Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Me and the Russians

Forgive the narcissistic title! It is meant to be a bit comic. I was just reading this article in the Moscow News. I have been fascinated with Russian culture for quite a while. Two of my favorite 20th century composers are Russian: Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Here is the opening of the article:
Masterpieces get a makeover at The Ekaterina Cultural Foundation’s retrospective of the New Academy of Fine Arts, an underground art movement that flowered in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. In an unprecedented exhibition, the gallery is displaying 200 works by 14 of the group’s artists, who eschewed modern art for a new breed of classicism.
In the early days of the Revolution, artists in Russia were quick to take up the principles of the European avant-garde. Shostakovich wrote an absurdist opera, The Nose, and his 2nd Symphony is a web of intricate multi-layered harmony and includes a factory whistle blast. But as the Revolution progressed, he was forced to comply with the strictures of Socialist Realism and had to take up the forms and genres of the 19th century. This he did in his own unique way, seeming to follow the rules while utterly altering those forms in a new way. "A Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism" was the description in an article appearing in a Moscow newspaper a few days before the premiere of his 5th Symphony and attributed to Shostakovich.

The present article, on the Russian 'neo-classicist' artists goes on to say:
Leningrad art guru Timur Novikov founded the group in 1989, when perestroika was at its counter-cultural peak. Novikov, who died in 2002, was an avantgarde artist and theorist whose experiments included the rock group “New Composers,” for which he devised original musical instruments. Fearing modern art’s encroachment on artistic traditions, Novikov called for a return to ancient Greco-Roman ideals of beauty and harmony. But rather than simply reproducing classical motifs, Novikov, along with artists including Georgy Guryanov and Denis Yegelsky, adapted them to the 20th century with new media and irreverent interpretations.
This seems to resonate rather well with what Shostakovich was doing. The "ancient Greco-Roman" doesn't apply because we simply don't have the musical models, but "ideals of beauty and harmony" seems to.

I said "me and the Russians" because I have been trying to revive old ideals of beauty and harmony in my own compositions. It you get really outside the modernism of the 20th century and take a hard look at it, it is difficult not to conclude that the ideal of beauty was the furthest thing from their minds. There are exceptions, of course, and there are beautiful moments in many pieces, but it just didn't seem to be a real goal.

Shostakovich, though...

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