Advantages of Foreign Imperialism

Sunday the Da Capo ensemble performed a program here at Bard College of music by Russian composers who all attended: Elena Antonenko, Boris Filanovski, Alexander Radvilovitch, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Kirill Umansky, and my friend Dmitri Riabtsev, who three years ago was invaluable in helping me produce my opera Cinderella’s Bad Magic in Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was a panel discussion before the concert on the subject of how life has changed for composers since the fall of communism. Some claimed it had changed not at all, others that it was a little different, but all talked about the near-absence of support for Russian composers at home, having lost state support and having no tradition of private patronage.

In the question-and-answer period, I noted that those of us in new music are inundated these days with living composers from Estonia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and asked what was different about Russia that its composers couldn’t match the relative visibility of those of its satellites. Responses exhibited a liveliness born of frustration and complete recognition of what I was saying. All pretty much agreed that since the Baltic republics had been occupied by a foreign power, they turned to nationalism to preserve their self-image. It became a point of honor for Estonian conductors like Paavo Jarvi, Finnish ones like Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Ukrainian ones like Virko Baley to go out and champion their countrymen. Since Russia was the central power, it had no national image to defend, and Russian conductors and performers feel no similar mandate to perform their compatriots. Thus the perceptions, at least, of Russian composers, who think that even we Americans – having some tradition of private new-music funding – are better off than they are.

Since then I’ve received a very nice e-mail from Erkki-Sven Tüür, the leading Estonian composer of my generation, letting me know (I hope he won’t mind my revealing) that he reads my blog from his retreat on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa, which gives me even greater delight in recounting the above anecdote. From Moscow and St. Petersburg to rural Estonia via a small college in rural America – so travel the cultural perceptions of the internet age.


  1. says

    Finland reached the independence before the communists took control over Russia. But there’s something interesting in Finland. Apparently their musicians, especially Sibelius, are seen like national heroes, because they represent a huge part of the nation’s identity.
    In Russia, probably there haven’t been many widely known composers, for the reasons you say and because probably in most cases the russian audience is more interested in what they couldn’t see many years. I know cases of people from Western Europe getting big commissions from Russians. Maybe they think they need to get updated. That is an interesting phenomenon

  2. Mark Stryker says

    I was fortunate to travel as a journalist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during its 1998 European tour, which closed with two concerts in Tallinn, Estonia, the hometown of then music director Neeme Jarvi, who is treated like a rock star whenever he returns to Estonia. I was struck by the degree to which Estonians –from the president of the country to the halter-top women in the hotel disco — were aware of the cultural importance of classical music figures like Jarvi.
    In a piece for the Free Press I wrote: “Jarvi’s place in the Estonian psyche transcends his musical gifts, burrowing deep into the nation’s soul, both its cultural identity and its political ambitions. As soon as Jarvi and his family emigrated to the West in 1980, he began to champion the Estonian composers whose works the Soviet authorities had forbidden him to perform at home — Arvo Part, Eduard Tubin and many others. Jarvi’s concerts and recordings were patriotic flares announcing the wealth of musical talent produced by this Baltic nation of just 1.5 million.
    ‘The way a small country can feel herself part of the world community is not through battles or armies,’ explained Lennart Meri, the president of the Republic of Estonia. ‘We have one means: That is cultural identity. That’s why we attach so much importance to music, poetry and painting.'”

  3. says

    To Diego Chávez-Vargas: oh come on — “In Russia, probably there haven’t been many widely known composers” — Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Schedrin, as wel as Rimsly-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Mussorgsky, etc etc etc — not too many, right? ;-))

  4. says

    “In Russia, probably there haven’t been many widely known composers” I am talking of a contemporary context. Only Schnittke and Shchedrin from that list, and add a few others, but internationally they haven’t had the importance of their predecesors, like Stravinsky, or Tchaikovsky. Of course I know that Russia is famous for it’s talented musicians.

  5. says

    “probably in most cases the russian audience is more interested in what they couldn’t see many years.”
    Russia’s audience is not as small and united (unified?) as the audiences in smaller countries like Estonia or Finland (Finland’s population is smaller than the population of Moscow City alone,) so an analysis of Russian audiences as a whole, and their interests and/or perceptions, needs a rock solid factual base, which even I cannot claim to have. I more or less know the audiences in Moscow and St.Petersburg; here, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidullina, Iraida Yusupova, Vladimir Martynov, Alexander (Sasha) Knaifel, Igor Kefalidi, Leonid Desyatnikov, Andrey Semyonov, Sergey Zagniy, Faradj Karayev, Nikita Koshkin, Oleg Karavaichuk etc. etc. etc. — are performed, known, and appreciated. Yes, the appreciation for the music of, say, Sergey Zagniy is smaller than that of Pyotr Tchaikovsky (and even Boris Tchaikovsky.) Still, modern composers have some audience. As of their international fame (or the lack of it,) you were speaking about the internal situation in Russia and of Russian audiences, right?

  6. says

    Yes, I was talking about it, but when I said “what they couldn’t see many years” I was talking about the international, and not only Russian contemporary or modern composers. Or were John Cage or Stockhausen played commonly in the 50’s and 60’s?