The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/Music in Russia I

Music in Russia.

I. Its Spirit.

By Alexis Rienzi.

There is perhaps no other people in the world so musical as the Russian, and perhaps no other people whose body of national music approaches so near to the real psychology and philosophy of the nation's life, the people's joys and sorrows, aspirations and strivings, achievements and failures. For the Russian, music is a delight. It is the natural, inevitable expression of an emotional people, and Russians are highly emotional.

It may be said that the most characteristic feature of the so-called Russian "popular" song (which forms the real basis of the truly native musical art of the country) is, that it not only permeates, but actually dominates the whole spiritual life of the people. The peasant sings these songs as he follows the rhythmical movements of his plow, and in moments of hunger, joy, or grief. The workingman in the city, the mechanic, the servant, the student, the teacher,—all sing them, pouring into their strains their stifled longings for the ideal which is denied to them, but which unconsciously attracts them and beckons to them through the mist of life's grim realities.

No matter to what page you open the book of Russia's life, you will find running through the narrative a thread of eternal yearning, of poignant regret for things gone into the story, with nothing in the present to take their place. It is this strain, plaintive, and sometimes sad, which you find predominating in Russian folk-song, whose unpremeditated pathos springs from actual passion, actual pain, actual sorrow. But though plaintiveness is the prevailing note, the folk-songs express a wide and varied range of emotion. Sometimes they speak of sorrow, and solitude, and a great monotony, as if the vast plain of Russia had become articulate, and was expressing its spirit. Mournful too, are the wedding-songs of the Russian peasant-women, though sometimes the melody is a lighter one, telling archly of the ways of winning a bashful swain. And in many of the native airs there is conveyed a sense of the broad expanse of the steppe, where one can breathe free and deep, and know himself a man.

To be fully appreciated, Russian folk-music must be heard in its native surroundings. Rendered on the concert stage, under artificial surroundings and to the accompaniment of instruments that are not really popular, the songs lose their true effect. The place to hear them in their purity is in some out-of-the-way village, far from the main roads of civilization. But it is when the villagers are engaged in "communal" work, especially during harvesting-time, that the harmony between the surroundings and the people and the strains that arise, is most complete.

In Russian folk-songs, words and music are closely linked. They are an invitation to the dance; they set the peasant's feet a-dancing and make him clap his hands. It is not the words so much, as the melody that makes the songs so infectious. Far more definitely than language can do it, the melodies express the true national spirit. It is this dinstinctive quality that the great Russian composers have recognized, and they have done well in taking the Russian folk-music as the basis for the development of a native school of music.

In the great Russian musical compositions, the national song does not serve merely as a theme, a subject. It dominates, it rules, it gathers about it the best of the ornamentation that a musical genius can produce for its appropriate setting. The composer merely embellishes it, as he truthfully and skillfully makes its meaning, its aim, and its origin apparent to the listener. It is not surprising, therefore, that Russian music, when at its best, is so profoundly national, so deep, so truthful, so humanly appealing.

Take Borodin's "Song of the Dark Forest." Whoever has heard this marvelous bit of Russian music will readily understand what national music is when produced by the accumulated spiritual wealth of generations, and shaped into musical forms by the mighty genius of a great composer. The words, adapted by Borodin himself, may serve to give a glimpse into the beauty and the power of this song.

"The dark forest stood, full of noises strange, and a song he sang. Ah, an ancient song! A tale true to life, the dark forest told: How freedom bold midst its trees once dwelt; how the power and strength of a people great, gathered, mustered there; how that freedom bold played in liberty, how that power and strength gaily sported there; how that freedom bold into battle went, how that power and strength captured cities strong, scorned and mocked the foe, drank and spilled his blood; freedom bold, power, strength."

The falling cadences at the end of the piece, wonderfully expressive in the musical rendering, seem to tell a whole story of the glories that were, and are no more. To hear a song like this is almost to read a whole book that tells the tale of a mighty movement throbbing with life and aspiration.

And yet, despite its many virtues, despite its wonderful qualities of beauty, and simplicity, and depth, and truthfulness, Russian music has met with tragic fate on the road of its artistic development. Russian composers, like Russian men of letters, are compelled to wait a long time for their well-deserved triumph, both in Russia and outside of their native land. And sometimes recognition does not come until long after their death. While some European composers of fashionable music conquer the whole world with their productions almost before the ink on their manuscript is dry, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and even the father of Russian music, the great Glinka, waited many years for the appreciation which they so richly merited.

This may perhaps be explained by the fact that Russian creators of music are not possessed of commercial ability. A Russian composer, with few exceptions, will never dream of selling his opera before it is written. He is not looking for managers, and "orders" and royalties. He begins to create when he feels the impulse to do so, when his feelings and his thoughts blend together and clamor for expression. The possibilities of marketing his work seldom occur to him.

And during the process of creating, the composer literally forgets about himself and pays no heed to the things around him. Even when his work is done he is still in no hurry to offer it for sale. It is as if he were sorry to part with the product of his soul.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that so many composers in Russia die prematurely, long before their genius receives due recognition. Wasily Kalinnikov, in almost any one of whose short songs there is more feeling and genius than in many an opera popular to-day, died very young. Starvation, neglect, excessive labor,—these sum up the tale of his brief life. He died before a single one of his compositions was published, without hearing one of them played in public. It was only after his death that they were performed, with signal success.

Moussorgsky, whose musical genius, combined with the poetical inspiration of Pushkin, created the wonderful drama of "Boris Godounov," died in 1881. Yet it was not until twenty-five years after his death that his great work was staged for the first time.

And the immortal Glinka? He died fifty-eight years ago, and as yet his marvelous opera, "Rouslan and Ludmila," is practically unknown outside of Russia. And some think that any act of this magnificent opera has more of the true spirit of music than most of the fashionable operas that flash like rockets across the sky of music and disappear into oblivion. "Boris Godounov" has, at last, gained recognition, but "Rouslan and Ludmila", although superior to it, is still awaiting a hearing in the West.

Koltzov, who of all Russian poets has given perhaps the best expression of the national soul of Russia, wrote a charming poem, which Rimsky-Korsakov set to music.

Charmed by a rose's radiance bright,
The nightingale sings day and night,
Yet silent hears his lay the rose.
A singer, thus, upon his lyre,
Before a maid pours out his fire;
And yet the maiden never knows
To whom he sings, and why his lay
Is ever sad, and sad alway.

Like the nightingale, like the poet, the Russian composers sing long, long before they are understood and welcomed. A commercial age encounters even more difficulty than the "Maiden" in understanding the subject of Russian music, because the music of Russia is almost, if not entirely, free from the sensual element. It is truly spiritual.

Russian vocal music is not suited to mechanical reproduction. It must be heard as a living thing, from a living artist. It is the offspring of the song of the long-suffering Russian people. And whoever knows the Russian songs will understand why Russian music is so truthful, so sincere, so heart-felt, so humanly appealing. It is possible that, in the future, this music is destined not only to bathe in the sunlight of glory and success, but also to exert a tremendous influence upon the spiritual and moral tenor of our social life.

Russian music does not strive to please, to cater to the popular taste; its aim is to educate. Like the truthful historian, it tells the story of the Russian people, of its life, its beliefs, its sufferings, its love, and its spiritual might.

One need not be pessimistic about the future of Russian music. It is an outlook that is rich and full of promise. Already one can see the gratifying indications of a growing interest in the native art. The composers of the past generation have given it an impulse that will take Russia to the foremost ranks of musical achievement. Her period of imitation and adaptation is past. In the wake of her literature, that has made its influence felt throughout the West, is now flowing the tide of Russia's music.