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April 22, 2009 > Russian music from revolution to rebirth

Russian music from revolution to rebirth

By Janet Grant

Russia in the 20th Century saw a time of great change, struggle, and upheaval for its people, resonating in monumental changes still felt by the rest of the world. Centuries of absolute authority founded in the rule of the Tsar exploded into revolution...and the revolution in Russian society and politics was keenly echoed in her music.

On Saturday, April 25, Music at the Mission in partnership with Music at Market presents
"From Revolution to Rebirth: A Century of Russian Music." The final concert of the season promises a night of Russian music at its most provocative. Rarely have the arts and politics intertwined to the extent that they did in 20th Century Russia. Rarely will you experience its excitement and national identity illuminated by the very best talent in the musical field.

Saturday evening's program consists of an incredible range of music written during a volatile century of Russian history. From romance, revolution, and rebirth, seven incredible artists will provide a night of compositional greatness reflecting the unique sound of evolutionary Russia of the 20th century. The performance consists of "Sonata no. 1 for Cello & Piano" by Nicolai Miaskovsky; "Vocalise" by Sergei Rachmaninov; "Piano Trio no. 2" by Dmitri Shostakovich; "Quintet op. 39" by Sergei Prokofiev; "Pantomime" by Sofia Gubaidulina; and "Three Funny Pieces" by Rodion Shchedrin.

Politics and art were interdependent to a great extent in Russia in the 20th century. Artists helped propel change, governments tried to control artists, art reflected the social-political condition, and political figures knew the power of art in furthering their agenda.

At the turn of the century, while most European countries moved away from absolute monarchy, the Tsar remained an absolute ruler in Russia. Change had come slowly as the medieval system of serfdom had just barely been abolished. Music in this period remained in the late Romantic style, and mostly influenced the "Russian Five" composers of the late 1800's who were reflective of the Romantic Nationalism movement. They wanted to produce a specific style of Russian music instead of imitating the older European style of art music. But since there was still a huge social class divide, this was music for the upper classes, not necessarily music of the average Russian.

It was at the end of this period that Nicolai Miaskovsky's "Sonata op. 12 for Cello and Piano", and Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" were written. Rachmaninoff gained fame in the 1890's as a great piano virtuoso, and later as a composer. He continued to write in his Romantic style well past the time of the Revolution. Miaskovsky wrote the "Sonata for Cello and Piano" in 1911. Unlike Rachmaninoff he later changed his style, becoming a great proponent of Neo-Classicism (combining classical structure with modern harmony). Though privately Miaskovsky despised Joseph Stalin, his music was largely accepted by the political establishment as great music of the Soviet people. Despite this, in 1947 he was denounced as writing anti-Soviet music.

The 1917 Russian Revolution ended the rule of the Tsar forever and gave birth to the Soviet Union. Though later repressed under Stalin, under Lenin there was a period of artistic freedom. Many artists also saw this as an opportunity to break free from the control of the upper class and to produce art for all the Russian people.

This period brought to the forefront two great composers: Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. Prokofiev wrote his "Quintet" in 1924. Prokofiev had been commissioned to write music for a ballet. Needing to write for a small combination of instruments, he came up with an instrumentation that had a wide range of possibilities for such a small group (violin, viola, bass, oboe, and clarinet). The ballet was never staged, but he was able to use the music as the basis for his "Quintet".

When Stalin came to power in 1924, he gradually implemented measures to control the output of artists and to use it as a propaganda tool. And in 1932, in an effort to control Soviet composers, Stalin's government formed the Composers Union. If composers wrote music promoting the Soviet state, their music was performed. If not, the composers were denounced and basically black-balled from the concert halls. The union also managed to keep Soviet composers from traveling abroad, and Western composers from coming to the USSR, effectively isolating the Russian compositional establishment for decades.

Prokofiev and Shostakovich both fought to write the music they wanted to. At times they were both seen as great Soviet composers by the authorities, at other times they were denounced.

Following the death of Stalin, there was a gradual reopening of the doors to the Soviet Union and slowly Russian composers got to catch up with the rest of the music world. The 1960's saw the rise of two great composers: Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke. Gubaidulina wrote the work "Pantomime for bass and piano" in 1966. Gubaidulina was originally labeled as irresponsible in her compositions by the authorities. However, partially with the support of Shostakovich, her modernist works gradually achieved acceptance.

The regaining of complete artistic freedom was finally achieved with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Though ironically, with the loss of government financial support of the arts, many composers and musicians fled to the West - this time not for political but for economic reasons.

Composer Rodion Shchedrin is a virtuoso pianist and organist and wrote his "Three Funny Pieces for Piano Trio" in 1997. Shchedrin has taken advantage of the new opportunities for international travel and musical collaboration, and today splits his time between Moscow and Munich. Shchedrin studied composition with Miaskovsky, so with his piece Saturday's program travels full circle through the tumultuous Russian century.

Saturday's concert features pianist and Music at the Mission Artistic Director Aileen Chanco, bassist Bill Everett, violinist Karen Shinozaki, oboist Neil Tatman, clarinetist Michael Corner, cellist, Michael Graham, and violist Emily Onderdonk.

Join Music at the Mission in the old Mission San Jose as they explore 100 years of Russian music, from the romantic music of the Tsars, to the new movement which followed the Revolution. From the treacherous battles Shostakovich and Prokofiev fought with Stalin, to the rebirth of artistic freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On Saturday, an informative, half-hour talk by musician Bill Everett will precede the concert at 7:15 p.m. with the concert beginning at 8 p.m. A complimentary champagne reception will immediately follow the concert where you will be able to meet the artists.

For more information, visit

"From Revolution to Rebirth: A Century of Russian Music"
Saturday, April 25
8 p.m.
Old Mission San Jose
43300 Mission Blvd., Fremont
(510) 813-4414

General Admission, $25, Students/Seniors, $20
Online (credit card):

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