Saturday, November 11, 2017

Shostakovich & Glazunov: Life Amidst the Revolution

So, someone asked me, what does this music - a string quartet by Tchaikovsky, a pretty collection of entertaining pieces by Glazunov, and a 1960s quartet, a very private work, by Shostakovich - have to do with the Russian Revolution?

Dmitri Shostakovich's paternal grandfather, Boleslav Szostakowicz, a descendant of a Polish Catholic family, was a revolutionary in the January Uprising in Warsaw that began in 1863, a year after the new Governor-General, the Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich, brother of Tsar Alexander II, had taken up his post and had managed to escape an assassination attempt on his second day in Warsaw when he was attacked by a tailor's apprentice shouting Polish nationalist slogans (the same Grand Duke to whom Tchaikovsky would dedicate his 2nd String Quartet in 1874).

The January Uprising under the Russians' military rule of Poland was primarily over the conscription of Polish men for the Russian Imperial army and would last until the last of its leaders had been rounded up the following year and deported to Siberia. In 1864, Szostakowicz, a student of 18 or 19, helped organize the escape of one of the organizers from prison; two years later he was arrested during a crack down following an attempt on Alexander II's life and exiled to Tomsk, a town in Siberia about halfway between St. Petersburg and the Pacific Coast. During his exile, he married the daughter of a family “on friendly terms” with Nikolai Chernishevsky, who wrote his novel What Is to Be Done? in 1862 while in prison (promoting “the idea that the intellectual's duty was to educate and lead the laboring masses in Russia along a path to socialism that bypassed capitalism,” proved very influential among Russia's intelligentsia).

When his exile's term ended, Shostakovich's grandfather chose to stay in Siberia, eventually becoming a successful banker in Irkutsk. His son, Dmitri Boleslavovich, not permitted to serve in the military because he was the son of a revolutionary, went to St. Petersburg to study mathematics and physics, in 1902 finding a position in the “Palace” of Weights and Measures working under the famous physicist Dmitri Mendeleiev (the inventor of the Periodic Chart). Two years later, he married a woman – a pianist – who was also born in Siberia and on September 25th (by the “New Style” Calendar), 1906, their second child, a son, was born and christened the next day. She wanted to name him “Jaroslav Dmitrievich” but the priest thought the name old-fashioned and convinced her the baby should be named Dmitri after his father which, he thought, sounded more euphonious even though she felt superstitious about having “two identical names” in the family.

Russia, at the time, was in turmoil: after the massacre known as Bloody Sunday in January, 1905, and the ensuing violence known now as the “1905 Revolution” (though it was nothing quite so organized as that implies), there was a general sense of foreboding. The imperial regime of Nicholas II was “generally detested” and this sense of impending change – with or without the Duma, the tsar's days were numbered – greatly affected the artistic world in the final days of the Empire. The literary avant-garde promoted “cultural anarchy,” and found its voice in the music of Skryabin (or Scriabin in its more common Western spelling) and Prokofiev. More intensely modernist composers in the years leading up to 1917 even began experimenting with 12-tone music – while Prokofiev had given the first Russian performance of Schoenberg's early atonal music, the Viennese composer had himself not yet devised his own theories about “composing with twelve tones” which later became known as serialism.

Liadov, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov
Russian culture had long been divided between traditionalist and pro-Western viewpoints – going back to the reign of Tsar Peter I (known in the West as Peter the Great) around 1700 but by the early-1900s, ironically it was Peter the Great's “window on the West” - the city he built and called St. Petersburg (even the name is German) - became the center for the conservative backward-looking faction called “Slavophiles” while the ancient capital of Moscow, dating back to the mid-12th Century, became the center of the pro-Western modernists.

That did not mean the traditionalists were pro-Tsar: Rimsky-Korsakov, head of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, sided with the students and condemned the government's response to the 1905 uprisings. He was then ousted from his job by Imperial bureaucrats, his protege Glazunov resigning in protest.

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Dmitri Shostakovich was 9 years old when his mother, a pianist, decided to start giving him piano lessons – that was her policy: she'd already begun teaching his older sister Marya when she was 9 and younger sister Zoya would begin her lessons at 9 as well. But Dmitri took to it surprisingly fast – in two days, he was already reading music and a few days after that, able to play four-hand duets with his mother. Before that, his attitude had been he enjoyed music but thought it was too hard to learn and not worth the effort. But it turned out he had “perfect pitch” and could memorize easily. Soon, he was sitting at the piano, improving little pieces about stories he had read – the first one, he later recalled, was Hans Christian Andersen's “The Mermaid.” His aunt recalls how he'd sit at the piano and tell a story in words and then play music to illustrate it: “Here is a little house lit by a candle” – Mitya (the nickname for Dmitri) would play his tune and then, looking slyly over the top of the piano, he suddenly flicked a note high in the treble – “Somebody peeks in the window.”

It sounds idyllic, in its own way, recalling Shostakovich's childhood until you compare it against the reality of the world he was growing up in. Remember, when he was taking his first piano lessons, it was 1915 and Russia had become embroiled in the European conflict known now as “World War I” (until the second one, it had been called “The Great War,” great in the sense of “large,” not “wonderful”; euphemistically, it was referred to as “The War to End All Wars,” but we have seen how that has turned out).

A colorized photograph of the Imperial Family with Nicholas II seated beside his wife, Alexandra, surrounded by their four daughters and their youngest child, the Tsarevich Alexei (taken around 1913 or 1914)
An entanglement of numerous treaties dragged Russia into the conflict against Germany (whose Emperor was a cousin of the Tsar; and the Tsarina, Empress Alexandra, was also a German princess by birth) and on the side of the allies where King George V of England was also a cousin of the Tsar's. One upshot of this was the renaming of the Imperial capital from the Germanic “St. Petersburg” to the Russian equivalent “Petrograd,” Peter's City.

The Russian invasion of Germany was a disaster from the beginning; if things weren't bad enough, the Tsar, already inept at handling the politics of governing, then personally took over the command of the army.

Meanwhile, at home, the Empress was running the day-to-day government from the Winter Palace which outraged not only the people – already suspicious of the role of the mystic Rasputin – but even by government ministers and members of the Imperial family. Still, the Tsar refused to listen to their advice.

And then there was Rasputin, the peasant monk who appeared as a spiritual adviser to the Empress and who, as a faith-healer, “healed” the Tsar's hemophiliac son, Alexei, thus becoming an indispensable part of the Imperial household. She was convinced that, should anything happen to Rasputin, it would be the end of Russia. With the Tsar away at the front, Rasputin had far too much influence over the Empress' decisions, sometimes pushing his own hand-picked candidates for certain bureaucratic positions which the Empress was all too willing to accept.

At the end of December, 1916, Rasputin was lured into an ambush, poisoned with cyanide, shot three times at close range, once in the head, and beaten, yet still seemed to survive long enough to attack his killers before he was shot again, rolled up in a rug and thrown into the Neva River (the official cause of death was hushed up as “drowning”).

Then, all of this political and social instability began to boil over following years of political repression, privation, poor working conditions and worsening famine – and with the Tsar and the army occupied elsewhere – until, without either side being prepared for it, riots in the streets and mutiny among the police broke out on February 23rd (Old Style), 1917.

Sergei Prokofiev noted in his Autobiography, “The February Revolution found me in Petrograd. I and those I associated with welcomed it with open arms. I was in the streets of Petrograd while the fighting was going on, hiding behind those house corners when the shooting came too close.” The excitement of the day, he noted, was reflected in No. 19 of his Visions fugitives which captures “the feeling of the crowd rather than the inner essence of the Revolution” [quoted in Boris Schwarz, “Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970”].

The chairman of the Duma telegraphed the Tsar at the front to return immediately: Petrograd was in chaos, anarchy in the streets, and so forth. But the Empress had written to him that concern over the situation was “an over-reaction,” and so the Tsar ignored his ministers' pleas for action. By the time he decided to return to the capital, he was unable to because of the strikes: the railroads were in control of the reolutionaries.

