Russian folk music. Born to a retired captain of the Imperial army, Glinka grew up in privilege but also in a village where he was exposed to much folk-song and folk-life. Glinka’s home was also located “near the Smolensk road” and as the scene in 1812 was that “of intense military operations and the invasion of the French”. Observation of such a political scene had a profound effect on young Glinka and instilled in him a great sense of patriotism. He was particularly fond of the serf orchestra directed by his Uncle, Afanasiy Andreevich, and through his encounters with these musicians he first became “acquainted with the European music in the form of opera overtures”. By 1822 Glinka had chosen to devote the entirety of his career to music and he thrived under the advice of famous pedagogue Charles Mayer. Although Glinka had studied Violin in his formative years he himself claimed “Passion for composition decisively distracted me from practice in performance”. In 1823 Glinka spent a brief time in Caucasus and drew inspiration from the Northern Caucasian people, his reflection of which is portrayed “later in his opera Ruslan and Lydmila”. Finally Glinka’s period of exploration culminated in a five year study abroad during which he travelled throughout the great cities of Italy (Milan, Rome, Venice, etc.). The result of this trip drove Glinka to deeply miss his own country. In his memoirs Glinka writes “I did not compose but thought a great deal… I was convinced that I was not following my own path and that sincerely I could not be Italian… I was led constantly to the idea of writing something in Russian”. This excerpt marks a turning point in Glinka’s career when he realizes that in order to fulfill his music career he music find his own distinctively Russian voice.
Upon his return to Russia in 1834, Glinka immediately began work on the masterpiece that would realize his vision for the revival of the Russian music traditions so near to him. He planned to prepare a large-scale national opera on the legend of Ivan Susanin (note this is the same plot as that of Cavos). When the opera was completed in 1836, the opera was indeed conducted by Cavos. Tsar Nicholas I himself took great interest in this opera by Glinka and suggested the title of the work to be changed to “A Life for a Tsar”. It came as little surprise that when the opera premiered on November 27th it was largely a success. As one of Glinka’s critics remarked, “it was a wonderful beginning to the approaching era of Russian music”.
Indeed with the success and continued life of Glinka a new era appeared to be on the horizon for Russia. Following his efforts towards a truly native opera, Glinka ushered in such Russian musical nationalists as the Russian Five and later Tchaikovsky. In conclusion, the period of time from the end of the 18th century and through the mid-19th century represents a transformation of the Russian Music traditions from its obscure roots in folk to a culture that could rival or even surpass those of the west. In a changing world and a changing government it was about time the west began to take notice of their massive eastern neighbor.

Ballet, Swan Maidens, and Tragedy… Oh My!

For musicians in love with all things Russian, nothing represents Tchaikovsky greatness like his most famous ballet “Swan Lake”.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this “Russian” tale (it’s actually German but who cares) it tells the story of Princess Odette, a beautiful maiden who is cursed by an evil sorcerer,Von Rothbart, to live her days in the form of a swan amongst his other imprisoned swan maidens. Only in the light of the moon does she return to human… that is unless she finds true love in a man who will agree to marry her. Thats where Prince Siegfried comes in. The ballet opens with the scene of his birthday bash, during which Mother announces that she desires her son to marry soon. Armed with his sweet new crossbow, Siegfried decides to take his usual hunting trip when low and behold, just as he’s about to shoot a swan the bird transforms before him into the unfortunate Odette! After she shares with him her tragic plight, he dramatically exclaims his love for her and promises that he will take her to be his bride. This did not please Von Rothbart. When the Prince returns to his palace in the second act, to announce that he has chosen a bride, the audience is treated to a series of beautiful dances during which many of the members of the court display their best moves in celebration. None, however, compare to that of the brilliant performance of an Odette look alike (actually Von Rothbart’s evil daughter Odile) appearing with a mysterious guest (Von Rothbart in disguise) who purports to be the king of some obscure palace. Ecstatic to see who appears to be his fiancée, Siegfried impulsively tells Mommy the Queen that this girl is the one he has chosen. Psyche! Von Rothbart reveals Odile’s true identity, effectively meaning that the Prince is betrothed to the wrong girl and now Odette will be trapped in her curse for eternity. Heartbroken, Siegfried retreats to the forest to beg his lover’s forgiveness for his betrayal. She grants him pardon and in the original production they realize the hopelessness of their situation, drowning themselves in order to be together in death (that’s Tchaikovsky for you… see my previous blog entry to see how his own life ended). A few ballet houses these days choose a more optimistic route, ending with the Price slaying Von Rothbart and freeing Odette along with her flock of maidens from the spell, but personally I feel that some of the effect is lost in these interpretations…
After several years and multiple collaborations with various librettists (the people in charge of the story) and choreographers (the people in charge of dances), Tchaikovsky completed the necessary preparations and the ballet had its premiere on January 15th, 1895. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdtas as Prince Siegfried, and Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart.
Below I have attached the video of a super famous and super gorgeous Pas de Deux (dance for two) between Prince Sigfried and Odette. This particular performance is that of Natalia Makarova as Odette and Ivan Nagy as Siegfried with the American Ballet Theater. The visual and auditory effects of this scene are, in a word, sublime!

