Sunday, March 10, 2013

Russia vs Canada in Music

I'm Canadian, born in Alberta, grew up in British Columbia and educated in Quebec. But a lot of my favorite music is Russian. My two favorite 20th century composers are Stravinsky and Shostakovich and I find a lot of other Russian composers quite evocative like Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Now Canada and Russia have a lot in common: they are the two main countries with Arctic territories, they have an awful lot of land for the population, and much of the development and exploration came in the 19th and 20th centuries. But, from an historical point of view, Canada has had better luck. Instead of being cursed by the authoritarian rule of the tsars, followed by the even more authoritarian rule of Lenin, Stalin and their successors, Canada was blessed by being colonized by the British, something that, it has been said, was the best policy for any nation in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I have sometimes joked that the plan for Canada, based on its neighbors and history, was to have French culture (until being conquered by the British in the 18th century, Canada was a French colony and the population is still 25% French-speaking), British government and American know-how. Alas, what we seem to have ended up with is French government, British know-how and American culture!

The two major differences between Russia and Canada are population and history. Russia has a population of about 140 million and Canada fewer than 35 million. Historically, Russia has been at the crossroads of many nomadic invaders and the recipient of European culture. As I was mentioning in my post on Mussorgsky, it was not until well into the 19th century that Russia began to develop its own brand of concert music. Before then, religious music aside, it was all Italian opera for the aristocracy and folk music for the common folk. Canada has had a sparse indigenous music history as well. One of the most characteristic varieties of Canadian music is "old-time" fiddling, very popular on the East coast and common throughout Quebec and the Prairies. Most of the rest of Canadian music consists of popular and concert music very closely derived from, first of all, Britain, and more recently, the United States. There's that American culture! Ironically, one of the first links that comes up on YouTube for "traditional French-Canadian fiddle music" is this concert at the Library of Congress. The actual concert doesn't start until the 7 minute mark.

One thing you will notice about this music is that it is rather similar to the Celtic fiddle music, also called "old-time" music, from Cape Breton. You might notice the "Scotch snap" in this recording, which reveals the Celtic origins of the style:

Apart from commercialized stuff and a lot of balalaika and accordion music, the most authentic seeming Russian folk music I can find in YouTube is all vocal. Here is a sample:

But where Canada and Russia really seem to diverge is in the 19th century when, all of a sudden, we have a lot of composers striving to create a uniquely Russian concert music based on Russian cultural traditions, but composed with European techniques. The Wikipedia article on Russian music describes this as follows:
The first great Russian composer to exploit native Russian music traditions into the realm of Secular music was Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), who composed the early Russian language operas Ivan Susanin and Ruslan and Lyudmila. They were neither the first operas in the Russian language nor the first by a Russian, but they gained fame for relying on distinctively Russian tunes and themes and being in the vernacular.
Russian folk music became the primary source for the younger generation composers. A group that called itself "The Mighty Five", headed by Balakirev (1837–1910) and including Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), Mussorgsky (1839–81), Borodin (1833–87) and César Cui (1835–1918), proclaimed its purpose to compose and popularize Russian national traditions in classical music. Among the Mighty Five's most notable compositions were the operas The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka), Sadko, Boris Godunov, Prince Igor, Khovanshchina, and symphonic suite Scheherazade. Many of the works by Glinka and the Mighty Five were based on Russian history, folk tales and literature, and are regarded as masterpieces of romantic nationalism in music.
We have nothing compared to this in Canada. Instead, in the 19th century, a modest national tradition of song developed. Wikipedia mentions the following:
The Great Migration of Canada from 1815 to 1850, done largely by Irish, British and Scottish immigrants, broadened considerably the Canadian musical culture.[39] 1844, Samuel Nordheimer (1824–1912) opened a music store in Toronto selling pianos and soon thereafter began to publish engraved sheet music.[1] Samuel Nordheimer store was among the first and the largest specialized music publisher in the Province of Canada.[40] They initially had the sole right to publish copies of Alexander Muir's "The Maple Leaf Forever" that for many years served as an unofficial Canadian national anthem.[41]
By the time of Canadian Confederation (1867), songwriting had become a favored means of personal expression across the land. In a society in which most middle-class families now owned a piano, and standard education included at least the rudiments of music, the result was often an original song.[42] Such stirrings frequently occurred in response to noteworthy events, and few local or national excitements were allowed to pass without some musical comment.[43][44]
The 1870s saw several conservatories opened their doors, providing their string, woodwind and brass faculty, leading to the opportunity for any class level of society to learn music.[45] 'One Sweetly Solemn Thought in 1876 by Hamilton-based Robert S. Ambrose, became one of the most popular songs to ever be published in the 19th century.[34] It fulfilled the purpose of being an appropriate song to sing in the parlors of homes that would not permit any non-sacred music to be performed on Sundays. At the same time it could be sung in dance halls or on the stage along operas and operettas.
What you may notice here is that while the Russian composers wrote music that is widely performed to this day, the same cannot be said of the Canadian 19th century composers mentioned. Well, sure, "The Maple Leaf Forever" is heard, but you can't really call it a piece of concert music. It was not until the 20th century that some Canadian composers began to appear. But none of them to date has really made a mark. Composers like Murray Adaskin achieved some renown in Canada, where he was the first composer to be appointed artist-in-residence at a university, but little outside. Here is his Vocalise for solo violin:

Now in pop music, it is an entirely different story as Canadian musicians such as Guy Lombardo, Paul Anka, Neil Young, the Guess Who, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion and Justin Bieber have been enormously successful. But, Leonard Cohen aside, it is hard to point to much in their style that is uniquely Canadian.

This survey has been brief and woefully incomplete, but I hope it suggests some conclusions. For whatever reason, it seems evident that Canada has a weak musical identity, while Russia has a very powerful one. It is hard to imagine music in the 20th century without Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. But no Canadian composers (as opposed to popular musicians) have had this kind of lasting influence. I think we could use a few "wild men" like Mussorgsky! Or passionate geniuses like Tchaikovsky:

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