Friday, 16 October 2020

From Firebird to Revolution, 1910-17


First term of my Russian music course on Zoom went well, by which I mean there were lots of happy students and I enjoyed every minute of it, firming up allegiances and discovering more (especially in the sphere of chamber music). In the end we covered ground from Glinka to early Rachmaninov, stopping at 1900, with a few glimpses into the future. My original idea, to devote the 10th class to Stravinsky's The Firebird as a last great synthesis of the fantasy tradition, was postponed simply because the one class I'd intended on Musorgsky's and Tchaikovsky's piano music turned into two. 

That was because Samson Tsoy had so much to say about Pictures at an Exhibition and his partner Pavel Kolesnikov, who popped up briefly at the end of that class, was happy to return a couple of weeks later. When great musicians are willing to come along, as they did for every class of my course on the symphony, you have to be flexible (pictured below by Eva Vermandel, Samson and Pavel during their phenomenal Ragged Music Festival, from which I'm still recovering: read what one of my students described as a 'palpitating' review - that's got to be better than 'gushing').


I'd also intended to go straight on from the first term to Soviet music. But it occurred to me that those seven amazing years from 1910 to 1917 could take a term of their own, albeit one of seven classes (taking a break and mapping out the possible up to Christmas meant I ended up with that number). Here's the plan. We start on Thursday 29 October and each class runs from 2.30pm-4.30pm (longer under certain circumstances). £10 a class so £70 for the term. Special guests TBC, though two top pianists have already shown willingness.

 1: The Firebird and the end of a tradition  29 October

Stravinsky's first ballet for Diaghilev - the exotic exported to Paris - reflected the fairy-tale compendium of its scenario with homages to the fantasies of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but also nodded to the harmonic experiments of Scriabin and looked forward to the rhythmic revolution of The Rite of Spring. I'll be placing it in the context of the 19th century tradition as well as the early years of the 20th century. Pictured above: Mikhail Fokine and Tamara Karsavina in the 1910 Ballets Russes premiere.

2: Petrushka and Russian popular song  5 November

Stocked high with highly original treatments of familiar folk/urban song, Stravinsky's fairground ballet of 1911 features a radical use of orchestration which owes its originality to Tchaikovsky's example. But it is also startlingly modern in the scenes featuring the pathetic Russian Pierrot come to life.

3: The Rite of Spring: melody and rhythm in balance  12 November

Often overshadowed in the stress on rhythmic iconoclasm is Stravinsky's use of singing themes - only three of them this time taken from folk sources. Again, the mix of modernism and tradition is startling. Pictured above: maidens in Nicolas Roerich's designs for the Ballets Russes premiere of 1913.

4: ''Footballish' pianism and audacious orchestral tricks: the young Prokofiev  19 November
 
First appearing on the scene in the same St Petersburg Evenings of Contemporary Music where Stravinsky made his debut, a young Conservatoire student quickly created a sensation. With special focus on Prokofiev's first two piano concertos and early piano pieces.

5: The renaissance of Russian Orthodox tradition and Rachmaninov's Vespers  26 November
 
The rediscovery of ancient church traditions only really took off in the early 1900s, and was flourishing when the revolution put a stop to so many schools of choral music. Before that happened, though, it produced its greatest synthesis-masterpiece, Rachmaninov's numbers for the All-Night Easter Vigil known as the Vespers, in total contrast to his choral symphony inspired by Edgar Allen Poe The Bells.

6: Scriabin: mystic chords and apocalyptic visions  3 December
 
 
Boris Pasternak thought him 'warped, posed and opinionated' but also as bright as the sun in his music; Prokofiev found his harmonic discoveries a millstone weighing down his options. But there's no doubt that Alexander Scriabin was a true original
 
7: On the eve of an earthquake  10 December
 
What kind of music were the Russian composers creating as the February and then the October revolutions broke? Prokofiev's diary gives a special insight into where he was and what he was doing at these times, with cinematic descriptions of being caught up in the chaos of Petrograd early in the year. We also look at Rachmaninov's last great compositional flowering before exile and the need to tour as pianist slowed down his creativity.
 
Do join us - and if you can't do so on the afternoon, I send out recordings (video if film is used, audio otherwise). You don't need to have attended the previous course. If you're interested, just send me a message with your email: I won't publish it, but I promise to respond.

4 comments:

Jeremy Main said...

Max Derrickson asks me to contact you about the threat to the Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library from HS2 tunnelling. He says (on Linked In) it's terribly significant.

I checked my facts with the HS2 engineers, and although they've changed their plans a little, I'm fearful it may not be enough to protect the wax cylinders from vibration.

I've left a message with The Arts Desk with my contact in, because I'm not far from Cockfosters.

David said...

Such unforeseen circumstances arising from this impossible project. RVW would find it curious that his legacy might suffer alongside some of the loveliest and oldest trees in England. Wonder if I can do anything? Leave another message with your email if you want to carry on the conversation, and I won't publish it, but I'll be in touch.

Susan said...

Like your symphony course, the whole Russian music course so far has been fantastic. Very much looking forward to the next installment!

David said...

Thank you, Sue. I know people are sceptical whenever anyone writes 'I'm really excited about this', but I really am - I'd start tomorrow if I could. But it's good to have the space to think and breathe.