Finally faced with the reality of the situation, upon the advice of his ministers, the Tsar chose to abdicate in favor of his younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich (the rightful heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, was only a 12-year-old boy) but Michael knew he would have no support to run the government and so he declined the crown.

With that, the Romanov Dynasty, which had recently celebrated 300 years on the throne, came to an end, and with it, the Russian Empire.

Now what?

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The new Provisional Government withdrew from the European war, establishing itself to run the country until a new government could be formed. Most of its leaders felt this had been a “bourgeois revolution” and proceeded to plan some form of democratic constitutional government. But the Petrograd Soviet, the council organized by Bolshevik leaders, began working against them, speaking in favor of the working class.

The Bolsheviks themselves were a minority of the different factions but in the end, they proved better organized. And they had a charismatic leader.

Lenin Addressing a Crowd
With the help of Germany, Vladimir Ulyanov (under the alias, Lenin) arrived by train from exile in Switzerland and began gathering support among the various revolutionary groups, and before long, the Petrograd Soviet was strong enough to be sought out as an ally by the Provisional Government's newly appointed Premiere, Alexander Karensky, in the face of a military coup in August.

By October, then, Lenin and the Bolsheviks of the Petrograd Soviet first stormed the Winter Palace with the help of the ship Aurora, under Bolsehvik control, which fired on the palace from the harbor. The next morning, Lenin announced the Provisional Government had been overthrown, avoiding talk of “socialism” and “Marxism” for fear of alienating the rest of the population, stressing that the new government would be “controlled by the workers.”

Immediately, another faction of the Soviet, called Mensheviks, declared the Bolshevik take-over illegal – and then this eventually escalated into the Civil War.

Incidentally, the term soviet meant a “council” – one of those committees of the party faithful that would run the local government, hence the “Petrograd Council” along with other councils set up in various cities across Russia. A “Congress of Soviets” led to the formation of a government that was socialist, following Marxist philosophy, and made up of various internal republics (the way we might consider states or provinces) each with their various councils or soviets – hence, basically, a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The sense of euphoria felt by the Bolsheviks was disappointed when the Workers' Revolution did not immediately spread across Europe as had been predicted.

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Tsar Nicholas II under arrest
After his abdication, the Tsar had assumed he and his family would be exiled, hopefully to England where King George V was his look-alike cousin. Instead, as the Civil War progressed, they were moved around the country, further into the interior to keep them from being rescued by partisan forces loyal to the Old Regime. In Ekaterinburg, in the mountains of central Russia that divided it between Europe to the West and Asia to the East, they were kept in prison-like confinement. One morning, they were told opposition troops were closing in on them and the house they were being kept in could be fired upon; therefore, for their own safety, they were being moved to basement, the whole family, their doctor and their maid. When the Empress complained there were no chairs for them to sit on, armed guards entered the room and opened fire on them, point-blank. Those that were not killed outright were then bayoneted to make sure they were dead. The bodies were then carted to an old mining pit and dumped, drenched in gasoline and lit.

And so ends three hundred years of Imperial rule...

Most of the bodies were not located until 1979 - daughter Maria and son Alexei were not found until 2007 - and identified through DNA. In July, 1998, they were buried in the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul in the city that had once been called Leningrad but since 1991 was once again, after the fall of the Soviet Union, called St. Petersburg.

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There are accounts given by Shostakovich in which he recalls being out on the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in the days following the October Revolution (which his aunt called "The Bloodless Revolution") and seeing a young boy brutally killed with a slash from a saber by a policeman. His Aunt Nadia also described how the family came home from watching a vast parade through the streets a few days later as workers carried the bodies of people killed in the street-fighting up the Nevsky Prospect (the city's most famous street) to a common grave in Mars Field. Dmitri, who was 11, went to the piano and played quietly "for a long time" and composed what he called a "Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution."

There are also accounts in official Soviet biographies about Shostakovich that mention how he had been a witness to Lenin's arrival at the Finland Station, marking his arrival in Petrograd in the days between the February and the October Revolutions. His younger sister Zoya claims that he did see this, but his children have remarked they have no memory of him ever telling them this.

Alexander Glazunov was now the director of the now Petrograd Conservatory when a 13-year-old boy named Dmitri Shostakovich enrolled in his school in 1919, in the midst of the Civil War.

It was less than two years after the two Revolutions that, first, toppled the Tsar's empire and then replaced a fledgling democratic government with the rise of the Bolsheviks and the formation of the Soviet Union – this, incidentally, began a bloody Civil War that didn't end until 1921, and even then, the establishment of the Communist state was more of a long-range plan than a stabilized resolution of the war.

The six-room apartment the Shostakovich family of five and a couple servants lived in – and would before the Revolution hold parties for 30-40 friends where the dancing would last well into the early morning hours – now housed the family plus six other tenants just so they could afford the rent. To pay for some of Dmitri's medical expenses, they sold one of their two pianos, being left with the one that was in such bad shape it “made a sound like an old pot,” the young composer wrote to a friend. Food was scarce, as was fuel – and manuscript paper, too: Dmitri's younger sister Zoya would draw staff-lines on scraps of letters or newsprint for her brother to write on.

There was little or no heat, if you can imagine a cold Russian winter, imagine living in it – or playing the piano in it – without heat? A fellow-student at the conservatory remembered a performance of Beethoven's 9th where you could see the choir's breath when they sang of universal brotherhood and where the conductor, under his tuxedo, was wearing several layers of thermal underwear.

The conservatory's classrooms were unheated but one enterprising pianist “invented” an apparatus with a small tin box which could hold a few chunks of smoldering charcoal. You would put your fingers over the box to warm them up, then begin practicing. Another friend of Shostakovich's reminisced about how she and a friend would race home, one glove between them, trading it back and forth from hand to hand as they ran through the snow.

Glazunov's own life had changed greatly with the Revolution. Respected but without much expected from him – in 1921, a new string quartet (his 6th) which showed “signs of creative decline,” would be reviewed by the new Soviet critics as “a certain academization of style.”

Maximilian Steinberg, one of Shostakovich's teachers, later recalled a visit to Glazunov at home (the context seems to be 1923, but given the fluidity of memory, it could've been earlier).

“Glazunov, who all his life was used to living in a large flat with all conveniences, was now housed in one smallish room heated by a small stove; here he worked, composed, slept. In the next room was his mother, almost 80 years old. In the other rooms, the temperature was freezing; some time later, other people moved in. Under such circumstances, creative work was difficult...”

He went on to recall meeting other musicians there. One night, Glazunov, in a heavy fur coat, was playing his 2nd Piano Concerto for a friend and conductor. He also met Artur Schnabel there. If these actually occurred in 1923, after the Civil War, conditions by this time would have improved.

During a lesson, a piano student heard Glazunov enter the classroom to tell his teacher, “Maria Nikolaievna, the cabbages have arrived,” then the two of them, wrapped in their overcoats and scarves, scuttled off down the hall to unpack crates of cabbages after she told her student “now repeat that one hundreds time” till she returned. Then the school would smell of boiled and pickled cabbage which is almost all the school cafeteria had to feed its students.

Students also got a ration of food from the government – in the mid-1920s, Shostakovich received two spoons of sugar and a half-pound of pork every two weeks.

It was not surprising that Shostakovich – whose health was already frail – was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lymph glands. The family was able to get enough money to pay for the surgery but Shostakovich refused to miss the end of the school year – so he took his exams and played his graduation piano jury in 1923 with his neck heavily bandaged.

His father had died suddenly – a cold that turned into pneumonia – in February of 1922 – so his mother now had to find work. A middle-class housewife who never worked in her life, she now had a string of low-paying jobs in shops and offices. She started giving piano lessons. Her students paid her in bread (not using slang, here) because nobody had much money and besides, bread you could eat.

That's when Dmitri, turning 16, took a job playing piano for a movie theater, accompanying silent films. It was low-paying enough, but when his employer held back his paychecks for whatever reason, Shostakovich had to take him to court – and fortunately won.

As much as he hated the job, playing in an unheated theater, at least he found he could practice the piano while he was playing and sometimes tried out his newest compositions even though it might have nothing to do with the film – even if the audience didn't like what he was playing. One of his favorite actors, by the way, was Charlie Chaplin.

