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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly, a Page-Turner, August 5, 2008
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This review is from: Russian Music and Nationalism: from Glinka to Stalin (Hardcover)
In a way, this book is simultaneously exactly what it appears to be from its title, and also not.

To begin with, it seems to be a very scholarly and erudite analysis of Russian music--that is, it has a great deal in it that is very technical, and generally beyond the grasp of a casually trained musician like myself. On the other hand, the author incorporates so much relevant historical background material that the text is virtually a history of Russia (since Glinka) viewed from a music conservatory window--that is, it is a very compelling and fascinating read. At the very least, if you have a fascination or interest with Russia and music, then this is virtually a must read.

With a great deal of careful, and exacting analysis (occasionally well-beyond a casual musical understanding, though not so much so that one must give up the book), the author dismantles the several historical conceits about any essential "Russianness" of Russian music. Putting this in another way, she debunks the validity of the different Slavophile myths of Russian music, without, however, debunking most Russian music itself. Ultimately, the author suggests that what Russian composers did was to compose less in a distinctively Russian vein, and more by a deliberate avoidance of typical Western musical gestures, tropes, and clichés (without always rejecting them continuously). In an oblique way, then, this at least partially explains the distinctive sound of much Russian classical music.

While extraordinarily broad and deep at the same time, there are also some minor issues that may be taken with the book. A glossary of musical terms would be helpful; how readable the book would be for someone without some kind of musical training is hard to guess, but I expect it might be very tough going at times. Second, the author makes numerous references to printed excerpts of score in her analysis; it would be helpful if this included music were marked up to indicate the points in question. Third, the book explicitly covers Russian music from Glinka to the death of Stalin. There is an only very cursory examination of Russian music post-Stalin; this is not a criticism, but readers hoping to hear more about more current trends in music will not find them discussed.

And lastly (again, this is not a criticism, but simply a limitation of the book itself), the book specifically refers to expressions of Russian nationalism in music. Of course, "nationalism" changes between the pre-Tsarist and post-Revolutionary periods but, more importantly, composers not directly involved in Russian nationalism appear very infrequently. Scriabin is only passingly mentioned, and even Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov appear only to the extent that they participated in, or specifically confronted, nationalistic elements in Russian music.

In fact, comparatively speaking, the attention devoted to now-obscure composers of Russian nationalist church music is more extensive than even Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This might seem odd at first but, for one, enough has been said about Prokofiev and Shostakovich elsewhere that shedding light on important, if now-forgotten, other luminaries proves more useful; also, for another, neither Prokofiev nor Shostakovich were particularly interested in Russian musical nationalism of the type the author identifies. If it seems there is not much said here on the point, it's because there seems not that much to be said. In any case, this meager amount is offset by the author's very useful analysis of non-Russian nationalistic music under Stalin.

The book begins with a quotation from Odoyevsky (who turns out to be foundational for notions of Russian nationalism in music) to the effect, "Ah, this is something Russian" as a response to Russian music. It is certainly the experience of many who have heard Russian music to be captivated by it in ways that Western music normally does not; this very fact gives birth, in part, to the Slavophile conceit that Russian music possess something particularly unique. And a great deal of ink (more in Russia than in the West) has been spilt trying to put a finger on this unique quality. The author goes a long way toward debunking all of the explanations to date, but far from providing an explanation for the experiential fact of differentness that Russian music gives, it seems as if she has merely erased a historical blackboard full of errors. But even her very useful conclusion, that at least a good portion of the Russian "sound" is a result of deliberately avoiding Western musical gestures (and then formalizing those avoidances through musical conservativism directed at upcoming generations of composers) ultimately doesn't reach or touch that mystery of Russian music that is easily heard, however hard to pin down.

It cannot be considered a fault of the book that she does not do so. It is clear (as she demonstrates with Glinka's operas) that there is genius and innovation sometimes in Russian music; she does not "dismiss the canon" as it were, but only the conceits that were used to justify certain compositional tendencies. Certainly a major implication of her book is that Russian music is European music, and deserves to be treated as such; one which partially achieved the greatness it did by showing the limitations of Western strictures or adopting examples from less canonic sources (like Schumann and Liszt) and putting them to use in truly startling ways.

So, even if my original impulse for buying this book at all (the hope of hearing explained why Russian music is so magical to me) was not fulfilled, because the book never set out to do that, what I did get out of it was an ideal background for some future book that might answer that question. Maybe that's what the author is working on now.
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Russian Music and Nationalism: from Glinka to Stalin
Russian Music and Nationalism: from Glinka to Stalin by Marina Frolova-Walker (Hardcover - March 19, 2008)
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