Russian Film Festival, Part One

Russian Film Festival, Part One

I have three DVDs sitting on my desk waiting for me to have time for a Russian film festival.  I’m not sure if this will happen over one long afternoon, or over three separate nights. I stumbled upon these films because the music for each, was composed by some of my favorite Russian composers. Being a composer, or artist of any sort, in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare.  More accurately, being a human being in Stalinist Russia was an absolute nightmare, and being a composer was no exception.  There was no such thing as due process under the law, nor freedom of speech, nor so many of the things I take for granted as a citizen of a free country.  There were several “purges” over the time Stalin was in power, whereby people who showed opposition to the Party, or some undesirable trait, were rounded up and imprisoned or killed.  Many people disappeared in the night, never heard from by their families ever again.  Writers, artists and composers were under a certain scrutiny because their work had a public voice.  Censorship happened by the whim of government officials, as well as self-censorship by artists themselves hoping not to attract negative attention.

Composers seemed to fall in an out of Stalin’s favor with the changing of the weather.  The Communist Party needed music, writing, and film that fell in line with the propaganda messages they wanted to spread.  Works of art that spread an unapproved viewpoint were condemned.  When composers were on the bad side of the Party, they could hardly get a performance of their works.  They often were forced into “hack” work to survive, things like churning out film scores very quickly.  Every once in a while, however, the music they turned out for a film proved to be a real gem.  Three of these treasures are found in the DVDs on my desk right now.  

downloadI’d like to write about one of the films in this post. It is a film I have seen before, although it has been a long time.  Alexander Nevsky is a 1938 historical drama directed by Sergei Eisenstein, with music by Sergei Prokofiev.  It is often included on lists of the 100 greatest films, and truly is a powerful work.  Prince Alexander Nevsky is a legendary Russian figure, and the film is set in the year 1242 during a time when Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire are planning and attempting an invasion of Novgorod.  Nevsky is a fisherman at the beginning of the film, but rises courageously to motivate the Russian people and lead them in battle against the invaders.  There is a classic battle scene played out on a frozen lake, one which begins with ever rising suspense as the enemy is first seen way off in the distance.  The invading Knights are a huge army, and Prokofiev’s music helps build the rising tension as they grow closer and closer until the armies clash together.

Alexander Nevsky, The Battle Of the Ice

Sergei Prokofiev

In 1938 political tensions were very high as Hitler was coming to power in Nazi Germany.  The Alexander Nevsky story, with a brave Russian hero defeating an invading army, was something that Stalin could get behind.  It was a message the Communist Party could approve of, and the director Eisenstein won a Stalin prize for the film in 1941.  Prokofiev was quite pleased with the music, and extracted much of it for a concert work he called the  Alexander Nevsky cantata Op. 78.  This cantata is one of the few examples of film music that has actually made it into the standard repertoire.  I would get a ticket to see the cantata version in concert anytime I had the opportunity.  One thing I am unable to judge, is how it would be to listen to the music without knowing the film first.  The music certainly is of great depth and stands on its own very well.  I personally knew the film before the cantata, so I always have a memory of where in the film the music was originally placed.  

Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky cantata Op. 78

The other two films in my Russian film festival have scores by Dmitri Shostakovich, and I hope to write about them in a future post.

Why Music?

Why Music?

On the “About” page of the new book blog I started, Great Books of Old Stream,  I spent some time thinking about why I read.  I asked myself, why is it important for people to read great books?  Also,  why do I continue to read challenging things as often as I can?  Here on my music blog, I was naturally led to ask myself a similar question, “Why Music?”.  That is almost a more difficult question for me to tackle, because I take music for granted.    I am like a fish trying to explain water, because for me music is everywhere and I am immersed in it.  Music making, music listening, and being engaged in musical activities is like breathing air.  I don’t remember a time in my life without music.  I imagine I was born in a hospital delivery room with something wonderful playing over the radio speakers, although due to the therapeutic effects of pain medicine, not even my mother remembers exactly which song.

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
― Bob Marley

i-love-music-quotes-6hotuf304I think this is a common phenomenon among musicians, one whereby music is ubiquitous in their lives, but articulating exactly why it is important is something of a challenge.  I can’t tell you why I compose, it is simply an inner compulsion.  I do it because I have to, it is who I am.  It matters not if no one listens, I compose anyway.  Much music is very emotionally expressive, but I don’t find an answer to my question “Why Music?” in the endless parade of empty platitudes, such as, “music gives a soul to the universe”, or “music heals the heart”, or “music is the language of the spirit”.  I don’t know where the soul-giving, heart-healing, spirit language is in the score, or when it might go on sale at Guitar Center.  Even an explanation of music as an “expression of the human”, falls short for those of us who have met some wonderfully talented musicians who were simply awful human beings.  The sublime beauty of the operas of Richard Wagner, for example, are the product of a man who was a despicable person.  I have to separate the music from the man, the art from the flawed human creator, in order to live with myself for enjoying it.

““And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Conductor Benjamin Zander has amazing energy and a wonderful sense of humor in his TED talk, “The transformative power of classical music” from 2008.  The talk is very engaging, and very powerful if you do what he suggests, and imagine someone you love who is gone, while you listen to the “shopping” piece.  I don’t think it is a complete answer to why music is important, but it is a great twenty minutes that demonstrates at least part of the answer.

“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.”
― Albert Schweitzer

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

Of all the things that music is said to do, what I most hope it has the power to do, is bring people together.  People need to come together now, more than ever.  The most powerful music I know about bringing together the Brotherhood of Man (forgiving the all-male tense, I mean all humankind), is the setting of “Ode to Joy” in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.  Leonard Bernstein conducted a performance of the Ninth on December 25, 1989 in East Berlin as part of a celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall.  I found a video of some comments Lenny made about the “Ode to Joy”, recorded about fifteen years before that Berlin performance.  I am saddened by how current Bernstein’s comments sound today, forty years later, as he goes on a tangent about war, refugees and bloodshed.  I hope music does have the power to unite people, and like Bernstein, I pray that we all grow into something worthy of being called the human race.

Leonard Bernstein talking about “Ode to Joy”

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity,
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Heavenly, thy sanctuary!
Your magics join again
What custom strictly divided;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

10,000 people singing in  the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth

A New Beginning

A New Beginning

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesFollowing my interests this year has taken me on a winding road of the humanities.  I ended 2015 delving deeper into the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which led me to spend quite a bit of time with his operas.  I was familiar with some of the music from the operas of Mozart, but I worked to acquaint myself with the major operas in their entirety.  Turns out that the Spring season of my local Michigan Opera Theatre is ending in May with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.  I was excited to purchase some inexpensive tickets to performances of four different operas at the Detroit Opera House.

LIbraryOne of the upcoming operas I have a ticket to is Verdi’s Macbeth, with a libretto adapted from the Shakespeare play of the same name.  This fostered a desire to become more familiar with some of the plays of Shakespeare that I wanted to know better.  In reading and watching a dozen or so of the Bard’s plays, and reading about those plays, I was led in the direction of more of the “classics” and “Great Books” of the Western literary tradition.

To make a long story short, this rekindled interest in literature has inspired the creation of a new blog.  This new WordPress site is about books, and I would love to invite all of you to take a peek at it.  Great Books of Old Stream is what I came up with as a name.  The “Great Books” part is probably obvious where it originated from.  The “Old Stream” part is open to your own interpretation.  Thanks for any time you can spare to visit.

Great Books of Old Stream