Russia has been in the news for all kinds of reasons recently. Nothing particularly relating to music, but that hasn’t stopped me from fishing out a selection of our more interesting items.

Music published in Russia has always been difficult to obtain for a number of reasons. Firstly, the distance, then Russia’s isolation (political and cultural), and just simply the difficulty of finding someone prepared to import printed music from Russia.

Glazunov  Symphony no. 5 arr. for piano duet (publ. 1896)

Glazunov Symphony
The glorious front cover

This wonderfully ornate cover is all Russian to my eyes, the colours and decoration calling to mind the traditional buildings in Moscow. However, if you look closely, you can see that the place of publication is Leipzig, Germany. The publisher, MP Belaieff, was Russian, but the company was based in Germany to take advantage of publishing in a country that observed the Berne Convention . Until well into the twentieth century, Russia (or the USSR) never signed this convention which was the first to recognise copyrights and intellectual property rights on the international stage.

Liadov  Marionettes, op. 29 (publ. 1892)

Liadov Marionettes
The front cover

Why the text on both covers is in French, I’m not sure. It seems a little odd that a Russian publisher based in Germany should use yet another language. Earlier in the nineteenth century, the Russian elite used to speak French in preference to their native language. Maybe the covers are a hangover from that?

Here’s the music in question:

Mitrofan Belyayev (Belaieff) was a patron of composers in late nineteenth century Russia, including the two composers featured here, as well as Rimskii-Korsakov. The publishing house was an important part of his sponsorship as material published in western Europe stood a much better chance of gaining sales, and so, performances. MP Belaieff continued publishing in Germany beyond the Russian revolution and well into the Soviet era.

Modern Soviet Songs (publ. 1967)

Modern Soviet songs
A plain but effective cover

Like the Chinese material I looked at a few months ago, I imagine the reason we stock this is because it was sent, free of charge, by the publishers. So, cultural propaganda, or an interesting view of the Soviet Union, depending on your viewpoint.

All about the USSR
Added cultural advertising

I wonder how many subscriptions they had in the UK? Moscow News only ceased publication in 2014 when the Russian state news agency was abolished by Vladimir Putin. The songs are more about propaganda than artistic endeavour. Here’s a sample of one glorifying the USSR’s involvement in the space race with the USA:

My friends I'm sure
The start of one of the songs

Here’s the first stanza:

We’ve got our set of maps, And our cosmic course is charted, They’ll count down fourteen minutes Then off in space we’ll soar.

Rimskii-Korsakov  May Night (publ. 1970)

Rimskii-Korsakov  May night
One of my favourite front covers

It looks fantastic, showing the village that forms the backdrop to all the action of the opera, but for our purposes, it is less helpful. The only writing on the outside that shows what it is, is on the spine and printed in non-transliterated Cyrillic script. This is another issue with material sourced from Russia. I have been known to transliterate a title page using a basic guide, and then use an online translation service to get some idea of what it is I’m looking at. Here, there is some limited help as the title page is also presented in German. My German is definitely better than my Russian.

Does the music match the cover? Here’s the overture.

The same inspired Soviet designer(s) also came up with another dramatic design for the end papers of the same volume. The stylised tree has a dreamlike quality.

Rimskii-Korsakov May night - end paper
The mysterious design for the end paper

Shostakovich  October, op.132 (publ. 1969)

Shostakovich  October  front cover
A dramatic design

This cover reminds me of revolutionary communist design for a reason. In 1967, Shostakovich was one of innumerable Soviet artists who were expected to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution by producing something appropriate. This little-known symphonic poem, October, was his response.

Here it is if you want to give it a listen:

The front cover is completely Russian, but inside, the title page is in both in English and Russian. We evidently bought this score, as the inside front page has 42/- (ie 42 shillings or £2.10) written in pencil. And I imagine we also bought the Rimskii-Korsakov score.

Although we represent all sorts of Russian music in our collections, it is still difficult to obtain scores that are published there. Maybe part of that is the fault of Russian publishers? We bought this Rachmaninoff score recently (a vocal score of The Bells) and although the front cover is in English of a sort, the back cover lists all their other publications in non-transliterated Cyrillic.