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Boris M. Gasparov, Five Operas and a Symphony: Words and Music in Russian Culture.

Boris M. Gasparov, Five Operas and a Symphony: Words and Music in Russian Culture. xxii + 268 pp., illus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 0300106505. $48.00.

Perhaps I'd better begin straight out with the Full Disclosure. I was present at the creation of most of the essays that have gone into this absorbing book. They were mainly conceived during the halcyon era when the author's presence in the Berkeley Slavic Department, together with Simon Karlinsky and Robert Hughes, made that department virtually a second music department on campus, which I (as the Slavist in the "first" department) happily frequented as a colloquium speaker and discussant, as they did ours. Those discussions were the incubator for a lot of thinking on both sides about the musical and literary arts in 19th-century Russia and their mutual relations, with occasional forays into the 20th. And here are seven chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, that testify to the splendid gestation these colloquium-inspired zamysli have undergone since Boris Mikhailovich's deeply lamented departure from the Pacific Coast.

He and I loved to face off. We were a virtual Mutual Resistance Society, acting upon one another the way sandy irritants act on oysters. ("You say MuSORGskii and I say MUsorgskii," I once blurted in exasperation. "Let's call the whole thing off.") The result, in his case at least, has been a string of pearls--not all perfectly shaped, but precious. My brief evaluation will emphasize points of difference, but all disputation should be placed in the context of my overriding debt to a scholar from whose matchless interdisciplinary scope and dizzy flights of erudite fancy I have drawn inspiration and stimulation for many years.

I would guess most readers will agree with me that the third chapter, "Eugene Onegin in the Age of Realism," is the zenith of the collection. If my memory serves, it had its origin in a colloquium I was giving at the Slavic Department, in which I attempted a defense of Chaikovskii's opera against the legions of offended Pushkinists who have inveighed against it since its premiere, lately under the banner of the militantly tone-deaf Nabokov. My defense focused on Chaikovskii's parody of the Russian romance idiom of the 1830s--that is, of Pushkin's time--and the way he made that idiom comment (in part through abstracted "intonations," to use Boris Asaf'ev's word) on the action in the manner of Pushkin's detached and ironic narrator. Simon Karlinsky was unconvinced. He parried my thrust with the comment that, music or no music, Chaikovskii's characters were denizens of Turgenev's world (that is, creatures of Chaikovskii's coarser, more sentimental time), not Pushkin's. Semyon Arkadyevich meant it as derogation, but Boris Mikhailovich was listening and realized that the point, well enough taken, could actually be transformed into a compliment, and a pregnant one, the ability to effect a compelling "transposition" being the symptom of a robust creative personality. In backing up this insight, Gasparov brings to bear some of the same biographical details--Chaikovskii's disastrous marriage in defiance of sexual preference, his quixotic obsession with emotional authenticity--that in the hands of fools have led to so much ghastly trivialization. In his hands, by contrast, they lead to illumination.

The finest moment comes in a new reading of the duel scene in novel and opera, where Gasparov clinches Karlinsky's point, exposing the inability of Chaikovskii, or the composer's contemporaries, to respect the social codes that motivated Pushkin's characters in a manner that fully satisfied the poet's contemporaries. Here is its terrific conclusion:
   To the audience of Chaikovsky's opera, the scene of Onegin's and
   Lensky's duel looked identical to what they remembered (more or
   less) from the novel; the familiar characters were on stage, the
   words they were singing taken almost entirely from Pushkin's text.
   Yet this outward similarity obfuscated an underlying difference.
   Chaikovsky's music made explicit the emotional prism through which
   his generation saw the scene in the famous novel: unreserved
   sympathy for Lensky, an ironic but marginal sketch of
   Zaretsky--another curious social type--and resolute alienation of
   Onegin for his inability to do and say what a person of integrity
   should. (93)

I gratefully accept this refinement to my thesis about the opera. Chaikovskii's music is stylistically of Pushkin's time, but it nevertheless manipulates the audience in accordance with the sentimental ideals of a later time. That dual accomplishment, compounding irony, only magnifies the composer's achievement.

As this example shows, Gasparov is one of the very few literary scholars who can really hear music; and he is not only aware, but also equipped to make his readers aware, of the ways in which master composers, like other master fictioneers, deploy stylistic codes and registers. His chapters on Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila, Musorgskii's Khovanshchina, and Chaikovskii's Queen of Spades are demonstrations of such deployments: in Glinka's case, the play of Italian opera conventions against those of the Russian romance; in Musorgskii's, of folk and liturgical intonations against those of naturalistic speech song; in Chaikovskii's, of 18th-century pastiche against the unmarked idiom of contemporary (19th-century) opera. As revelations of composerly craft and calculation they are exhilarating, and I hope they will do the job the author evidently intends: namely, to convince other literary scholars that musicians are not so dumb, and that musical adaptation is far from necessarily the sort of impoverishment that defenders of literary values often expect and assume it to be.

