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Masterfully Russian

Masterfully Russian

Russian musical masterworks richly wind their way through the Minnesota Orchestra season this year. Arts writer Emily Hogstad explores some of these creations, their composers, and the sound that lends them a uniquely Russian flair.


Say the phrase “Russian music” to a classical music lover, and most will immediately imagine a Tchaikovsky symphony or ballet being led by a serious and swooping conductor.

But there is so much more to this tradition than wildly heart-on-sleeve sweep. This season the Minnesota Orchestra is not only presenting well-loved works by Russian and Soviet composers, but also introducing audiences to corners of that repertoire they may never have heard before—or even think of as being traditionally “Russian.”

Here are a few observations about this magical music to pique your interest in the season’s wide-ranging theme.

Russian composers adored legends and the ballet. (And if those two things could be combined, all the better!)

Russian composers have always felt an affinity with the power of legend. Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain portrays witches dancing on a mountaintop, while Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade portrays a concubine who saves herself from a bloodthirsty king by cleverly storytelling.

Legends have also provided ample inspiration for Russian ballets. The Firebird in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet is a dazzling half-bird, half-woman; when a prince resists the temptation of her beauty and spares her life, she gives him one of her magical, luminous feathers in gratitude. Sergei Prokofiev also wrote a colorful ballet about a fairy tale: Cinderella, with its glass dancing slippers and magic hamstrung by a midnight curfew.

We probably owe the vast majority of Rachmaninoff’s compositional output to a viola-playing hypnotist.

The 1897 premiere of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was a nightmare come to life. At rehearsal Rimsky-Korsakov shared an ominous observation: “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Conductor Alexander Glazunov started making haphazard cuts to the score, and unsurprisingly, rehearsals went disastrously. (He also may have been drunk at the premiere. Dmitri Shostakovich, who studied under Glazunov, claimed that he regularly drank alcohol from a tube during class.) Rachmaninoff, unable to endure hearing his score so tortured, had to leave the premiere before it was even over. The more viciously partisan of the Russian critics sensed an opening to advance their own interests, and César Cui gleefully suggested Rachmaninoff’s symphony would have “delighted the inhabitants of Hell.”

What followed was one of the most famous examples of writer’s block in classical music history: a three-year period during which Rachmaninoff’s depression and self-doubt kept him from composing hardly anything at all. Happily, however, his family eventually convinced him to get help, so he started seeing hypnotist (and amateur violist) Dr. Nikolai Dahl. Dahl treated Rachmaninoff daily over a period of several months in early 1900, and luckily the therapy worked.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto appeared in 1901, was a great success, and was dedicated to Dr. Dahl. Although he’d wrestle with poor mental health for decades to come, Rachmaninoff would continue to compose, ultimately gifting grateful audiences with works like his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, among others.

Russian or Soviet music is inextricably bound up with politics.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called the Leningrad, is just as much a historical monument as it is an artistic one. The lead-up to its premiere, which occurred during World War II’s siege of Leningrad, sounds like something out of a dystopian novel. At rehearsal breaks, the musicians dug mass graves for the victims of the siege, and three musicians starved to death between the time when rehearsals started and when the performance actually took place. The fact that the performance ultimately did occur—and triumphantly—became a point of international pride for the Allies.

Tragically, Shostakovich was only one of many Soviet composers whose creative output was dictated by these kinds of political considerations.

Composers and performers were dear friends and inspirations—and at times competitors.

It’s weirdly difficult for some people to remember that the great composers were also human. Prokofiev, for instance, was more than just a composer; he was also a man obsessed with chess. In 1937, a few years before writing his famous Fifth Symphony, he scheduled a ten-game tournament with his dear friend and neighbor. That neighbor happened to be one of the best-loved violinists of the 20th century, David Oistrakh.

“Living next door to each other,” Oistrakh said, “we often played blitz-contests and I wish you could see how excited he was drawing all kinds of colorful diagrams of his wins and losses, and how happy he was with each victory, as well as how devastated each time he lost.”

Of the ten scheduled games, only seven were played. Rumor has it that toward the end, Oistrakh realized that his defeat was imminent, so he bowed out gracefully by heading out on a concert tour.

When Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Second Violin Concerto (which sadly turned out to be his last concerto, period), he also turned to Oistrakh. The work was actually conceived as a 60th birthday present for him, but Shostakovich was so inspired, he ended up finishing it a year ahead of schedule. Oistrakh made a private recording of his initial interpretation and sent it back to Shostakovich for feedback. Shostakovich, moved by his muse’s thoughtfulness and generosity, declared the recording “glorious.”

Not all of the great Russian or Soviet composers were men, and you should know about them, too!

Galina Ustvolskaya, born in 1919, was an independent-minded composer of a small but potent body of work, including a mesmerizing Symphonic Poem No. 2. She studied with Shostakovich, who famously wrote to her, “It is not you who are under my influence, it is I who am under yours.”

Sofia Gubaidulina, born in 1931, also charted her own defiant musical course. She too was mentored by Shostakovich; he encouraged her to fight back against corrosive political influence in her artistic life and asked her to “continue on your own incorrect path.” (Predictably, the authorities weren’t pleased with her choices. But she was steely: unfazed, she once asked a hitman who was trying to strangle her in an elevator why he was taking so long.)

And young composer Polina Nazaykinskaya has a deeply meaningful local connection: she participated in the 2010 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, and her breathtaking Winter Bells was first performed by the Orchestra at that year’s Future Classics concert.

Since Russian music is so magically diverse, no matter what your musical tastes, know that there’s something for you in this programming.

In fact, over the next few months, your Minnesota Orchestra will be performing at least parts of every single piece I’ve mentioned so far (plus a few more, including Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella, his Symphony of Psalms, and works or excerpts from works by Reinhold Glière, Modest Mussorgsky, Dmitry Kabalevsky, and others).

In the end, what better way is there for a Minnesotan music lover to escape a Russian-like winter than to enter the warmth of Orchestra Hall? Rich stories and even richer scores await here—as they always do.


Emily Hogstad is a freelance arts writer who blogs at Song of the Lark. She writes regularly for Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s website and contributes program notes to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Lakes Area Music Festival. A violinist and violist, she has also appeared as pre-concert talker with the Hill House Chamber Players, the Musical Offering and the Lakes Area Music Festival.

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