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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Slavs as Subjects and Citizens
Richard Taruskin

So, it is high time to ask, what's it all about? What kind of a statement about Russia was Balakirev making? What kind of a story was he telling? As in all interpretative matters, there is room for alternatives and negotiations. Perhaps the most interesting fact about Balakirev's second Overture, and surely the most fascinating aspect of its history, is how many mutually exclusive alternatives and how much negotiation originated with the composer himself.

The period of truculent musical politics immediately preceding the founding of Rubinstein's Conservatory in 1862 had coincided with what was generally a turbulent moment in Russian history: the aftermath of the Crimean War and the multiple far-reaching reforms of the early reign of Tsar Alexander II. A typical incident of those years was a series of student demonstrations at the beginning of the 1861–62 academic year that led to a great number of arrests and the temporary closing of the three leading Russian universities, those at St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kazan (where Balakirev had briefly studied).

From his London exile the radical democrat Alexander Herzen (1812–70) greeted this outbreak of political activism among the youth of Russia with an enthusiastic editorial in his journal The Bell (Kolokol), entitled “The Giant Wakes!” It ended with an impassioned call to the students at the shut-down institutions:

In Russia the universities are closed, in Poland even the churches have been shut down, defiled by the police. There is neither light of reason nor light of faith! Where would they thus lead us in the dark? … So, where will you turn, brave youths, you who have been shut out from your studies? Where, indeed?

Listen, closely, since darkness does not prevent hearing: from all sides of our enormous fatherland, from the Don and from the Urals, from the Volga and the Dnepr, a moan is growing, a rumble is rising—it is the beginning of a tidal wave which is boiling up, attended by storms, after a horribly fatiguing calm. To the people! With the people!—That's where you belong.19

Stasov, whose library post gave him privileged access to censored and foreign literature, was a regular reader of Herzen's Kolokol. According to a letter from Stasov to Balakirev,20 the conception of Balakirev's urgently dynamic second Overture was connected with their reading “The Giant Wakes!” together, and in particular with Herzen's image of the rising tidal wave. That interpretation of the piece naturally appealed to critics during the Soviet regime, which traced its intellectual ancestry back to Herzen and other pre-Marxist Russian radicals. On the basis of Stasov's letter, one such critic wrote that Balakirev's Overture was “a picture of Russia as seen through the eyes of one who has felt the powerful strength, the spiritual beauty, and the poetic gift of the ‘awakening populace.’”21

But when the work was published in 1869, it was given the programmatic title 1,000 Years: A Musical Picture, alluding to the recently celebrated millennium of the legendary founding of the Russian state by the Scandinavian Prince Rurik in 862. No evidence survives to suggest that Balakirev had any such idea in 1862, but there is a letter from Stasov to Balakirev, dated 17 December 1868, discussing a proposed design for the title page, which gives some idea of the program they then envisioned: “On the left there will be a drawing of ‘primeval Russia’; in the middle, Moscow, or perhaps one of the autonomous princely cities; and finally, as if disappearing in the distance, ‘modern times’—some city, a rushing locomotive, telegraphs, some new buildings.”22

This is pretty far from a rising wave of popular discontent. It flies in the face of the previous conception, putting meliorism, the notion that things get better and better with time, in place of social criticism. In fact, the vicissitudes of the second Overture's program were just beginning. In the mid-1880s, having suffered a nervous breakdown and a prolonged interruption of his musical activities, Balakirev eased himself back into the swim of things by lightly revising a number of early compositions, 1,000 Years among them. He retouched it in 1884 and published it in 1890 with a new designation—symphonic poem—and a new title: Rus’, the Old Slavonic name of his country, known in modern Russian as Rossiya. The preface now described the program in detail:

The unveiling in 1862 in Novgorod of a monument to the Russian millennium was the occasion for the composition of this symphonic poem. As its basis I selected the themes of three folk songs, by which I wished to characterize three elements in our ancient history: the pagan period, the Muscovite order, and the autonomous republican system, now reborn among the Cossacks. Strife among these elements, expressed in the symphonic development of these themes, has furnished the content of the instrumental drama.23

Far from either a social protest or a melioristic panorama, we are now faced with a glorification of Russian antiquity, particularly of those quasi-communal forms of social organization that were maintained by the Cossacks, for which they were admired by nationalist reactionaries, such as Balakirev had evidently become, and reviled by every progressive or liberal element. And he went even further. In the last edition of the score to come out within his lifetime, he amended the last sentence to read: “Their strife, culminating in the fatal blow dealt all Russian religious and national aspirations by the reforms of Peter I, has furnished the content of the instrumental drama.”24 In a letter to a fellow Pan-Slavist he actually maintained that his original intention in composing Rus’ had been “to depict how Peter the Great killed our native Russian life.”25 What an anomaly this is: from its putative beginnings in Herzen, the ideological content of Balakirev's overture (or picture, or symphonic poem) had swung 180 degrees to the right, along with the composer's political and social outlook: from a progressive man of the sixties the composer had become a xenophobic reactionary. Without knowledge of the history of the piece, all three interpretations of its music might seem equally plausible. But all would be equally absurd if applied to Kamarinskaya. So the radical expansion of form Balakirev achieved in his second Overture can best be viewed as an effort to accommodate an ideological, not merely an evocative content—an effort demanded by a commitment to artistic nationalism that the aristocratic composer of Kamarinskaya not only lacked but despised.

Balakirev's nationalism, whether on the left or on the right, arose out of a self-imposed requirement, uniquely prevalent in Russia, that art be engagé—that it engage with civic and social issues. That need arose out of Russia's unique nineteenth-century status as the one remaining autocratic despotism in Europe, where censorship of public speech and public press was uniquely stringent, and where open debate about public policy was uniquely circumscribed by law. Under such circumstances, discussion of political and social issues had to go underground, into historiography and art (and, perhaps above all, into historiographically informed art). As Friedrich Nietzsche, in a typically brilliant aphorism, observed in 1880, “Music reaches its high-water mark only among men who have not the ability or the right to argue.”26 He was not talking about Russia at the time, but his astonishing sentence does more to encapsulate the peculiar history of music there, and explain its extraordinary sudden flowering in the late nineteenth century, than any other single sentence could ever hope to do.


(19) “Ispolin prosïpayetsya,” Kolokol, no 110 (1 November 1861); in Alexander Herzen, Sochineniya, Vol. VII (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1958), p. 392.

(20) See A. S. Lyapunova, ed., M. A. Balakirev i V. V. Stasov: Perepiska, Vol. I (Moscow: Muzïka, 1970), p. 27.

(21) E.L. Frid, “Simfonicheskoye tvorchestvo,” in Miliy Alekseyevich Balakirev: Issledovaniya i stat'i (Leningrad: Muzgiz, 1961), p. 136.

(22) Lyapunova, ed., M. A. Balakirev i V. V. Stasov: Perepiska, Vol. I, p. 262.

(23) Quoted in Lyapunova, ed., M. A. Balakirev i V. V. Stasov: Perepiska, Vol. II, 279.

(24) Quoted in Frid, “Simfonicheskoye tvorchestvo,” p. 132.

(25) Ibid.

(26) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880), in The Philosophy of Nietzsche, ed. Geoffrey Clive (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 303.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009007.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-009007.xml