Alexander Tcherepnin, Eurasianism and Orientalism

Tcherepnin approached the concept of Eurasianism from a musical perspective. By his own analysis, while his disenchantment with his compositional methods was gradual, his breakthrough came while he was working on the opera Die Hochzeit der Sobeide. Looking for inspiration not resulting from complexity, his stimulation came from an unusual source. He was, at the time, reading certain ‘Eurasian’ literature that portrayed Russians as direct descendants of the Mongolian empire of Genghis Khan. He felt strongly that to a Russian, “the East is not exotic […] Western influence on Russia might be materially important but it is spiritually destroying. While Eastern influence is of great artistic and spiritual value.” [1] Marc Raeff points out that one of the key concepts behind the doctrine of Eurasianism is its emphasis on “the cultural uniqueness of the territory lying between Central Europe and the Pacific Ocean”. Raeff notes that this uniqueness resides in the “spiritual elements in shaping history, elements that found their genuine expression in the linguistic framework of the people or culture.”[2] It was almost as though in exile, Tcherepnin rediscovered the cultural as well as musical spirit of his homeland.

 

Reflecting on this new perspective, he revisits many of the ideas he held pertaining to the history of Russian music, observing that the “panorama of Russian music extends from the ‘Sixth Symphony’ of Tchaikovsky to the ‘Polevetsian Dances’ by Borodin, from ’Snegourotchka’ to the ‘Steppes of Central Asia’, from Scriabin’s ‘Prometheus’ to Rimsky’s ’Scheherazade’”.[3] The influence of the orient, he notes, is present in music where Asian “tradition walks side by side with that of Russia. The sources of both are co-mingled and mutually influenced so that they take on one ‘Eurasian’ aspect.”[4] Tcherepnin was wary of aligning himself with any movement unless he felt truly convinced by its principles. He makes this abundantly clear in an interview during his trip to China: “’I do not want to label myself Eurasian or any other ready nickname which still cannot reflect my deepest beliefs. I just want to say that, in my opinion, we Russians are not really Europeans, no matter how much some of us may object to this. Russia has not banished Mongols. She threw off their yoke and assimilated them.”[5] This then, was the background within which Tcherepnin explored Eurasianism in his work. For him, to be Russian was also to be open to influences from Asia; the best way of demonstrating this through the compositional medium was in attempting to synthesize the two traditions – an audacious enterprise indeed. Eurasianism was also linked to the integration of folklore in Tcherepnin’s work and he cast this new period in his life as his “folklore cure”.[6] While working on a commission for the League of Composers in New York, he envisioned a series of works that would demonstrate his commitment to a ‘Eurasian’ approach.

 

[1] Short Autobiography, 5.

[2] Raeff, 107

[3] Galante, Autobiography, 19-20.

[4] Galante, Autobiography, 19-20.

[5] “The Composer A. Tcherepnin speaks about his work. A special interview for the Shanghai Dawn” cited in Ludmila Korabelnikova, Alexander Tcherepnin p. 108-9. Korabelnikova’s text remains the only biography of Tcherepnin providing a valuable overview of the composer’s life, context and work, drawing on a number of primary and secondary resources.

[6] Tcherepnin tends to capitalize any references to folklore. I have removed those capitals from his writings for consistency.

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