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Russia Before the Revolution
with Harlow Robinson

On this edition of Milestones of the Millennium we are joined by Harlow Robinson, chairman of the Modern Languages Department at Northeastern University and author of a biography of Sergei Prokofiev. Robinson takes us on a tour of Russian music from before the turn of the century up to the revolution, a period when Russian composers flourished and their innovations reflected the great changes occurring in the motherland.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, the first internationally famous Russian composer, conducted at the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. His virtual "superstar" status in America took him by surprise. American audiences recognized Tchaikovsky’s genius and appreciated him more than some of his own countrymen. We hear the Scottish National Symphony perform Tchaikovsky’s "Festival Coronation March," which was on the bill for his American debut.

Tchaikovsky was a product of the artistic renaissance in Russia in the late 19th century. The czarist regime was relaxing censorship and there was an increase in contact with the West, exposing artists to new concepts. The Russian conservatories, having just been established in the 1860’s, were now coming into their own. Masters like Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov formed a Russian nationalist school of composition. We listen to Mikhail Pletnev conduct the Russian National Orchestra in music from the opera "The Golden Cockerell" by Rimsky-Korsakov, which is based on a book by Alexander Pushkin.

Another traditionalist was Alexander Glazunov, who directed the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Glazunov would clash with such Young Turks as his student Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, who brought a new, more aggressive sound to Russian music. Critics called Prokofiev a "futurist." His audacious and energetic First Piano Concerto was a clear departure from the smooth lyricism of Tchaikovsky. Much to the chagrin of Glazunov and a good number of cat-callers, it won him a first prize in a conservatory competition. We hear it performed by the Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra, with Marek Pijarowski conducting and Christina Dahl as the piano soloist.

Stravinsky’s bold "Rite of Spring" of 1913 ironically marked the end of the artistic flowering in Russia. World War I started in 1914, abruptly throwing the nation into crisis. The October Revolution of 1917 perpetuated the dark period and drove Prokofiev and Stravinsky into exile in America. It would take about 10 years for a new generation of great artists to blossom under the Soviet regime.

Listen to Harlow Robinson and Performance Today host Martin Goldsmith discuss the musical renaissance in pre-Revolutionary Russia on the latest installment of the Milestones of the Millenium series. Note: music parts have been edited from the commentary due to internet rights issues. (This stereo audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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