Maestro of Discovery: Igor Stravinsky


Having been introduced to the theory of tonally transitional composers of music, I figured it would be all the more appropriate to dedicate this blog entry to one of my favorite Russian Composers, Maestro Igor Stravinsky!
Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский, born in 1882, grew up in the famous city of Saint Petersburg. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a Bass Singer at the Mariinsky Theater, thus young Igor was exposed to classical music in all it’s various forms from a young age. As a child he took up lessons in piano and composition and by the age of fourteen he had mastered the infamously difficult Mendelssohn Concerto for Piano in g minor. Despite his early love for music, however, his parents chose for him what they believed would lead to a more fruitful living, law school. Ill- fitted for this line of work, Stravinsky dragged his feet in his studies from 1901-1905. When the school was closed in the Spring of 1905 (due to Bloody Sunday) and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his finals it became clear to him that he was to follow his ambitions in music after all. From 1905-1908, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, who at the time was the most renowned of all composers in Russia. It also was during this time that he married his cousin Katerina Nossenko (whom he had been betrothed to since childhood) and by 1908 she bore him his first two children Fyodor and Ludmilla. In 1909 Stravinsky premiered his first major work, Fireworks, and was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, to further develop his ideas into a larger production. It was this encouragement that led to his immigration to Switzerland and yielded one of the most famous ballet’s of the 20th century, The Firebird. Although, Stravinsky would briefly return to his homeland in the summer of 1914, the following decades of war and hostilities meant that he would not return to Russia for fifty years. In 1920 Stravinsky, with his family (two more children in tow), immigrated to France where he was to form a significant partnership with the French piano manufacturer Pleyel. Pleyel collected relatively minimal royalties that in return would allow Stravinsky to afford a studio. Stravinsky also arranged many of his works for Pleyals brand of player piano that utilized all of its 88 keys and were considered to be nearly inaccessible for most musicians. Such major compositions spun from these roles include but are not limited to the Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird, Les Noces, and Song of the Nightingale. Tragically, in 1934, Katerina’s tuberculosis infected his eldest daughter Ludmila, and Stravinsky himself. Ludmila died in 1938 and Katerina died in the following year (actually from cancer). Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky formed key relationships with American music bigwigs and in 1939 (at the outbreak of the second world war) he moved to America where he would live the remainder of his career. Vera de Bosset, the true love of his life, followed him and they were married in Massachusetts on March 9th, 1940. The couple settled in LA California, the city where he ultimately spent the most years of his life. Although he was already an old man at the ripe age of 58, Stravinsky thrived in his new environment of movers and shakers, taking great interest in the cultural advances of American artists such as Otto Klemplerer and Arthur Rubinstein. It was in the States that Stravinsky explored some of his most revolutionary ideas. Always one to be unconventional, Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston police in 1940 for violating a federal law that strictly prohibits the re harmonization of America’s national anthem. Despite such trivial blunders, he was nonetheless quite successful. Post humorously he earned a Grammy for Lifetime achievement and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Two years after his move to New York City in 1969, Stravinsky died at the age of 88. He was Buried in Venice near the island of San Michele. In the end he was buried near Sergei Diaghilev who had given him the opportunity to explore outside of Russia’s borders as a fresh young composer so many decades ago.
Musicians who experience Stravinsky’s music will most likely identify Stravinsky’s works as complicated, complex, and at times hard to swallow. Stravinsky was certainly a composer for neoclassicism and discovery of techniques never before used such as bitonality, often leading to sounds strange enough to invoke passionate reaction. One infamous example of a case where he shook the auditoriums was the premier of The Rite of Spring. The dissonant sounds, not to mention the semi-nude dancers on the Paris stage proved so shocking that a riot broke out during the show. Indeed he did not live the majority of his life in Russia (Stravinsky was fortunate enough to avoid the atrocities committed against his fellow composers who were trapped behind his homeland’s borders); however, through works that portray traditional Russian Folk tales as beautiful as that of The Firebird Stravinsky’s heritage is ever omnipresent.

Below I have attached a video from The Firebird. In this scene, the prince who has fallen into this magical land comes across the enchanting Firebird. During their Pas de Deux (dance for two) he captures the trembling bird. In exchange for letting her go, the Firebird grants him one of her golden feathers with the promise that she would come to his aid should he wave the feather over his head.

Rimsky- Korsakov Presents a Fairytale: Scheherazade


I’ll keep things short sweet and too the point! I’d like to share a work by the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov entitled Scheherazade (Шехерезада ), or his Symphonic Suite Op. 35. Written during the winter of 1887, Scheherazade is considered one of Nikolai’s most popular works with it’s rich colors and clear sense of line. In my own orchestral experiences I was taught by my professor (who grew up in the soviet union) that this idea of musical fairytale is exactly what makes the composition so Russian in nature. For all the famine and suffering the peasants of Russia faced, the tradition of storytelling is what kept their culture alive through the rough patches. That, to me, is what makes Scheherazade beautiful.
About the story, Scheherazade comes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (A.K..A The Arabian Nights). Korsakov begins began his program notes in the premier with the opening lines:

“The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatum, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

In a nutshell this is the story. A barbaric and woman-hating Sultan has decided that each night he will take a new wife to bed and in the morning he will give the order for her to be beheaded. Scheherazade hears this story and decides that she will offer herself as the Sultan’s next bride to put an end to the slaying. She ignores her father’s very understandably desperate pleas to stay home. When she arrives she commences the marriage but as they prepare for bed Scheherazade stages a conversation with one of the servants in which she reveals that she is a world renowned storyteller. Eavesdropping, the sultan demands to hear one of her so called stories and so she obliges him. The Sultan becomes so enthralled by her abilities that he allows her to live one more night on the condition that she will share another story. One thousand and one stories later, the Sultan is a changed man who has seen the error of his ways. He proclaims his true love for his beloved Sultana, Scheherazade.
To play the role of Scheherazade, Korskov casts the orchestra’s concertmaster (solo violinist) with each movement containing the same winding and ethereal solo. Occasionally the violinist is accompanied by a counter melody in the solo cello or solo woodwind. Each movement is presented as one of the stories Scheherazade would tell. The first movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, is an introduction in which the lugubrious theme of the Sultan is contrasted by the violin solo. The orchestra plays a broad fanfare than begins to paint the picture of the orient that Korsakov was trying to achieve. The second movement, The Kalendar Prince, is a fantastic narrative where a kaleidoscope of ideas are explored. The third movement, The Young Prince and The Young Princess, is a love story with a dance presented first by the strings and then expanded/embellished by solos throughout the orchestra. Finally the last movement entitled Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman offers a triumphant conclusion and finally a peaceful decent into sleep by the star of the show, the narrator Scheherazade. Below I have included recordings of this lovely work of art. Please listen and enjoy!

1948: The Great Tradgedy of the Russian Musician


For years prior, world renowned composers such as the great Dimitry Shostakovitch, had suffered career and life threatening destruction at the hands of the oppressive Communist Russia. During these darkest years of Russian Music History, the threat was so dangerously present that should any work dare to resemble those of their most hated western counterparts, the composer could very well be shot before Stalin himself. It was not, however, until the Resolution of the Central Committee in February of 1948 that the greatest atrocity of culture would be committed against Russia’s own people.
On the surface the Resolution composed was a reaction to an Opera by second rate composer Vano Muradeli titled “The Great Friendship” that had three months earlier been blacklisted with criticisms such as “historically and ideologically incorrect” and “a confused muddle of sounds”. This was not, though, the primary focus of the pages and pages of slander that followed. Virtually all soviet composers including those who had gained international acclaim including Shostakovitch (specifically for his 8th and 9th Symphonies), Prokofiev (specifically for his opera War and Peace), Khachaturin, and Miaskovsky were accused of the heinous crime of music “formalism” and pressured to denounce themselves wrong dooers of the state. Even critics of these composers were not spared from the vicious attacks, had they per chance given favorable reviews for blatantly anti-communist music.
Led by Andrei Zhdanov, spokesperson for cultural ideology and Khrennikov, who later became an all powerful figure in the Russian Music Bureaucracy, the draft of their Resolution had four cited goals:

1.To condemn the formalist trend in Soviet music as anti-social, and leading to the liquidation of music.
2.To propose to the Propaganda and Agitation Board of the Central Committee and to the Committee for Artistic Affairs: that they rectify the situation in Soviet music; that they liquidate the failures indicated in the present Resolution; and that they take steps to ensure that Soviet music develops in a realist direction.
3.To call upon Soviet composers to carry out the high demands made by the Soviet people regarding musical creation; everything that weakens our music and hinders its development should be swept away by composers, thereby ensuring an upsurge of creative work that would move Soviet music forward and lead, in all areas of composition, to the kind of valuable, high-quality works that the Soviet people deserve.
4.To approve all administrative measures of the responsible Party and Soviet organs directed towards the improvement of musical affairs.