Still, he wrote to a friend of his, the future concert-pianist Lev Oborin, how he was 244 rubles in debt and made 100 rubles a month at the theater. After two months of drudgery, he was still 44 rubles in debt and had to eat... and buy manuscript paper. “One just spins around like a squirrel on a wheel. I've come to a slight halt in my composing.”

When he wrote this letter, he had already begun thinking about writing a symphony, but he had to keep putting it off.

Mostly, as a pianist, he was composing short piano pieces. There was a piano trio – not the famous one, but an early student one, his Op. 8 – which was his longest work to date. There were also two short orchestral scherzos which his teacher dismissed as “grotesques.”

The way the conservatory was structured, students entered into their classes by the degree of talent they exhibited and the extent their previous studies had prepared them. So you might find a 20-year-old among the beginners and, as it turned out, a 13-year-old among the advanced students, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s. Most of Shostakovich's friends were therefore older than he was, which caused some friction, inevitably, and a great deal of rivalry – not just with the other students, but also with his teachers.

But Glazunov was always behind him – as I said, no doubt recalling his own days as a child prodigy. He wrote letters to the Cultural Commissar, urging the government not to cancel Shostakovich's scholarship (or his food rations), citing the boy's talent and his potential – as well as his precarious health. When the school's assistant director wanted to withdraw the 16-year-old's scholarship at a faculty meeting, saying “his name means nothing to me,” Glazunov was so furious he shouted back “then what are you doing here? This is no place for you. Shostakovich is one of the best hopes for our art!”

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While Shostakovich was primarily a pianist who also studied composition, it was as a composer most of his colleagues and teachers saw his future. His composition teacher was Maximilian Steinberg, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov's and a fairly pedantic, old-fashioned academician, at that. Shostakovich called these lessons a “necessary evil” and treated them mostly passively. He wrote a Suite for Two Pianos which Steinberg criticized, wanting him to rewrite certain passages. So he did that. Immediately after the suite was performed, he burned the score and published it as his Op. 6 as he'd originally composed it.

But now he started thinking he would rather study at the Moscow Conservatory which was more European-oriented – more open to what was going on “now” in Western Europe than the Leningrad Conservatory's looking back on the Russian past of Rimsky-Korsakov and the Mighty Handful. His teacher there would be Nikolai Myaskovsky, one of the leading composers of the new Soviet Union, and when Shostakovich auditioned there, Myaskovsky accepted him without question and, after hearing his Piano Trio, even wondered why subject him to classes on Form when “he is already a complete master of form?”

So in the fall of 1924, just as Shostakovich turned 18, his faculty committee assigned him his graduation piece: he was to write them – a symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich, Student
Composition as it was taught in Leningrad in the 1920s was based on 18th Century concepts of harmony and counterpoint that rarely went beyond what the late-19th Century considered “something new.” But Shostakovich, at 14, had become the youngest member of a circle of composers who privately examined and discussed the latest music from Europe – the former Russian, Stravinsky (who was now in Paris), the French Six as well as Hindemith and Schoenberg from Germany.

While we might hear suggestions from Stravinsky's “Petrushka” – the way he used the piano, for one – or of Schoenberg's earlier music (his serial style was still developing in the early-1920s), Shostakovich's 1st doesn't sound so “new” to us, but in the old-fashioned Leningrad school, it was quite daring. Consider how Glazunov had ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony he conducted in 1897: it took three years before the young composer recovered and could write again. This time, it was clear to the other students that for all his support of this young genius, Glazunov had not a clue what was going on in Shostakovich's symphony. But he saw the boy's obvious talent and recognized his potential, regardless of that.

While the first two movements of his symphony are fairly sprightly – especially the scherzo with its nose-thumbing opening (the basses struggling to keep up), something happens then and the work becomes suddenly tragic with long-breathed phrases in the oboe solo that opens the 3rd Movement where there are quotations from Wagner – from the “Ring,” suggesting Siegfried the fatalistic hero – and a rhythmic motive with a descending minor third suggesting Fate itself (a tribute to Beethoven's 5th?) and another reminiscent of the opening of Tristan.

Shostakovich wrote to Lev Oborin he was “in a terrible mood,” unable to find work, unable to transfer to the Moscow conservatory, how a close friend of his was dying and now his neck was swelling up again (the return of the tuberculosis?) He felt like crying out in terror and how, from sheer misery, “I have begun to compose the finale of my symphony which is turning out to be pretty gloomy, almost like Myaskovsky – and he takes the cake when it comes to gloominess.”

Even though it technically ends in a triumphant F Major, the final cadence is not the usual Dominant-to-Tonic cadence we assume in standard tonality, a not-quite-Dominant chord giving it a rather “masked” sense of triumph at the final chord: triumphant if only to realize that merely to survive, in some circumstances, is a triumph...

After its premiere the next year – Shostakovich was by then 19 – it would turn him into a celebrity, the “shining light” of the future of Soviet Music. Still a child, technically, he would be hailed as the Soviet Union's first “home-grown” composer. Within a year, it would be performed in Germany, England and the United States, and would make him an international star. Shostakovich was on his way.

Glazunov, increasingly despairing about the new changes even though his status within the pantheon of Russian Music protected him from outright attacks by the Soviet government at the time, was concerned about his precarious position within the Conservatory. In 1928, he petitioned Lunacharsky to be allowed to tour Europe and attend festivals celebrating the Centennial of the Death of Schubert. He also toured the United States and then settled in Paris by 1929 where he remained.

Without officially emigrating, he was able to maintain a certain respect back home, unlike Rachmaninoff who fled and Stravinsky who chose not to return. He did not even resign his directorship at the Conservatory until 1930 when he announced he would stay in Paris "because of ill-health." He continued to compose a little, even married for the first time in his life, and eventually died outside Paris in 1936 at the age of 70. News of his death rather shocked the music world who had assumed he had died a long time before... His remains returned to Leningrad, the city that was once St. Petersburg and capital of the Russian Empire so dear to his heart, where he was buried in 1972.

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The most important thing for the new government – the new society – was to create a culture that was not Russian, not German (or European in general), not in fact anything that had existed before: the object of Anatol Lunacharksy, the newly appointed Commissar for Public Education, was to create nothing less than a new Soviet aesthetic in music, in literature, in art, in entertainment, not just in education. This was not something that could be done overnight and it was not easy to create, given all the influences that existed before the October Revolution. As one official History of Soviet Russian Music (written in the 1950s) put it:

“The activization [sic] of modernism and all other reactionary [sic!] tendencies increased sharply after the Revolution of 1905 and threatened Russian artistic culture – including music – with disintegration and decline. The Great October Revolution of 1917 saved Russian musical culture and opened unusual perspectives of fruitful development.”

How much – and even how – the Revolution “saved” Russian music is beyond the scope of my few posts (nearly book-length themselves, by now).

Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky
Lenin had said that education came first, art second. He was reluctant to spend money on lavish productions at the opera house and ballet if they were lacking basic schools in towns and villages across the country, especially when the Bolshoi Theater was a “piece of pure landlord culture” with its “pompous court style.”

Wounded in an assassination attempt in 1918 and suffering two strokes in 1922, Lenin now had to deal with a power-struggle among his colleagues jockeying for power during his recuperation. He had suggested replacing Josef Stalin (whose behavior as well as his views frequently began to annoy Lenin) as the party's General Secretary and replacing him with Leon Trotsky who had been instrumental in the victory of the Red Army in the Civil War.

A third stroke in March, 1923, left Lenin speechless and partially paralyzed. He never recovered and slipped into a coma on January 21st, 1924 and died later that day. He was 53.

Stalin solidified his power: after increasingly bitter in-fighting and “show-trials” questioning his party orthodoxy, Trotsky was exiled to Turkey in 1929 and, after several other moves, was eventually assassinated in Mexico in 1940 by Stalin's agents. But all of that belongs to a future story.

