Monday, November 24, 2008

Music And Dance Before Babyn Yar: On Glinka's Modest But Energetic “Kamarinskaya” Dance Tune

..."This spills into the modest but energetic “Kamarinskaya” dance tune. Its thirteen repetitions would wear out their welcome quickly but for Glinka’s constantly enriching them with countermelodies, building up the orchestral texture at first as if he were spinning out a fugue and then providing a constantly changing background of varying colors for the vigorous dance. The whirlwind dies down and the wedding tune makes another brief appearance. But this side-step is short-lived, and as soon as we have caught our breath the repeated notes return (this time in the solo clarinet and again emphasized by ornaments), and the “Kamarinskaya” dance breaks out again, now for a further twenty-one variations. The first violins hold tenaciously to the tune, but beneath them Glinka provides an encyclopedia of possible orchestral combinations, sometimes as slender as horn-calls or trumpet-calls in octaves, sometimes employing imaginative voicings of the entire orchestra.

On the surface, Kamarinskaya may strike a listener as small potatoes. The two melodies don’t amount to much, and in any case Glinka didn’t even write them. And yet a closer look clarifies why Glinka’s composer-descendents exalted this piece as they did. Most of the ensuing Russian nineteenth-century symphonists tried their hands at constructing symphonic monuments on unassuming folk tunes while maintaining their sources’ essential spirit, a process for which Kamarinskaya serves as the prototype. The piece’s emphasis on orchestral color as an essential force of composition also became a foundation of Russian symphonic composition. But it was Glinka’s demonstration of how an unassuming folk tune might serve as scaffolding for a constantly changing symphonic background that made this short work an icon of Russian music, one that is echoed, in varying ways, in ensuing compositions by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Balakirev, and Stravinsky."

James M. Keller [for the Program Notes prepared for the San Francisco Symphony]

On Disc and in Print

On Disc: Vassily Sinaisky conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (Chandos) | Konstantin Ivanov conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra (Regis) | And just for fun, arrangements for the Red Star Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, with balalaika (Teldec; also a DVD on Kultur Video) and for guitar duet, featuring—who can resist it?—The Czar’s Guitars (Profil)

In Print: Memoirs, by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, translated by Richard B. Mudge (University of Oklahoma Press) | Mikhail Glinka, by David Brown (Oxford University Press) | A History of Russian Music from Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar, by Francis Maes (University of California Press) | Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press).


Header: The monument to Mikhail Glinka at the Theater Square in Saint Petersburg.

Photo credit: Lite via Wikimedia Commons. With thanks.


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