Friday, September 25, 2009

Central Asia in Nineteenth Century Russian Music

A week or so ago, I put some of Alexander Glazunov’s music on the cd player. It seemed to me that I was hearing some themes very like those of Alexander Borodin’s of Central Asia.

From the very first time I heard it, when I was a child, I have loved Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia.” And the picture that developed from it in my head was very much like what I saw when I finally got there. The immense spaces. A hoopoe flying up as we drove. The shortgrass prairie vegetation, the sage smelling like northeast New Mexico, but every inch of ground occupied by plants. I hated, hated, crunching some of them with each step, lovely little houseleek-like rosettes. And flowers. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Not the greatest sound on this video, but I like the photos.

Both Borodin and Glazunov. I thought that Russia accreted Central Asia long before their time. So I did some reading: Martha Brill Alcott’s The Kazakhs and Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia. I probably should say something about my choice of references. I am mostly self-taught in history, but had some good guidance from my professors in my required college world history course. Dates are important. They tell you what came before which and therefore set limits on causation, which is difficult to trace in history anyway.

So was Russia active in Central Asia at the time Glazunov and Borodin were writing their music? I knew that there was a settlement period, something like the American push into the great plains, but I thought it was earlier.

Wikipedia, it turns out, has much of my answer. Borodin came first (1833-1887), and Glazunov (1865-1936) finished some of his music, the opera “Prince Igor” in particular, which contains many Central-Asian-inspired pieces that were popularized for the United States in the 1953 musical “Kismet.” And, I have to say this, Borodin was a fellow organic chemist.

So the simple answer to my question is that Glazunov probably picked up some Central Asian influence from Borodin. But by the time I figured that out, I still wanted to know what Russia was doing in Central Asia in the late 19th century. A lot, as it turns out.

There had been interactions between Russia and the Kazakh hordes for several centuries before because the trade routes to China passed through what is now Kazakhstan. To protect those trade routes, the Russians built a line of forts all the way south of Lake Balkhash; must have been close to Almaty from the one map I’ve seen. And Semipalatinsk was one of their cities. So it would have made sense to put a nuclear test site outside that city, on the steppe, some long time later.

But the big changes between Russia and Central Asia indeed came during the second half of the nineteenth century. And most Russian settlement came toward the end of that period and into the twentieth.

The remarkable thing is that Riasanovsky’s book, which looks to me like a standard text, with multiple editions, doesn’t mention Central Asia at all for this time period. The closest it comes is to mention that cotton cloth production increased greatly during this time. But it doesn’t say where the cotton was grown.

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