Modern Sounds:

Songs Along the Pan-Eurasian Railway


April 30, 2015
With Robert Blake and Izumi Kashiwagi, piano
Alfred Newman Recital Hall, University of Southern California
Recorded by Jonathan Keijser.


Program Notes

The Trans-Siberian Railway

This recital, beginning with a Parisian composition written in 1919, and ending with a set of Japanese songs composed in the fall of 2013, started as a personal fascination with the idea of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I found myself intrigued by this essentially uninterrupted land route built in the late 19th century that linked Western Europe with the Far East, and this interest in turn led me to an investigation into what kinds of cultural exchanges were facilitated by such a link.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, I discovered, facilitated both imperial expansion as well as cultural development of Western music in Asia. The need for workers along the Railway gave Russia the means by which to begin an eastward expansion all the way to Vladivostok on Russia’s east coast, and ultimately led to Russia’s domination of sections of Manchuria in modern-day China. The self-same Railway also provided an escape route for Eastern European Jews seeking a refuge in the colonial centers of coastal China. The rapid rise to international prominence of musical institutions like the Shanghai Conservatory can be linked to the Jewish community that came to Shanghai via Harbin (the original terminus of the Railway); this community included many internationally prominent musicians who, robbed of their performance careers in Europe, were all too happy for the stable (if relatively meagre) income provided by teaching positions at the Conservatory and other educational institutions in China’s eastern cities. Today, Western-style art music is an important fixture of both European and Asian cultures, and has at times provided an important locus for the development of national identities in all the nations that have incorporated Western-derived musical traditions into their local cultures.

The history of the Trans-Siberian Railway is fascinating; no less fascinating are the kinds of cultural exchange it facilitated. Perhaps most striking of these is the sharp contrast between perceptions of a nation held by locals and foreigners. This is key: although the Trans-Siberian Railway provided a rapid link between East and West, at least compared with previous, more primitive route options, it was still the travelers to the destinations along the route that continued to shape Western views of the distant, exotic “Orient” that lay at the far end  of the Railway. Indeed, many of the stereotypes associated with particular countries to this day can be traced back to the travelogues that formed a wildly popular (if somewhat maligned) literary genre through the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus, I felt it was insufficient simply to provide a string of musical stops along the Railway; instead, I have decided to juxtapose accounts by foreign travelers with the music of native composers. While I do not try to draw any conclusions about the projects of the travel writers versus the composers in this program, I hope that the juxtaposition of the writings and the compositions will provide an interesting departure point for thinking about cultural identity. Furthermore, I hope that this program of 20th- and 21st-century music will provide a small sample of the broad pluralism that is characteristic of so much of the 20th-century’s compositional activity.

Repertoire NOTES

Petrograd Evenings (Darius Milhaud)

In 1919, Darius Milhaud returned to Paris from a two-year stint in Brazil as a cultural attaché for the French government. This series of twelve brief miniatures is one of Milhaud’s first compositions following his return to Paris and, though largely forgotten today, it firmly positioned him as one of the leading lights of France’s young interwar composers. The texts, by René Chalupt (whom Milhaud referred to as “the musician-poet”), seem to have been created specifically for this set.

The cycle, although nominally revolving around the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917, invites us to search for parallels in French history through the subheadings of the two halves, entitled “L’Ancien Régime” and “La Révolution”, both of which have clear resonances with French historical events. Each song in the cycle depicts an individual (mostly women), but there is a marked shift from the first half to the second half. The first half of the cycle portrays a variety of fictional figures working for the revolution, many of them displaying a disturbingly cheerful tendency towards bloodthirstiness.

