A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and Université de Montréal, Marie-Ève Scarfone leads a very successful career as a pianist in Canada and abroad. She has performed throughout North America, [...]
They spoke about it
Russian song styles itself as an emotional representation of a people—like an intimate aural journal. Singing is of course akin to speech, declamation, the sharing of a secret. An ambitious and gripping venture starring soprano Marianne Fiset, Melodiya is the fruit of an exceptional collaboration between Analekta and Radio-Canada.
Romances : Glinka, Moussorgski, Rachmaninov, Tchaïkovski
“We people of the North, we feel things differently. Something either touches the depths of our souls or it doesn’t touch us at all. For us, love is always intermingled with sadness,” explained Glinka, considered the spiritual father of Russian music.
The first known Russians songs used elementary melodic lines made up of concise thematic cells. They exhibited a certain rhythmic freedom, however, and often featured multiple metrical changes. Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), influenced both by popular forms and songs of the Russian Orthodox Church, built a national school upon this foundation that would also borrow from the West, especially from the Italian bel canto style and German mastery of harmony. However, his forms were more malleable, and he preferred the irregular rhythms of the past and supple phrasing: “I wish to unite popular Russian song and good old Western fugue in holy matrimony.” His numerous songs turn out to be a remarkable fusion of Italian aria, French romance, Russian song and Romantic ballade.
The great Russian composers all identified with Glinka. And whatever the genre, as a brother in spirit of Dostoyevsky and Gogol, Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881) always offers an excellent backdrop for the Russian people: “Life, wherever it springs up; truth, be it bitter; audacity and outspokenness, point-blank in every situation; this is my leavening.” Writing under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, Debussy described the great skill with which Mussorgsky wrote his song cycles thusly: “No one spoke to that which is best in us with more tenderness and depth; he is unique and will remain so for an art utterly lacking in contrivance or dry formula. Never has a more refined sensibility been translated through such simple means […] based on and made up of tiny successive touches, linked together with a mysterious glue and a gift for enlightened perception.”
While the composers of The Five were confidently building a national art, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) preferred to work from the existing foundations of western music. Yet Stravinsky described as “the most Russian of all” his apparently inexhaustible melodic imagination, which is perhaps how Tchaikovsky managed to imbue Western forms with the nostalgia and sense of pathos typical of his country. Rejecting Wagnerism and Mussorgsky’s realism alike, Tchaikovsky instead followed in Glinka’s footsteps, using recitative to connect the key moments of his operas. In this scene in Eugene Onegin, Tatiana, a character with whom the composer greatly identified and one of the great heroines of Russian opera, writes an impassioned letter to the object of her affections.
Between 1890 and 1917, when he left Russia and abandoned the genre for good, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) composed over 80 romances. He was able to imbue these intimate tableaux with renewed melodic richness by clothing them in an expressive eloquence and entrusting much of the musical content to the piano part, which would take on the roles of narrator or confidante as need be. Like a painter of everyday scenes, he used subtle poetry to conjure visions of streaming torrents, autumn breezes or desolate plains. Perhaps he was keeping in mind the words of Glinka: “It is the people who created the music, and we are simply its ‘arrangers’.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen