What is it with Russia? Why does it always hope for the better but knows in advance: it just not going to work? Why is Russian music often so sad, even tragic? Here might be the source of that fabled Russian nostalgia: we miss not Russia that once was, we’re not longing anymore for Russia that would be. We’re nostalgic for Russia that could be but we know never will…
For us, Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka is the “father” of all major genres of Russian music. In order to study professionally, Glinka had to travel to Berlin - in 1830s Russia simply didn’t have professional music education. Glinka often used popular Russian tunes for his Variations... It’s hard to believe but it took just 30 years for Russia to produce Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mousorgski, to establish both Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatoirs. What progress! It is as if Russia wanted to compensate for lost centuries if development, wanted to tell the Europe - I’m here!
Sergei Rachmaninov is the epitome of Russian nostalgia. After the 1917 October Revolution, the composer had to leave Russia to never return. His love of Russia was so strong that for six years he couldn’t compose a note… A decade later, Rachmaninov bought a piece of land in Switzerland that resembled his Motherland. The Prelude and Etude Tableau mix drama and sadness... But in his Lilacs we hear the atmosphere of Russian countryside house, “dacha”… It’s there that Russians relax surrounded by family and lots of friends who visit traveling by train from Moscow or St. Petersburg… They bring tasty snacks and vodka, spend long days sitting around a large table, bath in a nearby river, flirt and of course - make music and sing songs.
Alexander Skriabin started as an epigone of Chopin but very soon found his own note, with daring harmonies and boundless joy unusual for Russian music! It is the light that an obsession of Scriabin. Fourth Sonata is subtitled by composer himself - “Flight to a Star.” The main theme sounds first like a distant dream, then it get brighter and brighter until finally it becomes blinding, pulsating, all-embracing flame! Gradually, Skriabin developed his own, highly individual philosophy charged with mysticism and a special kind refine sensuality: he envisioned the world uniting in a last final act of love and through that act - dematerializing entirely… Tragedy has vanished from his music, and so did tonality. Each of Three Etudes op.65 is build on a particular interval: ninths, sevenths and fifths. This music is mystical, enigmatic, and, finally, ecstatic!
Sergei Prokofiev has written his First Sonata at the age of 16. It’s inspired by the events and songs of the Russian Revolution of 1905: barricades, street clashes between the workers and the mounted police, fights for freedom and funerals of the heroes. Though remote in style from the mature Prokoffiev, this great one-movement Sonata is full of vigor and romantic Sturm und Drang.
After all that, we flash back to beloved Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with his salon sentimentality and melancholy… His “October” is a very popular piece. In the middle section, note the similarity with his 5th Symphony.
Meanwhile, big changes in Russia: after 1917 October Revolution the eternal dream of fair and just seemingly came true. But, in a usual turn of events, Comrade Stalin gradually introduced a tyrannic rule. In 1935 he pronounced: Life got better, and full of joy! To prove that, he order up Hollywood style musicals. But the best of them - “Circus - is not just propaganda but a true masterpiece, still beloved and watched my the millions.
The main idea of that brilliant comedy is a vision of the Soviet Union as a place where people are equal and enjoy prosperous Soviet life regardless of their race or color of their skin. In the final shot the crowd march through Red Square singing Song of Motherland, Russia’s unofficial anthem.
In my jazzy Circus Fantasy I use the tunes from Circus written by Issak Dunayevsky interweaving them in cheecky counterpoints!