About neuroscience and music (mainly classical). Exploring the relationship of music and the brain based on experience of two careers.

June 29, 2014

Welcome to our 2014 Festival of Russian Music, pt 1

Добро пожаловать на наш фестиваль русской музыки! 

My first Russian experience came in college when I helped my roommate, Bob Horick, put on a “Russian Arts Festival” a few years after the launch of the world’s first satellite the Russians called Sputnik (спутник). Among other effects, that caused a spike in enrollment in Russian courses. Our music headliners were The Yale Russian Chorus, a group that imitated the Red Army Choir, undoubtedly penned up in Russia at that time (1960). We also screened Serge Eisenstein’s classic 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, to which Prokofiev contributed his brilliant first film score that was part of the drama, not background accompaniment. A bassoonist then, Bob went on to earn a Ph. D. in Russian and study at Moscow University.

As our Russian theme began to materialize for this summer, curiosity led me to ask Bob, “Why is Russian Orthodox church music a cappella?” (without instrumental accompaniment, as you will hear in the performance of the Rachmaninov Vespers, Sept 7) Another Russian scholar, the great Richard Taruskin who wrote the entire five-volume Oxford History of Western Music, asserts that the last verse of Psalm 150 forbids using musical instruments in worship: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  That seemed to me ambiguous because the preceding verses (promptly recited to me by Emi) call for praise with trumpets, harps, flutes and every other instrument you can think of. 

Bob’s answer: “A single word, “Tradition,” as Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof. Orthodox writers on music in the church trace back to ancient times the fact that "singing" was how Christians worshipped from the very beginning. In particular the Orthodox Liturgy (primarily the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) probably travelled from Byzantium via Bulgaria to Russia as singing. In fact, there is nothing spoken in it: everything is chant or penie (pesnopenie): ie, "singing" (song-singing).” In the words of Joseph Kerman: Throughout human history, “heightening by singing has provided words with special emphasis, force, mystery, even magic.” (I think Schubert; others think Billy Joel.)

Bob continues: “When the subject of what we would call music comes up in the Orthodox world, it is "singing." The word "music" (музыки) is a foreign word in Russian (like the French word “ballet” in English). Instrumental music did exist in eastern Slavic lands since ancient times, of course, but it is associated with dissolute behavior, especially dancing, drunkenness, sex, etc.  After old Rus' was Christianized in 988 the priests engaged in relentless purges of all native religious beliefs and especially of the wandering bands of musicians called skomorokhi.  

Skomorokhi were medieval East Slavic harlequins, actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances. They appeared in Kievan Rus before the mid-11th century, appealing to the common people and usually opposing the ruling groups, the feudalists, and the clergy, and reached their peak in the 15th–17th centuries. They sang mocking songs, dramatic and satirical sketches called glumy (глумы), performed in masks and skomorokhi dresses to the sounds of domra, balalaika, gudok, bagpipes or buben (a kind of tambourine). Usually the main character was a fun-loving saucy muzhik (мужик = peasant) of comic simplicity. Skomorokhi performed in the streets and city squares engaging with the spectators to draw them into their play. They would sometimes combine their efforts and perform in a vataga (big crowd) numbering 70 to 100 people. 

Skomorokhi were persecuted in the years of the Mongol yoke when the church strenuously propagated ascetic living. A monk chronicler denounced the skomorokhi as devil servants. The Orthodox Church railed against the skomorokhi and other elements of popular culture as being irreverent, detracting from the worship of God, or even downright diabolical. 

In the 18th century the skomorokh art gradually died away; passing on some of its traditions to the balagan (a scene of chaos or fiasco, as in the opening scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka) and rayok (“small paradise,” a fairground peep show accompanied by lewd rhymed jokes viewed through a magnifying glass.) Shostakovich wrote an “Antiformalistic Rayok” mocking Stalin (see below).

“So,” continues Bob, “you can see that instrumental music had a very bad reputation among the dominant classes, who were obliged to support the Church's policies.” Because of the resistance by the Orthodox church against secular music Russia was a late starter in developing a native tradition of secular 'classical music.' The country, says Taruskin, “emerged as a musical power at about the same point in its history as its emergence as a political and diplomatic power.” Beginning in the reign of Ivan IV, the Imperial Court invited Western composers and musicians to fill this void and by the time of Peter I, these artists were a regular fixture at Court. While not personally inclined toward music, Peter saw European music as a mark of civilization and a way of Westernizing the country; his establishment of the Western-style city of Saint Petersburg helped foster its spread to the rest of the upper classes. A craze for Italian opera at Court during the reigns of Empresses Elisabeth and Catherine also helped spread interest in Western music among the aristocracy. Giovanni Paisiello (Aug 3) was among the many long-term musical visitors to Catherine’s court. His opera, The Barber of Seville (based on the play by Beaumarchais), premiered in St. Petersburg in 1782, 34 years before Rossini’s opera based on the same play, is one of Paisiello’s more than 80(!) operas.

Stay tuned for pt. II.

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