Withal, these chapters have the vices of their virtues. Their main vice is overkill. Their arguments are often exaggerated, even forced at times, and they suffer from an excess of zeal to find meaning everywhere that occasionally borders on the humorless. In this I cannot help seeing an inheritance from the traditions of 19th-century Russian criticism as perpetuated in Soviet discourse. I well remember the Berkeley colloquium in which Gasparov first showed the correspondences, now displayed in his Examples 4.1 and 4.2, between the folk tunes Musorgskii culled from a published anthology for use in the first scene of the fourth act in Khovanshchina (Ivan Khovanskii's chamber) and some of the main leitmotifs in the opera. At the time I agreed that the correspondences were real, admired the acuteness with which Gasparov had espied them, and was willing to allow that Musorgskii was indulging in an ironic pun--possibly, as Gasparov suggested, to hint at the sort of thoughts that might have been going on inside the distracted Khovanskii's head while listening to the singing of his servant girls..

I am unwilling, however, to grant that these melodic similarities (and some other less obvious ones that Gasparov adduces in the Dances of the Persian Slave Girls) contribute to a great deepening of the opera's meaning through a pervasive substratum of leitmotifs (illusory, I'm afraid) that in Gasparov's enthusiastic view rivals Wagner's. This substratum, Gasparov insists, adds a whole layer of latent meaning to the events portrayed (and he makes a similar claim with reference to the pastoral divertissement in the second act of The Queen of Spades). The first requirement of latent content, however, whether one is speaking as a Freudian or as an ordinary human being, is that it add something to the manifest content (or else contradict it evocatively), and the melodic correspondences Gasparov cites do no such thing. That Khovanskii is worried about Tsar Peter's rise despite the blandishments of his singing and dancing girls is only too obvious--what else had he been singing about at the end of Act III? The echoes of his and Peter's leitmotifs in the innocent folk songs might confirm the impression that he is preoccupied with doom, but the impression does not originate in them, any more than forebodings about the outcome of Hermann's courtship of Liza in The Queen of Spades, or revulsion at his unhealthy interest in the old Countess, originates in the Act II divertissement even if one can force similar echoes out of its melodic material.

This insistence on seeing deep meaning in apparent diversion is an old Russian vice, and it can be taken to far more preposterous lengths than Gasparov takes it. (R. John Wiley has even read deep and tragic portents into the peasant song-and-dance routine that Chaikovskii interpolated into the first act of Eugene Onegin.) (1) Its origin, I believe, is the old prejudice against the "decorative," which is in essence a class prejudice. Critics who in the 19th century wished to rescue art from the clutches of the aristocracy (for whom it was just a luxury or a lifestyle enhancer) saw decorativeness as a taint; its equally passionate (and likewise crypto-political) reassertion at the fin de siecle is what gave the Silver Age its irresistible momentum. The Soviets, counter-reacting, only magnified the class prejudices of the raznochintsy, and to my mind Gasparov's interpretations of the decorative interpolations in the work of Glinka, Chaikovskii, and Musorgskii are reflections, malgre lui, of his Soviet education. Not that Gasparov is under Sovietish illusions about the political or social views of the composers he treats; he is fully aware that Glinka and Musorgskii were petty aristocrats, and that Chaikovskii was a dedicated social climber and a snob, nor does he hold it particularly against them. The unwillingness to allow diversion to be diversion may also owe something to the Germanic ideals of organic form that have been the default position of academic criticism for well over a century. But all these are blinders to be shed, not lenses.

Having touched now on four of the five titular operas (the fifth is Puccini's Turandot, which Gasparov describes very carelessly, but which he links intriguingly to Musorgskii and other Russian influences), I turn now, and with reluctance, to the symphony: Shostakovich's Fourth, which Gasparov reads, with acknowledgment to Katerina Clark and Boris Groys (the sort of acknowledgment he does not always make to those on whose ideas he draws), as the musical equivalent of a Socialist Realist novel. He makes some interesting comparisons between the implied subject persona of the symphony and the positive heroes of such novels as valentin Katayev's Time, Forward! But the chapter is vitiated, for me, not only by the currently fashionable view that Socialist Realist fiction (and, by implication, the heroic classicism of Shostakovich's middle symphonies) was a spontaneous growth within the world of the aesthetic, requiring no assist from without, but also--and mainly--by the equally fashionable, and altogether deplorable, habit of romanticizing Shostakovich as a heroic political resister after the example of Testimony, Solomon volkov's volume of faked memoirs, now conclusively discredited by Laurel Fay. (2)

