Five Questions With … Rebecca Mitchell

Note: 2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions With …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  In this latest installment, Havighurst Center Director Stephen Norris asked Rebecca Mitchell five questions. Dr. Mitchell was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center from 2011-13 and is now Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College.

1. You just submitted your next book manuscript. Tell us more about it! How does it fit within your previous research interests?

In the midst of research on my next project (a study of the intersection between music, religion and empire in late imperial Russia), I was approached by an editor at Reaktion Press to suggest I write a book on composer Sergei Rachmaninoff as part of their Critical Lives series. These are short biographies that offer a new interpretation of a familiar figure and challenge conventional stereotypes. Research on Rachmaninoff for my first book had poised me to take on this project aimed at a broader readership. Though Rachmaninoff is unquestionably one of the most popular classical music composers, he has not always been treated well by critics. In English-language scholarship, his detractors have argued that his music was part of an outlived Romantic tradition aloof from the modernist explorations of his more innovative contemporaries (like fellow Moscow composer Aleksandr Scriabin). Even his defenders have typically sought to uncover “modernist” or “progressive” elements in his compositional language. In the Soviet Union, by contrast, Rachmaninoff was upheld as part of the romantic Russian national tradition of Tchaikovsky. Despite some stylistic bases for these interpretations, I found that they all caricatured a nostalgic, eternalized image of pre-revolutionary Russia that was vastly different from the world that I knew from my first book. Like many Russian emigres, Rachmaninoff himself contributed to fashioning this narrative of pre-1917 timelessness. As a cultural historian, I have situated Rachmaninoff within the remarkably dynamic time period in which he lived and worked. Before 1917, Rachmaninoff actively responded to modernist musical and artistic trends across Europe, as well as the artistic and philosophical tendencies of the Russian Silver Age. Drawing in particular on Marshall Berman’s famous account of modernity in All That is Solid Melts Into Air, I consider the nostalgia and melancholy so prominent in later accounts of Rachmaninoff’s life to be an inherently modern response to the upheavals of 1917. Rachmaninoff and his music were products of the modern age.

2. Speaking of your previous research, your award-winning book, Neitzsche’s Orphans, weaves together philosophy, music, ideas about nationhood, and the imperial tensions of the late tsarist era. Tell us a little more about how that project originated and some of the sources you mined to get at this fascinating story.

Nietzsche’s Orphans had a very long gestation. I actually first became interested in the time period when I was an undergraduate piano performance major at the University of Saskatchewan. Browsing the CD collection at the library, I found a recording of Vladimir Horowitz performing the music of Aleksandr Scriabin, a composer I had never heard of before, and I fell in love with it. I checked out every book I could find that dealt with his music and life (which at that time were relatively few). I read Fabion Bowers’ biography of Scriabin, in which I discovered that the composer thought he was God, and that his music would bring about the end of the world in a final moment of universal ecstasy. Bowers quoted extensively from Scriabin’s philosophical notebooks, but the original was only available in Russian at that time (a wonderful translation by Simon Nicholls and Michael Pushkin was published by Oxford University Press in 2019). It was at that point that I decided to learn Russian – I wanted to read Scriabin’s philosophical musings in the original language.

That was my initial impetus, but the project kept evolving. As I was examining publications from the Scriabin Society that formed shortly after Scriabin’s death, I was shocked to discover that many of his admirers kept talking about Scriabin in messianic terms. It was at this point that I realized that this was not just a story of one self-aggrandizing creative genius – people had bought into Scriabin’s apocalyptic vision, but tweaked it in interesting ways. When I started looking at periodicals from the time period (ca.1904-1917), I noted that music held a key place in public discourse (particularly in philosophical and literary journals). Music was actually a means through which educated late imperial Russian citizens grappled with a whole range of issues, particularly the social, political and cultural divisions that were a hallmark of an era (1900-1917) that witnessed two wars and three revolutions. In this research, I also realized that discussions about musical style were entangled with fundamental questions about Russian identity at the very moment when nationalist narratives were increasingly challenging imperial forms of belonging in Russia.