In response to the reading the the entire Essay the composers were each asked to stand a apologize to their comrades for their deeds.

For example:
Muradeli spoke “How could it be that I failed to introduce a single folk song into the score of my opera?… I have before me a serious task, to realize fully and unequivocally the seriousness of my creative errors, and to correct these errors with ideological honesty in the future.”
Shostakovitch spoke “I am deeply grateful for all the criticism contained in the Resolution and I shall still with more determination will work on the musical depiction of the images of the heroic Soviet people.

In a joint letter to Stalin for the public humiliation all the composers together wrote such degrading remarks as “We are tremendously grateful the the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party and personally to you, Comrade Stalin, for the severe and yet profoundly just criticism of the present state of Soviet music”.

Obviously any sense of idealism in Russian art came to an abrupt halt for the decade following this event. Most unfortunately this obscene oppression lingered until after the death of Stalin when in 1957 the All-Union Congress of Music allowed for more artistic freedom. Thankfully a 1958 decree exonerated those Musicians attacked in 1948, restoring the honor they had been most unjustly stripped of.

Below I have included a link to access the entirety of “The Resolution” in case you are curious as to the extent of the public spanking. It’s a long and insufferable document but can be insightful even if skimmed…

Cello Awesomeness

I am just so excited to play the Rococo Variations for Solo Cello and Orchestra and I decided it would be a great use of my time do some research about the history behind this brilliant work by Maestro Tchaikovsky! Please enjoy the recording I have included below:

It’s not a concerto, but it does feature a brilliant soloist with orchestra. Notice what an enormous range the cello has, from very low to as high as the violins. Rococo Variations was written at a stressful time, but it is a joyous piece.
Toward the middle of 1876, Tchaikovsky sank into one of his many depressions. His financial situation was precarious. The wealthy noblewoman Nadejda von Meck had not yet initiated the correspondence and patronage that were subsequently to allow him to devote himself to composition free of monetary concerns. His confidence in his own talent had been severely shaken by what he perceived as some career setbacks. The violent swings of his moods are reflected in the astonishing diversity of style in the music he wrote during this troubled period.
One of the most challenging works in the cello literature, the “Rococo” Variations, as this work has come to be known, is an analog to Tchaikovsky’s later Mozartiana Suite in that it pays homage to Mozart, who was Tchaikovsky’s musical idol.
Tchaikovsky composed the piece for Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, a cellist friend who taught at Moscow Conservatory. Fitzenhagen had a significant hand in the fine-tuning of the solo part. Yet his interest was a mixed blessing, for he exercised editorial jurisdiction over the orchestral parts and the order of the Variations as well as over cellistic details. Still, Fitzenhagen’s championship of the Variations contributed greatly to Tchaikovsky’s growing reputation abroad. After Fitzenhagen performed the Rococo Variations at the prestigious Wiesbaden Festival in 1879, he wrote to Tchaikovsky that Franz Liszt had exclaimed: “Here, at last, is music again.”
The piece consists of a theme, seven variations and two cadenzas. The four-square theme is preceding by a wistful, “once upon a time” orchestral introduction before the cello declares the melody. Within individual variations Tchaikovsky adapts sonata principles, also drawing on the precedent of the Baroque through use of tripartite forms and rondo-styles. Each segment presents formidable challenges to the soloist, in several places exploiting the outermost range of the instrument.
While the Rococo Variations continue to strike awe — and sometimes terror! — into the hearts of cellists, their accessibility and transparent grace have made them a great favorite of audiences, and the next-best thing to a Tchaikovsky cello concerto.
The score calls for woodwinds and horns in pairs, solo violoncello, and strings.
-Program Notes by the Dallas Symphony

The History of Russia’s National Tune

The old days of the Russian National Anthem go back to the Napoleon. Early versions consisted of canons depicting the retreat of Bonaparte in 1812. In 1833 the “Russian Hymn” was composed by Alexis Lvov and remained Russia’s official song for the next 100 or so years. Outside of Russia, it is most often heard in English as the hymn “God the All-Terrible”
The National Anthem of the Russian Federation (Государственный гимн Российской Федерации) is the most recent official National Anthem of Russia. It’s roots, however, go back to 1944 when the Soviet Anthem was composed by Alexander Alexandrov with lyrics by Sergey Mikhalkov. Containing more Russian Nationalistic themes, it was written to replace the more vague previous Russian Hymn. This anthem was amended in 1956 to remove lyrics that had references to former Soviet leader Comrade Stalin. The anthem was amended again in 1977 to introduce new lyrics written by Mikhalkov. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in1990, Chairman Boris Yeltsin chose the lyric free “Patriotichekara Pesnya” by Mikhail Glinka which proved to be highly unpopular. The government sponsored contests to create lyrics but none were ultimately chosen. This led Vladmir Putin to restore the Soviet Anthem as the new Federation’s tune. Again a contest was government sponsored to write more relevant lyrics and eventually a composition by Mikhalkov was chosen. According to the government, the lyrics were selected “to evoke and eulogize the history and traditions of Russia”. The new anthem was adopted in late 2000, and became the second anthem used by Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Lyrics translated to English:
Russia-our sacred state,
Russia-our beloved country.
A mighty will, a great glory
Are yours forever for all time!
Be glorious, our free Fatherland,
Ancient union of brotherly peoples,
Ancestor given wisdom of the people!
Be glorious, country! We are proud of you!
From the southern seas to the polar region
Lie our forests and our fields.
You are one in the world! You are one of a kind,
Native land protected by God!
Wide spaces for dreams and for living
Are open to us by the coming years.
Our faith in our Fatherland gives us strength.
So it was, so it is, and so it will always be!

Here’s a video on the Federation Anthem-

Food for thought, with all the rich Russian music history, it is surprising they had such difficulty coming up with an original national anthem. One would think they would call upon their multitude of renowned composers.