How much Lenin's early death, so soon after the Civil War ended, affected not only the course of Soviet history but also its policies toward the arts, is one of those many “what-ifs” that no one can answer.

Of course, if Stalin had not come to power, certainly if nothing else Shostakovich's life would've been a lot easier. There is much to go into, here, especially regarding the 5th and 10th Symphonies, so I'll include this link where you can read more about the impact of Stalin's political and artistic views on Shostakovich's life and music, here.

But, as I often say, there is always more...

Dick Strawser 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Amernet Quartet's Russian Program: Glazunov!

This weekend's concert with the Amernet Quartet commemorates the Centennial of the Russian Revolution, one of the pivotal events of the 20th Century, and features the music of three generations of Russian composers with music composed before the Revolution by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Alexander Glazunov, and after the Revolution by one of the leading composers of the Soviet Union, Dmitri Shostakovich. While the order of the program begins with Glazunov's Five Novelettes, continues with Shostakovich's 11th String Quartet and concludes on the second half with Tchaikovsky's 2nd String Quartet, my posts in this historical survey are taking a more chronological route.

You can read some of the historical background of the Russian Revolution in the first post, here - and about Tchaikovsky's quartet and the Tsar who ruled Russia at the time of its composition, here. The final post will be about Shostakovich and his quartet, but historically focusing on his life as a student during the time of the Revolution.The final post concerns the lives of both Glazunov and Shostakovich in the years leading up to and immediately following the October Revolution.

Join us for the concert on Saturday night, 8pm, at Market Square Church, with a pre-concert talk at 7:15 by Dr. Truman Bullard who specializes in Russian music.

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Glazunov in 1887
Most American music-lovers would not know much about Alexander Glazunov and his music: not as well known or even highly respected today, he is probably more remembered as the alcoholic conductor who ruined the premiere of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony or the old-fashioned past-his-prime ex-prodigy who ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory in the years around the Bolshevik Revolution before falling out of favor with the new Soviet ethic.

Like many of his generation, he is overshadowed on one hand by the fame of his teachers, especially Rimsky-Korsakov, and on the other by the fame of his students, particularly Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Yet in Russia in his day, he was regarded as a major composer, a prodigy who'd written his first symphony when he was 16, the darling of the nationalists until he became too much a cosmopolitan academic. Today, his ballet “The Seasons” survives in a dance world starved for works from the Golden Age of the Russian Imperial Ballet, his Violin Concerto (once very popular) is still occasionally heard in the concert hall, though in this country few of his symphonies or string quartets are ever dusted off.

In light of this program, presenting music before and after the Revolution, it is interesting to note that while Glazunov's career straddled the Revolution, he was unable to be very productive as far as helping the new regime establish its own musical style. He was regarded as a relic of the Imperial past and considered incapable of understanding the new music that would be needed to shape this new culture. 

 Glazunov's style is usually regarded as a mix of his mentors' nationalism with a dash of the romantic aura of Orientalism (perhaps most famous in Rimsky-Korsakoff's “Scheherezade”) combined with the cosmopolitan absorption of Western European elements also heard in Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky that in itself became more of a mash-up of Liszt on the one hand and Mendelssohn on the other.

The Novelettes by Glazunov are a suite of five pieces composed in 1886, around the time he wrote his 2nd Symphony which he dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt and then began his 3rd String Quartet. Even the title, Novelettes, strike one as old-fashioned.

“Novelettes” is a title straight out of Schumann, who'd died 30 years earlier – short pieces inspired by something vaguely literary, along with the “ballades” of Chopin or Schumann's short character pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman (Kreisleriana, Papillons). His “Novelettes,” a collection of eight piano pieces published in 1838, tell no specific story but have a “literary quality” about them, despite any direct narrative: no story is supplied, the pieces lack any fanciful titles beyond tempo indications and a generic mood (“Lightly and with Humor”).

It's probably not entirely coincidental that Schumann's father was a book-seller and Glazunov's was a publisher.

A novelette, by the way, was a once popular alternate term for a “novella” or short novel, somewhere between a short story and a full-fledged novel. One source suggested it was decided more by word-count (7,000 to 17,000 words) than by the nature of its content. Later, in the 20th Century, given the attitude about size and quality, it became a derogatory term implying triteness or sentimentality, or a “not-quite-ready-for-prime-time” novel.

Of course, if we remember that Fyodor Dostoievsky published his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, in 1880 and that Tolstoy's Anna Karenina dates from 1877 and his "novella" The Death of Ivan Ilyich was published in 1886, we might expect more than is fair from a Russian composer borrowing a literary title. The idea of a "string quartet," with Beethoven's shadow never lurking very far away, carries enough baggage to always expect the most serious.

Glazunov's approach to that title might be more “what the heck do I call these five pleasant little pieces?” than emulating Schumann or deciding to offer some vague literary allusions. If anything, they're mood pieces in various styles and whether the similarity in the material is conscious (as in “theme and variations in different styles”) or an accident of their all being composed quickly at the same time, I'm not sure (nor am I sure it really matters).

The music is, above all, elegant and charming, not meant to challenge or unsettle, a passing dance not intended for long, personal ruminations on the meaning of life. They are purely entertainments - they were initially written for a party, after all - "little novels" that would never be mistaken for works by Dostoievsky or Tolstoy. If anything, they might be pleasant interludes while one is lounging around reading Goncharov's Oblomov or maybe spending an evening or two on a farm near Dikanka with short stories by Gogol. 

Here is a "video" from an old Melodiya recording with the Shostakovich of all five of the Novelettes in one clip (I apologize for the duplication of Ilya Repin's portrait of the composer but it really is appropriate to the music and makes more sense than some of the unrelated visual stuff one often finds with so many You-Tube posts):
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The first is marked “In the Spanish Style.” The second is subtitled Orientale. The third is called (without irony) “Interlude in an old style,” evoking perhaps Russian Orthodox chant but in a highly romanticized arrangement, complete with a very non-Russian fugue (speaking of Western academicism).

The fourth one is a Waltz, typical of Glazunov's ability with a lush (as in luscious) dance tune from the golden Imperial Age of Russian ballet. The set ends (rather than concludes) with a Hungarian Dance.

This is, basically, Glazunov at the age of 20 or 21. Glazunov composed with legendary facility and his music was generally greeted without much concern or controversy (beyond the initial debut when people refused to believe a 16-year-old could write a symphony like that and accused his well-to-do parents of paying someone to write it for him).

But around the time he turned 40, this ease came to a grinding halt. Part of this may have been the responsibilities of taking over the St. Petersburg Conservatory from his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1905 after he ran afoul of government during the political upheaval that almost became a revolution. His alcoholism worsened – though it had already played a very likely part in the disaster of Rachmaninoff's 1st Symphony in 1897: it was enough that he didn't care for the piece and made comments about not understanding it. He was finding himself a man-out-of-touch with what was going around him, musically.

In the 25 years from his first published works to the 1905-1906 Season when he completed his last symphony, there are 85 opus numbers in his catalog. In the remaining 30 years of his creative life, there are only 24 works, mostly inconsequential by comparison even though they include both his piano concertos (the 2nd, in B Major, is one I've always liked and wondered why no one plays), the last two string quartets (the last one, subtitled “Hommage au passé”) and the Saxophone Concerto which one occasionally hears as much because there aren't many Romantic-style concertos for the instrument (despite its being composed in 1934) as it's the last major work he composed.

If his teaching responsibilities didn't have a serious enough impact on him – whether or not the alcoholism was a symptom or a contributor to his creative decline – the political and social climate of the new 20th Century certainly undermined everything he as a conservative held dear, both socially and musically. Though he stayed after the Communists took control of the government and lived through the privations of the 1st World War, the two 1917 Revolutions and the ensuing Civil War, he never really regained the status he had enjoyed as a young man in the Imperial Age.

When he left the Soviet Union for the West, he did so “for reasons of health” rather than as a political refugee like Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev or Stravinsky: if nothing else, this allowed his music to still be performed “back home.” But he spent the last eight years of his life as an exile in Paris, a man without a country (or even a culture) and, ironically for a man as “cosmopolitan” as he was, musically, little musical inspiration.