 In contrast, the figures portrayed in the second half were actual historical figures during the time of the Russian Revolution. “VII. The Grandmother of the Revolution” was a longtime revolutionary figure in Russia, portrayed in this cycle upon her return from exile in Siberia. The Tauride Palace (VIII) was the site of the provisional government of 1917. “IX. Mister Protopopoff” was largely seen as a pawn of Viroubova (with whom he is portrayed driving in the car) and the hated Tsarina. “X. The Guest”, although it never mentions anyone by name, is almost certainly a dinner invitation to the universally despised Rasputin; the “surprise” waiting for him at dinner is probably the botched poisoning that led to his hasty death by shooting. This in turn leads us to “XI. The Limousine”, portraying the depositing of Rasputin’s corpse in the river Neva. Finally, in “XII. The Colonel Romanoff”, we are left with the image of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, now a mere army colonel, wandering the compound of Tsarskoye Selo, where he and his family were held until shortly before they were murdered by their Bolshevik captors.

The Present State of Music In Germany, 
The Netherlands, and the United Provinces
(Charles Burney)

Charles Burney (1726-1814) was an English musician and man of letters. His career as a performing musician was modest, but he remains known to this day for his perceptive and sometimes downright gossipy accounts of his travels through other countries. His 1772 work on the music of Germanic Europe is true to form, justifying the comment in Grove Music Online, which refers to him as “one of music history’s keenest observers and most entertaining commentators.” 

Sung into the distance (Viteslava Kapralova)

Vítěslava Kaprálová, born into a musical family in Brno in 1915, received recognition as a supremely talented young composer during her short life. After her education at the Prague Conservatory, she received an award from the French government allowing her to continue her studies in Paris, where she spent much of the rest of her life. She composed multiple orchestral, chamber, and piano works, as well as dozens of songs. She also received acclaim for conducting her own works with such high-profile ensembles as the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  

Kaprálová, although clearly influenced by French composition, was nonetheless a champion of developing a Czech national music, as seen through her close professional relationships with other nationalist Czech composers such as Bohuslav Martinů. Her commitment to a national Czech music is further revealed by her exclusively setting Czech texts in her vocal works, a remarkably patriotic, but not hugely monetizable move. In Zpíváno do dálky, one of the composer’s later works, written in 1929, one can hear a mature style of vocal and piano writing that are strikingly idiomatic for both instruments. Her harmonic language, though obviously colored by her involvement with French music, is peppered with what might best be described as semi-improvisatory figures that recall the composer’s Bohemian roots.

Rainer Maria Rilke's Russia

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was born into a middle-class family in the then-bilingual city of Prague. He showed an early attraction to literature, and is considered one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. One of the constants in Rilke’s life was Lou Andreas-Salomé, a woman of fierce intellect whom Rilke turned to throughout his career for guidance and support. It is with Lou that the young Rainer made his first trip to Russia, a country he had long mythologized. Although he may have romanticized Russia—or, more specifically, Moscow, as he found St. Petersburg far too Westernized for his tastes—it is undeniable that his first trip to Russia seems to have resulted in the author’s first major literary breakthrough; it is after his Russian sojourn that Rilke began to develop his mature literary style. It is nonetheless striking that even in his personal letters, his image of Russia remains romanticized and mythologized.

Six Romances on Verses by Japanese Poets (Dmitry Shostakovich) 

In 1926, Shostakovich returned to the St. Petersburg Conservatory for postgraduate study. Shortly thereafter, according to David Fanning, “Shostakovich struck out in the most modernistic manner he would ever adopt, composing at high speed and without apparent inhibition.” 

Shostakovich’s Six Romances on Verses by Japanese Poets, originally written in 1932 for tenor and orchestra, but arranged by the composer for tenor and piano, displays all of these modernist tendencies. The sparse accompanimental textures, usually with only two notes happening at a time, display no sense of Romantic lushness or sentimentality. This severe, almost ascetic tone that permeates much of this set of songs is particularly striking in contrast to the overt eroticism of the first piece, “Love”. Yet, despite the restrained tone through most of this set, the technical demands made upon the voice are extreme, involving high sustained tessituras, and extremely soft dynamics combined with very high vocal registrations.

Poetically, this set plays with two enduring tropes related to the East, as formulated by the Orientalist scholar Edward Saïd. The first of these tropes, Oriental “sensuality”, is seen in the first and third songs of the set. The second, Oriental “cruelty” (loosely construed), can be seen in the fascination with death that permeates the rest of the songs in this piece, particularly death as a necessary outcome of being denied the experience of Oriental sensuality. These tropes play out over the distinctive, restrained backdrop of Shostakovich’s high modernistic musical score. 

