When Music Makes History

By Fishzon, Anna | Kritika, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

When Music Makes History


Fishzon, Anna, Kritika


Paul du Quenoy, Stage Fright: Politics and the Performing Arts in Late Imperial Russia. 290 pp. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978-0271034676. $65.00.

Olga Haldey, Mamontov's Private Opera: The Search for Modernism in Russian Theater. 416 pp. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0253354686. $44.95.

James Loeffler, Use Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. 288 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN-13 978-0300137132. $55.00.

Lynn M. Sargeant, Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life. 368 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN-13 978-0199735266. $45.00.

The question I want to pose here is one that has been addressed increasingly by music scholars, most recently Lynn Sargeant: how do we integrate Russian music and musical life, so often overlooked by historians, into the historical narratives of Europe, the fin de siecle, and late imperial Russia? Students of the 19th- and 20th-century tsarist empire acknowledge the centrality of literary forms while paying Par less attention to aural and visual cultures (5-6, 7). The reasons for the omissions are many, but the most obvious seems to be lack of musical expertise among historians and the assumption that such topics are better left to those formally trained in musical analysis, performance, and art history.

Certainly one can make a case for such a division of labor. Musically inclined literature scholars and musicologists--among them Rosamund Bartlett, Julie Buckler, Boris Gasparov, Simon Morrison, and the prolific and highly influential Richard Taruskin--already offer us much more than just musical interpretation. (1) They present readers with complex social and intellectual worlds, critical reactions, and insights into performance, relating musical practice to political events such as the revolution of 1905 and the larger story of Russian politics and society. Nonetheless, their focus on well-known compositions, composers, virtuosos, and published criticism leave unexamined political and social fields crucial for historians. Why, after all, have the weighty contributions of these scholars not been engaged or taken up in significant ways by broad social and political histories of the Russian Empire? Despite the heroic efforts of historicist music and literature scholars, as well as historians of theater cultures such as Murray Frame and Richard Stites, music often has remained outside, or beside, history. (2)

Two recent books, Lynn M. Sargeant's Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life and James Loeffler's The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire give an impression of music making and its relation to cultural politics and everyday life different from most of those mentioned above. Although the stories told by Loeffler, who writes at length about the Society for Jewish Folk Music, and Sargeant, who focuses almost exclusively on the Russian Musical Society (RMO), diverge at key moments, I find it fitting to treat them here together: both address music history as history, bringing musical life to questions about civil society, national identity, and spirituality: They take so-called fine art out of the arguably narrow context of debates about aesthetics and locate it in developments such as professionalization, the commercialization of entertainment, and the struggle for Jewish emancipation. Both authors discuss changing modes of viewing and listening--as William Weber and James Johnson have done for 19th-century London, Vienna, and Paris--and suggest a distinctly Russian version of the bourgeoisification of culture. The approaches of the two scholars differ in some respects, however: Sargeant is a social and cultural historian of imperial Russia, more allied in argument and method with Weber and Johnson, and interested in the ways music is used to elaborate class identity. …

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