He was deeply suspect of New Music at the time. He told a colleague that Stravinsky's Petrushka was not music though skillfully orchestrated. Looking at Debussy's “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” he thought it was “orchestrated with great taste,” then wondered “Could it be that Rimsky and I influenced the orchestration of all these contemporary degenerates?”

Dmitri Shostakovich, the leading symphonist of the Soviet era, owed a great deal to Glazunov the teacher and administrator. His recollections in Semyon Volkov's highly questionable memoir, “Testimony,” include stories of Glazunov's legendary memory.

We owe the Overture to Borodin's Prince Igor to that memory since Borodin, a busy chemist and professor as well as composer, did not live to complete the opera or jot down anything for the overture. He'd played through it at the piano for his friends: Glazunov had heard one of these performances and was able to write it down later.

Another story was how the composer Sergei Taneyev (a student of Tchaikovsky's) had come to Belyayev to play his new symphony at the piano for him: meanwhile, the teen-aged Glazunov had been hidden in an adjacent room, listening to the performance. When it was over, Belyayev called Glazunov into the room as if he'd just arrived and said, as it happened, this young man was going to play through his new symphony as well. And he sat down and played Taneyev's symphony back to him, note for note.

While there is also the famous story of Glazunov, now a professor at the Conservatory, keeping a bottle of vodka in his desk drawer, a rubber hose hidden in his coat connecting to the bottle so he could sip on it during his lessons, it's perhaps kinder to end with this fact: whatever he thought of “new music,” Glazunov arranged the premiere of his young student Shostakovich's 1st Symphony with the Leningrad Philharmonic in the same hall where his own 1st Symphony had been premiered 44 years earlier and had created just as much of a stir when a teenaged composer walked on-stage to accept the cheers of the audience.

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When young Glazunov was composing his “little novels,” Alexander III had been tsar for five years after his father, Alexander II, had been assassinated by the revolutionary (today, we would call them the “terrorist”) group, “The People's Will.” (For more information about this part of our history, check Part 2 of the post on Tchaikovsky's 2nd Quartet.)

Alexander III & his wife

Standing 6'3” and of, shall we say, large and ungainly build, the new tsar might have been the conservative mirror of his liberal-minded father, but he was also more of a music-lover which was good news for Tchaikovsky, and especially for the world of Russian ballet. The tsar's enjoyment of the ballet and his patronage of the Imperial Ballet Theater ushered in a Golden Age of Dance that would be unequaled in the history of ballet.

Alexander Benois, famous later as an artist and set designer for the Imperial theater, described seeing the Emperor for the first time, following a performance at the theater:

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“I first caught sight of the Emperor. I was struck by the size of the man, and although cumbersome and heavy, he was still a mighty figure. There was indeed something of the muzhik [Russian peasant] about him. The look of his bright eyes made quite an impression on me. As he passed where I was standing, he raised his head for a second, and to this day I can remember what I felt as our eyes met. It was a look as cold as steel, in which there was something threatening, even frightening, and it struck me like a blow. The Tsar's gaze! The look of a man who stood above all others, but who carried a monstrous burden and who every minute had to fear for his life and the lives of those closest to him. In later years I came into contact with the Emperor on several occasions, and I felt not the slightest bit timid. In more ordinary cases Tsar Alexander III could be at once kind, simple, and even almost homely.”
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Alexander III & Family
Like his grandfather, Nicholas I, the young Alexander III had not expected to become tsar until he was 20 in 1865 when his older brother Nicholas, about to be married to the Danish princess Dagmar, died following a sudden illness. It was the dying tsaryevich's wish that Dagmar should wed the new heir. It was Alexander's first lesson in realizing his life was intended to be one of duty: his father now ordered him to go immediately to Copenhagen and propose to the princess even though he himself was in love with a young lady of the court who was then subsequently banished. His life, he discovered was not to be his own. Fortunately, he grew to love his wife and never took a mistress, another distinction between him and his father who, a month after the death of his long-suffering wife, married the mistress by whom he'd already had four illegitimate children.

Politically estranged from his father (as well as morally), Alexander III immediately began reversing his father's reforms, beginning with a decree that Alexander II had planned to announce the day of his assassination which would have created “advisory commissions,” the first step towards a constitution which could lead to a weakening of the imperial autocratic power. Alexander III had the document destroyed and essentially returned to the “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationalism” ideology of his grandfather, Nicholas I.

While his isolationist policies may have prevented Russian involvement in foreign wars during his reign – for which he was often called “Alexander the Peaceful” – he felt that across the Empire, with its numerous nationalities especially along the European borders, the only way to save Russia was to make it a nation of one nationality, and therefore he enforced the mandatory teaching of the Russian language and the destruction of the remaining German, Polish, Baltic and Swedish institutions as still existed. By 1882, he had initiated laws limiting the settlements of Jews even within “The Pale” (established in 1791) – speaking of going further back for an explanation, this was the region covering much of the Baltic, modern Belarus and most of Ukraine beyond which it was forbidden for Jews to settle – and further restricting what occupations Jews could engage in.

Reducing the power of local governments and courts, the tsar established “land captains” to oversee the peasant populations, causing great resentment and fear among a large percentage of the rural population. If there had been hope for a constitution and a parliamentary government under Alexander II, the tsar now quarreled with his uncle, the Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich – to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated his 2nd String Quartet – who had been advocating for a constitution since 1865 and who was largely responsible for the “advisory council” decree Alexander II was due to sign the day of his death. No longer “welcome at court” (essentially a decree of banishment), the Grand Duke retired from the fray, suffering various personal setbacks including a stroke in 1889 that left him an invalid.

Given the success of “The People's Will” in murdering his father, Alexander III was advised he could not be kept safe at the easily accessible Winter Palace so he lived primarily at a heavily guarded palace outside the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg and, when in the city, stayed at the Anichkov Palace, easier to fortify. Though “The People's Will” fell apart by 1884, political zeal for political and social reform was too ingrained in certain disaffected factions across the Empire and in 1887, the Secret Police uncovered an assassination plot against Alexander III, arresting five conspirators who were then hanged. One of these was a 21-year-old student named Alexander Ulyanov, the older brother of Vladimir Ulyanov, better known to history as Lenin.

It is easy to underestimate the power of these repressed political activists, called generally the intelligentsia, people who were educated, capable of political leadership but unable to exercise it. They theorized and critiqued society but could do little to change it directly, the more repressive the government became. As a term, it originated in the 1860s even though, as a class, the concept existed not only in Russia but in many poor communities across industrial Europe late in the 18th Century (speaking of “going back a bit”).

In 1871, Fyodor Dostoievsky caricatured these underground revolutionaries and their network of pamphlets and secret meetings in his novel Demons (for years, translated as “The Possessed”), initially inspired by a true event, a murder committed by a group calling itself “The People's Vengeance.” It is an allegory about “the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s.”

But this was not a united front and just as any other political organization, “grass-roots” or otherwise, it was fragmented very often by opposing factions as well as extremists of various viewpoints. Tsar Peter the Great (who is generally not considered “Great” by the Russians themselves) is credited with introducing the idea of “progress” into his essentially medieval, Asiatic nation at the end of the 17th Century, opening the “window on the West” and creating out of sheer will (and arrogance) a Europeanized society which, among other things, included importing Italian musicians and architects to fill the vacuum that existed in Russian culture at the time (again, too long a story for this post).

But by opening this “window” to progress, as several writers have said, came various flies and gnats that then became the primary force behind the destruction of Peter the Great's empire, resulting in the Bolshevik Party's overthrow of the provisional government that had already overthrown the tsar.

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Tsar Nicholas II, 1898 (signed "Niki")
“Progress” was a word the next tsar, Nicholas II, wished could be erased from the Russian language. He became tsar in 1894 at the age of 26 after his father's death from natural causes – kidney disease – at the age of 49. He was ill-prepared for the responsibilities, assuming such a healthy and robust figure as his father, despite the constant fear of assassination, would live for quite a long time.

