Songs of the Heart

Where have I not heard Russian music?  When I watched the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I noticed that the gold, silver, and bronze medalists in ice dancing all performed to at least one Russian piece.  From Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty to radio broadcasts to a music box to college orchestra performances to music recitals, I have heard, and even performed, Russian music time and time again.  In the following article, our guest author Caroline Bennett discusses the lives of several famous Russian composers, the music they wrote, and how their Russian heritage influenced them.

Sergei Rachmaninov

“I write on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook.”Sergei Rachmaninov

Composers hail from countries around the globe, and oftentimes their music reflects the customs and worldviews of their homelands. Such is the case with the numerous composers who came out of Russia. The expansive country of Russia has had a tumultuous history, and its many fairytales and folksongs reflect that reality. It is not surprising, then, that many Russian composers led tragic lives; some lost their families, some were exiled from their homeland, some forced to work for the oppressive Soviet regime. But Russian composers poured their emotions into their music, creating pieces that speak to the hearts of audiences of every background and nation. Listen to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky, and you do not just hear beautiful music, but music that reveals the heart of Russia and her people.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia. Little is known about his childhood and how he came to be a musician. He trained to be a lawyer and was working as a government clerk when he began to study music more seriously. As soon as Tchaikovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 26, he received the post of professor of harmony at the Conservatory of Moscow. He worked there for more than a decade, and during that time he began to compose. Tchaikovsky was a very sensitive, introspective man; he agonized over his sins and suffered from bouts of depression. His songs reflect his personality, and though much of his music sounds lively, it is often bittersweet. It is hard to choose a few Tchaikovsky compositions to recommend, for he wrote a wide variety of pieces and they all contain touching melodies that make one want to dance and cry at the same time. Girls and boys will love listening to his ballet music, especially Sleeping Beauty, for its music is featured in the 1959 Disney movie. Audiences who like thrills will enjoy the dramatic climax of his 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is perfect for Shakespeare lovers, and Concerto in B Flat Minor is an inspiring piece for pianists. All these works tell us a bit about Tchaikovsky, but perhaps his final composition—Symphony No. 6, nicknamed “The Pathetique Symphony”—tells the most about his inner turmoil. Though it is unlikely that Tchaikovsky was a Christian when he died of cholera in 1893, one can hope. He certainly pondered a lot about God and Christ’s atonement, for one of his surviving letters reads, “On one side my mind refuses to be convinced by dogma…on the other hand, my education, and the ingrained habits of childhood, combined with the story of Christ and His teaching, all persuade me, in spite of myself, to turn to Him with prayers when I am sad, with gratitude when I am happy.”

Sergei Rachmaninov
Sergei Rachmaninov

Peter Tchaikovsky was an inspiration to the accomplished pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who was born in 1873 in a town not far from St. Petersburg. Rachmaninov began his piano studies with his mother at the age of four, and because he showed such talent was admitted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory at an early age. He received little discipline at the conservatory, however, and came close to ruining his career. Fortunately, in 1885 he went to study with the strict pianist Nikolai Zverev, who helped Rachmaninoff hone his talent and become a truly amazing musician. Rachmaninov decided to leave his teacher after four years because he wished to concentrate on his composing. Throughout his life Rachmaninov served as a concert pianist, teacher, and composer, and he proved successful at all three vocations. His love of piano is expressed eloquently in two of his most magnificent works: his Concerto No. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Both feature the piano weaving in and out with the orchestra, and the effect can oftentimes be quite amazing. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was Rachmaninov’s final composition, the answer to his prayer that he might be able to work to his dying day. Rachmaninov passed away in 1943 of cancer, five weeks after he became an American citizen.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, born on March 6, 1844 in the province of Novgorod, was one of the most influential of the Romantic Russian composers. Though he showed musical talent at a young age, Rimsky-Korsakov’s father enrolled him in a naval academy, and he was only able to study music on the side. His teacher Feador Kanille encouraged him to compose, and so Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his first symphony while sailing with the Russian navy. The composition was promptly performed upon his arrival home. From then on Rimsky-Korsakov devoted most of his time to writing music and completely resigned from the Russian navy when, in 1871, he was offered a teaching post at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He proved to be a very demanding teacher who was intent on his students becoming proficient and professional at their jobs. But Rimsky-Korsakov was no hypocrite; his numerous compositions testify that he was not lax when it came to his musical pursuits. He wrote many operas, and the famous orchestral interlude Flight of the Bumblebee comes from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote a lot of program music, and Scheherezade is a beautiful orchestral work that relates in music form a few of the stories the Sultana Scheherazade told her husband in the Arabian Nights legend. Like other Russian composers, Rimsky-Korsakov loved dramatic orchestrations and tender melodies. Even his music inspired by countries like Arabia, India, and Spain are very Russian with their striking themes and melodies. Rimsky-Korsakov’s most lasting legacy, however, was his insistence that professional mastery of technique is the only way to make great music, and though he died in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical philosophy continues to be used in Russia to this day.

Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky

The works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Rimsky-Korsakov are melodious and romantic, but the music of Igor Stravinsky shows a whole other side of Russia. Born in a town near St. Petersburg in 1882, Stravinsky began his musical training at an early age, for his parents’ home was a center for culture and the arts. He was a lonely, reserved child, and the solitary work of composition and music-making appealed to him. While he was studying law, he met Rimsky-Korsakov’s son and eventually began taking composition lessons from the great composer himself. Due to his vast knowledge of music, Stravinsky became a master at orchestration. He wrote music in many different styles and forms, but his works were always very innovative for their time. Indeed, one of the ballets he wrote music for—The Rite of Spring—was so unconventional that it caused the audience to riot, although Stravinsky later claimed that the choreographer was at fault for including some indecent scenes. Perhaps Stravinsky’s most beautiful composition is The Firebird Suite, a compilation of some of the pieces found in a ballet retelling a Russian legend. Even its soaring melodies, however, are interspersed with dissonant chords and creepy sound effects. Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson, authors of The Gift of Music, note on pages 259-260 that Stravinsky did not write music to arouse the passions of his audiences, and his work ethic and his compositions therefore demand more respect than love. But Stravinsky knew what the purpose of music was, saying, “The Church knew what the Psalmist knew: Music praises God.” This intriguing composer, who died in 1971 in New York City, is living proof that though everyone has different talents and callings, they can still glorify God in their own unique ways.

Russia produced many notable composers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Reinhold Gliere, Alexander Glazunov, Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky, however, are wonderful examples of the variety of sounds and styles Russian composers could write in. Despite their dissimilarities, Russian composers were bound together with love for their native homeland, and they tell the story of her love, loss, and longing through their songs.

 

RECOMMENDED LISTENING:

♪ Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai. Greatest Hits. Sony, 1995.

♪ Tchaikovsky, Peter. Ultimate Tchaikovsky: Essential Masterpieces. Decca, 2007.

♪ Zinman, David and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Firebird Suite / Petrushka / Fireworks. Telarc, 1991.

♪ Ousset, Cecile, Simon Rattle, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. EMI Classics, 2008.

Cacophony and Euphony: A Pair of Poems

I wrote the following pair of poems as part of an assignment from The Roar on the Other Side by Suzanne U. Rhodes.  In the poems, I personify the two abstract ideas of “cacophony” and “euphony.”

The definition of cacophony is “1. Jarring, discordant sound; dissonance; 2. The use of harsh or discordant sounds in literary composition, as for poetic effect” (“Cacophony” 226).  Euphony is defined as “Agreeable sound, especially in the phonetic quality of words” (“Euphony” 468).

Blacksmith
Blacksmith (from etc.usf.edu/clipart/)

“Cacophony”

My name’s cacophony;

I cannot be controlled.

I clash and crash and break

Wherever I collide.

With kilometrous stride

I walk and stomp and shake;

When I talk, I grate like

A rake on a gravel

Road or clang like a

Blacksmith making a plow

Or clopple like iron-shod

Steeds on granite pavement.

Why speak but do not shout?

I give each passerby

I meet a clout upon

The ear with my great roar

My name’s cacophony,

So what would I be if

I acted grand or grave?

No, I will bark and whack,

Grumble, thunder, attack,

Without restraint or tact.

Just how else could I act?

My name’s cacophony.

Snow Goose Sketch
Snow Goose Sketch by Arrietty

“Euphony”

Listen.

Can you hear the stream

Bubbling past my home?

Look.

Can you see the gleam

Of the fireflies in the gloam?

Inhale deeply.

Can you smell the crisp

Autumn scent of pine trees?

Turn your face.

Can you feel the wisp

Of the passing breeze?

Pick a pear.

Can you taste the sweet

Summer melting in your mouth?

