December 12, 2016

My Russia


So I thought I'd post my most recent essay, which is included in the collection I mentioned above, Are We There Yet? It's in a section devoted to questions of identity, and I was thinking that maybe my own experience might stimulate others to think about their own issues in this regard. As follows:

Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.—Russian proverb

Identity reaches back to the earliest years of life.

A short while ago, a fragment of a song popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere. "Vykhozhu odin ya na dorogu..." It was a tune that my grandfather used to sing to himself, late at night, when he was babysitting me at age five or so. "I set out on the road, alone." I transliterated the words in my memory into Roman characters, and plugged them into Google. Much to my amazement, the whole thing came up in Roman and Cyrillic. The line was the beginning of a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841. Twenty years later, Elizaveta Shashina set the words to music, and YouTube now provides various versions of it online. My favorite is the one by Anna German, who is Polish, but who knows Russian well enough. The melody is haunting, melancholy, the song of a man who walked the road of life by himself—like Lermontov. Or like my grandfather. Or perhaps, like me.

In any case, the incident sparked a realization that there was a very Russian part of my life, one that I hadn’t taken much notice of up to that point. But I believe my mother also sang Lermontov to me as a child, his Cossack lullaby called “Bayushki Bayu”; and although my grandfather wasn’t a communist, he taught me the Internationale, in later years, which I still remember. I’ve also had a Russian statuette on my bookshelf for many years, probably given to me by my mother, that has a Cossack theme. It consists of two figures. One is a woman, standing, wearing a colorful dress; the other is a man in a Cossack outfit, kneeling next to her on one leg, in a position one would take for dancing the kozotsky. This is the famous Cossack “kick dance,” which I had in fact seen performed at various Jewish weddings I was taken to as a child. The statuette always fascinated me; Cossacks had played a very dark part in my family’s history, yet there was something about peasant life that I found intriguing.

Then there was the music. I think the first classical piece I ever listened to, at around ten years of age, was Pictures at an Exhibition, by Mussorgsky. Maybe earlier. My parents had a collection of old 78s, and it included Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, and others. Shortly after, I developed an interest in fairy tales, and this included the wonderful illustrations of Ivan Bilibin, and stories such as that of Baba Yaga, the witch who lived in a hut that moved around on chicken legs. A bit later, I began studying Russian at Cornell University, having missed Vladimir Nabokov by only four years. (Later I read his novel Pnin, based on his time at Cornell, and loved it.) It was pretty rigorous: we read Pushkin, Chekhov, Lermontov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and it all seemed oddly familiar to me, even though plowing through all that Cyrillic wasn’t easy. I had the same sense of “having been there” when, in later years, I read Orlando Figes’ fat tome, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. This history was my history, or so it seemed, even though my parents’ first language was Yiddish, not Russian.

Despite the dark (ignorant, cruel, anti-Semitic) side of the Russian peasantry, there is something vibrant about that life as well; and like a number of other historians, Figes picks up on the theme of a dialectical tension between the Russian “mainstream” (heavily Europeanized) and the Russian “other” (Cossack, Mongol, and Asian heritage). This tension finally generated a galaxy of talent between 1820 and 1920, serving as the creative basis of the authors cited above, in addition to Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Marc Chagall. As Figes tells it, the tension never got resolved: Russian writers, artists, and musicians just lived with it, and the “alchemical” result is there for all to see. I had written about this particular style of creativity in a book I wrote some time ago, Coming to Our Senses, in which I said that the tension of holding polar opposites close together often issued out in brilliant creative work. But I didn’t, in that book, refer to the Russians, or see the dynamic as involving a peasant heritage. Reading Figes, I couldn’t help wondering how much this peasant heritage had unconsciously influenced my life—a kind of genetic memory, as it were.