As the heir, the tsarevich had visited the United States and observed the workings of Congress (presumably, a time when Congress did work) and also England where he was much impressed by Parliament and the machinery of a constitutional monarchy. However, once his reign as Emperor began, suggestions of pursuing such political reforms in Russia were met with the strong re-affirmation of his father's policy of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationalism.”

At his coronation in 1896, a large field had been set up with food and beer for the people of Moscow but rumors spread that there would not be enough for the 100,000 people estimated to have shown up for the festivities, and so a rush of people eager to get their share turned into a stampede and over 1,300 people were killed in the crush and another 1,300 injured. Preferring to stay in the palace to pray for the dead, Nicholas was talked into attending a coronation ball given by the French ambassador and so the people saw their new tsar as frivolous, uncaring, and insensitive. This earned him the nickname “Nicholas the Bloody.”

Given the increasing labor unrest and the strikes that were being called in the opening years of the new century, Nicholas II's minister thought a war with a small nation like Japan might rally the people behind the banner of patriotism, convinced of an easy victory because the Japanese were considered “racially inferior” and a small country with no real military power against the vast Russian Empire.

The Russo-Japanese War began in February, 1904, with a pre-emptive strike by Japan. An expensive, unwieldy, long-distance war, it ended in May, 1905, with the Japanese destroying the entire Russian fleet in a single battle. Forced to sue for peace, Nicholas acknowledged the defeat.

In January, 1905, a group of workers led by a priest who was also a labor leader, carried icons, banners, and portraits of the tsar, approaching the Winter Palace to peacefully petition the tsar, unaware the Emperor had left the city on the advice of his ministers. Troops were brought in to fortify the police and as the petitioners, singing hymns and the tsarist anthem, saw their way blocked by soldiers and mounted Cossacks. Then the soldiers opened fire. There were 92 dead and over one hundred wounded after the bullets had riddled their icons and the portraits of the tsar.

At the Winter Palace: Bloody Sunday (from a 1925 Soviet film)
Reading diary entries of both the tsar and his sister, it is clear they thought this was “hideously wrong,” that the ministers “had it all their way.” Yet the blame fell clearly on the tsar.

A future British prime minister called the tsar a "blood-stained creature and a common murderer."

The leader of the demonstration wrote from a subsequent hiding place, “Nicholas Romanov, formerly Tsar and at present soul-murderer of the Russian empire. The innocent blood of workers, their wives and children lies forever between you and the Russian people ... May all the blood which must be spilled fall upon you, you Hangman. I call upon all the socialist parties of Russia to come to an immediate agreement among themselves and bring an armed uprising against tsarism.”

In the midst of all this, one of the ladies of the Imperial court introduced a monk newly arrived in St. Petersburg who might be able to serve the Empress as a spiritual advisor. His name was Grigori Rasputin.

Strikes continued to plague the country, especially a paralyzing railway strike in 1906. His chief minister, Count Sergei Witte, urged the tsar to begin political reforms. When Nicholas asked his uncle Nicholas, a strong military man, to take on the temporary role of Dictator to oversee the crisis, the Grand Duke took out a pistol and said he would shoot himself “then and there” if the tsar did not accept Witte's memorandum.

And so, a constitution came to Russia with the creation of the parliament-like body called the Duma, and though it was not the constitutional monarchy we're familiar with in England, it was clear the Autocrat of All the Russias was no longer an autocrat.

Following what is called the 1905 Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II signed a declaration appointing a liaison between the Winter Palace and the Duma on October 26th, 1906, by the Old Style calendar. Ironically, by the morning of October 26th, 1917, the Bolshevik workers will have overthrown the government to declare a new nation which would become known as the Soviet Union.

But that is a story for the next chapter as we meet Dmitri Shostakovich, born September 25th, 1906, and hear his 11th String Quartet which the Amernet Quartet performs on this program.

Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Amernet Quartet's Russian Program: Tchaikovsky!

This weekend's concert with the Amernet Quartet – a commemoration of the Centennial of the Russian Revolution of November 7th, 1917 – features music from three generations of Russian composers with the Five Novelettes by Alexander Glazunov, the 11th String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich and, on the second half, the String Quartet No. 2 in F Major by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. The performance is at Market Square Church on Saturday, November 11th, at 8:00 with a pre-concert talk at 7:15 by Dr. Truman Bullard, who specializes in Russian music.

(You can read the historical background in the previous post, here – and about the Glazunov Novelettes, here - and about Shostakovich's 11th Quartet in a future post. This post is about the lives of both Glazunov and Shostakovich during the years immediately before and after the Revolutions in 1917.)

Here is Market Square Concerts' Artistic Director Peter Sirotin to introduce the program (that's not Tchaikovsky with Peter, btw: it's Oscar the Office Assistant):

In this series of posts, given the historical background to the Revolution, I've chosen to examine the music in chronological order, beginning with the quartet that Tchaikovsky began working on around Christmastime in 1873. He finished it in early-January, 1874, dating the completed rough draft on January 18th, 1874 (by the Old Style calendar: that would be January 30th, according to the New Style Gregorian calendar adopted after the Revolution). He was 33 years old.

It's in four movements, with the first movement marked “Moderato assai” (very moderate) after a slow introduction; the second movement Scherzo is followed by the slow movement, marked “Andante ma non tanto” (basically a moderate “walking” tempo). The Finale is marked “Allegro con moto” (lively, with motion).

Here is a live performance by the legendary Borodin Quartet with the complete Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 22.
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Curiously, Tchaikovsky did not compose it “straight through” as you hear it. His brother Modest wrote in his collection of the composer's letters, “The sequence in which the movements were composed can be determined from the rough draft of the score: the first movement (without the introduction), the fourth movement, the third movement (first version), the second movement, followed by the introduction to the first movement, and a second version of the third movement.”

Tchaikovsky in January, 1874
“Recalling the Christmases we used to spend in Moscow", Modest continues, "I remember hearing him come up with the first theme of the first Allegro.” This would have been December 1873, and Tchaikovsky later remembered that work on the quartet went easily and quickly. A week after completing it, he wrote to another brother, Anatol, “I have written a new quartet and it is to be played at a soirée given by Nicholas Rubinstein.”

A friend recalled that first performance: “I believe the host himself was not present, but his brother Anton [Rubinstein] was there... All the time the music was going on, Rubinstein listened with a lowering, discontented expression, and, at the end, declared with his customary brutal frankness that it is not at all in the style of chamber music; that he himself could not understand the work, etc. The rest of the audience [which consisted of only four invited guests], as well as the players, were charmed by it.”

The first public performance took place at one of the Russian Musical Society chamber programs and according to The Musical Leaflet, a kind of newsletter, it had “a well-deserved success.” The first performance in St. Petersburg did not take place until October 24th, after which Tchaikovsky wrote to Modest from Moscow, after complaining about studying Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov (“it may go to the devil, for all I care: it is the commonest, lowest parody of music”). A sentence later, he mentions “on Sunday, the Russian Quartet which brought out my Quartet in D [the 1st Quartet with the famous Andante cantabile] is playing here” though in the context, it's hard to tell if they're going to be playing his new F Major Quartet or not.

He continues: “I am glad my new quartet finds favor with you and Mlle Maloziomov [a former fellow-student and future piano teacher at the Moscow Conservatory]. It is my best work; not one of them has come to me so easily and fluently as this. I completed it as if it were in one sitting. I am surprised the public do not care for it, for I have always thought, among this class of works, it had the best chance of success.”

Keep in mind, at the time, he was dealing with the production of two operas, the recently completed Oprichnik (he was actually writing to his friends and telling them not to come see it) and the error-plagued Vakula the Smith.

Modest, in his notes, adds at this point “I can't understand why my brother can have inferred from my letter that the quartet was not a success. It must have pleased, since it was repeated at least once during the season. Cui spoke of it as a 'beautiful, talented, fluent work, which showed originality and invention.'” [Cui, as a composer was a member of the Mighty Handful or 'Russian Five' with Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Borodin; as a critic, he had earlier that year savaged Tchaikovsky's new 2nd Symphony, the one we generally call “The Little Russian.”] Another critic, he continued, thought it showed “'marked progress.' The first movement displayed as much style as Beethoven's A Minor Quartet” [Op. 132].