A Very Unhappy Dance: The story behind Khachaturian’s “Masquerade Suite”


I had the pleasure to perform a composition by Soviet-Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian titled “The Masquerade Suite” and based on a play by Russian author Mikhail Lermontov. I was so enchanted with this lush and often mournful work of art that I made it my business to do some investigation of the story that inspires it.

The Masquerade depicts the tragedy of a woman who is killed by her husband over a false accusation of infidelity. The story begins with a grand masquerade ball where the Baroness Schtral, who is secretly in love with the Prince, grants him a bracelet as a token of her affection. As the Baroness is disguised by her mask, the Prince does not know who she is, prompting him to confide in his acquaintance, Arbenin, that he will search until he finds the mystery woman who gave the gift. Things however get complicated when Arbenin comes home and notices his own wife, Nina, is missing a bracelet that suspiciously resembles the one the Prince possessed. Assuring her husband that she most likely lost the bracelet carelessly at the masquerade, Nina visits the baroness’ home in search of her misplaced jewelry. Unfortunately she meets the prince instead and in a grand misunderstanding the Prince is convinced that she gave him the bracelet. Gossip of Nina’s “flirtations” spread around the community and eventually reaches a furious Arbenin. Enraged that his wife would cheat on him he begins to plan jealous revenge on his unfaithful wife. Meanwhile, the Baroness hears of the whole mess and confesses to the prince that it was she who gave him the bracelet and that Nina is innocent after all. At the next ball the Prince returns the bracelet to Nina and warns her of the extent of her husbands anger and distrust. Of course Nina does not take him seriously. Later in the evening when Nina suddenly falls gravely ill her husband reveals that he poisoned the ice cream he gave her earlier and that she will surely die. In desperation Nina tries to convince her husband that she is innocent and that it is all a misunderstanding but ultimately it is too late, she dies. Only after wards does Arbenin cool down enough to realize the mistake he has made. To add salt to the wound the prince himself arrives to confirm that there was no affair between Nina and himself and he gives Arbenin a letter from the Baroness which explains everything. Opps…

Below is a recording of the lovely “Waltz” from “Masquerade Suite” by Aram Khachaturian
You don’t need to know the story to hear that it is not a happy dance:

The History of Early Russian Music: A Research Paper by Courtney Van Cleef


*Since I spent so much time on this paper I figured it would be a good idea to post it on the blog. DISCLAIMER: I did not include my bibliography in this blog post nor are the sources cited. Although I compiled the research and wrote it in a cohesive manner, I am not the original author of the information presented.