Shanghai Refuge (Ernest G. Heppner)

Ernest G. Heppner was one of tens of thousands of Western European Jewish refugees who found a sort of tenuous shelter in Shanghai leading up to and during World War II. These refugees, many of them newly penniless and friendless in an alien, intimidating city, were distinct from Shanghai’s wealthy Jewish residents, such as the Sassoon family, who had been there for years. These new refugees were neither fully part of the gilded cage of Shanghai’s colonial concessions, nor part of the local Chinese community. The mingling of progressive and colonial attitudes towards native Shanghainese can be seen in Heppner’s book, which is an autobiographical account of his time in China. 

Four Songs (Huang Zi)

Huang Zi (1904-1938) was born into a wealthy merchant family with the means to send him to a foreign preparatory school. There he was introduced to the Western musical tradition, in which he took a serious interest. He wanted to pursue a musical education, but the family patriarch was opposed to such a frivolous course of study, insisting instead that Huang Zi pursue a more practical education. As a result, Huang took the natural course of action, studying philosophy at Oberlin College. Upon graduating from Oberlin in 1927, he moved to Yale University, where he received a second undergraduate degree in music. Huang excelled as a student at Yale, becoming the first composer of Chinese descent to have a work premiered by a US orchestra. 

Upon his return to China, Huang moved to Shanghai, where he was quickly recruited by the nationalist Kuomintang government to become the first chair of the theory and composition department at the newly-founded Shanghai National Conservatory of Music. While there, he became a force in shaping music education in Chinese schools at the national level, pushing a program of moral education and inculcation through music education, particularly through the singing of songs. His songs pull on Western aesthetic principles in their construction, often borrowing melodic material from both Western and (more surprisingly) Japanese music. However, even when using borrowed materials, he heavily repurposed his compositions to reflect his view of a progressive, modern, uniquely Chinese moral society. 

No Reservations (Anthony Bourdain)

The travelogue may be a largely maligned form throughout much of its existence, but the success of television programs like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations make it abundantly clear that the genre is alive and well, remaining popular to this day. Bourdain’s No Reservations, along with its successor Parts Unknown do make genuine efforts to uncover glimpses of “real” local culture by straying off the tourist-beaten track. Nevertheless, it is clear that, by its very nature, the genre cannot help but continue to paint nations and cultures with the broadest of brush strokes. Indeed, with the limits of time and space presented by the one-hour TV timeslot format, it could be argued that today’s video travelogues run the risk of being even more reductive and simplistic than their literary predecessors.

Blue Smoke is Flowing in Lento (Ippo Tsuboi)

Ippo Tsuoboi (b. 1975) is a Tokyo-based composer who has won multiple awards for his music, including for his songs. His works have been heard internationally at music festivals and in concert halls. Blue Smoke Is Flowing in Lento, composed in the latter portion of 2013, was commissioned and premiered by my colleague Izumi Kashiwagi with soprano Marisa De Silva.

Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), the poet for all five songs in this set, spent much of his career as a school teacher in rural Iwate prefecture. At the time of his death, he was virtually unknown throughout Japan, and he was himself very uncertain of the enduring value of his own writings. However, Hoyt Long notes that “today, [Miyazawa] has been read by every school-aged child since his inclusion in primary language textbooks in 1946,” and his status has been elevated to that of a cultural icon whose name generates cultural capital well beyond the boundaries of the literary world. These songs’ texts are typical of Miyazawa’s works, dealing largely with rural themes, and situated primarily in his native Iwate. However, while we see a tendency towards a certain romanticized bucolicism in Miyazawa’s works, we also see the changing face of the modern world in interwar Japan. Particularly in the final song, which opens with the onomatopoetic sound of the train’s passage through the landscape, we are confronted with the inevitable encroachment of modernity into even the remotest and most underdeveloped of regions.