Nature versus Nurture: the Tragedy of Russian Music and its Obvious Solution.


Who hasn’t sat through a concert of worthy, tortured 20th century Russian music wondering if will ever end and trying to work out if the number of words in the programme description has any common factors with the number of players in the orchestra?

Exhibit A in the parade of slavic awfulness is Dmitriy Shostakovich. Born in St Petersburg in 1906, he lived through WWI, the Russian Revolution, the development of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s purges, the great famine of the 1930s, WWII, the Siege of Leningrad and the stagnation of communism without apparently finding reasons to be cheerful with any of it. His music has an unpleasantly anguished quality to it, with his unmovably “Russian Soul” showing deep melancholy even in pieces which should by rights have been cheerful such as this well-known waltz:

In pieces generally regarded as more serious – the Fifth Symphony and the 8th String Quartet to name but two of the most impenetrably depressing – his fur-hatted grumpiness is utterly insufferable.

What is it with Russians and anguish? Are they incapable of anything more uplifting?

It is at this point I would like to introduce you to a composer of Russian Imperial origins who transcended them to contribute to music properly. Sidney Torchinsky was the offspring of a Ukrainian father and an Estonian mother, but born – and this is crucial – in London rather than St Petersburg,and only two years after Shostakovich. Although his genes may have born the unalterable imprint of the blasted steppe, his life experiences were fundamentally different, and reflected in the decency of his shortening his unnecessarily long name to “Sidney Torch”. He experienced the vicissitudes of the 20th century England – WWI, the General Strike, the Blitz, spam fritters, the Harold Wilson government and the films of George Formby (whose depressing qualities were rewarded by Stalin with the Order of the Hero of Soviet Labour) – but managed to keep his upper lip stiff and his pecker admirably up at all times.

His music therefore, even in its more serious and introspective moments, has an optimistic and spiritual quality utterly missing from that of his Russian near-contemporary:

Could the conclusion be any more obvious? In order to prevent a new Cold War setting in under the dour and humourless Vladimir Putin, Britain should offer to educate Russian musicians in the high-minded traditions of Eric Coates, Billy Mayerl and Ron Goodwin as well as the great Torch himself. The BBC World Service should swamp Russian airwaves with historic editions of “Music While you Work” and “Friday Night is Music Night”. The works of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky should be re-edited to add phrases such as “keep your chin up” and “mustn’t grumble”, and Mr Michael McIntyre should be sent to Siberia on a one-way ticket. That alone, surely, is a goal we can all get behind?

Jeff de Cuisine has championed the music of Sidney Torch for some years now, at one point being thrown out of a trappist monastery for playing “Sea Adventures” on the organ during a vigil.


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