The History of Early Russian Music
Courtney Van Cleef
Quite unfortunately, Russian music before the 19th century is often overlooked due to its so called lack of development. The truth, however, is that the Russian culture is rich in its music history with ancient pagan and spiritual traditions. Much of these assumptions can be blamed on the fact that many of the early folk songs were not written down until the reign of Catherine the Great in the 18th century but certainly a lack of notation is not equivalent to a lack of material. Furthermore the rise of the Orthodox church influenced many development in liturgical music practices that are comparable to their western European counterparts. This paper aims to explore Russian music history from its origins and throughout its medieval times.
In its early history there is much evidence that Russians employed music in many of their day to day activities. The Obryadovye, or ritual songs were full of symbolism that imitated work. Ritual songs that represented the harvest were called Zazhynky and ritual songs that celebrated the completion of the work were referred to as Obzhynky. The idea was that if music simulated work tasks such as reaping and sowing it would “promote productivity”. Women would commonly join in singing together when they met to spin in the winter.
Young people especially enjoyed performing Khorovod or dance songs. Such songs would be entirely vocal and would cover tales of romance between royalty. People of all ages were also fond of singing Starina meaning “what is old”. These epic songs would tell the achievements of heroes real and fictional. This form of song was a lasting tradition and when Moscow became the center of Russian culture by the 16th century, many Starina were rewritten to include figures in the big city. In the 1830’s the Starina was given a new name, Bylini, meaning “what has happened”; however, peasants continued to call it by it’s old name.
Games and songs of all kinds varied with the seasons. For example, in the spring “dance songs often featured pastoral deities like “Did Lado and Lei”. Vesnjanki, another kind of spring song, was sung to call the birds back from their migration. Haivky represented songs in the form of a game that was commonly played in the spring. In the winter, a particularly interesting tradition is that of the Kolyada. Much like Christmas caroling, bands of young people would go from household to household on the winter solstice and ask to sing their Kolyada songs. The songs would be a narrative, first telling the story of them finding the home, then offering the family blessings, and finally asking for food. Depending on the quality of the food singers would then continue to either praise the family for their generosity or “give comic abuse and promise misfortune.”
Russian peasants were superstitious and once again music played an important role in their various traditions. Fortune telling songs called Podbliudnyia (“under the plate songs”) were sung on New Year’s day by women. The women would place their rings in a bowl of water that was concealed with a plate and then sing a song with themes ranging from marriage to death. A ring would then be selected at random and the owner of the ring would have the fortune of whatever song had just been sung.
An important characteristic to notice in early Russian music is its use of heterophony. Heterophonic music is a type of polyphony where two or more performers produce essentially the same melody with slight modifications on the parts. Heterophony suits Russian music in that the rules that govern its form are vague and allow for the performers to have some freedom to choose interesting tonalities without making any one voice more prominent than another. There would however be a leader singer called a Sapevala. The Sapevela would start the piece by singing the melody as a solo, thus directing the general course of the music. The rest of the ensemble would then join in, splitting suddenly into separate parts that eventually converge into a unison ending. Concerning tonality, most Russian folk music contains a dubious tonic and the performers were never queasy when it came to employing parallel 5ths, octaves, and other dissonant parallel intervals. The problem with this wide use of heterophony is that its nature makes it difficult to notate, thus contributing to the lack of records of early Russian music.
The fact is that the majority of Russian music was meant only to be vocalized. Very likely, the reason for this lack of music instrumental repertoire was the lack of money to buy musical instruments. Many Russian peasants lived in poverty making vocal music a much more practical way to participate in the art. As a result, many of the old Russian instruments that music historians are aware of are simple in build and can in fact be constructed by the performer. One such instrument is the 2-stringed Domra of oriental descent. It is widely believed that the Domra was delivered to Russia in the 12th or 13th century by Mongolians who were ruling Russia at that time. With a body not unlike the lute, it is either strummed or plucked to produce sound. The Domra would later give rise to the three-stringed Balalaika in the 17th century. The Balalaika is particularity prominent in Russian music history because a brand of street musicians known as, Skomorokhi commonly used it in their performances where they frequently made jokes concerning the Tsar and the Orthodox church; this eventually led the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to order a public burning of all instruments under the rather severe penalty of death.
Another popular instrument in traditional Russian music is the Bayan or, more commonly, the button accordion. Before the 19th century the Bayan would be called a Garmonika which derives from its Asian ancestor called the Shen. It is likely that the Garmonika was introduced to the Russians by the mongols in the mongol invasion of the 10th- 13th centuries. Originally it was made with a single row of buttons and large bellows up to two meters long.
Other instruments of old Russia include an array of percussive instruments. For example the Treschyotka is a rattle constructed of wooden slats threaded together on a string. This instrument is played by stretching the string and then constricting the slats together. The Treschyotka would often be used in ceremonial occasions such as weddings. The instrument could be decorated with ribbons and bells to give it a more festive look. Evidence stemming from its construction and use in weddings also points that the Treschyotka may have been believed to play a role in protecting newlyweds from evil spirits. Another percussive instrument whose origins are traced back to the early Slavic people is the Lozhky or musical spoon. The spoons would be made of thick wood with longer handles and a polished surface. Sound was produced by clanging the spoons together and different pitched could be obtained from variations in size. Russians also used their version of the tambourine called the Buben. The Buben was also a popular instrument used by the Skomorokhi.
All Russian wind players were referred to as Svirels which covers a variety of pipe instruments made from hollow reeds and branches. In particular, a double pipe consisting of a whistle and three holes per pipe is recognized to most likely be the traditional Svirel. Although the origins of these instruments are unclear an archeological excavations of the Old Novgorod in 1951-1962 yielded two pipes that suggest they precede the eastern slavic community. One of the pipes dates back to the late 11th century with four finger-holes while the second pipe dates back to the early 15th and has only three holes.
The Gusli is the most ancient of Russian instruments with it’s origins in the sixth century. The Gusli of the 12th century resembled a harp with it’s five strings attached to a long board. The Gusli is played by using a play stick to press down on the open strings. If a string was not to be played, it could be muted with the left hand. Although the Gusli could be played as a solo instrument, it was widely employed as an accompaniment to a song.
Russia throughout history has remained a largely isolationist country. The separation from the rest of Europe dates back to the fall of the Roman Empire. Whereas the western European countries then turned to the Catholic Church, Russia inherited the Byzantine civilization and the practices of the Greek Orthodox Church. At the end of the 10th century when Vladimir I came to power in Kiev he made it his priority to convert his subjects and also to bring in priests along with their choristers. This led to a huge revolution in Russian music; the shift from the old pagan traditions to a world of christian music. In truth, music in the ceremonial part of church began in the Byzantine Empire where vast amounts of poetry were written to be set to music and spice up the liturgy. The Byzantine Chant was almost entirely vocal without instrument accompaniment. It is from the Byzantine chant that the Russian Znamenny chant evolved.
Znamenny chant at its inception was sung in Greek but over several hundred years it eventually was sung entirely in Russian. Znamenny chants were written in Kruik, a musical alphabet derived from Neume notation of its western counterparts; however, there were quite a few differences between the notational systems which makes it difficult for historians to know exactly how the music would sound. The positive is that liturgical music was written at all, making it much more accessible to historians than the unwritten folk songs. Instead of being written in an echoi, Russian tonality in Znamenny chant is based on glassy. Each glas may contain up to 90 melodic patterns that distinguish one glass from another. A glas is less like a mode built on a series of whole and half steps but rather it is more like a set pattern that the people chose to standardize. The rhythm of the Znamenny chant never included eighth notes or lesser value but rather it used whole and half note values to make the text particularly easy to understand.
Unlike the western church, Russian church music forbids the use of any musical instruments including the organ. Only a series of wooden boards called a Semantron could be struck with hammers to produce a percussive rhythmic accompaniment; however the Russians hardly considered the Semantron to be recognized as a musical instrument considering the sound that it makes is not much different from any of the normal sounds of daily life. Furthermore the vocal parts are almost entirely monodic with subtle polyphony only occasionally in the form of a drone.
When the Znamenny chant eventually began to see changes in the form of innovations such as elaborate coloratura passages, the Tsar became distressed that it would lead to corruption of the text. Thus when Ivan III came to power in 1462 a school was erected to train young musicians the proper way to perform liturgical music. These young men (women were not yet eligible for school) were known as “The Tsar’s Singing Deacons” and their primary role was to prepare and perform the Divine Liturgy at the Imperial Chapel.
The composers who wrote the Znamenny chants are elusive of identity because generic patterns were given and the performer was expected to use and tailor the patterns appropriately to fit any new words (for glorifying new saints or celebrating other church occasions). Thus the performers can be thought of as the composers too. The first composer of the chants that can be clearly identified by name was the Tsar Ivan VI. During the mid 16th century he is credited with writing two Stichera (collections of more elaborate canticles) at the ripe age of seventeen. Furthermore, the fantastic singers whom he attracted played a key role in identifying classic master in Russian church singing. Now the Gospel Stichera (the morning resurrection hymns) was identified as being composed by the Byzantium Emperor Leo VI in the 10th century. Also the commonly sung Christian chant was connected to the Pope Feodor (surname Christian). Although it is unconfirmed as of yet, the famous musicologist Maxim Brajnikov hypothesizes that Feodor was also responsible for the creation of the Greater Chant and more importantly is responsible for injecting folk song patterns into the liturgical repertoire. This is particularly important because should his theory be valid it could prove that Feodor was also proficient in folk singing and that the arts of folk singing and church singing are more closely related than previously thought.
A curious phenomena during the age of the Znamenny chant is the complete lack of a secular counterpart. Unlike the west which had madrigals and allowed artists to explore music outside the domain of church, the strict policies of the Orthodox church prevented any secular art song form from taking root. The church was especially against the folk songs sung in households that represented the old pagan views. Nevertheless, a strong attachment of the Russian people to their traditional songs at least allowed a class of musicians known as minstrels to continue performing them. Since the clergy were strict on banishing these wandering performers from the big cities, minstrels generally stuck to Russia’s river banks so they could move more easily between smaller towns. The early minstrels were welcomed by the people as a relief to the pressures placed on them by the church. In fact, aristocratic homes would often invite minstrels to perform in their homes on special occasions. Unfortunately the minstrels never achieved a high status in society unlike their counterparts in the west such as the great Troubadours in France. The church eventually managed to root them out almost completely leaving only a few desperate performers who often sang vulgar songs and stole from the villagers
Another refreshing example of bending the strict rules placed on Russian Music was the art of bell ringing highly developed in Novgorod. As previously mentioned instruments were largely forbidden from church ceremonies; however, the practice of casting the brass bells in the city led church leaders to allow bell ringing to be an important part of the church practices in certain large cities. People appreciated the aesthetic differences between the bell and the percussive Semantron. Since the ringing of bells was often used to signal the beginning of church and also certain patterns were recognized to begin various parts of the service, people associated the bells as something positive. The sound of bells meant a pause from the hard labor of their day to day lives.
The so called polyphony of the Znamenny chant began to appear in the 16th century when suddenly as many as four lines of neumes were written per line of text. The debate lies in whether or not all these lines were meant to be sung together simultaneously. A larger half or Russian theorists including Odoyevsky in the year 1867 believed that it out of the question to sing the lines simultaneously. The main argument to support this theory points to the fact that the lines do not seem to have any harmonic relationships and that extensive use of successive parallel fifths and seconds make it nearly impossible to sing. Others including the theorist Smolensky in1888 argued that the seemingly rough harmonizations are simply derived from the heterophonic music of the folk songs. The idea is that Russian music is not governed by the same rules and modes observed by the western church composers such as Palestrina, thus the sound is merely something different that what the western ear is used to.
When studying music history it is often important to take into account the politics that surround the era being covered. For example, unlike the western European countries who left the medieval times and entered into a great renaissance due to vast innovations, Russia was ravaged by the Mongol invasions and thus remained stuck in its dark ages for several more centuries. Old systems of hierarchy with the barbaric levels of serfdom had long left the west but remained in tact in Russia; thus the development of new ways of thinking was often hampered by the Tsars or the powerful leaders of the Eastern Orthodox church. Important to note, however, is that despite the mongol occupation of Russia from the mid-thirteenth century until the 15th century, little about the culture was actually changed in Russia. The mongols only wanted to dominate Russia, not necessarily rule it, thus the Eastern Orthodox Church and its practices were left untouched.
There is no doubt the history of early Russian music is obscure for a variety of reasons. The total lack of written forms of the early folk songs and indeed the heterophonic forms of the music itself makes it difficulty to identify the traditional music of pre-Eastern Orthodox Russia. The situation was little improved when the byzantine church came to power with the use of the archaic Kruik music alphabet that differs enough from the neume notation of the west to cause a fair amount of uncertainty in the performance of Znamenny chant. Furthermore, the tight hold that the Clergy and the Tsar kept on any developments in secular music, instrumental accompaniment, and real polyphony add to the myth that Russian music before the late 18th century was largely negligible; however, through careful research and surviving documents that have been unearthed fairly recently, music historians can factually support that Russia indeed had very unique and specific developments in its music from its origins and through its dark ages. The much appreciated music compositions of Russia’s later centuries may have borrowed many traditions of the western European nations, but its distinctly Russian qualities with origins in the homeland are what separate works of Russian art from those of any other country.

