Program Three: Music under Tsarist Autocracy
About the Program
In March 1881, a terrorist killed Tsar Alexander II. The assassination was odd because Alexander, unlike his father, had been known as a reformer. But to People’s Will, the radical organization that plotted the assassination, the ultimate goal was revolution from below, not incremental reform from above. To kill the tsar—any tsar—would, in their thinking, surely unleash a wave of peasant rebellion that would at long last end the institution itself. But this failed to happen. Instead, Alexander II, liberator of the serfs, was succeeded by Alexander III, who returned in spirit to his grandfather Nicholas I’s conservative slogan of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality” and ordered the quick destruction of the empire’s political radicals, who were wiped out or driven deep underground.
Russian society was increasingly fragmented and discontented, but Alexander III’s coronation ceremony in 1883 took pains to emphasize unity—to assert that, while other European monarchies bowed to the mediating presence of elected parliaments and constitutions, the tsar, in direct communion with the people, continued to rule by divine right. To provide much of the music for the coronation festivities, the planning committee and city of Moscow turned to Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, then in the throes of writing an opera, first wanted to decline the commissions, but he thought better of it in light of his personal closeness to Alexander, his erstwhile fan and sometimes patron. The largest and most blatantly ideological commission was an encomiastic cantata, Moscow, which culminated in an assertion of the city as the third and final Rome, unassailable Orthodox heir to Byzantium. The much shorter Coronation March—constructed of infinitely repeatable flourishes, festive brass writing, and snippets from the tsarist anthem (“God Save the Tsar”)—was for an outdoor festival at Sokolniki Park, on the outskirts of Moscow. In a letter to his colleague and former student Sergei Taneyev, the composer judged the march “noisy”—its purpose, after all—“but bad.” Yet the march has had an afterlife far removed from its original context. In 1891, the composer conducted it at the opening night of Andrew Carnegie’s brand new Music Hall in New York City. A piece composed in celebration of Old World absolutism could serve just as well as a celebration of American industry’s philanthropic benevolence.
By the time of Alexander III’s coronation, the Russian Empire was massive. Extending far beyond the bounds of medieval Muscovy, it stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from above the Arctic Circle to Afghanistan, a gargantuan mixture of different faiths, ethnic groups, and languages. The empire’s expansion and absorption of non-Russians gave rise to a strand of Russian musical exoticism—as it did in Europe’s other colonial powers. Alexander Serov’s opera Judith, for example, takes aspects of French exotic opera (its depiction of the Assyrians) and situates it within the structure of French grand opera tradition. In five acts that alternate between personal introspection and public pomp, Judith, the widowed heroine, infiltrates the camp and then tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes and cuts off his head, thereby saving the nation of Israel from foreign subjugation.
In contrast to Serov’s operatic importation, the group of amateur “nationalist” composers arrayed around Mily Balakirev, often known as the Mighty Five, wrote their own stream of Orientalist compositions. These included Balakirev’s Islamey, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s seafaring adventure Scheherazade, and Alexander Borodin’s tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, all of which will be performed at this year’s Bard Music Festival. Balakirev’s long-gestating symphonic poem Tamara, which he began in 1867 as a piano piece and finally orchestrated in 1882, sits within this tradition. Taking after Mikhail Lermontov’s poem of the same name, its setting is Georgia, since its annexation in 1801 a mainstay of Russian romantic yearning. Princess Tamara, the story goes, dwells atop a tower on the banks of a river in a deep gorge. Every night, she entices unsuspecting travelers to her lair. A night of passion ensues: “Burning hands intertwine, lips cling to lips, and strange, wild sounds resound through the night.” Day comes and all goes silent. A traveler’s corpse drifts noiselessly down the river. A voice calls out “Forgive me!” But even in death, the seduction only seems to begin again. “So tender was the farewell, so sweet sounded the voice, as though it promised a rapturous encounter and love’s caress.” Lermontov’s poem shivers with eroticism, but Balakirev focuses more on physical energy. A dark, churning river gives way to a wild dance. Tamara is in many ways a conventional Orientalist seductress, but her location gives away her origins in the Russian imperial imagination: her tower sits along the Georgian Military Road, the series of mountain passes that made travel to—and rule of—Georgia possible.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Sadko also revels in a certain exoticism, though of a different type. The story comes from a medieval bylina (folk epic). Sadko, a rich merchant and famous guslar (lyre player), is on a trading voyage when his ship suddenly stops. He and his crew decide that someone must be sacrificed to the Sea King. Sadko is thrown overboard and sinks into an underwater kingdom (this magical, other realm marked by use of the octatonic scale). Commanded by the Sea King, he begins playing his gusli and stirs up the ocean into a raucous dance. Years later, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded this short episode into an entire opera, in which Sadko marries the Sea King’s daughter. At the end of the opera, this Princess Volkhova, the foreign, fantastic object of Sadko’s desire, transforms into a river linking Novgorod to the sea. Tamara’s longing for faraway others, so central to Romanticism’s artistic reworking of imperial conquest, morphs into commerce, a longing for faraway others’ money.
