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Transcending Imagination; Or, An Approach to Music and Symbolism during the Russian Silver Age


The Silver Age has long been considered one of the most vibrant artistic movements in Russian history. Due to sweeping changes that were occurring across Russia, culminating in the 1917 Revolution, the apocalyptic sentiments of the general populace caused many intellectuals and artists to turn towards esotericism and occult thought. With this, there was an increased interest in transcendentalism, and art was becoming much more abstract. The tenets of the Russian Symbolist movement epitomized this trend. Poets and philosophers, such as Vladimir Solovyov, Andrei Bely, and Vyacheslav Ivanov, theorized about the spiritual aspects of words and music. It was music, however, that was singled out as possessing transcendental properties.

In recent decades, there has been a surge in scholarly work devoted to the transcendent strain in Russian Symbolism. The end of the Cold War has brought renewed interest in trying to understand such an enigmatic period in Russian culture. While much scholarship has been devoted to Symbolist poetry, there has been surprisingly very little work devoted to understanding how the soundscape of music works within the sphere of Symbolism. The question that arises is: what about music can be understood as transcendental? In the Symbolist journal Novyi Put’, Andrei Bely noted the piano compositions of Nikolai Medtner as being the perfect example of theurgy. Bely’s description of this, however, is extremely vague and our understanding of where theurgy lies in the compositional process is hard to grasp. The same ambiguity exists in making sense of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose music is reviewed prominently in Symbolist journals. A composer who tried deliberately to embody the spirit of Symbolism and theurgy in his music was Alexander Scriabin, who planned to compose a seven day long piece that was meant to actually summon the apocalypse. Due to his untimely death, this was a work that never came to fruition. Confusion over the musical construction of Scriabin’s late works, by musicians and scholars alike, is generally coupled with a sympathetic yet dismissive view of his own messianic and maniacal ideologies.

The opaque sense of meaning surrounding musical transcendentalism in this repertoire has presented a considerable challenge not only for performers, but for scholars as well. Musicologists have spent a considerable amount of time on the formal aspects of this music, but have still been hesitant in deciphering its meaning. Literary scholars have been able to interpret some semblance of meaning in music described by Symbolist poets, but have not shown where this lies within the music. What is necessary in trying to understand the Symbolist concept of musical transcendentalism and theurgy is a study that attempts to take into account all facets of research. In this dissertation, I present a means by which to understand this music without compromising formal structure, cultural context, or performance.

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