As for Pictures at an Exhibition, for some reason I remember this work not in the form of a pile of 78s, but as a single vinyl LP. I was probably attracted by the jacket, which showed a painting consisting of brilliant colors. I listened to it many times, although at age ten it’s not likely that I had any real musical understanding of the work. Rather, it represented itself in my mind as a series of stories, which created a pictorial narrative in my head. (It was only decades later that I realized that this was something very difficult to do with purely Western music, such as a sonata by Mozart.) And so I imagined a dusty road in the Polish countryside, with cattle pulling a giant cart (“Bydło”), or a witch’s hut in the woods standing on chicken legs (“Baba Yaga”), or the gate of Kiev. Children like stories, and I was no exception.

Mussorgsky composed the work in 1874, died in 1881, and it was published in 1886. Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel to do an arrangement of it in 1922, at which point it became very popular. The motivation for it was the death of Mussorgsky’s close friend Viktor Hartmann, an extremely talented architect and painter, in 1873, at the age of thirty-nine. Mussorgsky was devastated; his “career” as an alcoholic dates from this time. But his grief was mollified somewhat by the decision of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg to mount an exhibition of Hartmann’s work, which took place in 1874. Mussorgsky attended the show and was deeply moved by it; the pictures rendered musically in Pictures are from that exhibition (most of them are now lost).

Of course, it is very difficult to talk about the feelings generated by music; I can only urge the reader to buy the CD of Pictures and listen for him- or herself. But let me say this: Western polyphonic music, i.e. post-Gregorian chant, is characterized by harmonic lines or part-songs, and in general by a structure of tension and resolution. In its most basic form, you start with a melodic line, then go a few notes higher, then a few notes lower, and then return to the starting point (thereby resolving the tension). It’s very predictable, and what Western audiences have come to expect. Most of these audiences, for example, are not comfortable with, say, Schoenberg or even Bartok.

Well, Mussorgsky’s music doesn’t follow the classical Western symmetrical pattern. Rather, it is grounded in the melody and rhythm of Russian folk songs and oriental styles. The meter is asymmetrical; the music often lurches around unpredictably. In the piece called “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” (a rich Jew and a poor one), Mussorgsky employs something similar to the Phrygian dominant scale, which is characteristic of Indian ragas and the music of the Near East; one also finds it in Hebrew prayers and in klezmer music. Part of “The Great Gate of Kiev” is based on a hymn of the Russian Orthodox Church (the chant of Znamenny). Hartmann was one of the first artists to include traditional Russian motifs and folklore in his work, and Mussorgsky picked up on this. Indeed, Orlando Figes writes that Pictures “created a new Russian language in music.” Shifting tones and uneven rhythms are the distinctive features of peasant chant, and this went on to characterize Russian music from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky.

The musicians seeking to break with the conventional Western pattern founded the Free Music School in 1862. They incorporated elements of village songs, Cossack and Caucasian dances, and the tolling of church bells—very different from the sound of Western bells, in that it contains a lot of counterpoint and dissonance. As Figes explains it, Russian folk music shifts keys and lacks a logical progression, thus generating “a feeling of elusiveness.” The Free Music School also employed the whole-tone scale invented by the composer Mikhail Glinka, which conveyed a feeling of spookiness (a technique adopted by Debussy and also, later on, by composers of scores for horror movies). There were other devices as well, all contributing to a loose structure that is quite apparent in Pictures. Mussorgsky, says Figes, “played the Holy Fool in relation to the West.” A raving alcoholic with almost no schooling in musical theory, Mussorgsky was interested in the “content” of music, its visual descriptions, not its formal laws. Pictures is not a theoretical work; rather, it reflects a direct approach to life. “At its heart,” writes Figes, “is the magic reach and power of the Russian folk imagination.” The closing sketch, “The Great Gate of Kiev,” is rooted in the sounds of Byzantium, and concludes with the glorious ringing of heavy church bells—“a picture of all of Russia drawn in sound.”

Glory and magic: these are things a child of ten can understand. To this day, I know this world—the world of the Cossacks and Lermontov and Chekhov and Mussorgsky and Tolstoy—in my bones.

Identity is the spine of our existence.

(c)Morris Berman, 2016