Friday, April 10, 2015


At this point in our little survey of the music that has influenced me throughout my life, we start moving east, from Europe to Russia, with it's folk music influences and mysticism that infuse even what seems to be the most prosaic of music. Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov was not one of the five major composers of Russia, and the criteria for the five major composers differs, thus, the five major composers differ. Typically Russian in inscrutability, but well-thought out when dissected.                      

Born "Mikhail Ippolitov", he later added his mother's maiden name, "Ivanov" as there was a music critic in St. Petersburg with a similar last name to "Ippolitov".

But, for our purposes and because I needed and “I” letter, I remembered Ippolitov-Ivanov, who came into my life when I was sixteen and had just switched from violin to viola, having come to my senses and realizing that violas do indeed, rock the house. Because the clefs are different, I spent my summer nights learning to transpose from soprano to alto clef and somehow had gotten myself mixed up in a “summer symphony” group that met once or twice a week. They were in desperate need of viola players, so I ended up in that section.
The Caucasus Mountains, near Circassia

We prepared a concert of Russian music; “Italian Cappriccio” by Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, “Caucasian Sketches” by Ippolitov-Ivanov and “Russian Easter Festival Overture” by Rimsky-Korsakov, which is about the loudest thing on earth. None of these pieces are easy, on either the violin or viola, and at the time I started playing them, I had been noodling around on the viola for two weeks. It's really a good thing I had the summer off, because I needed it for the practice.

The Caucasus Mountains as seen from space. To the left is the Black Sea; to the extreme right is the Caspian Sea. Above the line of snow is Russia, below the snow lies Georgia, a former SSR of the former USSR.

Anyway, of the three, The “Caucasian Sketches” captured my imagination, because of the oriental sound of the whole. There is one part, called the “March of the Sardar” that is played and it sounds about like what you'd think. Ippolitov-Ivanov was originally from Gatchina, near St. Petersburg, and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. His first appointment in Russia was in Georgia, Tbilisi (Tiflis), as director of the music academy and conductor of the orchestra. This period allowed him to develop an interest in the music of the region; a reflection of the music of the non-Slav minorities and more exotic neighbors that was current at the time. This was also to receive official approval for other reasons after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Vladimir Lenin, First Head of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. He concerned himself little with music and expression of the arts, and was more concerned with the prosperity and well-being of the country he "inherited". According to Marxist dogma of the time, the Revolution was supposed to take root in industrialized countries first; they being better able to make the transition from Capitalism to Communism. Lenin, left with an agrarian population that was largely illiterate, came up with the "5-year plan" in which the peasantry, learned to read, and become literate enough to manage factories and build an economy based on industrialization. Within that 5-year period, the literacy rate jumped from 5 to 95%. Lenin's plan was successful, although his health suffered and he had a series of strokes. He led the party from the Revolution's success in 1917 until his death in 1924.

In 1893, he went to Moscow and became a professor of music, and eventually director of music, at the Conservatory of Moscow until 1924. Politically, he always maintained a measure of independence. He was president of the Society of Writers and Composers in 1922, but always remained aloof from the internecine quarrel between the musicians to either foster new developments or to create new proletarian art forms. His own style had been formed under Rimsky-Korsakov , and to this he added his own burgeoning interest in Georgian folk music. He returned to Georgia in 1924 to re-organize the Conservatory in Tbilisi. He spent a year there, and then returned to Moscow. He died there in 1935. One of his pupils included Reinhold Glière, composer of “Russian Sailors' Dance”.

"Caucasian Sketches, No. 1" is an amazing piece. If you want however, you can skip to the end for "March of the Sardar", his most recognizable piece!

Returning to “Caucasian Sketches”; listening to, or playing this piece, is like seeing a glimpse into the past and seeing the Scythians on the Black Sea. The wildness of the music, the weird harmonies and the strange intervals between the notes, speak of an “otherness”. It's almost oriental in the presentation and execution. I remember poring over the notes and passages in the viola part. It is a truly enjoyable and memorable piece, and unfortunately, about the only thing of Ippolitov-Ivanov that is still played.

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