Russian Artistic Brilliance

The phrase “European with Asian characteristics” expresses our fascination with the enduring contribution to world culture of Russian music, art and literature created during the twilight years of Czarist Russia: Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev; Kramskoy, Repin, and Levitan; Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. What cultural and historical influences helped Russians, and then the rest of the West, to recognize and to reward the gifts of these Russian artists? And how would the trajectory of European arts have been different without the genius of Russia’s contributions?

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

609 Sutter Street, San Francisco

Tickets at City Box Office 415.392.4400


Friday, November 2, 2018

7:30 – 9:30 pm

Introduction / George Hammond, Moderator (Humanities West)

A Russian Success Story / Robert Greenberg (Composer, Lecturer, Performer). The emergence of a concert music tradition and infrastructure in 19th-century Russia remains one of the great success stories in the history of European art. Russia began the 19th century with virtually no native tradition of concert, or “literate music.” By the end of the century, Russia was exporting music and musicians across the globe. Russian opera and orchestral music could vie on equal terms with Italian, German, and French music. Russian musicians were coming to dominate the world’s stages. By the end of the 19th century, Russia could boast of having two of the world’s greatest schools of music: the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, and a number of young Russian composers—among them Alexander Skriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev—were about to change the nature and syntax of European literate music. The emergence of a Russian literate musical culture was a response to Russia’s entry into the larger European community and the concurrent desire, on the part of many Russian musicians, writers, and critics, to defend and promote native Russian art. Taken all together, it is an extraordinary story.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

10 am – noon & 1:30 – 4 pm

Introduction / George Hammond, Moderator (Humanities West)

Pushkin or Gogol: Two Blueprints for 19th-Century Russian Literature / Luba Golburt (Slavic Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley). “Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?” is a question many a student of Russian literature has had to entertain. Yet perhaps a more formative question for the Russian 19th century and beyond is the less frequently posed one, “Pushkin or Gogol.” The contributions and reception of these two writers offer alternative ways to organize our understanding of the myths of Russian literature’s origins, trajectories, and aesthetic and social programs. While Pushkin was celebrated during his lifetime as the codifier of Russian poetic language, an aristocratic voice preternaturally capable of synthesizing, transforming, and ironizing European Romantic culture, Gogol inaugurates an entire tradition of prose at once whimsically grotesque, spiritually earnest, and socially engaged, and stands for a more democratic vision that ranges over the vast Russian territory and considers its no less vast class divides. If Pushkin emerges—in part through his popularization in the operas of Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky’s famous 1880 speech—as a monumental figure who brings forth the entirety of the modern Russian culture, Gogol gives rise to multiple heirs, including Dostoevsky himself, but remains a far less convenient figure for national myths, straddling as he does the uncomfortable divide between his native Ukraine and Russia, and the tenuous boundary between whimsy and madness. Roughly contemporary and well acquainted with each other, the two writers stand for alternative origin myths for Russian literature: one taking root in the golden age; the other, in the age of iron.

Dostoevsky and the Golden Age of Russian Literature / Gary Hamburg (Otho M. Behr Professor of the History of Ideas, Claremont-McKenna College). Major developments of Russia’s “golden age” usually dated from 1820 to 1881. They include the flourishing of Russian poetry, publication of masterly novels by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the appearance of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, My Past and Thoughts. Dostoevsky’s astonishing prison narrative, Notes from the House of the Dead, and his brilliant rumination on modern consciousness, Notes from the Underground, forcefully defined themes that Dostoevsky explored later in his renowned novels—Crime and Punishment, The Demons, and Brothers Karamazov. Their themes—the torment of human beings who find modern societies unjust, the need to find dignity and meaning in life when basic moral precepts have fallen under debate, and hope of finding a livable community in one’s country and in the world—were also the major issues then debated by Russian writers. Their brilliant comments on these questions illuminated Russian culture and remain of interest to morally alert people in our own time.

Performance / Eugene Onegin. Introduced by Clifford (Kip) Cranna (San Francisco Opera). Russia’s (arguably) greatest poet was immortalized in music by Russia’s (arguably) greatest composer in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s brilliant and moving operatic setting of Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, the tale of an arrogant young nobleman who spurns the naïve young Tatiana’s innocent profession of love, only to realize too late the tragedy of his loss. A performance of excerpts from this operatic masterpiece will include Tatiana’s famous Letter Scene, Onegin’s lyrical but arrogant aria of haughty rejection, and their dramatic and heartbreaking parting duet.  

Painting the Russian Word / Molly Brunson (Slavic Languages and Literatures and History of Art, Yale University). In the fall of 1873, the painter Ivan Kramskoy arrived at the estate of Lev Tolstoy, who was already widely known for War and Peace and was writing his next masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Kramskoy had been dispatched to paint Tolstoy’s portrait, and the two artists—one busy on a novel, one on a portrait—would spend a month together. How did this encounter with a painter, himself gaining prominence in the art world, impact the renowned novelist? And might we perceive the presence of the written word, of Tolstoy’s novel, in Kramskoy’s painting? Given the celebrated status of literature in Russia and Russian literature around the world, it is perhaps not surprising that Russian painting—and indeed, all the other arts—have tended to disappear in the shadow of the word. But in the 19th century, the cultural sphere was far more dynamic: artists painted writers and authors described painters; music inspired paintings and was inspired by novels. By exploring some of the most dramatic relationships between writers and painters, we see how vibrant and interconnected the Russian arts were. The creative intensity of Kramskoy and Tolstoy’s month-long portrait-sitting, Vasily Perov’s haunting portrait of Dostoevsky as a downtrodden everyman and messianic thinker, the roles of a tortured composer and a tortured writer in Ilya Repin’s bombastic depiction of Ivan the Terrible, and the emotional friendship of Anton Chekhov and the landscape painter, Isaak Levitan. Told through some of Russia’s most famous paintings, this is a story of the rise of a national culture through collaborations and rivalries, creativity and competition—ultimately forming a Russian artistic tradition that had emerged from virtually nothing to become a cornerstone of global culture.

