Saturday, January 10, 2015

Russian Identity through Music in the 19th Century

     Though the headnotes to the 19th century in Norton say that music, along with art at the time, suffered a period of stagnation, after which it lists the most well known composers of music. Ever. Sure, while the music "sounds the same" to some people, the artists often used themes in their works to convey meaningful messages. "The Five," or Mighty Handful, for instance, composed a group of excellent Russian nationalist pieces. The strove to make their work Russian, even at a time when Dostoevsky asserted that Russia was becoming less and less "Russian" and rather becoming (to his dismay) Western. They worked primarily in St. Petersburg, the city which Dostoevsky notes as especially artificial and consequently abhorrent. I really find it interesting that, in the city which was non-Russian from its inception, in a time which was noted for the loss of Russian identity, it was the musicians that saved the day and established Russia as a formidable influence on 19th century art.
     The primary identifying feature of most of the Five's music is orientalism, which the American Taruskin defines as "the East as a sign or metaphor, as imaginary geography, as historical fiction, as the reduced and totalized other against which we contract our (not less reduced and totalized) sense of ourselves." This sense of an attempt to define ourselves definitely finds a nice place in the questions Dostoevsky poses in Notes

My favorite work (alas, most people's favorite work) from the Russian romantics is Sheherazade. Rimsky-Korsakov composed it, and its a programmatic piece for One Thousand and One Nights. I recommend giving it a listen, especially after reading a brief synopsis of the vignettes that it covers. Enjoy!

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