Eugene Onegin: The Tatyana Debacle

In honor of the great composer Tchaikovsky I am choosing to write this blog entry on one of my personal favorite operas (sung in the beautiful Russian Language) Eugene Onegin!

The Plot:
The opera opens on the Larin Country Estate and focuses on the two daughters of the house, Olga and Tatyana. Tatyana, the elder daughter, is engrossed with a romantic novel but when she speaks of it she is chided by her mother and sister who tell her that real life is nothing like the book. Soon after, Olga’s love sick fiancé Lensky (tenor), a young poet, and his friend Eugene Onegin (baritone), a world-weary St Petersburg ‘drawing-room automaton arrive and Lensky promptly begins to serenade his undying love for Olga… too bad the feelings do not seem to be completely mutual. Onegin, on the contrary, seemingly falls smitten with the introverted and dreamy Tatyana and thus the drama begins.
Later Tatyana is with her personal nurse when she professes that she has fallen irreversibly in love with the dashing Onegin. She has decided that she must marry him or she will simply die of longing. Despite the nurse’s warnings (because since when does a crazy teenager listen to the voice of reason) Tatyana chooses to write a long and thoroughly damning confession to Onegin and demands that the nurse take her letter to the church the following Sunday to give it to the object of her affection. Not surprisingly, Onegin receives the letter and rather gently rejects her claiming that he is unsuitable for marriage. Obviously Tatyana is embarrassed and unable to respond.
In the next act, a party is thrown for Tatyana’s name day and all the villagers are in attendance. Onegin and Lensky are also present although Onegin becomes increasingly irritated by the party goers who all seem to be trading rumors over his behavior towards Tatyana. In retribution to Lensky, who he quite unfairly blames for dragging him to this mockery, Onegin dances with Olga who flirtatiously obliges him. Lensky absolutely loses it and challenges Onegin to a duel. The long in short of it: Neither actually wants to go through with the match but since both men are too stubborn to back out Onegin ends up killing Lensky. He flees to escape the guilt.
A little while later Onegin finds himself at a nobleman’s house. At this point he his racked by remorse and ruined by his past. It therefore comes as quite a shock to him when the Prince walks in with his bride who happens to be none other than the ravishingly attractive Tatyana. In a desperate attempt to regain her affections, Onegin writes her a letter and eventually finds himself in a room with her alone. Tatyana suspects that he only loves her for her social status but Onegin vehemently claims that his love for her is sincere. In tears, Tatyana admits that she still has feelings for him but that he is too late. She is married and she will not be unfaithful to her husband. Talk about Karma!

The letter scene is one of the most famous moments of the opera. Below is a recording of Tatyana’s aria. Enjoy!

