The Russian Influence on American Music

By
Nicholas Wheeler

Discussion "among cultures always promotes a loosening of the holds of stereotypes about the ‘other' culture and helps to comprehend its history, as if from the inside," remarked Victor Yuzefovich at a Kennan Institute seminar held on 18 February 2003. Yuzefovich, joined by panelists Anne Swartz and Leonid Hrabovsky, discussed how music serves as an international language between cultures, particularly in the case of Russia and America.

Yuzefovich, a musicologist from Washington, D.C., outlined several of the ways in which American music has been influenced by other cultures, emphasizing that, "no influence on American music has deprived it of its striking essential originality." According to Yuzefovich, the intermingling of different musical traditions "expanded the range of sounds the American ear was able to appreciate, making American music more eclectic than that of the European cultures, which tended to be "mono-national." This expansion allowed American musicians and composers to blend sounds and patterns from a number of different musical cultures, including Russian. Yuzefovich noted that the multi-ethnic nature of the musical folklore in Russia and the United States combined with the presence of a large number of Russian musicians in America "fostered the affinity that Americans felt toward Russian culture."

According to Yuzefovich, the "Russian Invasion" of musicians began during the latter half of the 19th century. He explained that appearances by Anton Rubenstein in 1872, the Boston premier of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto in 1875, and Tchaikovsky's subsequent recitals in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1891 were among the first interactions between American and Russian musical cultures.

Yuzefovich noted that other composers such as Rachmaninoff, Nabokov and Schillinger all made America their "second homeland" contributing to the Russian influence on American music.
Yuzefovich contended that Igor Stravinsky's arrival to America in 1939 ushered in a time of unprecedented Russian influence on American music. He attributed Stravinsky's success to a "pre-disposition of American music toward modernism." Yuzefovich explained that because American music had not passed through the various cultural periods of the European Renaissance, American composers were not burdened "by the monopoly of the classical genres that were standard in Europe, and innovators were not forced to destroy centuries-old traditions."

Hrabovsky, a composer now based in New York, discussed the relationship between 20th century Russian and American composers. He posited that Franz Liszt's school in Weimar, Germany, which attracted Europe's finest young composers, is most likely where American composers first came in contact with their Russian counterparts. According to Hrabovsky, a "mutual influence" developed among these young composers, resulting in a composition style that lasted through the beginning of the 20th century.

Hrabovsky contended that, following the turn of the century, the German domination of music began to wane and Paris became "the capital of the art world." Igor Stravinsky, who was living in Paris at the time, became the central Russian influence on American music and its composers. According to Hrabovsky, Stravinsky's neoclassicist style of composition and his art of orchestration consisting of "an unlimited freshness of imagination, the invention of unusual instrumental combinations and orchestral sets," had a lasting influence on generations of composers.

Swartz, a Professor of Music, Baruch College, City University of New York, suggested that the story of the piano and the performance style of the piano virtuoso is a shared tradition between the two cultures. She posited that the reception of Russian composers and performers in the United States illustrates the Russian influence on American music. The history of the Russian virtuoso in America begins with Anton Rubinstein's arrival to the United States in 1872. According to Swartz, Rubinstein's tour, which consisted of 215 recitals in 239 days, was important because, "he brought the modern piano repertoire to small towns and regions where there would have been little opportunity for concerts of classical music." She contended that Rubinstein helped shaped American musical tastes in the late nineteenth century because "there was a grandeur, an intensely passionate, spontaneous quality in his playing that captivated American audiences."

Echoing Yuzefovich and Hrabovsky's remarks, Swartz stated that Tchaikovsky was warmly received in the United States, and "helped shape musical taste in America through advocacy of the modern Russian repertoire." She asserted that Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and Josef Hofmann among others made significant contributions to American music composition and pedagogy.

Swartz concluded by stating that discussions about the influence of culture are significant because "cultural communication awakens within the listener an awareness of the beauty in music and encourages a more profound understanding of the art of music and of the society that nurtures it." She reiterated that "Russian composers and performers have created a lasting cultural legacy that has enriched Russia, America, and truly the international community."

Following the panel discussion there were musical performances by David Gresham, bass clarinetist, New York, NY; Tim Scott Mix, vocalist, and student, Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University; Medea Namoradze, vocalist, and Associate Professor, Shenandoah Conservatory, Shenandoah University; Vera Stern, pianist and faculty, Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University; and Igor Yuzefovich, violinist, and student, Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University.

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