At the close of the nineteenth century, Europe was teeming with apocalyptic dreams of destruction and renewal. In Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the...

At the close of the nineteenth century, Europe was teeming with apocalyptic dreams of destruction and renewal. In Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire (Yale University Press, 2015), Rebecca Mitchell traces how in late imperial Russia, music came to be seen as a transcendent force that offered salvation from the era’s atmosphere of decadence and decline. At the turn of the century, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy became a major inspiration for cultural elites looking for a solution to the problems of modernity. Nietzsche’s Russian orphans adapted the adamantly amoral German writer to suit their context, combining his belief in the transformative power of music with the visions of Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovev. Russian music lovers launched a search for the national Orpheus, alternately advancing Aleksander Scriabin, Nikolai Medtner, and Sergei Rachmaninoff as the chosen one. These figures differed in their engagement with musical metaphysics. While Scriabin reveled in his role of prophet and endeavored to create a musical Mystery that would mark the end of history, Rachmaninoff largely avoided philosophical musings; in a conversation with the Medtner brothers, he preferred to discuss Italian pasta. Rachmaninoff’s mass popularity was met with disapproval by some of Nietzsche’s orphans, who thought that his melancholic works reveled in the problems of the age rather than solving them. Their dreams for national salvation through music disintegrated amidst the chaos of war and revolution, and major composers including Rachmaninoff emigrated. However, Mitchell argues that their ideas found new life in the Bolshevik state, the Russian diaspora, and the post-Soviet search for national identity.

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