Tchaikovsky Uncensored


Many people know of the famous Romantic era Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский) who lived from May 7th 1840 to November 6th 1893. His most widely known compositions include such famous ballets as “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker”. No patriotic American could forget his 1812 Overture, played at every 4th of July extravaganza (its original intended purpose to celebrate Moscow’s successful defense against Napoleon’s advancing troops at the Battle of Borodino in 1812). His western oriented training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory set him apart from the contemporary nationalistic music written during his time, earning him wide acclaim and success. Many people are unaware, however, of Tchaikovsky’s severe personal struggles and the argued circumstances of his death. It is largely believed that the composer was a homosexual (as researched most extensively by author Alexander Poznansky). In fact there are letters available today, previously censored by the Soviets, in which Tchaikovsky himself openly discusses his sexual preferences. Nevertheless, in 1877 he entered into a disastrous marriage with Antonia Miliukova that ended unofficially in 6 weeks (although divorce was never filed and Tchaikovsky died a married man). As he rose to the top of the composing scene between 1877-1890, Tchaikovsky corresponded with another woman, Nadezhda Von Meck, who supported his composition monetarily under the stipulation that they never meet in person. The letters between them deeply affected the composer and he professes in one particular excerpt that her contact seemed to him “the hand of fate itself, watching over me and protecting me”. This relationship too, proved devastating when in 1890 her correspondence abruptly ended, allegedly due to her filing for bankruptcy (a few music historians postulate that the cut was made in her discovery of his homosexuality). The real mystery lies in how the composer died. Despite that a true diagnosis may never be possible due to unreliable accounts at the time of his death and the lack of knowledge of effects of certain lifestyle habits such as drinking, there has been much research as too what may have caused his unexpected (and relatively young) death. Most musicologists attribute his demise to cholera by contaminated water. The question that is debated is whether or not the contamination was purposely executed by Tchaikovsky in suicide. There have been rumors that his former classmates urged him to commit the act to avoid being exposed as the lover of a nephew of a member of the Russian aristocracy. Others claim that the poisoning may have been the result of his bitterness over the loss of his contact with Von Meck. Regardless his passing occurred just nine days after the premier of his now famous and emotionally charged Symphony Pathetique (No. 6). He was interred in the Tikhvin Cemetery next to fellow composers Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korakov, Glinka, and Balakirev (a.k.a. The Five).

For the Love of Shostakovich


My latest blog installment features my personal favorite composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Дмитрий Дмитриевич Шостакович) or as many of my fellow musicians affectionately call him, “Shosty”.

Born September of 1906 in Saint Petersburg, Shostakovich was the son of two Siberia natives (Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich and Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina). He began piano lessons with his mother at age eight and was soon recognized as a child prodigy in both piano and composition. In 1919 he began studying at the Petrograd Conservatory with the famous composer Alexander Glazunov and in 1926 he premiered his Symphony No.1 at the ripe age of 19. Although he was gifted in performance, many critics argued that he was too mechanical thus Shostakovich turned to composition as his primary focus.

Although the composer began his career as highly respected by the Soviet Union, things went infamously down hill when he wrote is opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1936), later titled “Katerina Izmailova”. Riddled with dissonance (imagine vulgar, ear straining sounds) as well as themes of murder and adultery, the Stalinist bureaucracy did not take kindly to the smashing of traditions that had been so popular in the 1920’s. In fact Stalin historically stormed out of the hall of the opening performance! Contrary to the musical revolution that had begun in Russia during the early 20th century, Stalin insisted that art be conformist and closely monitored (allegedly to put an end to imperialistic capitalist formalism). Instead of praise, Shostakovich’s experimentation with the latest in musical concepts earned his work the label of “muddle instead of music”. Furthermore, such blatant criticism during the days of Stalin could mean grave consequences for the composer including eviction from his home, loss of patronage (and commission for new works), jail time, and/or death! Driven by fear, Shostakovich resigned himself too a safer style starting with his Symphony No. 5 completed in 1937. Although there are musicologists who argue over a series of “hidden messages” within the symphony, it is blatantly obvious too many who have studied this work that there is a very real sense of tense restraint.

Perhaps one of the most tragic of events in music history include that of the Central Committee Meeting of the Communist Party during Feudatory 1948. After composing the “Resolution” or list of grievances with many of the famous composers of the time, the composers were one by one forced to rise and apologize for their formalist crimes to society. Among these composers was, of course, Shostakovich who was obligated to profess that he was “deeply grateful for the criticism contained in the resolution”and that he “would be more determined to work on the musical depiction of the images of the heroic soviet people.” So great was his humiliation that he was later involved in a letter to Stalin himself, thanking the dictator for the harsh judgment. It was not until 1958 when the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, encouraged a party decree that dismissed the charges against the accused composers and once again Shostakovich was free too be a hero of Soviet music (too bad he fell back into discord again when Khrushchev decided his Symphony 13 was of distasteful subject matter in 1962).

A bitter and defeated man, Shostakovich died in Moscow on August 9th, 1975. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see his works reborn in the west. Today many of his repertoire including but not limited to his symphonies and fifteen string quartets are commonly played in concert halls all over the world. Below I have included a performance of the third movement from his String Quartet No. 8 (a beloved composition that many of my colleagues as well as myself prize as as one of Shosty’s bests).

The Great Mstislav Rostropovich


Since the cultural revolution that blossomed in the early part of the 20th century Russia has been famous for it’s abundance of talent in the music performance world, consistently turning out out some of the best players of all time. Instead of writing my usual entry about one of the great Russian composers I dedicate this unit to one of my personal heroes, the extraordinary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (Мстисла́в Леопо́льдович Ростропо́вич or “Slava” for short).
Born in Baku on March 27th, 1927, Rostropovich grew up in a household of two accomplished performers (his mother, Sofiya Nikolaevna Fedotova, and his father, Leopold Vitoldovich Rostropovich). At the ripe age of four years old he began piano lessons with his mother, and at age 10 he began the cello with his father (who was a former student of famous cellist Pablo Casals). At sixteen her entered the Moscow Conservatory as a student of cello, piano, conducting, AND composition. It was during this time that a lifetime relationship with his mentor, Dimitry Shostakovitch, began (on October 4th, 1959 Slava premiered Shosty’s 1st Cello Concerto having memorized it in four short days). In 1950 he was awarded the Stalin Prize (the highest distinction in the Soviet Union) and was actively pursuing his performance career as well as his teaching career at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1955 he married Galina Vishnevskaya who was a Soprano in the Bolshoi theater.
Slava had always been an unabashed speaker for the cause of free speech and democracy and as a result it was not long before he fell out of favor with the Soviet party. Following the 1948 Decree against the majority of the era’s composers and the subsequent dismissal of Shostakovitch from his teaching post, he dropped out of the Moscow Conservatory in protest. By 1970 he and his wife were restricted from foreign touring and Slava was forced to go on a recital tour of Siberia. Eventually, his family moved to the States in 1974 and his citizenship was formally revoked in the form of exile (he did not return the Russia until 1990). During his time in America, Rostropovich broadened his musical career as conductor of the National Symphony in Washington D.C. along side his frequent performances.
Tragically, Rostropovich’s health began a fast decline in 2006 with what began as an aggravated ulcer. Not long after his meeting with Vladmir Putin to discuss the Kremlin’s celebration of his 80th birthday, he died on intestinal cancer on April 27, 2007. He was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery where his friend, Boris Yeltsin, had been buried four days earlier.
During his lifetime Slava served as an inspiration to so many of the worlds greatest cellists. The young Jacquline Du pre studied with him when he declared her to be the only cellist of the younger generation with the talent to surpass his own accomplishments. Julian Lloyd Webber professes in his memoirs that it was none other than Rostropovich’s performance at the British Proms that prompted him to begin his own successful career as a solo cellist. From Yo yo Ma to the youngest players in the youth orchestra he is revered for his unforgettable performances of the most difficult in cello repertoire. There is no question of his immeasurable impact on the world of music (RIP Rostropovich).

