Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Monday, November 18, 2013
Throughout the centuries there have been many fine pianists and highly successful musicians, but encountering a genius either at a concert or through his music performed by himself or others is a very rare occurrence in most people's lives. Listening to the compositions of such people can be a transformative experience and can touch your soul in a way that few others things can.
One man who had such an extraordinary ability was Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Born in Russia and showing extraordinary talent at a very early age, Tchaikovsky went on to write three ballets, eleven operas, six symphonies, and numerous other works before dying in 1893. For many people in the West he is known composing the music for “The Nutcracker”, a ballet which is very popular in the US during the Christmas season. His music was also used in countless films and, thereby, became popular with many generations of people who might not otherwise have had the experience of or interest in hearing classical music. For example, Disney used several pieces by Tchaikovsky in their 1940 film “Fantasia”. This film helped to introduce young children and parents to some of the finest pieces of classical music ever written by using them as accompaniment to the actions of various Disney characters.
Tchaikovsky was not only a Romantic music composer, but he was a Russian Romantic music composer. The influence of Russia on his music can be heard in many of his pieces. For example, this is very obvious in his “Fourth Symphony”. The influence of a person’s homeland on his music is certainly not limited to Tchaikovsky. The same thing could easily be said of Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Rachmaninov died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943, but he was never simply a Russian born American composer. In the case of both of these men their culture helped to make them into the composers they became.
There have been several films done about the life of this musical genius. In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company produced a half hour film about “Peter Tchaikovsky”1 which was the first time a television show could be heard in stereo. In 1969, Mosfilms, a Soviet film studio, produced the film “Tchaikovsky” which was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” in 1971. This film goes into a great deal more detail about Tchaikovsky’s life, especially the influence of Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894) on his career. Mrs. von Mack was his “silent” benefactress who was willing to help support Tchaikovsky financially on the condition that they never actually met face-to-face.
Both of these films presented the Tchaikovsky’s life in a noncontroversial way. There was some mention of his personal life, but much of the film focused on his work as a composer and his need silence the music which he heard in his head on a rather regular basis since childhood. Neither of these films would be considered offensive by those who chose to show them to their children. However, this statement cannot be made about the next film about Tchaikovsky’s life.
“The Music Lovers” was a 1970 British film directed by Ken Russell. The film includes at least two major factual errors. In one sequence, Tchaikovsky and his patroness, Mrs. von Mack, see each other on the road; the two never spoke, although their paths crossed once by happenstance in a park in Italy. Later, his wife, Nina, goes mad and is placed in an insane asylum, prompting the composer to call his Sixth Symphony the Pathetique, when in reality she was not institutionalized until after his death.2
If these two factual errors were the only major negative factors this film that would be fine; however, it did not stop there. Richard Chamberlain (b. 1934), a fine actor who later became popular in the US for his role in the television series “Thornbirds”, was cast in the title role. His portrayal of Tchaikovsky could easily have given someone the impression that the composer was a mental patient instead of a genius musician.
A great deal of time was spent focusing on the alleged nymphomania of Tchaikovsky’s wife, Nina, and on the question of whether or not Tchaikovsky himself was a homosexual. Was Russell attempting to make the point that there was a direct link to Tchaikovsky’s alleged homosexuality and his musical genius? Should musicologists spend time researching if there was a direct link between Rachmaninov’s heterosexuality and his musical genius? Most people would say, “That is absurd”, but it is not absurd to focus so much time and energy on the idea that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual.
“The Music Lovers” was an extremely strong agenda disguised as a film. Pyotr Tchaikovsky heard music which other could dream of hearing and was able to put that music on paper so that these pieces will be heard by numerous generations long after we are gone. At this moment, “Evgeny Onegin” is appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, some one hundred and thirty four years after it was first performed in Moscow. I sincerely doubt that most current pop songs will be remembered 134 years from now.
On October 28, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, he died there at age 53. While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier, some have theorized that his death was a suicide.] Opinion has been summarized as follows: "The polemics over [Tchaikovsky's] death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ....."4
While there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the Tchaikovsky’s death, there is no such speculation surrounding his musical genius. His contributions to classic music are still admired by audiences throughout the world. It is entirely possible that he may have lived a difficult and even tragic life, but the mark he left will last forever.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Eleven years later, Bernard Rose decided to produce a modern film version of The Kreutzer Sonata. This novella is believed, by some, to be Tolstoy’s argument in favor of sexual abstinence and against marriage.2 It also deals with the question of whether or not true love is possible.3
2) “The Kreutzer Sonata” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kreutzer_Sonata
Saturday, April 20, 2013
There has been a long history of adapting classic Russian novels to film in the English speaking world. These classic novels by authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and others allow an English speaking audience to enter into a world with which they are completely unfamiliar and see that the issues which these people face are dealt with all over the world.
