Tuesday, March 4, 2008

At last, my last audition; Authenticity

I have my last audition, at Mannes in NYC, on Thursday. I'm playing the same pieces as every other audition I've had, so I'm nervous but not unduly so. Last night I was pretty stressed, but night-time is always when my nerves come out to play, so I feel much calmer today. And I must say that the above-par practicing session I just had was also really helpful in banning some of last nights nerves. Good luck wishes, as always, are welcome.

A few Orchestration classes ago, we analyzed two arrangements of
Boris Gudonov: one (the original) by Mussorgsky, and one (done after Mussorgsky's death in an attempt to revive the opera) by Rimsky-Korsakov. (I put the second parentheses because I think it's much harder to demonize R-K for re-orchestrating the piece if you know his motives, that he was trying to make the opera successful, and also that he stated that should the original become successful, his should be discarded. But it's not really relevant to what I'm discussing.)

My professor gave us a brief description of the two composers; Rimsky-Korsakov was "the most educated and Westernized" of the members of the Mighty Five (a group of Russian composers) and Mussorgsky was "the least educated, most authentic, and most original" of them. Then I was angry for the rest of class: authenticity is one of my biggest pet peeves in musicology.

He later, when discussing differences between the versions of the piece, said that some consider Tchaikovsky and R-K to have used tones/timbres that are "too bright", making them "less Russian" than composers, such as Mussorgsky, who use darker tones.

Now, the trouble with authenticity is that it's an issue across both classical and popular and folk music, and because of this it's very hard to talk about coherently and without saying something that becomes problematic, which I’m sure I will. Authenticity deals with issues of power, and who has power in society, and this is a very different issue, or can be, when you're speaking about classical music made by "dead white guys" and popular and folk music, a good deal of which, at least in the US, is made by black guys. (If you're talking about Europe, which I suppose I am, the issues are a little different because of the higher percentage of popular and folk music also being created by white guys, but then, race issues in general are different.) HOWEVER. I still have something to say about it. Just as it would be wrong to eliminate a composer from a genre or such because of lack of education, it's also wrong to say that R-K is less authentically Russian than Mussorgsky because he was more educated. Now if he were, say, educated and decided to renounce all Russian ways of composing and start writing French impressionist music, all right then. (Cough, Samuel Beckett, cough, whose wishes over his (rejection of Irish) nationality should be respected.) But this is what Grove says about R-K: "Indeed, it is no exaggeration to call Rimsky-Korsakov the main architect of the ‘Russian style’ in music, a style which is instantly recognizable to a worldwide public today. The sheer volume of his heritage consolidated the common idioms of The Five by dint of constant repetition; his completion and editing of his colleagues’ works established the concert repertory of Russian music; his professorial toil ensured the continuity of the style into the following generation; he was also the first and most important exporter of the style to Western Europe." This is what R-K says about composing Russian music: "Russian traits – and national traits in general – are not acquired by writing according to specific rules, but rather by removing from the common language of music those devices which are inappropriate to a Russian style." Rimsky-Korsakov was not trying to reject Russian music or composition and in fact embraced his Russian identity; thus he shouldn't be excluded from the genre of "Russian composition". It's true that his ideas about the Russian style are much less extreme than many, but this just makes him a different composer, not an "inauthentic" one.

I suppose that my thoughts really are that excluding composers, etc. from genres or styles with which they associate themselves is unfair and a misuse of power. No one should be able to say "Oh, you don't count as this sort of composer, even though you identify as such," whether the genre is pop or classical. (I do know that this gets tricky- what if a composer associates himself with a school completely unrelated to the reality of his music? What if, say, Wagner had decided he was a Neo-Classicist? But then, what if Wagner had composed in a style between the one he chose and neo-classicism?)

Now, it's of course okay to explore differences between R-K and Mussorgsky (again, cough, Samuel Beckett, cough- it’s alright to explore the ways in which his "Irishness" is revealed in his works), and I of course don't object to the statement that R-K had more education and incorporated more Western aspects into his music, but to say that R-K was less authentic because he had more education? That's unfair. The only way then to be an "authentic" Russian composer would be to only use Russian folk melodies and to completely eschew any forms which did not arise without any influence from other countries.

(This almost gets into issues of consciousness in composition; there's a tendency when speaking of non-classical music to remove self-awareness from the composer or lyricist. If Mussorgsky were more authentic because he was less educated, does that mean that authenticity is based on a lack of knowledge? Mussorgsky was certainly aware of the choices he was making.
It also sort of brings up issues of fabricated traditions. If traditions can be created (see country music), where does authenticity even come in to the picture? Why can't any tradition then be fabricated, and why can't a tradition be expanded upon and still be just as authentic?)


Anonymous said...

I have a question that is totally unrelated to today's post. I found your Aug. 4 post. My son, who is twelve, plays the oboe in his school's orchestra. He has only been playing since September and now he wants to switch to bassoon. He has the last half of March to get to the point where he can play "Oh Canada" (that's what they're playing at tonight's concert). Is this possible? Would I be setting him up to fail if I traded in his oboe for a bassoon next week? He is so excited, though he does love his oboe. Thanks for your help and I hope I'm not jinxing you by wishing you good luck.

C.J. said...

Hey, do you go to University of VA? Is Scott going someplace else? My friend Aaron Hill just got hired to to teach there! I'm confused!

racheloboes said...

Dear anonymous,

I only have a small amount of experience with the bassoon, but I would say that your son wouldn't have very much trouble embouchure/reed-wise switching from oboe to bassoon. The hard part, because of the bassoon's set-up, is learning the fingerings. So if your son is good at learning fingerings, or just willing to put in some work, I say go for it! It's always easier to be successful on an instrument that you're enthusiastic about. I wish him luck on whichever instrument!

Also, thanks for your good luck wishes. I appreciate it.

racheloboes said...


Yep, I go to UVA. Scott's contract wasn't renewed, so he'll be leaving after the end of this school year. The performance department is all really sad to see him go, but congratulations to your friend!

Kate said...

I'm an oboist actually possibly going to UVA, love everything about it, but haven't really gotten that much info about the music dept yet.

Do you recommend the program?


racheloboes said...


I am so sorry! Your email slipped away to the back of my inbox. I know that it's past decision time now, but if you still are looking for info about UVA, drop me another comment and I'll get back to you quickly.

Again, I'm sorry.