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It's the Russian Century; Music


I began Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center at 5 p.m. listening to Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam perform Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, and then hurried down the center's grand foyer to make a 7 p.m. curtain for the Washington Opera's new production of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov."

Sometime in that seven-hour period, I realized I was spending the evening listening to nothing but Russian music of the last 125 years. That, in turn, led to some speculation about the possibility that -- musically, at least -- we will remember the century about to end as the "Russian Century."

Certainly -- Henry Luce to the contrary -- it won't be remembered as the "American Century." Can you think of any American opera that has the stature, not to mention the popularity, of Mussorgsky's "Boris"? Can you even name an American opera?

The United States may have won the Cold War, and American popular culture rules the world. But in terms of cultural substance -- which I define as not Big Macs from McDonald's and not the latest hit from Wu-Tang Clan -- the Russians beat our pants off. Generally speaking, their poets and novelists write more affectingly of the human condition, their virtuosos perform more brilliantly and reliably their ballet dancers chess players

But nowhere does this seem to be as true as it is in classical-music programming. What Germany was because of the hundred years or so in which Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were born, Russia has become. The long-standing German monopoly seemed to expire with the death of Richard Strauss in 1949. Germany and Austria have produced some well-regarded names in the last few decades, but no one worthy of mention compared with any of the important Austro-Germanic composers of the previous three centuries.

Twentieth-century Russian composers have not been comparably overshadowed by the great figures from their past. Stravinsky, who is still (if not entirely with justice) regarded as this century's great composer, was so famous that Frank Sinatra once asked for his autograph. Shostakovich and Prokofiev, if the statistics compiled in recent years by the American Symphony Orchestra League are to believed, appear more frequently on orchestra programs than Schubert and Mendelssohn. And Russian or Russian-trained composers such as Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part and Sofia Gubaidulina seem to have broken out of the "new music" ghetto, winning the attention of a broad and dedicated audience.

This has happened because music has mattered more in Russia than in other places. Part of the explanation is historical. Russia is one of the few countries in which composers have been just as famous as writers or painters, and in no other society were creative artists ever so gaudily celebrated as in 19th-century Russia. Even today, Russia may be the only country in the world in which chess players, as well as musicians or poets, can become public figures.

Another reason for the continued vitality of Russian music has to do with the country's diversity. Russia sprawls in cultural incoherence across 11 time zones. This has been a musical bonanza for Russian composers from Glinka through Gubaidulina, who have been able to draw upon two continents' worth of folk sources.

Still another explanation may be political. Composers mattered to a wide audience because they seemed able to speak thoughts which were not allowed in print. Audiences in the Soviet era scanned the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and other composers for messages in musical code, as it were, about the absurdities of the repressive regime in which they lived. Sometimes composers suffered for their insolence; but because they used an abstract language, rather than words, they were much less likely to be found out than writers and, therefore, less likely to be sent to the gulag or before a firing squad.

But, finally, Russian composers mattered to Russian audiences because those audiences mattered to them. And that's why Russian music continues to matter today.

For most of this century, in the West, composers have been so intent on making music new that they neglected communicating with an audience. I don't think any reasonable listener would accuse composers as various as Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Gubaidulina or Schnittke of pandering to audiences, but most of them have been able to reconcile writing music that has the power to engage, as well as to shock, audiences.

A few thoughts about some of what I heard on Saturday suffice to make this point. Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is an epic about the birth and destiny of a nation -- as pertinent to the social and economic unrest of Russia in the composer's time as it is today in the era of Boris Yeltsin.

Shostakovich's "Suite from 'Hamlet,' " which the Concertgebouw performed, was culled by the composer himself from his score for Grigori Kozintsev's film of the Shakespeare play. Shostakovich wrote a lot for the movies -- so has every other Russian composer of note since the invention of the cinema. They believed it was important to write for this medium because it reached more people than any other.

In Western culture, it's usually been the case that one kind of composer writes for popular media, such as film -- say John Williams -- while another -- say Elliot Carter -- writes for the "serious" audience. In Russia, no such division of musical labor exists. Russian society may be falling apart, but musically, at least, it continues to cohere.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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