I conducted the Stravinsky Four Russian Peasant Songs again this season. I conducted them on my master’s recital in 2005, and edited them for GIA the following year. I haven’t looked at them in almost ten years, and coming back to them after all my work on the Rachmaninoff Three Russian Folk Songs is veeeerrrrrry different. In the meantime, I have also read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, written before either composer was born, but informative about the state of mind of Russians in the lead-up to revolution. Context.
The Stravinsky songs were published in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution. Rachmaninoff started writing sketches for his Three Russian Folk Songs in 1916, but didn’t finish them before he fled the country. And then he mostly had to earn his living as a performer, and composed less. He didn’t compose any new vocal music at all until he finally finished the three songs almost ten years later.
The ideas and perspectives that inform both composers’ settings of Russian folk songs is so startlingly different that, after years of working on the Rachmaninoff, I was shocked to go back to the Stravinsky and hear how angry they sound. I had always interpreted their dissonance and assertive rhythms and articulations as peasanty, earthy, gritty. “Moist,” as Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes would say. But, of course, that’s not all, is it? They are angry. Russian peasants were some of the last people on earth subject to a way of life that was all but a feudal system. Of course the songs are angry! And belligerent. And proud. And hopeful. I love them even more now that I have more context to understand them.
Rachmaninoff’s folk songs celebrate Russianness romantically and Romantically, in every interpretation of the word. Sweetness and warmth and affection, with a little sauciness. And pride. And hope. And I love them even more now that I have more context to understand them.
I’ve been trying to ignore the news lately. I just don’t have energy to deal with the inevitable anger that the gun violence and open religious intolerance spark in me. I escape into music and books and work. I’m amazed how Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, living as expats watching their country of origin fall into ruin from a distance, both found voice for their anger and despair and disgust in music in such different but powerful ways.
It helps to see into their minds, to process the pain through them. Different country, different century, different politics. But the same pride. The same hope.