Sunday, December 4, 2016

Richard Taruskin: Russian Music at Home and Abroad

This book is a new collection of essays on Russian music by the leading musicologist. Taruskin is the author of the five-volume Oxford History of Western Music and has probably forgotten more about music than the rest of us ever knew. He is sometimes accused of being confrontational, but my sense is that he just doesn't have a lot of patience with idiotic points of view.

In an environment where a great deal of silliness is becoming more and more ensconced, Taruskin displays a very clear understanding of what the real job of musicology is: to unearth and understand the facts. Of the three transcendental values of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, a musicologist, or any scholar, has allegiance to only one: the True. How refreshing to hear someone simply state that.

I am a long way from finishing the volume, but as it consists of separate essays, I thought it would be good to talk about a couple of the earlier ones. The title "Suicide Notes, Faked Memoirs, Toasts to Killers" is a particularly characteristic one. The references are to controversies involving three Russian composers, Tchaikovsky (whose name Taruskin insists on spelling Chaikovsky--probably a more correct transliteration, but it still looks wrong to me), Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The controversies are respectively, Tchaikovsky's death and sexual orientation, the book Testimony purporting to be Shostakovich's memoirs as told to Solomon Volkov and the propriety of performing music by Prokofiev written in praise of Stalin.

The bottom line: Tchaikovsky was indeed homosexual and the evidence is clear from many of his and other's correspondence once it had been rescued from Soviet and other censorship, but there is no reason to believe he was so tormented by it that he committed suicide. The book by Volkov is an obvious fraud and has been shown to be so quite decisively. Finally, if you are going to have the poor taste to perform sycophantic tributes to the mass-murderer Joseph Stalin, at least have the courage to translate the text so the audience can be aware. Taruskin spends quite a lot of time excoriating those who present the discredited narratives and sometimes it can seem a bit like an intramural squabble. Still, musicology is about the details and he certainly has lots to share.

Taruskin also takes the time to torpedo another absurd claim, this time by Robert Craft, Stravinsky's long time associate and ghost writer. At a conference towards the end of his, Craft's, life, he tries to claim that around the time of the Rite of Spring and Petrouchka, Stravinsky was bisexual and enjoying romps with other men including Ravel! No-one left alive to dispute this, of course, but Taruskin examines the extremely sparse evidence and concludes: not a chance. While we are on the topic, he also alludes to the definitive dismissal of the idea that Franz Schubert was also homosexual.

One essay is on the topic of "nationalist" versus "non-nationalist" Russian composers and, frankly, I never quite get what the fuss is all about. Being a nationalist Russian composer, or classified as such, means that you are consigned to a special musicological ghetto? Ok. Am I just an "essentialist" for having the sense that Russian music has some distinctive qualities? Taruskin gets so far in the weeds of Russian history that I tend to forget what the point was. He seems to think that excessive attention to Russian composers as Russian nationalists is a kind of dispensable identity politics and in that case, I suppose I agree.

His discussion of Russian opera and its 18th century predecessors is fascinating however.

It is often the breadth of Taruskin's scholarship that attracts. In discussing Russian opera he outlines the three categories of Russian historical thought:

  1. dynastic history as established by Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin, official historiographer appointed by Alexander I
  2. neo-Hegelian statism represented by Sergey Solovyov, rigorously teleological in its praise of the centralized state
  3. a "populist" school, short-lived, whose exponent was Nikolai Kostomarov
I love that he knows all about these guys. If we were to apply these varying historiographical schools to current American politics then we would have the dynastic view represented by both the Clinton and the Bush dynasties, the centralized statism by Barack Obama and the populist school represented by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Heh!

As with most of Taruskin's writing I find 95% of it both intriguing and convincing. But there is always that 5% that I am skeptical about. In an earlier collection it was the claim that the whole foundation of the Early Music Movement's approach to performance practice was based on the taste for terrace dynamics and brisk, mechanical tempi by modernist composers like Stravinsky. Not among lutenists it wasn't! And I doubt the whole concept.

In this book the claim that caught my attention was that the direction musicology ought to be going (and is in fact going) is away from understanding great composers as individual geniuses and towards  understanding them in terms of the social context and what they were doing in relation to everyone else. Perhaps this is a productive direction for musicologists from a career point of view, but that is likely because they keep running up against the brick wall of individual genius which is why we listen to those great composers and tend to avoid the far more numerous dullards and frauds.

I'm sure that my progress through the book will produce more posts. In the meantime, let's listen to something Russian. This is Evgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Symphony in a 1957 recording of the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky:


Jives said...

My favorite Tchai (or Chai...) thank you! This one doesn't get enough recognition.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just about to put up another post about this collection of essays.