Musings of a Russophile: Russian music, like Russian literature, is always excited about something

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When I am asked by a Russian why I came to Russia, I generally answer: “I like the music!” He nods, smiles, and says, “I understand.” Economic opportunity, sense of adventure, this is what the American wants to hear. But the Russian understands other reasons.

When asked by a Westerner why I came to Russia, I give an MBA sort of answer, all about opportunity and growth, with statistics, etc., and of course that is right. When I am asked by a Russian why I came to Russia, I generally answer: “I like the music!” He nods, smiles, and says, “I understand.” Economic opportunity, sense of adventure, this is what the American wants to hear. But the Russian understands other reasons. Really, it was the music.

I was unconscious of this until asked this question once by a Russian colleague, and I remembered my sister. The earliest music I remember was Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Winnifred was a Russophile when, in the university it was popular to get caught up in the utopian notions of our “ally,” the Soviet Union.

By the time I was fourteen, I had collected, on scratchy vinyl 78’s, Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies 4, 5, and 6, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd Piano Concertos, and Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia. Almost all of my tiny salary from working part-time in a department store went for recordings of Russian music. And Reinhold Gliére’s Symphony No 3 (Ilya Muromets) introduced me to Russian pagan folklore.

They say Russian music, like Russian literature, is always excited about something. Why is it then that almost all Russian music, even Shostakovich, is written in a minor key? Mozart wrote over 600 pieces of music and 80 percent are in a major key. What is the difference? Russia is a melancholy land.

To me, German music reflects the exactness of their life; French music, the glories of the countryside - “the good life.” Russian music speaks of the exigencies of the soul. They can be excited and melancholy on the same page. It captures the poignancy of a life of eternal hope and eternal disappointment. Shaped by a tragic and colorful contrast of cultures, Russia’s music is a song of conflict and survival across the vastness of a land of harsh realities. The ability to persevere is a form of hope, and it can be heard in what is to me the most Russian of all compositions, Borodin’s Second Symphony. The haunting horn solo in the third movement tugs at the heart. It speaks of the Russian Soul.

In Russian music, the strings are more sentimental, the oboes more seductive, the drums more threatening, the horns more authoritative, the flute a tiny voice of hope, and the female vocals more plaintive. Why do the Italians raise sopranos and tenors and the Russians contraltos and basses? Is it the lack of sun?

Fortunately, where I live now in Southern California, I can hear much Russian music on radio station KUSC 91.5FM (www.kusc.org is heard around the world.)  Also, I am close to one of the best string ensembles in the world, Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, Misha Rachlevsky, Music Director. I have been on its board since 1995 when I first heard them in Moscow.

Like the turmoil Russians feel yearning for the things of the West and the spirit of the East, Russian composers have beautifully blended the discipline of European music with the free and exotic spirit of Asia. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and even the lesser lights; Gliére, Taneyev, Kalinnikov, each in his own distinct way, have painted in magical sounds this mystical cultural blend of East and West which is Russia’s stamp on things. Of course, Shostakovich is a phenomenon forged by a different and more brutal conflict - one of the mind. And he is one of a kind.

But, then isn’t it all of the immortal mind?―and the heart?


Musings of a Russophile: Suddenly

Musings of a Russophile: "Never Talk to Strangers"

Musings of a Russophile: Everything is difficult—and everything is possible

Musings of a Russophile: What Is To Be Done?

Musings of a Russophile: An Inconvenience of Geography

Musings of a Russophile: What is it about October?

Musings of a Russophile: What is a Russophile?

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The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.

Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City.  While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.

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