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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin
How the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-8a Furiant: “Sedlák, sedlák,” from K.J. Erben, Napevy prostonarodnich pisni ceskych (“The Tunes of Czech Peasant Songs”), no. 588

How the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-8b Bedřich Smetana, The Bartered Bride, II, Furiant, mm. 7–14

It was the Russians (or some Russians) who at midcentury put the most faith in traditional Volkstümlichkeit as the carrier of objective, non-negotiable national character even in instrumental music. There were two reasons. First, the Russians (or some Russians) were particularly eager to form a national school in opposition to what they saw as the threat of German hegemony; and second, the arts in Russia were particularly inclined toward realism, or (in Glinka's phrase) toward the embodiment of “positive data,”14 a truth-content that required no interpretation. As we shall see, the second ideal proved quixotic: artistic content, being a human product and a social one, always requires interpretation. But even the first was fraught with ironies.

The attempt to build a national Russian school on a foundation of folklore can be traced to Glinka, just as the New German School can be traced to Beethoven, although neither Glinka nor Beethoven ever had any premonition of such a project or historical role. For Glinka left a work that composers of the next generation took so zealously as a model that one of them, Chaikovsky, called it “the acorn from which the whole oak of Russian symphonic music grew.”15 But it was no spontaneous germination. The oak was very much a hothouse growth. Tracing the process through which composers of the post-Glinka generation tried to transform his legacy will offer a revealing insight into the difference between national and nationalist art.

Glinka, as we know, was by strong preference an operatic composer, not a symphonic one. But toward the end of his life he composed three Fantaisies pittoresques (picturesque fantasies) for orchestra under the spell of Berlioz, whom he met in Paris in 1845. Two of the three were based on Spanish themes; for Glinka (as for Berlioz) national character did not have to be native, just colorful. The third fantasia, originally called “A Wedding Song and a Dance Song” (1848), was based on two Russian folk themes. The title by which it is known today, Kamarinskaya (accent on the second syllable), is that of the second song, actually a well-known instrumental dance tune (naigrïsh in Russian) consisting of a single three-measure phrase that is repeated ad infinitum as the basis and framework for extemporized variations played by wedding bands, or else by a single player on an accordionlike bayan, a concertina, or a strummed balalaika (as in Fig. 9-3), to accompany a strenuous and often competitive type of male dancing (performed v prisyadku, in a squat) well known in the West as typically Russian thanks to its exportation by professional folk-dance ensembles.

How the Acorn Took Root

fig. 9-3 The Kamarinskaya dance (anonymous nineteenth-century woodcut).

Glinka noticed an unexpected resemblance between the famous Kamarinskaya tune and the melody of a lyrical wedding song that was one of his personal favorites: the notes of the dance song marked with asterisks in Ex. 9-9, most of them in strong, conspicuous rhythmic positions, correspond with the first six notes of the wedding song. He based his brilliantly orchestrated fantasia on what thus amounts to a sort of abstract musical pun. The two themes are first given in stark contrast, as in a conventional symphonic first movement (Introduction and Allegro). But all at once, over a thirty-one measure passage in the midst of the Allegro, the fast theme is magically transformed into a reprise of the slow one, by means of the progressive revelation of their kinship.

How the Acorn Took RootHow the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-9 Folk themes in Glinka's Kamarinskaya

It is a beautifully executed maneuver, but perhaps even more remarkable is the way Glinka derived the fantasia's introductory and transitional passages from the melody of the wedding song by extracting motives from it (labeled x, y, and z in Ex. 9-9). The very opening is built entirely on a sequential treatment of y, led to a surprising conclusion on B♭ This prepares, at short range, the first downbeat harmony of the wedding song. (At the long range, as we shall see, it is even more strategic.) The first transition from the wedding song to the dance song consists of a neat contrapuntal juxtaposition of motives x and y (Ex. 9-10a), and the second such transition makes similar use of motive z (Ex. 9-10b), meanwhile modulating with marvelous economy to the unexpected (but not unprepared) key of B♭, picking up the harmony left hanging at the end of the introduction.

Most striking of all is the final modulation. The reprise of the dance song having been made in the key of the flat submediant, the triumphant return to the D major tonic (Ex. 9-10c) is made by the same bass resolution as at the end of Ex. 9-10a, derived there from the incipit of the wedding song, motive x. The underlying tonal progression that lends contrast and a heightened structural unity to the dance song variations thus turns out to be a long-range projection of the opening motive of the wedding song. Such a thorough interpenetration of melodic and harmonic structures through the use of motives is the kind of thing one is used to finding (and therefore seeking) in Beethoven.

How the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-10a Motivic derivations in Glinka's Kamarinskaya, mm. 35–48

How the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-10b Glinka, Kamarinskaya, mm. 155–169

How the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-10c Glinka, Kamarinskaya, mm. 202–209

It was precisely the reason for Beethoven's preeminence among symphonists. That Glinka managed to emulate the trick using nothing but folk songs as his melodic material was an astonishing tour de force. No wonder Kamarinskaya was so influential.

But note that what made it so was not its folkloric content per se, but the way in which it vied with the greatest protagonist of the German mainstream. That is the first irony we must contend with if we are to understand the nature of the Russian response to musical Germany, which had turned aggressive (or so it seemed to Glinka's nationalistic heirs) in the years after the great composer's death.

