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Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays.

By Richard Taruskin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1007. [xxxii, 561 p. ISBN 0-601-01156-7. $40.50.]

Don't skip Taruskin's opening essay, "Others: A Mythology and a Demurrer (By Way of Preface)"! It's the best short course on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian music history I know. It also defines the essential critical context that unifies this collection of more or less independent essays on a variety of topics. All are based on earlier lectures, papers, and previously published material, though much has been revised and reordered. "By Way of Preface" addresses basic concerns that have long informed Taruskin's interpretation of Russian music and music history - concerns that provide a grounding unity not only to the variety of subjects explored in this rich collection, but also to Taruskin's formidable and ever-growing bibliography on the subject.

And don't think this book speaks only to specialists in Russian music. Taruskin's method of integrating historiography, analysis, and hermeneutics warrants the attention of any serious scholar.

Like most contemporary Rusists, Taruskin concerns himself mightily with what he describes as a "myth of otherness" attached to Russian music by those both within and without the culture. His preface, as acknowledged in its title, enters a cogent and principled "demurrer" that scholars "treat otherness not as immutable or essential fact but as myth-- . . . as an operational fiction or assumption that unless critically examined runs a high risk of tendentious abuse" (p. xxix).

Aroused more by professional rivalry, social class, and ethnicity than by concerns about actual compositional practice, the zealous publicists for the coterie of nineteenth-century Russian composers called the "Kuchka" (the "Mighty Little Handful") anointed them the "true" Russian nationalists and constructed a myth of "authentic Russianness" for their music that effectively excluded the music of Anton Rubinstein and his professionally trained proteges (Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky among them). "Russianness" thus became, by dint of massive and perdurable journalistic activity, the normative criterion for judging the worthiness of music by Russian composers. Exported to the West and generalized to embrace all composers of Russian nationality, regardless of their proximity to the ideology of the "kuchkists," this fuzzily defined and arrantly essentialist criterion of "Russianness" fostered "wholly racialized, totalizing notions of Russian musical difference," according to Taruskin (p. xvi), which effectively fenced off Russian music from a stake in the universal values to which the European mainstream laid claim. Readers of this review know well one consequence of the proclaimed "difference" of Russian music: American music students to this day study Russian music, and all the other music from the European periphery - not to mention the music of their native country! - under such familiar, ghettoizing rubrics as "nationalism," "nationalist music," and "national schools."

But Taruskin does more in "By Way of Preface" than lay open the myths of otherness that have defined Russia musically. Taking Gary Tomlinson's Musica in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) as his point of departure, Taruskin acutely engages a number of recent philosophical perspectives on "the other" in the process of arriving at what finally amounts to a compelling declaration of scholarly ethics. (This is your reviewer's characterization. Taruskin himself makes no such lofty claim.) His critical discourse departs from territory not unfamiliar to readers of contemporary literary theory (or its appropriation by music scholars) and embraces concerns of epistemological urgency with respect to understanding and interpretation-the essence of hermeneutic practice. I won't belittle the rigor and force of his argument by trying to summarize it in a review. But I would make it required reading for every "Intro to Musicology," and I urge it on colleagues disconcerted by the ravelings of contemporary academic practice.

The topical essays that constitute the substance of the book are grouped into three parts. Part 1, also entitled "Defining Russia Musically," comprises six "mini-essays" not seven, as suggested in the table of contents (p. ix) - that embrace two hundred years of Russian music history, from the eighteenth-century collector of Russian folk song N.A. Lvov (chap. 1) to post-Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke (chap. 6). Mikhail Glinka and Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky get attention in individual essays (chaps. 2 and 3), and both figure prominently, along with Alexander Dargomyzhsky and Modest Musorgsky, in "Who Am I? (And Who Are You?)" (chap. 4). "Safe Harbors" (chap. 5) superbly characterizes music politics in Russia at the turn of the century through the Stalin era. All the mini-essays revisit and revise, sometimes radically, received accounts of how Russian music and musicians were implicated in the defining of "Russian nationality, national character, and national self-awareness" (p. xxxi).

