‘His music is minor, of course; but he is not’— thus Stravinsky characterised his compatriot and artistic ancestor Mikhail Glinka, whose bicentenary this year has passed virtually unnoticed: no Life for the Czar at Covent Garden (well suited to such a prevailingly Italianate work); no Russlan and Ludmilla at the Coliseum (well suited because of its fairytale, legendary quality). One delectable Saturday first-half at the Proms could have given Soirées de Madrid and Kamarinskaya, as well as the Valse-fantaisie and the Russlan dances demoted elsewhere to mere fillers, making a more than token tribute to a composer without whom the subsequent growth of Russian music, thence the main trajectory of all music, would have been different.
Kamarinskaya is the one that matters. This modest little piece for orchestra, alternating two folk wedding songs, written in 1848, is simplicity itself — a brief introduction to a slow melody in unison, followed by three varied harmonisations, then another bit of preluding; then a snatch of fast dance tune, four bars long (really only two, since each half comes twice), much repeated with varying harmony and instrumentation, gradually modifying rather than transforming; then, with a key switch, the slow song returns three times; then a return of the fast dance, extended to allow further variants — melodic, harmonic, instrumental — but still basically repetition, soon returning to the opening key, and working up to a loud whirling climax, after which it fragments and stops.
Whether or not he knew it, Glinka’s unpretentious little piece (six minutes short) amounts to a total subversion of every hallowed mid-European tradition. No development, no form except naive alternation, only one modulation, then back, and a texture consisting of nothing save slightly varied repetition. When a more deliberately nationalist generation sought to throw off the shackles of Teutonic practice, the perfect model lay to hand in their own backyard. Even Tchaikovsky, for all his later disdain of the provinciality of the nationalists, paid tribute in words — Kamarinskaya is ‘the acorn from which grows the mighty oak of Russian music’, and in the rather bludgeoning adoption of the ‘Kamarinskaya-method’ in the finale of his second symphony. And for the nationalists it is fundamental. All their great orchestral achievements adopt the mosaic, repetition-based, anti-developmental procedure, whether the scale is small or large, whether the work is abstract or narrative: Balakirev’s marvellous first symphony and equally marvellous tone-poem Tamara, Borodin’s first two symphonies and the evocative miniature In the steppes of central Asia, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture and Sheherazade.
When, from the 1880s onwards, Russian nationalist music, intertwined with Wagner, took Paris by storm, the Kam-method made new conquests. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is the perhaps inevitable fulfilment of some six decades of treating native folk-material to circular restatement with ever altering harmony and orchestration. Less predictable is Debussy’s contemporaneous Diaghilev ballet Jeux, where, because it retains the symbolist/impressionist aesthetic of erotic suggestiveness, glinting half-lights, mysterious glowing shadows, the mosaic construction is softened, and the continuous recoloration of its constituent fragments is ‘lit from behind like Parsifal’ (his own description) rather than exposed to Stravinsky’s direct unambiguous glare.
Paradoxical that this iridescent late bloom of art nouveau should be so close in actual building to another seminal Stravinsky masterpiece a few years on, the symphonies of wind instruments dedicated to the memory of the composer of Jeux, whose surface — pungent, lapidary, abrasive; and nature — ritual litanies of dance and chant grinding up against each other like shingle under surf — couldn’t be more different. The next advance from this is both radical — the Varèse pieces of the interwar years, crystal-hard, implacable, brief yet vast; thence the ever more gigantic block repetition rituals of Messaien; thence Birtwistle’s take on all three composers (not forgetting Tippett’s later journey, where earlier bounding/boundless lyricism is segmented by bollards, breakwaters and pillboxes); or (on the face of it) conservative — Stravinsky’s own subsequent lifelong practice, a geometry of proportion, a balance of iteration and variance whatever the stylistic surface.
Glinka’s modest Kamarinskaya lies behind all these, however great the distance. And it can be related to something quite other. The course of Sibelius, from an early epic like En saga to the oeuvre’s ultimate in Tapiola some 30 years after, takes the same principle down a very different route, though just as extreme. His characteristic method is to begin with hints and fragments, then gradually to coalesce them via many slow-rotating cycles of varied repetition, to divulge their full nature and inter-relatedness only as the music ends. ‘Teleological Kamarinskaya’; combining the power of obsessive circling with the sense of inexorable movement towards a revelatory goal.
And what is Minimalism — the predominating face of serious classical music for the past few decades — but another version of the same thing? Stravinsky and Sibelius, apparent incompatibles from the frozen north, lie equally behind the entire tendency, whether cunning (Reich), naive (Glass), sentimental (Adams), commercial (Nyman), soft (P