"One can only hope that the whirlwind of conflicting 'testimonies' by and about the composer, along with their vehement refutations and reaffirmations, will subside in the future," Gasparov avers (164), adding that he has "no desire to involve myself in this process." But involve himself he does, beginning with the very next clause of the same sentence, in which he adds his mite to the collective effort to project a cardboard icon:
   I nevertheless take the liberty of pointing to one thing that
   Shostakovich never said, in contradistinction to the many things
   that he ostensibly did say. Whatever the validity of his public and
   private utterances, no one, to my knowledge, claims to have heard
   him use the shrill words of a public denunciation similar to those
   that were addressed to him by so many critics on so many
   occasions.... When, after a period in which he had been pushed to
   the brink of extinction, he rose once again in official favor--as
   happened more than once during his career--he never used his
   regained stature to get even with those who had been demanding his

Alas, Gasparov's knowledge requires an update. The fairly recent collection Dmitrii Shostakovich v pis'makh i dokumentakh (Dmitrii Shostakovich in Letters and Documents) contains letters he wrote in his official capacity as president of the Moscow branch of the Union of Soviet Composers, the job for which he had to join the Communist Party in 1960, and these letters do show him shrilly getting even with those who had made his life miserable in 1948. (3)

But I doubt whether this or any evidence will change Gasparov's mind either about Shostakovich or about Testimony. A footnote about that reprehensible book made me grieve:
   Even if Testimony is volkov's loose compilation--as to all
   appearance it is--I consider its total banishment from scholarly
   reference for which many serious musicologists have called to be a
   polemical excess. If one approaches Testimony as volkov's account of
   his conversations with Shostakovich rather than direct transcription
   of Shostakovich's oral narrative, one can treat it as no more and no
   less reliable than any set of memoirs. (254 n. 9)

Like James Frey's, I guess. But even Frey's fictions were his own. (4) Gasparov seems unaware that the issue with respect to volkov is not one of veracity, but of authenticity. It not only grieves but shames me to witness a fellow scholar's willingness to tolerate a pack of lies and base deceptions, perpetrated in the first instance on Dmitrii Dmitrievich himself, thence on a greedy American publisher and the gullible public. But is he really unaware? In another footnote, Gasparov comments on a parallel case: Nestor Kukolnik's diary, the reliability of which as a biographical source about Glinka was much impugned by Soviet scholars. "There is some textological evidence to support the argument that the diary was edited and possibly altered by the publisher," Gasparov admits. Yet, he continues, "the total dismissal of the document seems in its turn suspicious, given the utter venom with which Soviet scholars treated Kukolnik and the ardent desire, amid all the pomp of sesquicentennial celebrations in the late years of Stalin's regime, to 'cleanse' the composer of this association" (223 n. 11).

There you have it: the evidence is on the one side, my loathing is on the other side, and when push comes to shove I'll indulge the latter. Another regrettable trace of the author's Soviet experience sounds here in ironic counterpoint against the one cited earlier that clouded his perception of Glinka, Musorgskii, and Chaikovskii. It is, in a further irony, a testimony to the need (amply acknowledged by Gasparov with regard to his subjects) always to keep an author's biography in mind as one reads his work. After making such allowances any reader will profit greatly from reading this book. But allowances must be made.

(1) Roland John Wiley, "Tchaikovsky's 'Eugene Onegin,'" in Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, ed. Nicholas John (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1988), 21.

(2) See her "volkov's Testimony Reconsidered," in A Shostakovich Casebook, ed. Malcolm H. Brown (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 22-79.

(3) I. A. Bobykina et al., eds., Dmitrii Shostakovich v pis'makh i dokumentakh (Moscow: Glinka State Museum of Musical Culture, 2000).

(4) For those in need of a reminder, James Frey's two best-selling books of "memoirs," A Million Little Pieces (New York: Doubleday, 2003) and My Friend Leonard (New York: Riverhead, 2005), were "shopped" as fiction and placed with a publisher only when the author, at an agent's promptings, fraudulently changed their designation. After their factual claims were discredited, Doubleday demanded from the author a note confessing to his fabrications as the price of continued publication and issued an apology to readers, which read in part: "Recent interpretations of our previous statements notwithstanding, it is not the policy or stance of this company that it doesn't matter whether a book sold as nonfiction is true. A nonfiction book should adhere to the facts as the author knows them" (downloaded from on 30 August 2006). Some of us would welcome a similar statement, now that Laurel Fay has exposed volkov's fakery, from HarperCollins, his publisher, and I, for one, am amazed that, apparently, not all scholars agree.

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Author:Taruskin, Richard
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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