Tsoi was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) at a critical time. He studied at the Serov Artistic Academy during the mid-1970s, as the art movement in his home city was just beginning to develop the underground music scene that would change Russian popular culture.
Kiss the Score
I was told once by someone, I no longer remember who it was, that Russia’s greatest art exists in things that exist in the imagination, rather than things that can be seen directly. What he meant, I suppose, is that Russia’s artistic heritage is greater in its writing and music than in its painting and architecture. Like any generalization, this one falls apart under scrutiny: there are great works of visual art by Russians, and much great architecture. I would submit that Russia’s (that it, mostly the Soviet Union’s) film oeuvre is as great as any nation’s, which does not fit the truism. However, the generalization is true in general. By and large, Russia’s mark on the world has been made in the imaginations of readers and listeners, not on the walls of museums or the streets of cities. As such, I can’t complete even a cursory treatment of Russia’s music without talking about Peter Tchaikovsky.
I was brought up listening almost exclusively to what is termed “classical music”—referring, of course, not to music of the classical period, but to almost any music made by use of orchestral instruments, organ, nylon-string guitar, or piano—and still listen on a daily or near-daily basis to this sort of music. My mother’s side of the family, especially, is steeped in the culture of this music, and my family is the sort that will engage in heated conversation about the merits of this or that composer. Tchaikovsky, in our family and in certain corners of the music world, was viewed as a bit of the lightweight. My family’s preferences tended toward the cerebral and German—Bach, Brahms—and Tchaikovsky was dismissed as “schmaltzy.” A few particular pieces were worth listening to, but the rest was fluff. I still mostly feel this way, though I make exceptions for the string serenade and parts of “Romeo and Juliet.”
If Tchaikovsky is Russia’s most popular composer abroad, he enjoys similar status at home. Russians are, of course, more likely than most foreigners to have heard of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Alexander Borodin and the others, but I found that among those who listen to “classical” music there is near-universal esteem for Tchaikovsky. I listened during my year in Irkutsk to a lot of public radio—the sort that came through a plug in the wall rather than over the airwaves, and there were near-weekly discussions of the composer’s brilliance. Accustomed to writing him off as a lightweight, I scoffed a bit at first, but soon realized that there was something important in this attention. In a grammar book that we used at Irktusk State University, I counted five example sentences about the “unparalleled, indescribable genius of Tchaikovsky,” all contorted to serve the needs of the grammatical point they were trying to make. The only other artist meriting this many mentions was Alexander Pushkin. I went to a performance in Irkutsk of one of Tchaikovsky’s rowdier pieces and the conductor, a lively little man with a beard, kissed the score during his first bow. Surely, there was something to this.
I have come to think that Tchaikovsky is quintessentially Russian because of his prosaicness: he was unconcerned with “absolute music” and the moody subtleties explored by, say, Brahms. He created unapologetically melodic music, taking lessons from the developed European theories and methods of composition, but keeping one foot firmly planted at home in Russia, unafraid to twist or disregard the lessons learned at the hands of Europeans. He made music that tells stories: distinct stories that have clear plotlines. In some ways, his music is more akin to writing than it is to the music written by some of his contemporaries. This talent for story-telling he shares with Modest Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov (though the former was much less bound up in European-style composition, the latter much more so), and with Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. His genius does not lie in the careful baring of raw emotion that characterized the music I grew up loving, but rather it lays out a splendid tale, moving with the rhythm and pace of a page-turner. And, like a page-turner, his music usually has a twist at the end.
Add to blog
You may place this material on your blog by copying the link.