Meanwhile, he had a new tone poem, the Shakespeare-inspired Tempest, given its world premiere. It pleased the usually displeased critics but it was the negative review from a close friend of his that really stung. In another letter to Anatol, he also informed him that he was hard at work on a piano concerto. This would be his famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor (not many music lovers are aware there is a 2nd and even fewer have ever heard the 3rd).

On Christmas Eve, a year after beginning work on the 2nd String Quartet, he took his new concerto to his former teacher and mentor (as well as former roommate), Nikolai Rubinstein (Anton's brother) for what became one of the most famous critiques in all of classical music.

To say that Rubinstein hated the work would be an understatement. To say he savaged the work was wounding enough, waiting in nerve-wracking silence until he let forth a torrent of abuse: the work was “worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages so broken, so disconnected, so unskillfully written, they could not be improved; the work itself was bad, trivial, common; only one or two pages worth anything, best destroyed...” And then he really let loose...

The upshot is, as it turns out, the concerto went on to become one of the most popular works Tchaikovsky ever wrote and certainly one of the most popular piano concertos in the repertoire. The only change Tchaikovsky made in the score was to erase the dedication to Rubinstein...

Though this has nothing to do with the Quartet, I thought it interesting to quote this letter, written to Modest, a would-be journalist and writer, about his own creative method, written less than two weeks later:

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“You complain that writing comes to you with difficulty, and that you have to search for every phrase. But do you really suppose anything can be accomplished without trouble and discipline? I often sit for hours, pen in hand, and have no idea how to begin my 'articles.' I think I shall never hammer anything out; and afterwards people praise the fluency and ease of the writing! Remember what pains Zaremba's exercises cost me [referring to his earliest composition lessons]. Do you forget how in the summer of '66 I worked my nerves to pieces over my First Symphony? And even now I often gnaw my nails to the quick, smoke any number of cigarettes, and pace up and down my room..., before I can evolve a particular motive or theme. At other times writing comes easily, thoughts seem to flow and chase each other as they go. All depends upon one's mood and condition of mind. But even when we are not disposed for it we must force ourselves to work. Otherwise nothing can be accomplished. You write of being out of spirits. Believe me, I am the same.”
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No wonder he felt so strongly toward his new string quartet, the one that came so effortlessly to him...

In one more letter – this one written in 1879 to his then patron, the very mysterious Mme von Meck – the composer is enjoying the creative after-glow following the completion of his newest opera, The Maid of Orleans. “I place it in the front rank of my works, although I see all its defects. It was a labor of love, an enjoyment, like [writing] Onyegin, the 4th Symphony, and the 2nd Quartet.”

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Since this work has one direct association with the Imperial family, being dedicated to a Grand Duke, let's take a brief detour into the life of the “Russian Royals.”

Tsar Alexander II
Alexander II was tsar and “Autocrat of All the Russias” when Tchaikovsky composed this string quartet but, alas, the tsar had little interest in Tchaikovsky's music, an observation the composer himself admitted to when asked to write something – in the future – for the jubilee of the tsar's reign, a little something called The 1812 Overture.

To go back a bit farther (everything in Russian history requires “going back a bit farther”...), Tsar Alexander II's father Nicholas I was a strict military man with an iron will, as he was described. He came to the throne when Tsar Alexander I, the popular tsar during the Napoleonic Wars and the toast of Europe during the ensuing Congress of Vienna (he was also a fan of Beethoven and also figured in Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace), died “without issue” in 1825. The heir apparent, the late tsar's younger brother Konstantine, renounced the throne, leaving Nicholas the unexpected ruler of Russia. Nicholas, in turn, was met with opposition from liberal-minded members of the military and the aristocracy in the “Decembrist Uprising” which Nicholas forcefully put down, exiling most of its leaders and ranking members to Siberia where, curiously, they continued their liberal efforts among the common people around them. After Nicholas died in 1855 at the height of the disastrous Crimean War, his son Alexander II pardoned the Decembrists a year later.

Nicholas' thirty-year reign was characterized by a reactionary policy of "Official Nationality," proclaimed in 1833, based on “orthodoxy in religion, autocracy in government, and Russian nationalism.” But by comparison to his father, Alexander II was quite liberal even if the only thing we'd know about him was the abolition of serfdom in 1861 (how serfdom became ingrained in Russian culture would take way too much “going back” to explain), earning him the nickname “Tsar-Liberator.” While the ideals of the idea were lofty, the implementation of them and their impact on society was less successful.

Tsar Alexander II with his dog, Milord
No less a writer than Mark Twain described meeting the Tsar in the course of his Innocents Abroad, as “very tall and spare, and a determined-looking man, though a very pleasant-looking one nevertheless. It is easy to see that he is kind and affectionate. There is something very noble in his expression when his cap is off.”

Alexander II reformed the corrupt judicial system, setting up elected local judges, abolished corporal punishment, promoted local self-government, imposed universal military service which ended certain aristocratic privileges, and promoted university education. He sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 mainly to keep it out of the hands of the British in Canada (pragmatically, it would be too expensive to defend in case of war), which helped give the United States greater freedom in its Pacific trade.

However, after a decade on the throne, his interest in liberal reforms began to wane. Though he encouraged nationalism in Finland, he brutally suppressed it in Poland (part of the Russian Empire since the days of his great-grandmother, Catherine the Great) which was then ruled under martial law for the next forty years.

And while all these liberal policies had run counter to the conservative aristocracy, it was the liberal element of the Russian people – who became known as the intelligentsia – perhaps aware that their much-hoped-for reforms were stalling, who tried three times to assassinate the tsar, the first time in 1866 by a revolutionary exhorting the People to revolt.

An artist named Viktor Hartmann designed a memorial to the tsar's escaping that “event” which later inspired Modest Mussorgsky to compose “The Great Gate of Kiev” in 1874, the same year Tchaikovsky had completed his 2nd String Quartet.

Finally, then, nihilists from a revolutionary group calling itself “The People's Will” succeeded in 1881. The first bomb exploded under the tsar's bullet-proof carriage (a gift of Napoleon III), but when he exited the carriage unhurt to see to the injured horses and his guards, a second revolutionary threw a bomb directly at the feet of the tsar who died as he was being taken back to the Winter Palace.

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Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich (far right) & Family; his wife is seated in the center; his eldest son Nicholas (r.) stands behind him
Tchaikovsky dedicated his 2nd String Quartet to the Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich, the younger brother of the Tsar, and who, at the time, was President of the Russian Musical Society, a largely honorary, ceremonial position, part of the various duties taken on by members of the imperial family. It had been founded by the music-loving Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, wife of the youngest brother of tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I (therefore an aunt of the present tsar), along with her protege, the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. Its purpose was to “raise the standard of music in the country and promote music education.” Anton Rubinstein would found the first music school in Russia, the St. Petersburg Conservatory, in 1862; he would start one in Moscow, under the directorship of his brother Nikolai, in 1866 where one of its first students would be a would-be composer and dissatisfied lawyer named Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. The Society would be disbanded after the “October Revolution” in 1917.

However, Grand Duke Constantine was more than just a music-loving aristocrat: he played the cello and his wife, originally a German princess, played the piano. So there may have been more to Tchaikovsky's dedication than mere political politeness.

As the next son of Nicholas I after Alexander II, the Grand Duke might have once been “heir apparent” if Tsar Alexander hadn't already had six sons by 1860. Still, like his brother, Grand-Duke Constantine was of a liberal mind and proved instrumental in implementing many of the tsar's reforms, especially in the Emancipation of the Serfs as well as the sale of Alaska. Appointed Governor-General of Poland in 1862, he was wounded when the bullet of a would-be nationalist assassin grazed his shoulder on his second day in Warsaw. He would soon run afoul of his nephew when he became Alexander III in 1881, but we'll leave that to the next post.

