Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Serov, and Vladimir Stasov: The Struggle for a National Musical Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia

By Ewell, Philip | Germano-Slavica, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview
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Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Serov, and Vladimir Stasov: The Struggle for a National Musical Identity in Nineteenth-Century Russia


Ewell, Philip, Germano-Slavica


Introduction

When compared to its tumultuous twentieth-century existence, nineteenth-century Russia seems somewhat docile. In the twentieth, the words Russia and revolution seemed to go hand in hand; some say it is simply the Russians' nature. The roots of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, however, a revolution carried out by Russians over what was perceived to be a corrupt Western-European influenced monarchy, clearly lie in the nineteenth century. In fact, many of the problems concerning national identity that Russia faces today can be traced back to that time.

The doctrine that came to represent the struggle for national identity in nineteenth-century Russia was realism. Though as a notion it was born in the West, realism took firm hold in Russia as a medium through which Russian artists could express a style that they considered to be uniquely their own, in contrast to more popular Western-European styles. Interestingly, some commentators hold that realism in music is impossible. Carl Dahlhaus writes:

   In the nineteenth century it was generally held that music was "of
   its nature" romantic. Composers like Ferruccio Busoni, Arnold
   Schoenberg and Kurt Weill ... all held the opinion that music is a
   fundamentally unrealistic art, and that therefore the concept of
   musical realism represents an error either in the thing so
   designated or in the judgment formed of it. (Realism 10)

The nineteenth-century Russian realists would have emphatically disagreed with this notion: they believed music to be the perfect venue for realist doctrine. Even Carl Dahlhaus realized the distinct relationship between music and realism for Russia in quoting Dargomizhsky: "It was Dargomizhsky ... who formulated the credo of Russian realism embraced so wholeheartedly by Mussorgsky: 'I want the note to express the word, I want the truth,' he wrote in a letter in 1857, evidently inspired by Nikolai Chernyshevsky" (Realism 73).

Whereas nationalism in most parts of Western Europe manifested itself in political and economic change, nationalism in Slavic Russia manifested itself in cultural institutions. Hans Kohn writes, "[A]mong the Slavic peoples, nationalism found its expression predominantly in the cultural field" (Kohn 4). Thus artists, not political figures, acted as the main instigators of nationalism in Russia. The realists, weaned on positivism and scientific empiricism, completely rejected Hegelian idealism and its notion that true beauty does not exist in objective reality. For them true beauty was reality. The realists' doctrines, which lasted well into the twentieth century in the form of Socialist Realism, were in a sense a lashing out at what was considered the dominant western aesthetic of the time.

By mid-century two clear camps emerged in the debate on Russian nationalism in music: the westerners (philosophically idealist) and the realists. The westerners were more cosmopolitan in thought and the realists were fervently nationalistic. Of the three figures central to my discussion, Anton Rubinstein is usually counted among the westerners; Vladimir Stasov is usually counted among the nationalists; and Alexander Serov, who died much earlier than the other two, is often thought of as being outside the fray, usually expressing nationalist views, yet often turning to the West for inspiration in his own compositional activity. In this paper I take issue with these well-established beliefs concerning Rubinstein, Stasov, and Serov. I will show how all three, to a certain extent, can be related to both camps in the oft-heated debate on nationalism in nineteenth-century musical Russia.

Nineteenth-Century Russian Music and Music Institutions

Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) is generally acknowledged as the founding father of Russian national music (sometimes Alexander Dargomizhsky [1813-69] is mentioned in the same breath). Glinka's opera A Life for the Czar (1836)--in Russia known by the name of its main character, Ivan Susanin--is considered the first true Russian opera.

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