Although folk dances have a special place in Russian music, being raised to the status of character dances in works for the stage, the more classical forms taken over from the west are not neglected. During the nineteenth century the waltz, for example, tended more and more towards ‘pure’ music, giving rise to some highly virtuosic works in the manner of those by Weber or Liszt.
Thus, in 1856 Glinka (1804-1857), founder of the Russian nationalist school, produced the definitive version of a Valse which had already aroused the enthusiasm of Berlioz. Its slightly melancholy principal theme reappears as a refrain between episodes in various keys, which give rise to passages of instrumental dialogue and to such bold strokes such as the cantabile for solo trombone in the third episode. Witty or ironic comments by the flutes or strings turn it virtually into a fantasia – which Shostakovich was to recall later.
Scenes at parties and balls abound in opera. Tchaikovsky composed the waltz for Act Two of Eugene Onegin (1877) – with a chorus in its original version – so as to reflect the humdrum pretentiousness of the lesser, countrified aristocracy: it is closer to the waltz in Faust than to those he was to write for his ballets. This is in clear contrast to the majestic Act Three Polonaise, with its trio incorporating the traditional mazurka, which as the dance of aristocratic St Petersburg receptions is in a different class altogether.
Marius Petipa, who became chief ballet master at the imperial ballet in 1869, restored to the art of dance the nobility and charm which had been killed off by an emphasis on technique. Tchaikovsky provided him with music suffused with the poetic inspiration lacking in the more straightforwardly rhythmic scores of composers like Drigo and Pugni. He was, however, criticised by those ballet-lovers who found his music too symphonic; his waltzes, refined rather than brilliant and frivolous, are often tinged with dramatic lyricism, even a sense of anxiety. The unusual flavour of the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker (1892) is largely created by the mysterious other-worldly horn-calls answered by rippling clarinet figures.
Raymonda (1898) is a medieval romance choreographed by Petipa to music by Glazunov. Always melodious, subtle and graceful, it is sometimes highly evocative, as in the trance-like atmosphere in the dreamy slow-motion accompanying the heroine’s sleep (andante sostenuto) in the interlude before the second scene.
The tradition of the grand ballet d’action persisted right up to the revolution brought about by Sergei Diaghilev. Reacting against the ‘double pirouettes and detestable sets of thirty-two fouettés’, the director of the Ballets Russes sought the character of the various folk-dances of Russia and other countries, which he remodelled for the stage using a basically classical technique. In his Parisian season in 1909 he presented the second act of Prince Igor (1887) against the background of a tawny-coloured desert steppe. The Polovtsian Dances, alternating spellbinding movements for the women and pounding, savage rhythms for the warriors, were directed by Mikhail Fokine: when a tumultuous wave of dancers rushed downstage at the end, stopping dead just short of the footlights, it brought the house down!
Even Anatole Liadov, the composer of backwoods Russia, gave in to the infatuation of the Russian intelligentsia of around 1900 with ancient Greece. His Dance of the Amazon (1910), for Ida Rubinstein, employs two Greek chants, heavily reworked: the first theme suggests the Amazon riding on horseback, the second (meno mosso) emphasises the oriental atmosphere; brass and percussion suggest warlike activity – ushered in by a fanfare.
After the 1917 Revolution it was thought that the creations of the Tsarist era would be unappealing to the sensibilities of the new Bolshevik listener. New themes and characters – stadiums and factories, sportsmen and workers – figured in ‘futurist’ (that is, revolutionary) musical experiments. In Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age (1930), which portrays the misadventures of a Soviet football team in a capitalist country, a clownish polka caricatures decadent western society. In Tahiti Trot (1928) Shostakovich pulled off the challenge of re-orchestrating Vincent Youmans’ Tea for Two in record time, and in so doing exploited all the expressive and comic possibilities, as well as the shock tactics, of avant-garde experiments. But offerings like these, from an enfant terrible ‘who had nothing to say to the people’, led the Communist Party, around 1932, to rein back cultural activity and reinstate a classical, academic aesthetic, which also extended to opera and ballet.
The music of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges (Chicago, 1921; Leningrad, 1927), precise, sturdily constructed and freshly coloured – as in the festive march from Act Two – was perfectly accessible, and yet it was later ignored in the USSR because of its libretto, which makes a feature of absurdity. Romeo and Juliet (1935/6, staged in 1940), on the other hand, with its universal subject, gained unanimous acceptance. The characterisation was exemplary: in the sombre, hieratic Dance of the Knights, with its great sweeps of sound, the menacing thrusts of the basses and brass powerfully convey the arrogance of a clan – as against the fresh sensitivity of youth portrayed by the central theme.
Although Khachaturian was also suspected of ‘formalism’, his artistic approach always coincided with that of the regime. His incidental music for a 1940 production of Lermontov’s The Masked Ball portrays well the spiritual emptiness of imperial society: the entirely unsentimental waltz turns like a roundabout, relentlessly driven forward by the pursuit of pleasure. With Gayaneh (1943) Khachaturian goes back to his native Armenia. Part of the ballet’s final celebrations honouring the upbeat heroine of the ‘happy collective farm’ is the frenzied Sabre Dance, the middle section of which recalls an earlier pas de deux. It is an authentic piece of Transcaucasian folklore.
Following his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk district, Shostakovich had fallen victim, in 1936, to official criticism. He attempted to redeem himself, or at least to behave himself, by writing lighter works, frothier, more facile – i.e. proletarian – for films, ballets, variety stages and what the USSR referred to as ‘jazz’ orchestras, which are more like our light music ensembles. The Suite No.2 for jazz orchestra (1938) was composed for one such group, run by Victor Knushevitsky. The main, somewhat sentimental, theme in its Waltz No.2, played on the saxophone, ends in a sort of good-natured refrain. This piece was used as music for film commercials in the West – and then as title music for Stanley Kubrick’s last film: what finer example of popularity could there be?