L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Friday, January 6, 2012

Of music, souls, and les Russes

I always listen to music while I'm painting. Have to have it. Otherwise I get too antsy; I'm more than a bit ADD-ish. I almost always listen to vocal music, though. Opera and operetta, yes, but mostly show tunes, movie music. Something I can sing along to. Otherwise, I have a tendency to start thinking about stress-making nonsense, stewing about petty, annoying things in my life, real and imagined. But once language is involved, I can't go to that place. If I'm warbling along - in any language, really - my mind disengages and I can really relax and focus and enjoy my work. Singing makes painting much better.

But I surprised myself recently. G and I bought movies for each other for Christmas, one of which was a big box set of Gone With the Wind. We watched it Christmas evening, and on my next painting day, I put on a CD of Max Steiner's music for the film. Then I shuffled a bunch of recordings of the great classic film scores of Steiner, Korngold, Waxman, Rozsa, Alfred Newman. It's wonderful, evocative music - and my jittery, troublesome brain did not take me into any unpleasant corners. I had several days of delighted painting!

Emboldened, yesterday I did something I've had in the back of mind for a while now. At least half of my music collection is "classical". Mostly Orchestral. But because my music-listening-time is almost always also painting-time, I'm not listening to that sort of thing much these days. I miss it. I've certainly missed my beloved Rachmaninov. So yesterday, straight through, I listened to all three of his symphonies and all four piano concertos. Then I listened to the second symphony again, the piece of music I love above all others. I don't know if it's just a coincidence - and I know it helped tremendously that the sun shone all day - but it was one of the most productive painting days I've had in months. I thank you Sergei Vasilievich.


When G and I were first emailing back and forth to each other, and came to the topic of family heritage I told her that, though I was Irish and German on my father's side and mostly English on my mother's, I couldn't relate to any of that. (I've never been able to connect with that most obvious genealogical ingredient, the conspicuously Irish name be damned.) I told her that, really, I considered myself to be have a "French and Russian soul". What a preposterous thing to say! I adore France and all things French, but a French soul? I haven't much idea of what that might be. Of a Russian soul I could presume even less. I've read and read about Russia and Russians, but it's actually only the Russia from, say, about 1780 until 'round about 1918. It's a Russia of the Arts, and those with the wealth and position to indulge the Arts. Aristocrats and Emperors. And the Russia I've internalized is that of the ones who fled the revolution, the émigrés, the well-educated, sophisticated nobility, who so often wrote beautifully crafted and persuasive memoirs of their own Atlantis. That's the only Russia I know.

And yet, if you love something dearly, doesn't it become a part of you? And if the thing you love is so much a part of a culture or a time that would otherwise be foreign to you, don't you bond with that foreignness in some way, as well? I love all of Rachmaninov's work, and his second symphony has been my official "favorite" piece of music for my entire adult life. I remember hearing it for the first time; I was staying at the house of friends and they had a recording of it. I connected with it immediately and completely.

Rachmaninov was a part of that chimerical Russia I've read about since I was a child. He was born there, lived and worked there, and was forced to leave that Russia. And, for me, his music precisely expresses that very particular lost world. That Russia. I don't know if there's any of the actual Russia in me, anything of a generalized Russian temperament. Probably not. But the musical evocation of time and place that I feel in Rachmaninov's second symphony - for me, his greatest work - is a part of me. And most definitely is a part of my soul.

Rachmaninov's Symphony No.2, Op.27 - 3rd movement.


  1. I never thought it was preposterous when you said you had, and I quote from said email, a "French and (Pre-Revolution) Russian soul." And I'm pretty hard-headed when it comes to flourish or sentiment. To me, it felt like the right kind of romantic. I think there's something beautiful about laying claim to something just because you love it.

  2. Ah, nice. And I'm glad I thought to add that qualifier; I didn't remember that part.

    I'd now lay claim to you, if I hadn't already!

  3. An informative post... nice to get to know a bit more about you.
    I have eclectic musical tastes, really all over the map. The S section of my CDs & Itunes includes Sinatra & Sex Pistols.
    I grew up playing symphonic music, but that genre is not really my cup of tea, although The Husband requested that I make a "classical music" mix, which he likes. It includes an aria from La Wally that sends me over the moon & some Eric Satie.
    You remain one of my favorite characters in my considerably long life. You & your wife continie to fascinate. I wish you both the best in 2012.

  4. So sweet of you to say, Stephen. And, yes, what would life be without music? So much perfect variety. So much to love.

    And some of the "best" of the coming year will be to spend more time with you and dear Rolfe. Indeed!

  5. "And yet, if you love something dearly, doesn't it become a part of you? And if the thing you love is so much a part of a culture or a time that would otherwise be foreign to you, don't you bond with that foreignness in some way, as well? "

    Stephen, you are absolutely on target here. I understand this--totally. And I agree, completely. Personal ethnicity be damned! If you relate more to Proust (French) or Pushkin (Russian) than to James Joyce, for example, then at heart you are Russian/French, and that's all there is to it.

    On the topic of film score composers, may I add Bronislau Kaper to that list of gifted émigrés? The waltz theme from Auntie Mame (1958) is likely most familiar ( there is a fine recording of it with lyrics, sung by the great David Allyn, titled Drifting.) But even better, Bronislau Kaper wrote the haunting theme for the 1952 film Invitation, of which there are several fine vocal renditions by Carmen Mc Rae, Dakota Staton, Dinah Washington. Both film and song are worth checking out.

    1. Thank you for the kind assertion of understanding in response to my rather muddled argument! Let's all BE what we read/see/hear/love, shall we? Rigid nationalism/heredity/geography is such a very great bore!

      Kaper should certainly be added to the list. I've long enjoyed his charming music from Auntie Mame, of course, but I'm not familiar with Invitation, film or score or song. I'll have to search it out!