Panel Discussion with the presenters, moderated by George Hammond


Molly Brunson (PhD Slavic Languages and Literatures, UC Berkeley; BA Art History and Russian, Columbia University) is Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, with a secondary appointment in the Department of the History of Art. She writes and teaches broadly on 19th– and 20th-century Russian literature and art history. Her book Russian Realisms: Literature and Painting, 1840–1890 (2016) articulated a theory of realism from the relation between word and image in the classic works of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and the lesser known but important painters Pavel Fedotov, Vasily Perov, and Ilya Repin. Brunson is currently working on a second book, The Russian Point of View: Perspective and the Birth of Modern Russian Culture, for which she was named a fellow at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute during summer 2016. She has lectured widely, including at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the University of Cambridge, the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, Princeton, Stanford, New York University, and UC Berkeley.

Clifford (Kip) Cranna, Dramaturg at San Francisco Opera, has served on the staff since 1979 and was Director of Music Administration for over thirty years. In 2008 he was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and in 2012 he received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award for distinguished efforts to bring excellence to a cultural institution. In 2014 he received the Star of Excellence Award for outstanding service to the programs of the San Francisco Opera Guild. He holds a BA in music from the University of North Dakota and a PhD in musicology from Stanford University. For thirty years he was Program Editor and Lecturer for the Carmel Bach Festival. He lectures and writes frequently on music, teaches at the SF Conservatory and the Fromm Institute at USF, and moderates the SF Opera Guild “Insight” panel discussions. He was Dramaturg for the 2016 production of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Dr. Cranna is a member of the Humanities West board.

Luba Golburt (PhD in Comparative Literature, Stanford University; BA magna cum laude in Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley) is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley. Golburt’s research and teaching expertise covers the 18th and 19th centuries in Russia and focuses on the history of literary genres and forms and the works of Gavrila Derzhavin and Alexander Pushkin. Golburt’s book, The First Epoch: The Eighteenth Century and the Russian Cultural Imagination (2014), a study of the transformations of genre and ideology from the Enlightenment to the Romantic and Realist 19th century, was the recipient of the Marc Raeff Prize from the Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies Association; the Heldt Prize from the Association of Women in Slavic Studies, and the Best Book in Literary and Cultural Studies Prize from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. Golburt’s two new book projects include a critical examination of the 1830s as a decade marking important developments in Russian reading practices, and a case-study-based history of the nature lyric in Russia from the 18th to the 21st century. She previously lectured at Humanities West’s program, Confronting Napoleon: Europe at the Crossroads.

Robert Greenberg (BA magna cum laude, Music, Princeton; PhD With Distinction, music composition, UC Berkeley) has composed over fifty works for instrumental and vocal ensembles, with recent performances in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy and The Netherlands. Greenberg’s honors include “Steinway Artist,” three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and three Meet-The-Composer Grants. Commissions include the Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress, Alexander String Quartet, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, SF Performances, and the XTET ensemble. Greenberg is a board member and an artistic director of COMPOSERS, INC. His music has been published by Fallen Leaf Press and CPP/Belwin and recorded on the Innova label; his book is How to Listen to Great Music (2011), and he has recorded 31 courses for The Great Courses. Greenberg is music historian-in-residence with SF Performances and has served on the faculties of UC Berkeley, CSU East Bay, and SF Conservatory of Music; and for years in the University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School’s Advanced Management Program and as resident composer and music historian to NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered” and “Weekend Edition, Sunday.” Greenberg has lectured for SF Symphony, Chautauqua Institute, Ravinia Festival, Lincoln Center, Van Cliburn Foundation, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas and Hartford Symphony Orchestras, Villa Montalvo, Music@Menlo, and University of British Columbia. The Bangor Daily News (Maine) in 2003 referred to Greenberg as the “Elvis of music history and appreciation.”

Gary Hamburg has taught at Stanford University, Cornell College, University of Notre Dame, and Claremont McKenna College, where he is Otho M. Behr Professor of History. Hamburg’s books have explored three major themes in Russian history: the idea of freedom in Russian thought, the role of religion in Russian national identity and Russian historical development, and the writing of history in 20th-century Russia. Hamburg is most proud of a series of essays he has written on Lev Tolstoy as a religious and political thinker, and of his recent book, Russia’s Path Toward Enlightenment: Faith, Politics and Reason, 1500 – 1801 (2016).

George Hammond

George Hammond studied Russian Literature at Dartmouth and Law at the University of Wisconsin, both of which stood him in good stead later as an international mergers and acquisitions attorney, including the Yukos-Sibneft oil company merger in Russia. He is the author of four novels, a collection of short stories and six philosophical books on issues in rational idealism, theoretical physics, Plato’s theory, early Christianity, the Soviet Union, psychology and constitutional law. He lectures widely, is on the board of directors at Humanities West, and coordinates the Humanities Forum of the Commonwealth Club of California.


Resources Materials


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