Bach and Mozart are the Masters. Grieg calls to my Norwegian heritage. And Handel to my history.
But it is Russian composers who gladden my heart. And I have been trying to figure out why.
I listen to music while I work. There is a set of cable TV channels that I have on in the background to fill the solitude. When on the job, I listen to a sort of Enya-esque new age music mostly from the 90s. When I am writing, like now, I listen to short classical pieces. The mix is quite good, from Praetorius to Cage, and I enjoy most pieces. But when a new piece comes on or something grabs my attention, it is usually a Russian composer.
I have been to Russia, though it was then the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1973, my high school senior class too a trip to Russia. We flew to Helsinki, took the train to Moscow for five days, then travelled to what was then Leningrad.
Moscow was grim and trim, with two occupying armies: soldiers armed with rifles and short stooped women wearing long coats and babushkas armed with brooms. There were machines on the street dispensing soda that tasted like bubble gum, not in cans but in a communal glass.
Leningrad was beautiful, with the proud calm Neva doing the sweeping. The highlight was the Hermitage, the Tzar’s winter palace turned art museum, the first I can remember visiting, and the most beautiful. The Russian people were friendly, even the soldiers for the most part. I fell in love with our stunning blond tour guide Tanya.
It was a grand adventure, though I lived on bread and tea (pozhaluysta, chay) and lost ten pounds in ten days, pounds I could not then afford to lose, and the only time I have been out of the USA except a brief foray to the Bahamas during my honeymoon.
But I don’t remember ever hearing real Russian music on the trip. We did attend the Bolshoi and saw Don Quixote (marvelous), but that was composed by Ludwig Minkus, who emigrated from Austria to Russia.
So I cannot account for my attraction to Russian music. But it is real. Prokofiev is my favorite. Peter and the Wolf (the puppet version especially), the Troika from Lieutenant Kije, most any of the symphonies make me stop work and listen.
Alexander Glazunov is another who invariably catches my attention. Stravinsky too – especially The Firebird. Even early Shostakovich. Borodin, who I first experienced through the musical Kismet, and whose String Quartet No. 2 in D underscored my play Monuments.
Strangely though, not so much Tchaikovsky, probably the most famous Russian composer, maybe because he always sounds like he is writing in another tradition. Or defining one.
So what differentiates Russian music, to the extent that I can tell it from other composers. I have yet to figure it out. Lesser dependence on strings. More flute and piccolo. And somehow underneath it all this pulse, this energy, this folkish joy. Some of all of those I suspect, yet more than the sum. But I can’t yet define what.
I suspect Nikolay Rimsky-Korsikov started it all. Rimsky-Korsikov, who was largely self-taught, wrote his first symphony while serving in the Russian navy. In the mid-Nineteenth century, there was a group of Russian composers referred to as The Five— César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—who attempted to (and apparently succeeded in) creating a Russian school of music. Rimsky-Korsikov then taught Glazunov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky.
There is a wonderful patter song by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill, most famously performed by Danny Kaye, that lists 56 Russian composers. I haven’t listened to them all. But I should.
Maybe I would finally figure this out.