Russian Musical Futurism before the Revolution

Crispin Brooks, Independent Scholar

When we think of Russian Futurism before the Revolution, we think of various avant-garde poets and certain avant-garde painters who associated with them. But who were the Russian composers producing comparably Futurist works in music?

The Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti defined the basic aesthetic tenets of Futurism, centering on radical experimentation and the glorification of speed, machines, and youth. Italian Futurist music was developed by Luigi Russolo, who formulated the idea of noise being the central material for musical composition. Russian Futurism, on the other hand, was a more diverse and less clearly defined movement that shared with Italian Futurism really only the emphasis on radical experimentation; it was primarily a movement of poets in which the visual artists also played a major role. However, the contribution of composers to Russian Futurism (especially pre-Revolutionary Russian Futurism) is a subject that is not well known. Literary and art critics tend either not to use the word “Futurism” in relation to music or simply avoid any discussion of music whatsoever; on the other hand, the word is rather freely employed by music critics, to describe a wide range of music, even early works by Shostakovich and Prokof'ev.

The virtually inseparable, productive relationships between Futurist poets and avant-garde artists were a central feature of early Russian Futurism, but music was not a primary concern. In this paper, I will examine the peculiar situation of music in the context of pre-Revolutionary Futurism, in which it may have been kept on the periphery because it was an art form much more associated with Symbolism, and hence denigrated by the Futurists. Specifically, I will look at the short-lived collaborative relationship between the composer Nikolai Roslavets and the Futurist poet Vasilisk Gnedov, including a discussion of Roslavets’ music to Gnedov’s poem “Kuk” and the ill-fated opera they planned. I will also consider the efforts of Mikhail Matiushin, who wrote music for the better-known Futurist opera Pobeda nad solntsem (Victory Over the Sun), the involvement of the composers Artur Lur’e and the virtually unknown Vsevolod Svetlanov in Futurist circles, and the 1910 essay “Svobodnaia muzyka” (“Free Music”) by the art critic Nikolai Kul’bin, which attempted to establish new directions music might take. The relatively limited musical contribution of these figures to the early Futurist period was nevertheless every bit as experimental, diverse, and difficult to pigeonhole as the Russian Futurist movement as a whole.