A Russian Music Playlist for Edward Snowden

Thursday, August 01, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Edward Snowden is getting a crash course in Russian culture.

Last week, a lawyer acting for the NSA leaker told reporters at Moscow's international airport that he gave his client Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment along with books by Chekhov and Nikolai Karamzin to read. Crime and Punishment, which tells of a young man's moral dilemmas and mental anguish, was intended as a window on "the reality of life" in Russia, where, as of Thursday, Snowden has been granted asylum.

If Snowden has time to read the classics, one must also ask: what pieces of music should he (or anyone) download to get a feel for the Russian soul? We asked some experts for suggestions on a playlist; share your ideas in the comments box below.


Simon Morrison, Professor of Music, Slavic Studies at Princeton University

Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov tells the story of the 16th-century autocrat who destroys his rivals, only to see his reign end in what is known as the "time of troubles." The clangorous splendor of the Coronation Scene has both a "very traditional Russian sound on one hand but it’s quite ominous on the other," said Morrison.

For beautiful Russian choral music, Snowden might consider Rachmaninoff’s Vespers. The composer wrote this work during World War I and it is sometimes seen as a pacifist statement. Morrison notes that its themes of martyrdom may resonate with Snowden. Try the fifth canticle, "Now Let Thy Servant Depart."

Prokofiev’s film score to Ivan the Terrible is another suitable choice. While partly released in 1944, the second half of Sergei Eisenstein's film didn't pass muster with Stalin's censors and was not available until after his death, in 1958. Morrison suggests the Chorus of the Oprichniks, the "incredible, deeply macabre music" for Ivan’s political thugs.

Scriabin’s Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, is based on the mythical trickster who defies the gods and gives fire to humanity. It features plenty of colorful orchestration and a strong mystical bent.

Before Shostakovich ran afoul of Soviet officialdom for his part in "the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music" the composer wrote some startlingly rebellious, countercultural music. One example is The Bedbug, a one-act comic ballet which Morrison describes as a “political free-for-all – experimental, mocking, musical subversion.”

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, a work from the 1970s, was a reaction to a time when authorities sought tried to control every aspect of music. “His reaction was to create music where, as Richard Taruskin once suggested, everything musically is possible but nothing matters,” said Morrison. The piece mixes strains of Bach with jazz and dissonance in a grim riot.


Peter Schmelz, Chair of the Musicology Department at Washington University in St. Louis

Schmelz also suggests the Schnittke and Mussorgsky pieces, plus these three works:

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5. Written as a public apology after Stalin slammed his adventurous opera, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Shostakovich inscribed the 1937 score, "A Soviet artist's practical, creative response to just criticism." This rich, sprawling work captures "the complicated role between official power and the arts in the 20th century," said Schmelz.

Another symbol of power and the arts was Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 7. A lively and optimistic coda was added after its original ending was deemed too depressing. But before the composer died, he indicated the original quiet ending was to be used.

Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony no. 5 (1980-82), reflects this Ukranian composer's belief that music was ending. Slow and meditative, “the symphony spins out melodies that repeat, showing music concluding, but not concluding,” said Schmelz.



Martin Daughtry, Assistant Professor of Music, New York University

Daughtry recommends Prokofiev's opera Semyon Kotko and Tchaikovsky's Pikovaya Dama, which captures the people's adoration for the Russian monarch.

He also suggests the popular songs of Aleksandr Vertinsky (1889-1957), who fled the nascent Soviet Union in 1920. "He spent the next 23 years in exile, concertizing in Russian enclaves around the world and suffering (according to his memoirs) from a rather acute case of nostalgia for his lost motherland." His song "Foreign Cities," ("Chuzhie goroda") describes the desperately sad plight of the exile, "who is surrounded by people who haven't shared his experiences, and so will never understand him."

Another important singer-songwriter is Vladimir Vysotsky. "Anyone spending any time at all in Russia should learn about Vysotsky. He was a national hero of sorts, an iconoclastic folk singer who epitomized the progressive zeitgeist of the 1970s/1980s." The song "White Steam Bath" is about a man just released from the Gulag, and wants to steam away all his troubles and self-doubt in a Russian "banya."

"If Snowden is going to become a Russian citizen, he needs to know about Vysotsky, but he also needs to know about the country's complicated history, and about the Gulag in particular," added Daughtry. "As for the banya, that's the first place I'd want to go if I had to spend a month at Sheremetyevo!"

To listen to the below playlist you must have Spotify installed on your computer.



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Comments [27]

Harry from Howard Beach

ThAT comment was from HARRY FROM HOWARD BEACH.

Aug. 25 2013 01:09 PM
Jar.ry from Howard Beach

What? No comment from Wagnerian heldentenor Kenneth Bennett Lane on this idiotic conversation of a coward who has betrayed his allegiance to this country.

Aug. 25 2013 01:00 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Dear Mbranagh: Glad you think I am a character/commentator. One of my worst fears is that I become a sweet, old lady rather than full of p--s and vinegar as I now am.My father was a Vesuvian and we are all full of vinegar until we die. I was not insulted at all. This is just an exchange of ideas and that is always a good thing.
Best wishes

Aug. 07 2013 11:00 AM

This playlist topic is thoroughly enjoyable.

Concetta is quite a character/commentator!

Appreciate your view but the conditions of detention of Bradley Manning constituted torture. The very moderate State Department spokesman resigned his prestigious position because of this (PJ Crowley).
He would have been an imbecile to stay and fight in the USA-these are not the times of Ellsberg and Berrigan.

He went NOT to China but to Hong Kong apparently because it thumbs its nose at Beijing on matters of censorship,press freedom etc. He erred or was not aware the extent HK is in a pressure cooker.

He's in Moscow only because it seemed an easy transit place for exile wherever but the interception (or rather denying airspace for flights from Moscow to LA countries) under US pressure closed that option.

There is no insult to the military in this playlist idea;lots of smart men and women in the military and they will enjoy this playlisting.

Aug. 05 2013 11:35 PM

Since Tchaikovsky is shown at the beginning of this article, I think Edward Snowden should be listening to TCHAIKOVSKY'S: FATUM (FATE) over and over again. I'm surprised no one above has mentioned it.

Aug. 05 2013 10:34 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

He could have been a hero for exposing the assault on the 4th Amendment for us to be secure in our homes, etc. He did not have the courage of his convictions, remain and face the music like a man. We have a right to know what the government is doing but QXR could have used better judgement and not even start this.

Aug. 03 2013 02:50 PM
Bernie from UWS

Snowden is a hero for exposing an ill-founded and patently unconstitutional spying program. People who think otherwise need to read their US Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures"...)

That being said, I don't see how this article takes a side one way or another. It's simply using the Snowden story as a backdrop to talk about Russian culture. The paranoids need to get a grip and stop looking for hidden agendas around every corner. Life's too short.

Aug. 03 2013 01:37 PM
Richard from UWS

I agree with Mr.Nappi. This isn't about politics and music it is about glorifying a man who has put the entire western world at risk. It is offensive that someone at WQXR so lacked judgement and imagination that they thought that this was convenient way to create a topical blog item.

Aug. 03 2013 10:18 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I only contribute to QXR because I am not a freeloader. Do not like their elitist(?) attitude. They demonstated this when they had the Bach festival for 10 days without regard to the listeners who only like Bach in small or moderate doses. Also, comments were only broadcast by listeners who were gushing about Bach.Put a cap on it. No dissenting comments were heard.

Aug. 03 2013 09:54 AM
Frank from UWS

Exactly. If Greg Nappi had actually read this article he'd see that the whole point is that, in Russia, music and politics have long been intertwined. One cannot discuss music without politics. Music IS politics when it comes to the Soviet era. If you want wallpaper music, go listen to Lite FM. I'm sure they'll be happy to take your money there.

Aug. 02 2013 06:59 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

If I may -- a response to Mr. Nappi, who voiced concern over politics and classical music: Wagner. Beethoven. Shostakovich. Berlioz. Mozart. Verdi. Mussorgsky. Monteverdi. Just a few of the composers throughout the ages who had to deal with politics and censorship, and who actually managed to slip notions of subversion and revolution into their work without being caught. So we really can't totally escape politics in classical music ...

Aug. 02 2013 06:46 PM

Dear management at WQXR:

Take the reference to Snowden down or I will never donate to WQXR again. It is not a threat it is a promise. Classical music should have nothing to do with politics ... PERIOD!!!! I come to WQXR everyday to relax and forget about the world. I don't need to see Snowden's face while I am streaming music at work.


Greg Nappi, (financial supporter from day one of the switch to a non-profit)

Aug. 02 2013 02:44 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Firstly, NPR is full of baloney. When I signed on to monthly donations to QXR, I specifically said NOTHING to NPR. Secondly, the government has been spying on us for many, many years, including checking what books were being taken out from libraries. As for privacy, there is very little left of it because of the super duper electronic devices out there. As for Snowden, his going to China and then Russia showed him for what he was. A COWARD. He should have hired a constitutional lawyer, showed his copy of the Constitution and pointed to the Fourth Amendment. Then, take his medicine like a man. This spying on us by the NSA is no secret. Congress has known about it for years. Gore Vidal has pointed this out in some of his books. As for QXR, this debate should not have been started because of the pain and sorrow out there. Many families are still shedding tears for their loved ones who did their duty, served and did not return.
Shame on you, QXR. The only reason I listen is because there is no other classical station in my area.

Aug. 02 2013 02:25 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Just thought of this, and am surprised nobody mentioned it -- as something that might want to make Mr. Snowden want to come home: the 1981 rock opera Juno and Avos (Юнона и Авось).

Aug. 02 2013 01:24 PM


I am sorry I touched a nerve with you. I also didn't even mention left or
right labels. But I am glad you recognized the leftist agenda that I described - totalitarianism in the form of civil liberties. Furthermore,I appreciate you demonstrating how civil you are by immediately resorting to calling someone "right-wing" "nut-job" and so on. I am certain you have many more labels available at your disposal to throw around. Way to promote dialogue Bernie!

Anyways, by the very fact you are an internet user I believe it would be a safe bet that you don't object to your privacy being "violated" to promote advertizing or to make your Linkedin or Facebook accounts etc. operate more efficiently? In fact you probably laud the globalizing impact and economies of scale that such a use of technology and privacy promotes. Futhermore, the information concerning yourself that is widely available to the Facebooks etc. is far more intrusive than that which the NSA collects (essentially red-flagging persons who are in repeated contact with known or suspected terrorist organizations).

I would also bet that you don't mind other forms of government expansion (in the name of healthcare and the expansion of welfare programs etc.) that inevitably necessitate increased privacy information sharing.

Yet, you criticize (and poorly I might add) a program that HAS saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks within this country.

Unfortunately, my friend you sound like people I knew before 9/11 who poo-pooed the need for a robust military etc. I am sorry that you probably need another national tragedy to occur before you realize the error of your ways.

God bless you comrade.

Aug. 01 2013 08:22 PM
Donna from New Jersey

As for Russian music-I have heard it said that even Stalin enjoyed Tchaikovsky. I hope Mr. Obama is working on his chess game.

Aug. 01 2013 06:23 PM
Bernie from UWS

Jason - right, because we all know that spying on US citizens's phone and e-mail is really going to stop a "terrorist" from attacking people. And by extension, any coverage of Snowden is automatically giving those terrorists more ammunition.

I also find it curious how the right-wing nutjobs suddenly materialize on this site whenever there's something they disagree with.

Aug. 01 2013 06:03 PM

@ combatyid - Snowden may be a traitor to this country but he is certainly a hero to wnyc and wqxr.

Likewise @ jlicwinko - I hate to disagree with you but this posting on wqxr is certainly in keeping with the "wqxr brand". Anyone who has listened to NPR knows their position of defending "civil liberties" (in this case purported "privacy rights") at the expense of the safety and life and liberty of the US and it's citizens.

The greatest and truest civil liberty is the right to LIFE. Yet, for some strange reason I believe that NPR and WQXR would gladly see that right snuffed out by terrorists etc., if they were assured the right to stay on the airwaves.

I even bet that Comrade Wise would have a witty post for what requiem would be best suited for the victims of these attacks ...

Long live the revolution!

I am

Aug. 01 2013 05:51 PM
carrie from nyc

I would hate to waste the beauty of Russian music on the ears of Snowden. I don't think he'd know how to appreciate it.

Aug. 01 2013 02:47 PM
Frank from UES

Why not talk about the music Snowden should hear as an introduction to Russian culture? It was his lawyer who brought up the Russian novels in the first place. The guy is presumably going to have to get to know Russia pretty quickly and you don't have to be for or against his actions to acknowledge that.

Aug. 01 2013 02:19 PM
Suzanne from New York

I agree with those commenters who have protested this "entertainment" proffered by WQXR. As for Snowden, it's too bad Janacek is not Russian--I would have recommended his opera "From the House of the Dead."

Aug. 01 2013 01:39 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Concetta, I agree - I think WQXR is deliberately being provocative. Regardless of what anyone's opinion is on the Snowden matter, it is far too serious of an issue to be treated as entertainment.

Aug. 01 2013 01:32 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

The WQXR question was about Russian music but they opened up a can of worms. QXR should have shown some sensitivity towards our military personnel(?) and families. There are a lot of mixed feelings out there towards Snowden.Was QXR deliberately being provacative?

Aug. 01 2013 01:26 PM

To Brian Wise: Are you out of your mind? You are treating Snowden as anything but a traitor by providing even more media time. Clearly you are out of touch with the military families who are bearing the burden of two wars. All Americans should bear the sacrifice of war, not just our military families. You clearly have not born any sacrifice with your intellectual carrying-ons, treating this betrayal of our nation as another opportunity for you to be an entertainer.

WQXR should investigate this blog immediately and take steps to insure that such an incorrect use of the WQXR brand never happen again. This should include termination of the WQXR blog for the time being.

Aug. 01 2013 12:06 PM
Concetta Nassau from Nassau

Coronation Scene from Boris
Eugene Onegin
Caucasion Sketches
and the great Russian gypsy music, balalaikas.
etc, etc. etc.
Thank God for Russian music.

Aug. 01 2013 08:21 AM
combatyid from ny ny

let us call a spade a spade, snowden is a traitor to this country. i served honorable and a 26 year distinguish career with the us military. as far as i am concerned he is a disgrace to this country, all those of us who fought, died, injured for his safety. no music, only silence.

Aug. 01 2013 07:41 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

I'd have one recommendation for Mr. Snowden: KHOVANSHCHINA, Mussorkgsy's "other" opera about political intrigue. But only in the Shostakovich version. The orchestration is more deliciously honest and brutal than Rimsky's. No holds barred, you know?

Aug. 01 2013 06:52 AM

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