As someone who came to this project through a love of music, I wanted to bring the individuals, their artistic discussions, and their music to life. Scriabin featured prominently alongside Sergei Rachmaninoff in contemporary discourse, alongside a third pianist-composer of whom I knew virtually nothing: Nikolai Medtner. Like both Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, Medtner was a pianist-composer trained at the Moscow Conservatory who regularly performed his own compositions in solo concerts. As I dug deeper, it was the Medtner family that emerged as a lynchpin for the entire project. While Medtner was known primarily as a composer, his elder brother, Emilii, was a leading theorist for the Russian Symbolist movement, and a unifying figure who spearheaded a particular racial vision of art. Because the Medtners were descended from a Baltic German family, it was intriguing to explore how they negotiated the moment when “Russianness” was increasingly defined according to ethnicity rather than loyalties to a particular regime. I also sought to emphasize the way in which entangled personal relations were key to this entire cultural milieu: both Medtner brothers were in love with the same woman, Anna Bratenshi, who married first Emilii and later Nikolai. In addition to published periodical sources from the time, I spent a lot of time in Russian archives reading the personal correspondences and diaries of quite a number of the people involved in these cultural circles.

3. When you were a postdoctoral fellow at Miami, you organized a major conference on music and power held here in Oxford in 2013. The conference covered the “problems and perspectives” of music in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia as understood at that time. How has the field developed since? What books, articles, or research projects stand out to you?

As one of the founders of the Russian, East European and Eurasian music study subgroup at ASEEES, it has been exciting and gratifying to see the growth in this area. Scholars have been exploring the multiple ways through which musical expression was shaped and meaning inscribed into music in the Soviet era. Pauline Fairclough’s book Classics for the Masses is a wonderful examination of the legacy of classical music in the Soviet Union. Marina Frolova-Walker’s recent book explores the politics behind the Stalin Prize (Stalin’s Music Prize), while Kirill Tomoff has turned attention to the place of classical music in the cultural Cold War (Virtuosi Abroad). Klára Móricz has turned new attention on the question of music amongst the Russian émigré community after 1917 (In Stravinsky’s Orbit). Lisa Cooper Vest and Lisa Jakelski both recently published monographs on music in Communist-era Poland. For imperial Russia, Adalyat Issiyeva’s new book Representing Russia’s Orient is an exciting glimpse at the intersection of music and questions of empire, and in 2019 Simon Morrison revisited and updated his wonderful study of Russian Symbolist opera. In terms of forthcoming scholarship, David Salkowski (Princeton University) just defended an excellent dissertation looking at the intersection of music and Orthodoxy in late imperial Russia. Leah Goldman, Olga Panteleeva, Elina Viljanen, Polina Dimova are among the scholars whose publications I look forward to reading in the near future.

4. You studied music in college (piano performance specifically): what are some of your favorite pieces and why?

Given my recent research, I have been playing a lot of Rachmaninoff lately, notably his Etudes-tableaux and Corelli Variations. I also enjoy playing Scriabin’s piano works, Nikolai Medtner’s Forgotten Melodies, and Mikalojus Čiurlionis’ kindred Silver Age piano works. I also enjoy playing impressionist works by Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saens. Beethoven sonatas and works by Bach are current favorites for my toddler, who seems to enjoy these older compositional sounds best at present.

5. Finally, as a faculty member at Middlebury College, how has the pandemic impacted academic life there?

When Middlebury College switched to entirely remote learning in March 2020, I was on sabbatical, so it was my research and writing that took the biggest hit. My Rachmaninoff book was scheduled for submission in summer 2020, but we lost daycare for almost four months, and having a 1.5-year-old at home full time derailed my writing plans. It was only through the support of my partner (who took on a lot of the childcare responsibility) that I was able to submit the book in early 2021.  Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, Middlebury held in-person classes, though faculty had the option whether to teach their classes in person or via Zoom. I taught in-person for most of the academic year, and the classroom dynamic was definitely different. It was hard for students to engage in discussion to the same extent while wearing masks and social distancing. Students were very willing to adapt to safety precautions in order to have the in-person experience though, and I was impressed by how engaged many of our students were able to be, difficult situation notwithstanding. I also experimented for the first time team-teaching a class with my colleague Sarah Bidgood at the Middlebury Institute at Monterey on US-Soviet nuclear relations. We had worried about how students would respond to a class that, by definition, required an online component, but as it turned out, given the pandemic this was a complete non-issue. While I think everyone is excited to be able to return to more in-person modes of learning, Zoom has at least simplified some amount of broader geographic collaboration.

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