At the dawn of the twentieth century, Imperial Russia was in the throes of immense social, political and cultural upheaval. The effects of rapid industrialization, rising capitalism and urbanization, as well as the trauma wrought by revolution and war, reverberated through all levels of society and every cultural sphere. In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, amid a growing sense of panic over the chaos and divisions emerging in modern life, a portion of Russian educated society (obshchestvennost’) looked to the transformative and unifying power of music as a means of salvation from the personal, social and intellectual divisions of the contemporary world. Transcending professional divisions, these “orphans of Nietzsche” comprised a distinct aesthetic group within educated Russian society. While lacking a common political, religious or national outlook, these philosophers, poets, musicians and other educated members of the upper and middle strata were bound together by their shared image of music’s unifying power, itself built upon a synthesis of Russian and European ideas. They yearned for a “musical Orpheus,” a composer capable of restoring wholeness to society through his music. My dissertation is a study in what I call “musical metaphysics,” an examination of the creation, development, crisis and ultimate failure of this Orphic worldview.
To begin, I examine the institutional foundations of musical life in late Imperial Russia, as well as the explosion of cultural life in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution, a vibrant social context which nourished the formation of musical metaphysics. From here, I assess the intellectual basis upon which musical metaphysics rested: central concepts (music, life-transformation, theurgy, unity, genius, nation), as well as the philosophical heritage of Nietzsche and the Christian thinkers Vladimir Solov’ev, Aleksei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevskii and Lev Tolstoi. Nietzsche’s orphans’ struggle to reconcile an amoral view of reality with a deeply felt sense of religious purpose gave rise to neo-Slavophile interpretations of history, in which the Russian nation (narod) was singled out as the savior of humanity from the materialism of modern life. This nationalizing tendency existed uneasily within the framework of the multi-ethnic empire. From broad social and cultural trends, I turn to detailed analysis of three of Moscow’s most admired contemporary composers, whose individual creative voices intersected with broader social concerns. The music of Aleksandr Scriabin (1871-1915) was associated with images of universal historical progress. Nikolai Medtner (1879-1951) embodied an “Imperial” worldview, in which musical style was imbued with an eternal significance which transcended the divisions of nation. The compositions of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) were seen as the expression of a Russian “national” voice. Heightened nationalist sentiment and the impact of the Great War spelled the doom of this musical worldview. Music became an increasingly nationalized sphere within which earlier, Imperial definitions of belonging grew ever more problematic. As the Germanic heritage upon which their vision was partially based came under attack, Nietzsche’s orphans found themselves ever more divided and alienated from society as a whole. Music’s inability to physically transform the world ultimately came to symbolize the failure of Russia’s educated strata to effectively deal with the pressures of a modernizing society. In the aftermath of the 1917 revolutions, music was transformed from a symbol of active, unifying power into a space of memory, a means of commemorating, reinterpreting, and idealizing the lost world of Imperial Russia itself.