In the Bear Pit: Russian Musical Exoticism in 1928 Paris
Thursday, 17 November, 1927
To M. Rhené-Baton, principal conductor of the Orchestre Pasdeloup:
First I must congratulate you most heartily on your success with the orchestra on the Festin de l’araignée and Fantaisie norvégienne the other week. It was a most delightful concert that I only wish I could have heard again. And I also must congratulate you on all the work you have done to make the Pasdeloup organization as successful as it is.
Now, to business. You do not know me, and at least for the time being, you need only know me as an anonymous benefactor and proponent of the Orchestre Pasdeloup. I have long appreciated the orchestra’s commitment to providing opportunities for the poor to hear fine music and participate, at least in a very minimal way, in the fine arts. After all, if we pride ourselves on our national art, why is it that we keep it out of the hands of our people? Most Parisian orchestras would charge what seems an exorbitant price to a factory worker or a street sweeper, but at the Concerts Pasdeloup, one can purchase a ticket for only two francs! Truly, for the working man, this is a miracle, because he can afford to bring his family to a concert of the finest music without worrying where to find the next day’s meal. Of course, this has been a long-standing tradition of the orchestra – since its foundation by M. Jules Pasdeloup himself, who sought to open the concert hall to the less wealthy and less educated audience, so that they might find wealth in music and cultural education.
While the Pasdeloup orchestra has done a truly wonderful job of teaching the French their own music and that of Richard Wagner, it is sadly somewhat lacking in the music of other cultures. I would like to rectify that. It just so happens that I have a sum of money that should do well to support the orchestra in any endeavor it may undertake. A course that I would like to see Pasdeloup follow would be staging a festival of Russian music. I have recently returned from an extended trip to Russia; I stayed in Moscow as well as Saint Petersburg – or Leningrad, I suppose, as they are calling it now. Something fascinating I noticed about the music that I heard when I was there was the very pure, uncorrupted, yet also in a way barbaric manner of music that they have there. I would be willing to make a considerable donation to your organization if you agreed to put on a festival of Russian music. I would like to hear music that reflects this purity and barbarism well, and I propose to you a program works by four composers: Stravinsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Stravinsky would be an excellent choice of composer whose works you could perform – he is already known in France, and for the most part, his music is appreciated. The problem is that, since he has lived in Switzerland and France, his style of composition has become polluted by our French art (not to say that he cannot write French music, but rather that imposing French tendencies on Russian music leads to imperfection and impurity in the Russian sound). I think, and I hope that you will agree, that an appropriate piece to perform for this concert could be Stravinsky’s l’Oiseau de feu. The work is in incredible example of how pure Russian music can be – it is inspired by Russian folk stories and melodies. In l’Oiseau de feu, just as in le Sacre du printemps, Stravinsky writes appropriately rhythmic, lively, exhilarating, and almost barbaric music. You must not perform any of his newer music, however; this would not have the desired effect. As many critics have been writing, Stravinsky now typically writes what people are calling “neoclassical” music; which is all well and good, but there is nothing particularly Russian about it, whereas in the Oiseau de feu, one can clearly hear and feel the ancient Russian melodies and dances.
One more work you absolutely must perform in this festival of Russian music is one by Borodin: Esquisse sur les steppes de l’Asie centrale. You must especially take care to perform the Esquisse, as it so very clearly depicts the various tribal peoples of Russia – the Tartars, the Cossacks, Chechens, the Altay… the list continues. In this work, Borodin beautifully represents these peoples and their cultures and demonstrates just how fascinating the absence of clear civilization can be. And again, as with Stravinsky, Borodin has found great inspiration in the music of the various indigenous peoples of Russia, meaning that Esquisse is rigorously Russian. In addition, Borodin spent his entire life within the borders of Russia, so we can avoid altogether the question of whether or not his music has been influenced by our own.
And of course, if you begin a Russian festival, it is impossible not to bring up the name of Tchaikovsky. Naturally you must include something he wrote; what it is matters less to me, although I would suggest one of his later pieces for full orchestra – something grand. Audiences appreciate that, especially audiences like yours. Perhaps I could suggest his Marche Slave? It is fairly well-known, and is sure to evoke drama and emotion in the concert. Besides, the piece is so incredibly Russian and patriotic in character that any Russians in Paris would certainly be enticed to attend merely due to its presence on the program.
And, finally, I insist on including the composer M. Rimsky-Korsakov, who has distinguished himself so beautifully. Besides, there must be some music in the program that many people would willingly hear, and many do know the name “Rimsky-Korsakov,” even if they do not know of Borodin or of Stravinsky’s earlier, more Russian music. By Rimsky-Korsakov, I might suggest something such as his Russian Easter Festival Overture. It, too, takes inspiration from old music of Russia, but instead of turning to the ancient music of pagan tribes, here Rimsky-Korsakov harkens to the great old Russian chants of the Orthodox faith. In addition, the piece would be appropriate for a springtime concert; if the dates worked out properly, the concert could be done around Eastertime, in which case this work would be perfect for the program.
So, now that I have proposed a potential program, you may ask, why perform a festival of Russian music? It is not particularly well known or popular (with a few notable exceptions), and it will likely not sell many tickets because of it. Not only that, but critics would likely criticize the concert for performing strange, foreign works by foreign composers. To this I say that it is important from time to time to reinvigorate our own French music, and to this end I believe finding inspiration from the music of the Russians just might do. This is not to say that French music should be modeled after Russian music – this would only lead to more Russian music, which is admittedly imperfect in its mutations of tonality and frequent obsession with sonority over melody. Rather, French composers should take elements from Russian music as inspiration to further the art of French music. In this way, Russian music can become subservient to the greater French music, just as the music of Indochina, of Africa, and even of Spain are below that of France. Furthermore, in response to your worries of ticket sales, I can assure you such a program would do well; your tickets would sell, if not to your regular customers, then to all of the Russian émigrés now living in Paris since the beginning of the Revolution. Unfortunately, I am afraid there is little I can do about the reviews – if concert reviewers do not like a piece, then they do not like it, and that is that. I suggest that the best option to ameliorate this situation would be to make sure the orchestra performs as best as they are able, and keep a few more widely recognizable pieces on the program, as I suggested.
M P. A. C.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), 3-7.
“Concerts-Pasdeloup.” Le Ménestrel, March 17, 1928. Accessed March 18, 2015.
“Courrier Musical.” Le Figaro, March 18, 1928. Accessed October 28, 2015.
Darius Milhaud, “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vienna,” The North American Review 217, no. 809 (April 1923), 544-554.
Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 1-3 and 53-62.
James Parakilas, “How Spain Got a Soul,” in The Exotic in Western Music, ed. Jonathan Bellman (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), 137-139 and 184-188.
Pasler, Jann. Composing the Citizen : Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press, 2009. Accessed October 28, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.
“Programme Des Concerts.” La Semaine à Paris, March 16, 1928, France sec. Accessed October 28, 2015.
“Programme Des Concerts.” La Semaine à Paris, November 4, 1927, France sec. Accessed October 28, 2015.
Scott Messing, Neoclassicism in Music: From the Genesis of the Concept through the Schoenberg/Stravinsky Polemic (Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 1988), 87-95; 129-135.
 “Concerts-Pasdeloup,” Le Ménestrel
 Milhaud, “The Evolution of Modern Music in Paris and in Vienna,” p6
 Parakilas, “How Spain Got a Soul,” p138