Rimsky-Korsakov dedicated Sadko to Balakirev, who in the early 1860s took the aspiring composer under his musical wing, a move that aligned him with Balakirev’s circle. In the polemics of the decade, this camp “opposed” the cosmopolitan professionals grouped around Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, founders of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, respectively. This opposition between national versus cosmopolitan and amateur versus professional is perhaps overplayed, but the two groups did differ significantly. The emergence of the conservatories made it possible for composition to be a profession in its own right. Graduates of the conservatories earned the title of “free artist” and rank of “honored citizen,” giving them, in theory, a fundamentally different social position from Balakirev’s circle, all of whom held, at various times, nonmusical jobs.
Rimsky-Korsakov “defected” to the professional side in 1871, when he took a teaching position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. This move led to the institutionalization of the Five’s “national” style. Absorbed into the conservatory system, this style now came with “correct” technique, concrete and respectable social standing, and efficient working habits. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto, for example, attests to both technical polish and significant, lingering traces of Balakirev’s influence—in its modest length, in its debts to Liszt, and in the source of its theme (one of Balakirev’s collections of folk tunes). In terms of professional stature, Rimsky-Korsakov was matched by his counterpart at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky’s former student Taneyev. Intellectually formidable, Taneyev also came to stand for rigor in Russian composition. His Fourth Symphony is a study in carefully worked-out thematic unity, densely woven counterpoint, and the energetic potential of contrary motion—an exemplar of academic symphonism and its ethos.
Unlike Tchaikovsky, who thrived on Alexander III’s largesse and goodwill, Rimsky-Korsakov and Taneyev were both political liberals. They were, in that sense, typical of their era and position. In 1905, the political tensions smothered by Alexander III’s conservative turn finally erupted in revolution, forcing his successor Nicholas II to allow an elected assembly, the Duma. The first elections returned a Duma dominated by Constitutional Democrats (Kadets), leading to the legislative body’s premature demise. In 1905, Rimsky-Korsakov took the side of demonstrating students and was temporarily fired from his job at the conservatory. In Moscow, Taneyev voluntarily left his post in protest, never to return. The Revolution of 1905 signaled the beginning of a battle between an autocracy intent on protecting its prerogatives and a civil society made up of increasingly vocal intellectuals and professionals, whose ranks now included musicians. That battle finally came to a head in 1917, when the autocracy fell and the Russian music world, along with the rest of the country, once again broke in two, as the students of Rimsky-Korsakov and Taneyev variously fled abroad or stuck around to make a new world.
—Matthew R. Honegger, Princeton University
Bard Music Festival Presents
Program Three: Music under Tsarist Autocracy7 pm Preconcert Talk: Simon Morrison
8 pm Performance: Orion Weiss, piano; American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Sadko, Op. 5 (1867; rev. 1869, 1892)
Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 30 (1883)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93)
Festival Coronation March (1883)
Alexander Serov (1820-71)
Overture and March of Holofernes from Judith (1863)
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
Tamara, symphonic poem (1867-82)
Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915)
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Op. 12 (1901)
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