Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life

By Gaub, Albrecht | Notes, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life


Gaub, Albrecht, Notes


EASTERN EUROPE Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life. By Lynn M. Sargeant. (New Cultural History of Music Series.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [ix, 354 p. ISBN 9780199735266. $45.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Lynn Sargeant, a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton, has written a landmark study, yet she does not, and does not want to, offer the all- encompassing narrative its title would suggest. She focuses almost exclusively on the Russian Musical Society (1859-1917, hereafter RMS), its relationship with the Russian state, the nationwide system of music schools created by the society, and the social status of professional musicians (women and orchestral musicians in particular). There is virtually no information on other branches of what is now called the music industry: printing and publishing of music, production and maintenance of musical instruments, sound recording, or marketing and dissemination of all of these. Neither is it a book about composers and virtuosos, nor is it about musical works and iconic performances. If, for once, the St. Petersburg premiere of Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov's The Immortal Kashchei (1905) is dealt with at length, then that is because Rimsky-Korsakov had been fired from the St. Petersburg Conservatory (the RMS's flagship institution) and his supporters turned the performance into a protest rally (pp. 237-43).

Within these self-imposed limitations, however, Sargeant's book is successful, a convincing and highly readable account of how the RMS developed and professionalized the musical life of the Russian empire. The society's semi-official status-a private nonprofit, but with an imperial title and presided by members of the tsar's family throughout its existence-caused continual struggles and financial woes. The forthright nationalization of the RMS's schools, long advocated by the faculties in the hope of generous public funding, was brought about only by the Bolshevik revolution. While the RMS did not survive 1917, its legacy of institutions would fit Soviet notions of music education perfectly; in a way, it continues to thrive.

Anton Rubinstein and the founders of the RMS envisioned a conservatory as a "temple" for the chosen few, an attitude shared by most later professional musicians, while others advanced the notion of a musical "factory" turning out orchestral musicians, choral singers, and music teachers by the dozen to satisfy the needs of the entire nation and to replace the foreigners dominating these areas (pp. 115-20). Looking at the result, both sides got the graduates they wanted-an internationally recognized Russian art music and professional orchestras of Russian musicians across the empire-but only thanks to the financial support of a third party disliked both by the "temple" and "factory" factions: as piano skills became an indispensable part of a bourgeois woman's dowry, parents enrolled their daughters in the conservatories in droves regardless of tuition fees. Most of them never graduated, but they subsidized the students of the (almost exclusively male) orchestral department, whose tuition fees had been mostly waived in order to attract as many candidates as possible. Sargeant reminds the reader that it was thus in most conservatories across Europe (somewhat less in Germany); in Russia, however, the social status of orchestral musicians was even lower than elsewhere, since once upon a time, orchestras had been made up of serfs. Another contentious issue was the status of the conservatory as a secondary or tertiary school. If it accepted students without secondary education, it had to provide one by offering general education classes (p. 102). Sargeant devotes much space to the role of Jewish students, whose presence grew ever stronger and, consequently, became a matter of contention. Since the schools were the property of the RMS, anti-Semitic quotas for public schools could not be implemented except, with the help of local politicians, at the Moscow conservatory (pp. …

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