In this article I will look at the 1935 American film adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 1956 film “War and Peace”, “Brothers Karamazov” (1958), the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”, and the 2002 BBC adaptation of “Crime and Punishment”. I will examine several films and television series about classic Russian novels in order to see how faithful they are to the novels themselves and how well they correspond with one another.
Joseph von Sternberg (1894-1969) directed “Crime and Punishment”1, a 1935 film based upon the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This film starred Peter Lorre in the title role as Rodin Raskolnikov (his first name was changed to Roderick for an American audience). This film bore little, if any resemblance, to the novel. In fact, the director was so disappointed with this film that he does not list it among the films he is credited with directing.
What was America’s fascination with classic Russian literature that in a span of two years, from 1956 to 1958, both War and Peace by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) and “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) were made into films? The American people would have known very little about Russia in 1956. Both countries were in the middle of the Cold War and there was a great deal of propaganda on both sides regarding how horrible the other country was.
The 1956 film “War and Peace”2 starred Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezuhov and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova (the two main characters). This film does not cover every aspect of Tolstoy’s original novel, but focuses on the relationship of three of the main characters. Very early in the film there is a scene where Pierre is getting drunk with a group of friends. This scene contains every almost every possible Russian stereotype, except for a dancing bear. At one point in the scene one of the characters is standing backward on the window ledge and facing inside the room. He begins to bend over backward while drinking a bottle of vodka. Apparently, the winner was the person who could finish drinking the vodka without falling out of the window. Other than feeding into a Russian stereotype, what was the point of this “game”? This scene is not in the novel; however, the director, King Vidor (1894-1982) felt it necessary to put it in the movie.
It is not that Americans were opposed to epic films. In the same year that “War and Peace” was completed, Cecil B. DeMille completed “The Ten Commandments” for a different studio. “The Ten Commandments” is also an epic film, but the story of Moses would have been much better known by an American audience.
Fyodor Karamazov (played by Lee J. Cobb) is not a very likeable figure. In the one of the first scenes in the film, the audience is introduced to Fyodor Karamazov after he has tied a woman to his bed and is interrupted because his son, Alexei (film debut for William Shatner) has arrived at his home. Fyodor is a rather boorish man who seems to respect Alexei only.
Another character is Smerdyakov, half-brother to the Karamazov brothers and son of Fyodor. Smerdyakov is treated very poorly by Fyodor Karamazov in the film. Dmitry is accused of murdering Fyodor; however, Smerdyakov confesses to Ivan Karamazov (played by Richard Basehart) that he killed Fyodor. Dmitry is put on trial for murder, but, instead of Smerdyakov confessing in court that he killed Fyodor, he kills himself.
The film shows Dmitry deciding to escape rather than board a train bound for Siberia. He became a fugitive and the rest of the film deals with the topic: “Will Dmitry escape from Russia?” What was the reason why Richard Brooks decided to add this into the film when it was not in the novel? We do not know. It is possible he did so because of the lack of justice in Dmitry’s conviction. He was wrongfully convicted and should be able to escape rather than going to prison. The movie ends without the audience knowing if he ever escaped from Russia.
Another Western adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”4 starring Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago. This film was based upon the novel of the same name by well-known poet, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)5. This novel was first published in Milan in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for Doctor Zhivago, but was forbidden to attend the award ceremony by the Soviet government of Nikita Khrushchev.
Pasternak depicts Lara as an almost unscrupulous woman who uses her sexuality to obtain what she wants from life, but in the film David Lean (1908-1991), the director, presents Lara (portrayed by Julie Christie) as more of a victim. In the 2006 Russian TV series “Doctor Zhivago”, Lara is not a very likeable character.
A very good English speaking adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 2002 TV mini-series “Crime and Punishment” produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This series was extremely faithful to the novel. The BBC felt no obligation to change the story line in order to adapt this novel to television. This is much easier to do with a mini-series since it continues over several episodes instead of a film which only lasts for a few hours, at most.
Attempting to turn a novel into a film while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the original novel is not an easy process; however, this is very important. Poetic license does allow for some changes, but how many changes can be made before a movie is no longer connected with a particular novel? I once heard it said, “Never judge a book by its movie”7 and there is a great deal of truth in that statement.
2) “War and Peace (1956 film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_and_Peace_(1956_film)
Friday, April 5, 2013
We often see this in government work also. Many people are promoted or reassignedto new jobs not because of their talent, but because their supervisor wants to remove this person from his or her department and having this person transferred is easier than having this person removed from their job. While it might not be easy, sometimes it is both necessary and charitable to say, as the nightingale said,
“"For making music, you must have the knack