"Objectives" (designated chap. 7) actually serves as a second preface to the longer essays found in parts 2 and 3. Taruskin is at pains to point out that the disparate essays brought together here are linked implicitly, as he declares, by the same theme that explicitly linked the introductory mini-essays, that is, "defining Russia musically, along with its converse, defining music Russianly" (p. 105). Why strain to make a distinction between "implicit" and "explicit" linkage among the essays, given the utter assurance and compelling coherence of Taruskin's vision of how Russian music and music history reciprocated Russian national self-definition?!

Part 2, subtitled "Self and Other," comprises three substantial essays. The first, "How the Acorn Took Root" (chap. 8), plays on Tchaikovsky's oft-quoted aphorism about the Russian symphonic school: "It's all in [Glinka's] Kamarinskaia, just as the whole oak is in the acorn" (27 June 1888; Dnevniki P.1. Chaikovskogo [1923; reprint, St. Petersburg, 1993], p. 215). Taruskin demonstrates, with close analytical attention to the score, how Mily Balakirev, in his First Overture on Russian Themes, adapted and advanced Glinka's novel compositional technique of variation by "changing background," then moved beyond his model, in the Second Overture on Russian Themes, to create out of purely folkloric material a work whose formal scale and programmatic content suggest analogies with "German" symphonic methods.

Vladimir Nabokov's mannered archaism, "Entoiling the Falconet" (chap. 9), provides the happy title for a delectable essay on orientalism in Russian art music that situates Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor at its center. A prime attribute of the oriental "other" as conceived by Russians, says Taruskin, was "the promise of the experience of nega" - a word that my Dal' interpretive dictionary (1881) defines as "a state of utter bliss, of total satisfaction of all sensual desires." But Taruskin astutely relies on the urbane Nabokov to refine his own understanding of the word's still more delicate connotations and tells us that "in opera and song, nega often simply denotes S-E-X a la russe, desired or achieved" (p. 165). Turning to the music itself, Taruskin locates the nega topic and precisely describes its technical attributes, citing examples not only from Borodin, but also from Glinka, Balakirev, Sergey Rakhmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Rubinstein. His method is a model of hermeneutic practice: analytical interpretation, historical information, and vivid vocabulary correlate to produce a true synergism.

"Ital'yanshchina" (chap. 10) is another of Taruskin's superb short histories, this one a richly detailed account of Russia's encounter with the alluring "other" of Italian opera. During the mid-nineteenth-century frenzy of "Italianism" in St. Petersburg, the opulence of state-supported productions at the Italian Opera was touted as nourishment to national pride in the Tsarist state - a poor mess of pottage for those native musicians intensely conscious of self-as-creative-ego and ravenous for notice in the capital city as the authentic patrons of Russian national pride.

Part 3, comprising the final four chapters of the book (some 60 percent of the text), pairs individual composers with general concepts adduced as specifically Russian manifestations, which serve as "cruxes" for more of Taruskin's thoroughgoing "Hermeneutics of Russian Music" (the subtitle of pt. 3). "Chaikovsky [sic] and the Human: A Centennial Essay" (chap. 11) departs from a discussion of the composer's unrealized opera on George Eliot's tale "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story" and why the subject might attract him: "Human beings with their passions and woes are more intelligible and tangible to us than the gods and demigods of Valhalla" (Tchaikovsky quoted by Taruskin, p. 247). The essay then traverses a critical apercu of the generally accepted denotation in music history of the terms "classical" and "romantic," and, after a spirited excursus that turns Teutonized criticism of Tchaikovsky on its ear, arrives at a radical relocation of the composer's creative approach that places Tchaikovsky in direct line from his idol, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

In "Scriabin and the Superhuman: A Millennial Essay" (chap. 12), Taruskin dares to suggest a way to answer questions long misprized in "techno-essentialist historiography" (p. 315, n. 13): What are the meanings Alexander Scriabin sought to embody in his music, and how in concrete musical terms did he embody them? Taruskin responds with a close analysis of technical features in Scriabin's music that make, he argues, entirely plausible correlatives with the composer's symbolist vision of superhuman transcendence. I am exhilarated by a hermeneutic practice that rebuffs so bluntly the modernist dogma that creative intention is utterly irrelevant to the meaning of an artwork.