Look up high.

Can you spot the fleet

Flock of geese going south?


Works Cited

“Cacophony.”  The American Heritage Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1985.

“Euphony.”  The American Heritage Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1985.

Exploration into Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy: Warnings for the Present Day

Rationality is something that most people take pride in: the ability to solve a problem, put forward an argument, make a wise decision. These are all aspects of people’s daily lives, and we look up to those that excel at applying rationality to human circumstances. However, despite being highly regarded in some spheres, rational thought is often left by the side of the road to bleed out at the hands of emotionalism, herd mentality, and fear. What is worse, oftentimes the irrational tries to wear the skin of the rational as a façade of legitimacy: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

What does this have to do with Nolan’s Batman trilogy you may ask? Everything. If you go through the films, they are filled with examples of how irrational behavior endangers people and affects the political state. In fact, upon re-watching the series, I was struck by how realistically the characters in the films mimic what we see in the world around us.

In the second film, whenever Bruce Wayne is about to turn himself in, and Harvey Dent is pleading for the people of Gotham to not give in to the Joker, a man in the room yells, “No more dead cops!” followed by hoorahs from everybody. This settles the issue, and the film continues. However, this scene has stuck with me. If you analyze the statement by the police officer, it is ONLY a statement of a desired outcome, but not a logical argument. There is not even a plea to morality: “No more dead cops because it is wrong”. However, it is treated as an argument by everyone in the room, and this statement carries a weight to it that drives people to behave and think in a certain way. This is a plea to emotionalism as everyone feels anger (rightfully) at the murder of the police officers, and based on that emotional response jumps to the most expedient avenue to reach the desired end: turning in the Batman. We see this everywhere around us today where catchy hashtag slogans are almost the entire substance behind movements.

In the third film, the character Bane opens up the city to the convicts and poor, allowing them to loot and pillage the wealthy who have trod them down. Nobody cares to examine the logical illegitimacy of hating a person because of the things they own, but rather they rape, pillage and burn because of an emotional pent up rage fueled by herd mentality: turning men who would normally be considered good to follow their peers in acts of violence. Look at many riots today, or in the past, and a similar trend can be spotted there as well.

Fear is also a common motivator of irrationality. In the second film, citizens trying to escape Gotham city seriously consider blowing up an entire boat of convicts if it means that they can save their own lives. “They had their chance” quips one man. Although they ultimately decide not to act, the mere fact that such a statement was given serious consideration as a reason to take men’s lives is disturbing enough. However, everywhere in the world today, people acting out of fear give credence to similar arguments.

In the films, Nolan shows the facades for what they are. I think that this is the reason that the films appeal so much to me: they show us the real world and warn us of the pitfalls that lie therein. So next time you listen to an enlivening speech, feel the urge to blindly pursue the cause of most of your peers, or are afraid and about to act, stop and seriously think about the motivations and reasons. You might be surprised. I know I often am.

A Pressing Time

If the popular entertainment website Buzzfeed is anything to go by, then nobody really knows what it takes to be an adult. The website is constantly amusing its viewers with 41-pbfa9qxl-_sx320_bo1204203200_articles related to this dilemma. In the last month or so, I can recall two or three posts on the subject, the most obvious ones being something like “14 Signs You Are Really, Truly an Adult,” and “22 Signs You’re Really, Really Not An Adult Yet” (and, incidentally, I related more to the “you’re an adult” one, though I do often leave my dishes piled high in the sink). Confusing as the concept of adulthood may be to the Millennials, it is perhaps a bit more clear cut for the older individuals of Generation X.  A few years ago, I read a book by such an author, Gish Jen’s collection of short stories, Who’s Irish?, which explored themes of maturity and adulthood.

Pammie, protagonist of “House, House, Home,” certainly feels like she has discovered the answer to adulthood: “[Adulthood] has more to do with…finding oneself with responsibilities” (p. 207) But for me, her answer is a bit ambiguous, for just what are these responsibilities she speaks of? I should now like to offer my own perhaps rather ambiguous explanation of adulthood: to be an adult is an unpleasant experience—or, more accurately, is full of unpleasant experiences—and, I think, to be an adult is to fairly consistently accept those unpleasant experiences.

