Classical music

Russia through the eyes of Stravinsky, Tarkovsky and Dostoevsky

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm

Stalker: Andrei Tarkovsky's final, defiant response to his Soviet oppressors

Western counterparts might routinely trump them in modern filmmaking stakes, but Russia once was a major cinematic contender.

Early efforts such as Battleship Potemkin and Man With a Movie Camera were groundbreaking, but as the Soviet Union started to come into power, the country's big-screen sensibilities languished into lethargy.

Fear and censorship ruled, and only one Russian director truly attempted to speak out: Andrei Tarkovsky, a deeply religious man who infused heart-wrenching spirituality into every frame of his films. He was quickly silenced, of course. Tarkovsky's allegorical 1966 masterpiece on 15th-century Russian monk Andrei Rublev was denied domestic release, so he turned to a then-insipid genre as a method of escaping the madness.

Stalker might pale in popularity to Tarkovsky's sci-fi success Solaris, but it certainly says more about the filmmaker's cinematic situation. Freely adapted from satirical novel Roadside Picnic, in a dystopian future, we follow a "stalker", a man with mental powers, who leads a writer and a professor into the fenced-off Zone, where a mysterious area called the Room is said to make all wishes come true.

For those living behind the Iron Curtain, the film's subtext was almost all too obvious. Beautifully bleak monochromatic images of ruined urban areas outside the fence, and lush green landscapes within. An emaciated, religious convict leads two godless intellectuals to a place that answered all their questions.

But Stalker digs deeper, ironically because it's devoid of traditional meaning. By layering his film with contrasting levels of cinematic conventions, Tarkovsky created a work beyond pure philosophical reading - a minimalistic narrative set against visuals rife with symbolism and characters that border on the mundane.

It's a plot to make us want to return to its world again and again - but like the stalker's own Sisyphean relationship with the Zone, where the Room has no secret quality, there is no true reading of Stalker.

Tarkovsky was adamant about that as people sought to dissect him, once vaguely writing: "The Zone is a zone. It's life, and as he makes his way across it, man may break down or he may come through."

For a man who'd suffered through the oppression of the Soviet regime, whose religious beliefs were constantly questioned, whose art was forever stifled, it felt like a final response - a lifelong reaction to the power of symbolism and its effect on our understanding of the universe.

Rumours still persist that Tarkovsky was assassinated by the KGB for anti-Soviet propaganda.

Stalker Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Nikolay Grinko, Anatoliy Solonitsyn Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

The Rite of Spring - primordially Russian, perenially compelling 

In the years leading up to the first world war, culture-conscious Parisians were obsessed with all things Russian. That interest was stimulated by Sergei Diaghilev, who staged exhibitions of Russian art, concerts, and Modest Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov, in the city.

Most importantly, in 1909 the impresario founded the Ballets Russes in Paris and the following year began commissioning scores from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. The Paris premiere of The Firebird in 1910 made Stravinsky's reputation, and in 1911 Petrushka was also a success.

But the premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 nearly caused a riot. The Ballets Russes became a hot ticket and despite unusually high box office prices, the performance, featuring Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography, was sold out.

Then, as now, the piece divided opinion. It was never clear whether it was the dancing, perceived by some to be not just primitive in inspiration but provocatively ugly, or the music which so sharply divided factions in the audience.

But The Rite was far more than a succès de scandale: both music and dance were revolutionary, but it is the music which is now recognised as one of the most important and influential works of the 20th century.

Its discords are often said to foreshadow the collapse of European civilisation not long afterwards in the first world war.

Today, the aggressively insistent, irregular rhythms of The Rite, and the dissonance which so discomfited some members of its first audience, are familiar elements of much modern orchestral music. By comparison with some of the compositions it influenced, the piece is almost easy on the ear. But it remains compelling music.

The Rite started its second life as a concert piece within a year, performed in St Petersburg in 1914. Stravinsky revised it in 1920 and continued reworking it periodically until 1948, by which time what is now regarded as the definitive version had been completed.

Much 20th-century music - not all of it classical - is difficult to imagine without The Rite of Spring. Its influence is apparent on Gil Evans' orchestrations for Miles Davis, and over the years there have been jazz adaptations of sections of the piece by jazz musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Hubert Laws and Alice Coltrane. Last year jazz trio The Bad Plus released a recording of the entire work adapted for piano, bass and drums. There are also recent versions by modern chamber music ensemble Quartetski, and the Mobtown Modern Big Band. Philip Glass acknowledges the music's influence on his compositions.

The Rite of Spring remains an essential part of the orchestral repertoire. How might that first-night crowd have responded had they known where it would lead?

The Rite of Spring  Igor Stravinsky (Columbia) 

Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky does nihilism

Crime and Punishment was first published in serial form in 1866, some years after author Fyodor Dostoevsky returned from exile.

It follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a tortured, desperate anti-hero living in St Petersburg. Reduced by a combination of poverty, self-absorption and an "overstrained irritable condition", he has become isolated from his fellows. This practical solitude slowly results in moral lassitude. "Am I capable of that? Is that serious? It is not serious at all. It's simply a fantasy to amuse myself; a plaything! Yes, maybe it is a plaything."

Raskolnikov is planning to kill Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker and money lender. Having posited that Ivanovna is the cause not only of his own degradation but that of possibly the entire nation, Raskolnikov argues that murder will actually benefit the body politic, as well as himself. He ends up killing Ivanovna and her sister, Lizaveta, when she catches him after the bloody act. Driven half-mad by fever and guilt, Raskolnikov wanders St Petersburg all but proclaiming the atrocity to the world, and pursued by the investigator, Porfiry Petrovich.

For Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov embodied the nihilistic (or "Progressive") mood enveloping Russia's youth. His name can be translated as "dissenter" (and also "divided"). Dostoevsky wrote to his editor, Mikhail Katkov: "Our poor defenceless Russian boys and girls have their own eternal main point, which will be the basis of socialism for a long time to come, namely their enthusiasm for the good and the purity of their hearts … But all these school children and university students, of whom I have seen so many, have converted to nihilism so purely, so selflessly, in the name of honour, truth and true usefulness!"

In the novel, Dostoevsky pours his feelings about this movement into the febrile atmosphere engulfing a volcanic St Petersburg: "There are few places where there are so many gloomy, strong and queer influences on the soul of man," one character notes.

Yet the novel was despised by the young radicals Dostoevsky portrayed. Scholar Robert Bird argues that Dostoevsky felt vindicated when a real-life nihilist, Dmitry Karakozov, made a half-hearted assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II while Crime and Punishment was being serialised in The Russian Messenger. Whether Karakozov's punishment - death by hanging - fitted his crime is a question fit for Dostoevsky's novel.

Crime and Punishment  by Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Russian Messenger series)