The Russian Boy Band of the 19th Century (The Five)


In keeping with my tradition of blog posts that talk of Russia’s relatively short yet explosive music history, I choose this unit to multitask in my pattern of praising all the great composers in the last two centuries.
Тhe Russian 5 (known only in the west as The Five) or the “Mighty Handful” (Могучая кучка ) refers to a circle of five composers in the mid to late nineteenth century who met in St. Petersburg and shared their ideas with the aim of producing specifically Russian nationalist music that did not merely imitate older European music. The circle was led by Mily Balakirev who rallied a team of amateur composers including the famous names of Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin. All five of the members were young men who had grown up with a relatively simple upbringing, thus they considered themselves to be authentically Russian and closer to their native soil than the westernized academy. Although they had been preceded by Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky who had both been stark Russian Nationalist composers (each writing their share of successful operas about Russian themes), The Five were the first concentrated effort in this artistic movement.
The Five primarily composed music on two elements specific to Russian music. Most of their material was taken from Cossack and Caucasian dances, churches, and the long/lyrical peasant songs they were accustomed to in their native villages. These melodies were known for their elusive tonal centers, parallel fifths, and raw sonorities that create a very foreign contrast to the polished and structured sounds of western Europe. They also “invented” (well not exactly but they did make great strides in implementing these new scales) their “purely Russian” scales that included octatonic and pentatonic scales with the result of an entirely new palette of colors practically unheard of in their western counterparts. Additionally their music employed a substantial amount of oriental musical devices that recognize the significant eastern Mongol influence on Russia’s culture.
Although The Five began to part by the 1870’s (most likely the result of Balakirev’s withdraw from musical life early in the decade for a period of time), all but the composer Cui were vital teachers to the composers that followed them including but not limited to Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Dimitry Shostakovich. Today all of The Five are buried in the Tikhvin Cemetary located in St. Petersburg.

Prokofiev the Spoiled Brat (*hem*) Child Prodigy


Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев) was born on Wednesday 23-April in the year 1891 in the village of Sontsovka which was, at that time, part of the Russian Empire (now it is a village in the Ukraine). His father, Sergei Alekseevich Prokofiev, was an agricultural engineer and his mother, Maria Grigoryevna Zhitkova, was a well educated pianist. A typical only child, born to parents who desperately longed for children, Prokofiev was privileged and doted on throughout his childhood. He enjoyed a comfortable life of luxuries as he grew up in his cozy manor on a spacious farming estate. Although he was never forced into his musical studies, young Sergei fast adopted a passion for music and piano as the result of his mother’s constant practicing. As soon as he could reach the keys he began to learn piano and by age five he had composed his first piece, “Indian Gallop”. Remarkably, this early composition and the many that soon followed demonstrated a mature understanding of already established musical forms as well as new harmonies and rhythms that would be used in his works later in life. Prokofiev also developed a passion for the game of chess, mastering its complicated rules and tricks by the ripe age of seven.
Recognizing their son’s prodigious musical talent, the parents arranged a trip in 1901 to the great cultural center of Moscow An audition was arranged for ten year old Sergei to perform in front of the famous Moscow professor and composer Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev. Taneyev was so impressed that he fast recruited another music teacher from Moscow to travel to Sontskova in the summer of 1902 to hone Sergei’s skills. The teacher was Reinhold Moritsevich Glierewas a young but accomplished composer and capable pianist. By the summer of 1903, twelve year old Sergei had composed two opera, a four-movement symphony with Gliere’s help, and about 70 small piano pieces.
In 1904 Sergei and his mother relocated to St. Petersburg in order to give him a proper music education. Acting on the recommendations of the famous composer, Alexander Glazunov, Prokofiev took the entrance exam to the Conservatory and was admitted as the youngest student in the history of the music school. This sparked jealousy in the hearts of his classmates, many of whom were twice his age. By the same token, his early success encouraged an arrogance that infamously characterized the composer for the remainder of his life. He was self-confident, generally critical of his fellow students, and yet loathing of criticism he often received from his teachers for his unconventional music devices. He never allowed the criticism to stop him from drawing his own ideas, even at the expense of poor grades and later scathing reviews. Prokofiev entered his tenth and last term in the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 at age 22 with a domineering goal in mind, to win the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize awarded to the best student pianist. Bravely using his own Piano Concerto No. 1 (previously poorly received by critics as far as the states), Prokofiev won that competition, proudly touting his ultimately grand successes at the conservatory.
As he dashed around France during the succeeding years chasing the fame of his contemporary impressionist, Igor Stravinsky, major changes were happening in the government of Prokofiev’s homeland. Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in March 1917 ending Imperial Russian rule forever and St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd, becoming a center location for the Bolshevik Revolution. Composers during this era suffered sever artistic restrictions and many choose to emigrate while they still could. In 1918, Prokofiev chose to move east towards Vladivostok, Japan, and eventually the United States. His time in the States were unkind to him, due to his Bolshevik labels, and his stay resulted in a bitter attitude toward American culture. On the bright side, it was in New York City where Prokofiev met the soprano, his future wife Carolina Codina, in the fall of 1918 (a complicated and ultimately terrible story that I can’t touch in a short blog entry… look it up).
Prokofiev never forgot his beloved homeland behind the tight borders of the Soviet Union and towards the end of 1926 he began negotiations in with Soviet authorities for a return tour. Although weary of his similarities to the now troublesome Stravinsky they granted him permission in 1927, thus, beginning Stravinsky’s permanent move homeward. Although he returned briefly during the rough year of 1929 (mostly due to Stalin and his random denunciations of all the great Russian composers of the time) Prokofiev enjoyed a much more successful tour in 1932 that convinced him to return to Russia for the duration of his lifetime (for better or more accurately for worse). With the outbreak of WW2 and the dangerous whims of the paranoid Stalin, the following decades brought danger (in the form of threatened execution for the crime of rejected works) and eventually complete isolation from the outside world. They also brought him is greatest success of all. In 1944 he wrote what is now considered the crowned jewel of his compositions, The Fifth Symphony, for which he was awarded the Stalin award in 1945.
Sergei Prokofiev died of a massive Brain hemorrhage, ironically on the same day as Stalin on March 5th 1953. After the long an epic journey of his life, his death was not published in the papers and was tragically unknown for a substantial time by most people outside his circle of exclusive friends. Prokofiev was eventually buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow alongside many of his contemporaries.