To be sure, this skill is one that the child Callie, of Jen’s “The Water Faucet Vision,” attempts to practice, with a dismal level of success. Clinging to “faith like a child,” she believes that if she prays and sacrifices enough, God will personally answer her desperate desires. While reading this, I was reminded of something a pastor of mine once said: “God will always answer prayer, and sometimes the answer is ‘No.’” When the child Callie is refused her slightest plea, her whole world drips down around her (in the case of the titular faucets, literally). I am not meaning to suggest that faith is incompatible with adulthood. Quite the contrary, I find that my semi-adulthood requires near constant faith. But adulthood, like mature faith, is made of “grit,” in the words of adult Callie. To me, one of the most moving passages of the entirety of Who’s Irish? is also at the end of “The Water Faucet Vision:” “Back then, the world was a place that could be set right. One had only to direct the hand of the Almighty and say, Just here, Lord, we hurt here—and here, and here, and here” (p. 48)  If you are an adult, you must not cry and scream like a child does when exposed to an iota of pain. You must stand, and fight.

This is why I do not completely accept the conventional accepted definition that to be an adult one must be able to pave one’s own way through the world. According to Buzzfeed’s posts, the main requirements for becoming an adult are the ability to pay one’s own bills and run one’s own household, and that to depend on anybody else to do this is somehow emasculating. Indeed, I cannot entirely accept this definition, because I thoroughly refuse to believe that Sven, the ex-husband of “House, House, Home”‘s Pammie, is an adult. Immature as I have labeled Callie the child, she at least had an awareness of people outside herself. She sees the pain caused by the adult world, and seeks to heal it, though through her admittedly misguided prayer life. To be selfish is the easy way out, and in Sven’s case, it is literally so; he walks out on his family. Or perhaps I’ve got this wrong, and paving your own way in the world does make an adult, just not necessarily a good adult, but one to whom negative adjectives are attached (a “selfish” adult, a “thoughtless” adult, a “foolish” adult, etc.)

But perhaps now I see the simplicity in Pammie’s own explanation, that to be an adult is to accept the responsibility the world thrusts upon you (although I would argue that, in Pammie’s case, for example, responsibility is very often the result of our own actions, whether good or bad.) This would, come to think of it, fulfill my original premise that to be an adult is to accept the unpleasantness in the world. Responsibility can often be unpleasant. Why else do children shirk it so? Why else, when responsibility is early thrust upon a child, we think it a cause for pity? Responsibility is something adults are supposed to handle, and when they don’t, or can’t, doesn’t that make them somewhat childish?

Looking back over this essay, it strikes me as rather a melancholy, or even a slightly depressing read. But the facts are there: children are born, children grow, husbands come, husbands leave, parents love each other, parents fight, daughters abandon mothers, mothers refuse to forget daughters, friends come, friends go, employees come, employees go, families grow, families fall apart. Some of these are pleasant circumstances, others are unpleasant. To be an adult is to stand, and face them, as best as one may. The “as best one may” is important, for even the few of us who are indomitable rocks can be eroded, given enough time. In the real world, there is at least some partial credit for trying. This is what would make Pammie an adult, and Sven not, a conclusion I am quite satisfied with. Pammie, like most of us, has done questionable things (notice I do not say “foolish things”), foremost being marrying Sven, but credit given where credit is due, she sees it through. It is worth noting that she does this even when the cards she ends up with—divorced mother of three—are not the cards she was originally dealt—artist, wife of brilliant professor. The outside pressed in, and she pressed back. That is an adult.

Two Podcast Favorites

For those who want something to listen to on the way to work or have some extra time, podcasts may be the answer. Here are a couple podcasts I enjoy listening to:

  1. The Phil Vischer Podcast – a show featuring Phil Vischer (the creator of Veggie Tales), Pastor Skye Jethani, and voice actress Christian Taylor as they discuss a variety of topics, usually related to current events or culture. A fun, thought-provoking show that always concludes with a ukulele song improvised by Phil Vischer in which he summarizes the podcast’s discussion. Released every Tuesday.
  2. Serial – a podcast published in seasons, I have only been listening to Season 2, which documents the story of Bowe Bergdahl–the U.S. soldier who left his post at a camp in eastern Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban. A well-researched story about a controversial figure, this podcast features interviews with people who knew Bowe, shedding light on the events that led to his capture, as well as the political machinations that eventually led to his release.

Beyond these two, there are podcasts out there for all sorts of interests, from minute-by-minute breakdowns of the Star Wars films to lengthy, engaging podcasts about history. I use PlayerFM to manage subscriptions on my phone and receive notifications when new podcasts are released.