How to Define the Russian Musical Spirit

Monday, July 18, 2011 - 03:22 PM

Last week, American pianist, Van Cliburn celebrated his 77th birthday. This came just weeks after the Russians gave Cliburn a warm welcome when he returned to their country to serve as honorary juror in the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He was a true hero "returning home" 53 years after winning the country’s premiere musical competition at the height of the Cold War.

I cried reading an article in the New York Times about it. You see, there’s something about the Russian spirit that gets me every time.

I’ll never forget my first night in Moscow hearing Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony as I had never heard it before. It was an all-Russian orchestra playing at home. The musicians were unbelievably focused and committed to the performance. I didn’t just cry a little, I cried buckets. Some in my group thought that I just was tired from the long trip. But one Russian gentleman with us was making his first trip back to his homeland since he left for America many years before. He too was in tears.

Then came Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Bolshoi and a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. And, a beautiful recital given by pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja. I savored every musical moment. Without a doubt, the experience left an indelible impression on my soul.

And so, I ask you, what is it about the Russian spirit? Can it actually be described in words? Or should we just let the music do the talking?


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Comments [11]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

My background is a mother born in Kiev, Ukraine. and a father born in Lithuania.
My roots are Slavic. My mother, Celia, was born in Kiev, Ukraine and graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1926 and practiced law in New Jersey. My father, Dr. Morris J. Lane, born in Lithuania, was an optometrist and a published poet. My cousin Michael Blankfort was the original book writer and, for the films, the screenwriter of "The Juggler" starring Kirk Douglas and "Broken Arrow" starring Jeff Chandler as Cochise.
For two years I was the leading tenor of the General Platoff Don Cossacks. They recorded exclusively for RCA Victor. I sang 6 selections at each concert in about one hundred cities, touring the USA, Canada and Mexico.
We were enthusiastically greeted with wild cheers and applause by knowing audiences, singing the chestnuts of the Slavic literature, folk songs, spirituals, novelty pieces., love songs and songs of sadness. Most heart-felt was the reception to my singing "Sad Snows Over the Steppes" a commentary on the sad state of the country. I sang ''Two Guitars," "Evening Bells," "Ballad of General Platoff," "Dark Eyes," and "Sieny." I have sung the Rimsky-Korsakoff opera "The Snow Maiden." The tenor's aria is as beautiful as the aria from "Sadko," :"The Song of India."

May. 17 2012 11:54 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner M

I am a JUILLIARD alumnus. How thrilled we fellow alumni were to hear his, a fellow JUILLIARD alumnus, triumph against all odds at the Moscow competition. I was alongside the PARADE ROUTE in New York City when Americans welcomed home our hero. We had precious little to celebrate in those COLD WAR days. In a sense, the economies of the world today appear equally dismal. Single handedly musicians with spectacular talent can close the gap between opposing political forces. The Beattles conquered the hearts and souls of Russian youth. Maestri BARENBOIM and MEHTA have conducted performances, with Middle East instrumentalists of religious backgrounds in conflict, within the HOLY LAND and demonstrated that one can live and work peacefully and productively, although their religions and/or creeds may be aggressively partisan. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor, the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where all the roles of Wagner and Shakespeare are coached, and an opera composer of “Shakespeare” and “The Political Shakespeare." I have sung, and commercially recorded LIVE for Valhalla Records CDs four main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, solo concerts, three of them three hours long.

May. 17 2012 10:46 AM
Michael Meltzer

This is the fourth or fifth time WQXR has dragged out that picture of Van Cliburn with Krushchev, the butcher of Budapest who murdered thousands of Hungarian citizens in the streets. I am of Russian descent and object strenuously to any thought of Krushchev as representative of that spirit or heritage. He should have been hanged.

May. 06 2012 11:42 AM
Shirley Kirsten from California

Yes, there's a Russian spirit and it reveals in the grooming of musicians from early childhood. The singing tone is nurtured. Mood, affect, primordial FEELING is explored. So many playing examples of Richter, Gilels, and Pletnev are testimonies to the spirit. And now teachers working with a new generation of young pianists, include Irina Gorin and Irina Morozova. Not to forget the great Russian mentors, Dimitri Bashkirov and Boris Berman.

May. 04 2012 06:14 PM

Well Midge, as SOUSA is to the American spirit, TCHAIKOVSKY delivers that same Russian spirit! And part of that ''feeling'' or ''spirit'' is a total devotion to passion / power musical writing. Melodies that seduce you while the percussion parts blast you out of your seat. The spirit is POWER. And both countries embrace that intoxicating nationalism in their musical heritage. And without further comment, one only needs sample the Tchaikovsky 6th symphony, 3rd march movement. Its Russian spirit at its bombastic best and it delivers that true ''knockout'' symphonic punch!

Aug. 22 2011 02:13 PM


This is probably what you're looking for:

Aug. 03 2011 04:37 PM
stephanie ragals


Please excuse me for writing about this here, but I have looked through the blogs and cannot seem to find the one(s) you wrote about your wedding. I do remember that you commented that you met your husband through and internet agency and I was wondering if you could tell me the name of the agency. Please accept my apologies if the question is out of line-
Thank you

Aug. 03 2011 01:13 PM
eric benz

Right, forgot to mention its the sixth movement.

Jul. 19 2011 11:50 AM

Oh, and my first great love (I was in high school!) was a cellist w Miami Phil ..... and such sad, bittersweet, fatalism inn the Brasiliaris well. Too early in the day for that nonsense, but please play it.

Jul. 19 2011 11:32 AM
Eric Benz from Westchester County, NY

Did anyone notice on Monday the opening strains of Mussorgsky Cinderella are identical to the opening of the Russian Easter Overture? Also, maybe it should be noted that the sound of 19th century Russian draws heavily upon Russia's folk music. Written with a pentatonic scale, it is this which gives it its oriental lilt.

Jul. 19 2011 10:19 AM
Frank Feldman

Long, lonely nights, Vodka, tears, untrammeled (when pure) by European notions of form and counterpoint. But of course we never get it pure, in classical music. Echoes only, transcribed and made real in the minds of geniuses.

Jul. 18 2011 09:02 PM

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