Grand Duke Constantine owned two lavish palaces in and around St. Petersburg, plus a country estate on the Gulf of Finland and another in the southern region of Crimea (a vacation destination for Russian “snowbirds”). In 1874, his eldest son, the Grand Duke Nicholas Constantinovich, who at 24 had a promising military career, became involved with a “notorious American woman, Fanny Lear” (one source describes her as a “courtesan”), and subsequently stole three large and valuable diamonds from an icon belonging to his mother. When the crime was discovered, he was “declared insane” and banished to the city of Tashkent in modern Uzbekistan, where he lived the rest of his life.

He died of pneumonia in January, 1918, according to official reports, though one site I found mentioned “dubious accounts” saying he was killed by bolshevik partisans: why is that “dubious” when the deposed tsar, Nicholas II, and his entire family, imprisoned by the Communists in Ekaterinburg, were executed on July 17th, 1918? Grand Duke Nicholas Constaninovich's eldest son, Artemy, would die during the Civil War the following year.

To be continued...

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Russian Music and a Centennial: Some Historical Background Before a Concert

Storming the Winter Palace, 1917
 This past Tuesday marked the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, an event that is not likely to be “celebrated” in that sense of the word despite its having been, like it or not, one of the pivotal events of the 20th Century. And this weekend's program with Market Square Concerts commemorates the anniversary with a kind of “before-and-after” musical tribute to an event that not only changed Russian history, but is still having an impact on the world today.

The Amernet Quartet returns to Harrisburg with a program of three generations of Russian composers: two works from before the Revolution – to put them in chronological order, the 2nd String Quartet by Tchaikovsky, one of the most popular Russian composers of the 19th Century, the five Novelettes by Alexander Glazunov, a leading composer from the “next generation” of Russian composers – and then the 11th String Quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich, one of Glazunov's students and one of two composers of the Soviet era most familiar to Western audiences.

It had not been my intent to write a book on this program, but you can read the other posts in this series here:
about Tchaikovsky and Tsar Alexander II
about Glazunov and Tsars Alexander III & Nicholas II
about Dmitri Shostkovich, the Soviet Union's first "home-grown" composer
and about the lives of both Glazunov and Shostakovich during the years immediately before and after the 1917 Revolutions.

The performance is Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church and Dr. Truman Bullard, who specializes in Russian music, will be giving the pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15.

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The second chapter of Boris Schwarz's history of Soviet Music begins,

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A salvo from the cruiser Aurora, anchored in the river Neva, signaled the beginning of the 'Third Revolution' proclaimed by Lenin. The roar of the guns could be heard at the Narodny Dom ('The People's House'), across the river from the Winter Palace, where an opera performance of Verdi's Don Carlo was in progress [ironically, there is a scene where the crowd storms the prison steps only to be quelled by the appearance of the Grand Inquisitor]. Chaliapin, on stage in the role of [King] Philip II, calmed the frightened audience, and the performance was finished. On his way home, the artist had to dodge some stray bullets. It was Wednesday evening, 25 October (7 November).

The following day, the citizens of Petrograd [as St. Petersburg had been renamed during the course of World War I] awoke to realize that, during the night, the Provisional Government [which had been formed following the overthrow of the Imperial government in February] had capitulated and that the Bolsheviks [the Communist Party] had seized power. John Reed, [an American journalist and] the famous eye-witness, described the scene,

'Superficially, all was quiet... In Petrograd, the street cars were running, the stores and restaurants open, theatres going, an exhibition of paintings advertised... All the complex routine of common life – humdrum even in war-time – proceeded as usual. Nothing is so astounding as the vitality of the social organism – how it persists, feeding itself, clothing itself, amusing itself, in face of the worst calamities.'

On the evening of 26 October (8 November), the Petrograd State Symphony gave a regularly scheduled concert. At the Maryinsky Opera (the former tsarist court theater), says conductor [Nikolai] Malko, 'I cannot remember even one performance being canceled on any of the nights.' Nothing seems so reassuring to an unnerved population as the continuance of theatrical and musical events.”
(– Boris Schwarz,Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-1970, The Norton Library, 1972, p.11.)
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If you want to watch an old silent film, Sergei Eisenstein's 1927 evocation of the October Revolution is worth watching whether you regard it as Soviet propaganda, art, or a historical documentary. Keep in mind, even ten years after the events it depicts, much of the “scenery” is still accurate, little-changed. A silent film, the music added for this video is taken primarily from Shostakovich's own symphonic documentary of the events, his 12th Symphony (“The Year 1917”), which had been performed earlier this year by the Harrisburg Symphony, and written in the year 1961. Though 21 at the time of the film, Shostakovich had just written his 2nd Symphony, subtitled “October,” in 1927 as his own tribute to the Revolution's anniversary.

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Lenin addresses the Crowd
It's sometimes called the “October Revolution” because by the calendar then in use in Russia, the date was October 25th; in the rest of the world, using the Gregorian Calendar, it was November 7th. And while the Russian or Bolshevik Revolution (a.k.a. the Communist Revolution) officially began that night, it was far from a spontaneous historical happening.

There was also the “February Revolution” earlier the same year which toppled the Imperial government of Tsar Nicholas II and replaced it with a democratically led Provisional Government (at least, that was the intent) which in turn was toppled by the Bolsheviks eight months later.
Children with the toppled statue of Tsar Alexander III outside the Winter Palace, February 1917

And while the October Revolution is sometimes known as “Ten Days that Shook the World,” the impact of the revolution itself did not, as we in the West often assume, lead to a peaceful establishment of the new government, in fact a whole new society, in short order: it led directly into a protracted and violent Civil War that lasted another five years.

There are many history books – and fat books, at that – written about the Revolution and its aftermath. This isn't the place to go into that kind of historical detail but if you think that, well, the Revolution was a hundred years ago and the Soviet Union was tossed onto the ash-heap of history 26 years ago, you're missing a lot of the waves that rippled out from that very large rock dropping into the world pond.

In fact, you could argue much of the tension in our news today still stems from the divisions between the Old Soviet Union and what is generically called “The West” (or specifically, The United States and its allies) even though theoretically “The Cold War” is thought to be over. It will be interesting to see how the concerns over the Communist government in North Korea play out with modern Russia and the still-Communist government of China: will they band together with the United States against Kim Jong-Un or will they, as governments have usually done in the past, gravitate towards their traditional political alliances? History generally tends to repeat itself whether we understand it or not.

It is also important to realize that – just as we examine issues dividing our own nation today – the Communist Revolution did not spring spontaneously from the disaffection of the workers, the Proletariat, in the autumn of 1917. There was another, less-well-known revolution in Russian history in 1905, but the events and issues that led to that can also be shown to have existed earlier. Even if you only read Russian novels written in the last half of the 19th Century rather than books on Russian history, you can't help but notice the widening gulf between the wealthy class and the poor, or the aristocrats and the intelligentsia, or the impact of the poorly handled Emancipation of the Serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861 (even earlier than Lincoln freed the slaves during our own Civil War with its badly handled post-war Reconstruction – Lincoln, assassinated in 1865; Alexander II, in 1881) or the animosity festering among those being repressed by an authoritarian government going back even centuries before the Decembrist Uprising protesting Nicholas I's rule in 1825.

What about the frequent, general discontent that always seems to plague Russian history? It hardly matters whether the “Autocrat of All the Russias” is named Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin or Putin – tsar, Communist party dictator or elected president...

It is true, no matter what period of history you look at, the story of Russia is a sad one.

But yet, there is Art: literature, theater, painting, and above all, music. And in that sense, the contributions of Russian Culture hopefully outweigh much of what many Westerners (and Russians) think of when considering Russian History.

In subsequent posts, I'll discuss the music on the program: Tchaikovsky's 2nd String Quartet was completed in 1874 during the reign of Tsar Alexander II; Alexander Glazunov's "Novelettes" were written in 1886 during the reign of Tsar Alexander III; and Glazunov himself taught Dmitri Shostakovich who was a student at the Conservatory during the Revolution, coming to terms with the string quartet fairly late in his career, writing his 11th Quartet in 1966 at the height of the Cold War, two years after Nikita Khrushchev was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev.

- Dick Strawser