Cultural Conversations 2: Music

The second of our cultural conversations for Michaelmas term centred around the theme of “Music.” Lena Zlock, one of our resident alumni, spoke about “Russian Fields” (“Русское поле”), a Soviet popular song about the landscape at the heart of Russian national identity.

She presented two versions of the song, one sung by the late Dmitry Hvorostovsky, a Russian opera singer, accompanied by a full-sized orchestra, and the other recorded by the song’s composer, Jan Frenkel, who accompanies himself on piano in a made-for-TV production. The sonic comparisons between the two recordings—Hvorostovsky’s orchestral recording is arguably more bombastic and “showy” than Frenkel’s more intimate, melancholic performance—led to Lena’s reflections of her personal relationship to “Russian Fields,” namely how she has to reconcile the fact that this music that has been almost synonymous with Russian identity was largely written by Jewish composers, who were regarded as second-class citizens in the country.
She concluded her presentation by comparing the pain that is ultimately communicated through both of the performances with the underlying feelings of melancholia, nostalgia, and longing to belong that also underscores Jewish contributions to American musicals, such as Fiddler on the Roof.


Maikki Aakko, reading for an MPhil in Theology, presented next on “Finlandia,” starting off her presentation with a video of a flash-mob signing “Finlandia.” The tonal and formal similarities to “Russian Fields” were immediately noticeable: the immediately recognisable minor-key melody, the national pride expressed with unmistakable melancholia, and the nostalgia for a “Motherland.” Maikki spoke about the theological-political history of this song, detailing its origins as a tone poem written by Jean Sibelius in 1899, alternative names used in performances during the early-1900s to avoid Russian censorship, and the song’s transformations into Christian hymns. Maikki mentioned that, although she hesitates to sing the official Finnish national anthem, she will sing “Finlandia.”

This comment on the discomfort with participation in a certain nationalised/nationalistic soundscape opened up a lively discussion about the intersection of music and national identity. Although unplanned, the two presentations had seamlessly knit together themes of national and ethnic identity through the two pieces of music. The ensuing discussion centred around the political and ethical dimension of “national” music, namely by addressing questions such as: “What is a national sound?” “What does it mean to say something sounds ‘Russian,’ ‘Finnish,’ or ‘American’?” “What is a musical national identity?” “What is popular music, that is, is it ‘popular’ in the sense of music for or of the populous?” Against the backdrop of the ongoing US elections that week, these reflections led by Lena and Maikki made for an uncannily timely discussion about the narratives of identity and nationality we tell about ourselves through music.


Janice Cheon