Igor Stravinsky in 1958-59 - by then well crafted, "with it," and long since avidly anti-Marxist - dismisses a social explanation for the advent of "atonality," attributing it instead to "an irresistible pull within the art" (misquoted by Taruskin, "pressure within the art," p. 356; see Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Conversations with Igor Stravinsky [1959; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980], 113). Provoked by such autonomist reductivism, Taruskin frames a credo worthy of the "new musicology":

The arts are not detached from the rest of existence or experience; they receive and react to pressures from many sources. Not only their contents, but also their forms and procedures - including the procedure of detaching them from the worldly - arise in response to worldly pressures. (p. 356)


In "Stravinsky and the Subhuman" (chap. 13), Taruskin continues his shrewd expose of the inherent reductivism (sometimes, solipsism!) of theoretical analyses that detach "the music itself" from historical and social contexts. Part 1 of the chapter unravels the "myth" of The Rite of Spring; part 2 ferrets out the Eurasian "ideocracy" at the technical crux of Svadebka (Les noces). Taruskin proceeds by identifying the congeries of ideas and values whose pressures conditioned the atmosphere in which The Rite and Svadebka were composed. Then, by means of "close musical analysis replete with standard technical jargon" (p. 109), relentlessly and with compelling logic, he forges the hideous links between "the music itself" and the grim subtexts that pervade these two acknowledged masterpieces. I cringe at the revelations, even as I concede the cogency of Taruskin's hermeneutical project. Theodor Adorno would have been gratified by the sinister connotations of "subhuman" in the chapter title! A stark account of the composer's avid anti-Semitism is worked into the peroration that wraps up this stunning chapter. What delicious irony that it is a Jew who writes with such depth of understanding about Stravinsky.

"Shostakovich and the Inhuman" (chap. 14) probes still more deeply into general problems of music hermeneutics,' while placing the controversies surrounding the composer's legacy in the perspective of a specifically Russian tradition of oppression and response to oppression. The first essay in the chapter, "Shostakovich and Us," asks who owns the meaning of Dmitrii Shostakovich's or any other composer's music and answers vehemently that neither music nor any other artwork can be annexed to a fixed or politically expedient interpretation without impoverishment. The second essay, "Entr'acte: The Lessons of Lady M.," explains in precise technical terms how Shostakovich's music effects the moral inversion of turning a multiple murderess - Katerina, the Lady Macbeth of the title - into "a ray of light in the dark kingdom" (p. 501) of nineteenth-century merchant-class Russia. Although both opera and composer would be brutally denounced by Stalinist proxies, Taruskin reminds us just how au courant of true 1930s Soviet reality the work actually was.

The concluding essay explores the reception history of the work widely declared as having rehabilitated Shostakovich following the debacle of Lady Macbeth: "Public Lies and Unspeakable Truth: Interpreting the Fifth Symphony." Taruskin locates the work in the post-Beethoven symphonic tradition and describes the music as unfolding in a series of immediately recognizable "syntactic" and "semantic" codes that cry out for interpretation, yet "whose meaning can never be wholly encompassed or definitively paraphrased" (pp. 520-21). At its first performance in Leningrad in 1937, public reaction was tumultuous. Both men and women wept openly during the Largo, and as the finale reached its culmination people started to rise involuntarily from their seats, transfixed by the intensity of their emotional response to the music. Such a devastating impact on that first-night audience can only be understood as a response to music as "Aesopian" language, music capable of "describing what was undescribable: a symphony that spoke the unspeakable" (p. 526). To account for this extraordinary reception, as well as to provide a context for understanding and evaluating interpretations of the symphony that range from the period of its premiere up to the present day, Taruskin once again patiently and painstakingly reviews the historical conditions surrounding the work's composition and first performance, and he once again scrutinizes the score itself for telling connections between technical particulars and expressive corollaries. He concludes his essay with a powerful refutation of such crass interpretations of Shostakovich's music as can be found in Ian MacDonald's The New Shostakovich (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990).

Taruskin is a recognized master of Russian music history. He has in fact reconceived the field in the course of his comparatively short career. This collection shows him also to be a masterful representative of the distinguished gnostic tradition he cites (p. 477), an academic who does not let himself off easy, but makes a principled commitment to what he views as the inescapable ethical responsibilities of scholars no less than of artists.

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Author:Brown, Malcolm Hamrick
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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