Over 100 years ago, Russian folk music provided the doorway to a flowering of Modernism.
Anytime you hear the word “Russian” these days, there’s a good chance one of the next words you hear will be “interference.” The image of Russia this inevitably creates is that of a power operating on the fringes of Europe—or on the fringes of western democracies more generally. It reflects a suspicion that has a long pedigree. After the fall of Napoleon, the European states all looked apprehensively at Russia with
its enormous army parked in France. Russia was clearly in Europe as Henry Kissinger once put it, but not exactly part of Europe.
Culturally speaking too, Russia has a strong sense of independence that was particularly strong as Modernism swept Europe in the latter 19th century. Even most Russian artists who rebelled against official styles tried to do so with an art that was distinctively Russian, that appealed to the common people, the peasants of its vast historic landscape.
But for a couple of decades around the turn of the twentieth century, Russian artists of all kinds had a transformative effect on almost every art form in which Modernism was putting down roots.
Tchaikovsky is probably the best known of this group to the general public, at least in terms of composers, thanks mostly to the “1812 Overture” and his collection of ballet music like “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker.” But we don’t automatically think of him as a Modernist. Like many Russian composers of his generation, he has a wonderful sense of melody that’s firmly rooted in Russian folk music. That was how he and many of the new young composers rebelled against the official styles of the academy and the upper classes.
Dmitri Shostakovich is another Russian composer whose influence has spread throughout the orchestral world in a very profound way. Shostakovich deserves more attention in the United States than he gets. Through his numerous symphonies some of which are very creative and almost cinematic, and in his series of emotionally charged string quartets, he explores the role of the artist under Soviet oppression.
The Russian composer who to our ears is most identifiably modern is the great Igor Stravinsky. Over a few years in just a couple of ballets rooted in Russian folklore he completely transformed the role rhythm plays in orchestral music. It’s all enough to make one wonder what was going on in Russia over a handful of decades that caused it to produce composers on the order of Vienna in the time of Mozart and Beethoven.
Widen the focus just a little bit and one quickly realizes it’s not just composers, but an incredible roster of visual and performing artists that energized Russia’s cultural scene at the dawn of the 20th century. More on this next time.