Most people I’ve met claim they were drawn into studying Russian by the country’s prolific literary culture (some, let’s be honest, because of the country’s seemingly endless supply of beautiful women). While I think of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita as a masterpiece, the tomes of Tolstoy and piles of works by Fedor Dostoevsky, Mikhail Lermontov, Leonid Andreev, Isaac Babel, and many more that graced my desk were never enough on their own to draw me in. Fascinating studies of a foreign culture certainly, but hardly sufficient to stop me in my tracks.
For me, the real wealth of Russian arts, their truly inimitable cultural contribution to the world, was its classical music. It was the music that drew me in, wanting to better understand the history and culture that had produced such a deep and varied art. Among the modernists, I marveled at Aleksandr Skryabin, influenced by the atonal works of Schoenberg and the tonal language with which Chopin experimented, he composed synesthetic Black and White Masses. Despite his experimentation, he retained the undeniable air of thorough classical education and technique so apparent in certain Russian composers, most detectable in the dark, complex pieces composed for the left hand written after he severely inured his right overpracticing Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan and Balakirev’s Islamey and was told he’d never play again.