The protagonist of that aggression, where Russian nationalists were concerned, was Anton Rubinstein (1829–94), the indefatigable organizer of Russian musical life, who in 1859 founded the Russian Musical Society, the sponsoring organization behind the country's first full-time professional symphony orchestra, and who three years later founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first school of its kind on Russian soil. A piano virtuoso of international fame and an incredibly prolific composer of German schooling, Rubinstein saw the future of Russian music in terms of its professionalization under the sponsorship of the aristocracy and the stewardship of imported master teachers. (It was a measure of his colossal energy and fame that he was able to gain such sponsorship despite his Jewish birth.) In 1855, Rubinstein had published an article in a Vienna arts journal called “Russian Composers,” in which he outlined his Peter the Great–like program for Westernizing Russian music, and also hinted that Russian musical nationalism was merely a sign of immaturity and dilettantism. Although even Rubinstein's worst enemies recognized that his motives were patriotic, and although everyone acknowledged that Rubinstein, both as lobbyist and as role model, deserved credit for creating the social and institutional means through which a professional musical life might flourish in Russia, his tactless words met with a chorus of righteous indignation. It could even be said that Russian musical nationalism, as a self-conscious artistic tendency, was touched off by this article from the pen of a musician for whom music was inherently and essentially “a German art,” and in whose opinion “a deliberately national art cannot claim universal sympathy but awakens an ethnographical interest at best.”16

How the Acorn Took Root

fig. 9-4 Anton (right) and Nikolai Rubinstein, in a photograph from the late 1860s, when both were directors of conservatories.

The leaders of the nationalistic backlash were two figures whom we have already met: the arts publicist Vladimir Stasov, a librarian by profession, who inveighed lustily against the establishment of a conservatory system in Russia, and Miliy Balakirev, known to us thus far as a musical orientalist, who competed directly with Rubinstein as a public musician and educator. It was in this spirit of opposition to the German-dominated professionalization of St. Petersburg's musical life that Balakirev gathered around him his famous “mighty little band” (moguchaya kuchka) of talented musical mavericks and autodidacts.

They included the military fortifications expert César Cui (known to us as a journalist), the chemist Borodin (known to us as the composer of Prince Igor), the guards officer Modest Musorgsky (known to us as a musical realist), and the young naval cadet Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). The group's name was inadvertently invented by Stasov, in a journalistic puff about a concert of new Russian music conducted by Balakirev in 1867. It ended “with a wish: God grant that our audience never forget today's concert; God grant that they always remember how much poetry, feeling, talent, and skill there is in the small but already mighty little band of young Russian musicians.”17 The earliest truly “kuchkist” composition was Balakirev's Overture on Russian Themes, composed in 1857–58, about a decade before the group was named. It was at once a creative response to Glinka's Kamarinskaya and a calculated rejoinder to Rubinstein's slur, written as if on purpose to prove that Russian national instrumental music need not be immature or provincial. Unlike Glinka, Balakirev went looking for his themes. The determination to write a symphonic work on Russian folk songs preceded the specific embodiment (already a mark of the difference between “national” and “nationalist”). Unlike the themes in Kamarinskaya, the three songs Balakirev chose were all available in published anthologies, which was where he sought them out. They are set forth, both as Balakirev found them and as they are found in the Overture, in Ex. 9-11.

How the Acorn Took RootHow the Acorn Took Root

ex. 9-11 Folk songs in Miliy Balakirev's Overture on Russian Themes (1858)

The criteria for their selection are obvious if one knows Kamarinskaya, and show how closely Balakirev sought to model his work on Glinka's. Like Kamarinskaya, the Overture is set out in a slow-fast Introduction and Allegro scheme; moreover, the pair of tunes that together make up the thematic content of the Allegro, although they are full-blown melodies rather than naigrïshi, are both built up out of three-measure phrases analogous to the single varied phrase in Kamarinskaya. This enabled Balakirev to achieve a headlong ostinato drive just as unremitting as Glinka's—in fact more so, since there is no interrupting return to the slow theme. (Instead, the slow theme returns nostalgically at the very end.)

But Balakirev's piece makes use of three folk songs, not just two, and this turns out to be more than a mere quantitative difference. A glance at the two Allegro tunes reveals the reason for it: in B minor and D major respectively, they are the first and second themes in a bithematic sonata form exposition, with a conventional development section providing the pretext for an excursion to Glinka's flat submediant, here functioning as a traditional far-out point (FOP), and for a wealth of skillful contrapuntal juxtapositions of extracted motives.

Balakirev's Overture on Russian Themes can thus be viewed as a principled advance over Glinka's Kamarinskaya both as regards sheer dimensions, and also as regards symphonic character and procedure. Paradoxically, though, it is also a far more conventional composition. The advance was purchased at the price of a reconciliation with the standard operating procedure of German music, as Balakirev understood it—a seeming submission to the very hegemony Balakirev had made it his business to oppose. But the contradiction was in a sense built into the terms of the bargain: only a piece that could seem respectable by Germanic standards could counter Rubinstein's taunts. And unlike Glinka, Balakirev wanted more than just to write a piquantly impressive piece: he aimed at founding a school, and that meant establishing, observing, and handing down traditions (that is, conventions).


(14) Glinka to Nestor Kukolnik, 18 April 1845, in M. I. Glinka, Pis'ma i dokumentï (Leningrad: Muzgiz, 1953), p. 276.

(15) Diary entry, 27 June 1888; quoted in David Brown, Mikhail Glinka: A Biographical and Critical Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 1.

(16) Anton Rubinstein, Muka i yeyo predstaviteli (Moscow: P. Jurgenson, 1891), pp. 40, 83–84.

(17) V. V. Stasov, “Slavyanskiy kontsert g. Balakireva,” Sankt-Peterburgskiye vedomosti, 13 May 1867; in Stasov, Izbrannïye sochineniya, Vol. I (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1952), p. 173.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009005.xml