Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Rebecca Mitchell's "Nietzsche’s Orphans"

Rebecca Mitchell is assistant professor of history at Middlebury College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Nietzsche's Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, and reported the following:
As a cultural-intellectual historian, I am fascinated by the meanings that people have historically ascribed to artistic works and cultural production. One of my primary goals in Nietzsche’s Orphans was to examine the multiple meanings given to music in a particularly tumultuous moment in Russian history: the years between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The book explores how, following in the footsteps of 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, members of Russian educated society conceived of music as the “Dionysian unity” underpinning phenomenal existence and a basis through which to offer a new understanding of “Russianness” amid the upheavals of modernity.

Although individual composers (Aleksandr Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Nikolai Medtner) play an important role, Nietzsche’s Orphans does not circumscribe its focus to the meaning(s) specific artists ascribed to their music; rather it looks at multiple interpretations of music in society more generally to glean new insights into contemporary concerns. The Page 99 Test effectively highlights this aspect of the book. It drops us into the heart of Chapter Two, which examines the interpretation and reinterpretation of composer Aleksandr Scriabin by his Russian admirers, and introduces us to a minor historical figure who encapsulates this process: Aleksandr Brianchaninov.
A nobleman with an estate in the Perm region, a strong admiration for Napoleon, and a love for political dalliance, Brianchaninov introduced Pan-Slavic politics and Anglophile views into Scriabin’s inner circle. Together with his wife Mariia Brianchaninova (neé Gorchakova), Brianchaninov encouraged Scriabin’s interest in India as the location for his Mystery, finding in the work not the end of the phenomenal world but a future vision of the dominance of Slavic culture through Russian political and military victory, which he believed would come to pass through political affiliation with England. Brianchaninov offered to introduce the composer to British officials and assist in the practical matter of purchasing land in India for the performance of the Mystery (which, he logically concluded, would need the official approval of the British government). At the same time, he vehemently proclaimed a Pan-Slavic interpretation of the modern age, in which it was the messianic task of Russia to serve as the guiding light for the other Slavic peoples and ultimately for all humanity.
Scriabin believed that he would bring about the end of the world through his music (an idea shaped in part by his involvement in theosophy). Nietzsche’s Orphans adds to the literature on this composer and his philosophical views by exploring how the composer’s contemporaries interacted with and reinterpreted the composer and his music according to their own hopes. Brianchaninov actively encouraged the composer in his wild fantasy of building a performance temple in India, but his own understanding of Scriabin’s Mystery was heavily influenced by the Pan-Slavic ideals of the day. For Brianchaninov, the Mystery was about Russia’s call to free the Slavic peoples from the “German yoke” (both political and cultural) under which they suffered, an idea that dovetailed with the increased militarism surrounding the First World War.

Music and art are never separate from the larger political and social contexts in which they arise; Nietzsche’s Orphans shows how contemporary concerns (not always palatable ones) are central to artistic reception, and how audiences tend to hear what they want to hear in the music they admire: an observation certainly as true for contemporary as for late imperial Russian audiences.
Learn more about Nietzsche's Orphans at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue