Late Czarist Russian Artistic Brilliance

The phrase “European with Asian characteristics” expresses our fascination with the enduring contribution to world culture of Russian music, art and literature created during the twilight years of Czarist Russia: Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev; Kramskoy, Repin, and Levitan; Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. What cultural and historical influences helped Russians, and then the rest of the West, to recognize and to reward the gifts of these Russian artists? And how would the trajectory of European arts have been different without the genius of Russia’s contributions?

Friday, November 2, 2018 | 7:30 – 9:30 pm

Introduction / George Hammond, Moderator (Humanities West)

A Russian Success Story Robert Greenberg (Composer, Lecturer, Performer)The emergence of a concert music tradition and infrastructure in 19th-century Russia remains one of the great success stories in the history of European art. Russia began the 19th century with virtually no native tradition of concert, or “literate music.” By the end of the century, Russia was exporting music and musicians across the globe. Russian opera and orchestral music could vie on equal terms with Italian, German, and French music. Russian musicians were coming to dominate the world’s stages. By the end of the 19th century, Russia could boast of having two of the world’s greatest schools of music: the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, and a number of young Russian composers—among them Alexander Skriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev—were about to change the nature and syntax of European literate music. The emergence of a Russian literate musical culture was a response to Russia’s entry into the larger European community and the concurrent desire, on the part of many Russian musicians, writers, and critics, to defend and promote native Russian art. Taken all together, it is an extraordinary story.

Saturday, November 3, 2018 | 10 am – noon & 1:30 – 4 pm

Introduction / George Hammond, Moderator (Humanities West)

Pushkin or Gogol: Two Blueprints for 19th-Century Russian Literature / Luba Golburt (Slavic Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley). “Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?” is a question many a student of Russian literature has had to entertain. Yet perhaps a more formative question for the Russian 19th century and beyond is the less frequently posed one, “Pushkin or Gogol.” The contributions and reception of these two writers offer alternative ways to organize our understanding of the myths of Russian literature’s origins, trajectories, and aesthetic and social programs. While Pushkin was celebrated during his lifetime as the codifier of Russian poetic language, an aristocratic voice preternaturally capable of synthesizing, transforming, and ironizing European Romantic culture, Gogol inaugurates an entire tradition of prose at once whimsically grotesque, spiritually earnest, and socially engaged, and stands for a more democratic vision that ranges over the vast Russian territory and considers its no less vast class divides. If Pushkin emerges—in part through his popularization in the operas of Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky’s famous 1880 speech—as a monumental figure who brings forth the entirety of the modern Russian culture, Gogol gives rise to multiple heirs, including Dostoevsky himself, but remains a far less convenient figure for national myths, straddling as he does the uncomfortable divide between his native Ukraine and Russia, and the tenuous boundary between whimsy and madness. Roughly contemporary and well acquainted with each other, the two writers stand for alternative origin myths for Russian literature: one taking root in the golden age; the other, in the age of iron.

Dostoevsky and the Golden Age of Russian Literature / Gary Hamburg (Otho M. Behr Professor of the History of Ideas, Claremont-McKenna College). Major developments of Russia’s “golden age” usually dated from 1820 to 1881. They include the flourishing of Russian poetry, publication of masterly novels by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the appearance of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, My Past and Thoughts. Dostoevsky’s astonishing prison narrative, Notes from the House of the Dead, and his brilliant rumination on modern consciousness, Notes from the Underground, forcefully defined themes that Dostoevsky explored later in his renowned novels—Crime and PunishmentThe Demons, and Brothers Karamazov. Their themes—the torment of human beings who find modern societies unjust, the need to find dignity and meaning in life when basic moral precepts have fallen under debate, and hope of finding a livable community in one’s country and in the world—were also the major issues then debated by Russian writers. Their brilliant comments on these questions illuminated Russian culture and remain of interest to morally alert people in our own time.

Performance / Eugene Onegin. Introduced by Clifford (Kip) Cranna (San Francisco Opera). Russia’s (arguably) greatest poet was immortalized in music by Russia’s (arguably) greatest composer in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s brilliant and moving operatic setting of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the tale of an arrogant young nobleman who spurns the naïve young Tatiana’s innocent profession of love, only to realize too late the tragedy of his loss. A performance of excerpts from this operatic masterpiece will include Tatiana’s famous Letter Scene, Onegin’s lyrical but arrogant aria of haughty rejection, and their dramatic and heartbreaking parting duet. Featuring soprano Rhoslyn Jones, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu and pianist Kevin Korth.

Painting the Russian Word / Molly Brunson (Slavic Languages and Literatures and History of Art, Yale University). In the fall of 1873, the painter Ivan Kramskoy arrived at the estate of Lev Tolstoy, who was already widely known for War and Peace and was writing his next masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Kramskoy had been dispatched to paint Tolstoy’s portrait, and the two artists—one busy on a novel, one on a portrait—would spend a month together. How did this encounter with a painter, himself gaining prominence in the art world, impact the renowned novelist? And might we perceive the presence of the written word, of Tolstoy’s novel, in Kramskoy’s painting? Given the celebrated status of literature in Russia and Russian literature around the world, it is perhaps not surprising that Russian painting—and indeed, all the other arts—have tended to disappear in the shadow of the word. But in the 19th century, the cultural sphere was far more dynamic: artists painted writers and authors described painters; music inspired paintings and was inspired by novels. By exploring some of the most dramatic relationships between writers and painters, we see how vibrant and interconnected the Russian arts were. The creative intensity of Kramskoy and Tolstoy’s month-long portrait-sitting, Vasily Perov’s haunting portrait of Dostoevsky as a downtrodden everyman and messianic thinker, the roles of a tortured composer and a tortured writer in Ilya Repin’s bombastic depiction of Ivan the Terrible, and the emotional friendship of Anton Chekhov and the landscape painter, Isaak Levitan. Told through some of Russia’s most famous paintings, this is a story of the rise of a national culture through collaborations and rivalries, creativity and competition—ultimately forming a Russian artistic tradition that had emerged from virtually nothing to become a cornerstone of global culture.

Panel Discussion with the presenters, moderated by George Hammond

Download the program postcard here: Russian Postcard