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British-Russian Crossroads: Exchanges of Words & Music

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

No cultural exchange is complete without a good get-together for some direct and honest conversations. This is why when planning for this huge project as part of the British Council's official programme of Year of Music UK-Russia began a year ago today, Dr Lidia Ader (Senior Researcher at the State Rimsky-Korsakov Museum in Saint Petersburg) and myself were keen to provide a platform for musicologists, cultural historians, performers, composers and pedagogues to share experiences and ideas about the dynamics of Russian-British artistic dialogues.

The result - I had literally thrown myself into the deep-end to organise my first ever international conference: British-Russian Crossroads: Exchanges of Words and Music taking place in Saint Petersburg's State Rimsky-Korsakov Museum on 15 February 2020.

Below: Dr Lidia Ader introducing the conference, and thanking our sponsors.

The international conference 'British-Russian Crossroads: Exchanges of Words and Music' brought together participants from the United Kingdom, Europe, Russia and the USA: all keen to listen, support dialogue, and showcase their research, initiatives and collaborations.

So many inspiring thoughts and observations came across in their papers, that my hastily assigned role (I pulled the short straw with Lidia) to keep time filled me with guilt and great regret.

Without false modesty, I must note that the delivery of the conference was an organisational feat worthy of the Council Chambers of the United Nations!

Thanks to the kind support of the AHRC's Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) envisaged and led by Professor Stephen Hutchings at the University of Manchester, and the associated Cross Language Dynamics project at the School of Advanced Study in London coordinated by Professor Catherine Davies, we were able to secure the services of some outstanding translators who transmitted in faultless synchronised timing the conversations and papers to non-bilingual participants through a set of personal headphones.

It was impressive to have such a service that enabled the dynamics of the conversations to move at their natural pace, without the otherwise inevitable spontaneous Chinese whispers grinding things to a halt.

Concentrated faces from the amazing 'behind the scenes' magic booth of simultaneous translations!


The conference opened with an uplifting keynote speech by the award-winning researcher and author Professor Philip Bullock from the University of Oxford, with the title ‘Absent Albion?: English Poetry and Russian Song from Zhukovsky to Balmont/Shelley'.

Professor Bullock has eloquently looked at the confluences of Russian and British culture, not least in his Russia in Britain, 1880-1940: From Melodrama to Modernism, with R. Beasley (eds), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013. But, the whole room knew how privileged they were in the generosity with which he shares his knowledge about the coming together of word and music through Russian song. His unrivalled expertise, both in the West as in Russia, will soon find its reflection in his forthcoming work The Poet’s Echo: Art Song in Russia, 1730-2000.

It was a most thought-provoking address which tackled the malleability and inherent cosmopolitanism of great art. It was wonderful to start this rather grandly conceived conference with a reminder that in the general scheme of things, Russia's quest to find its artistic voice through song in the nineteenth century centred much more overtly on copying and adapting the German lied for its own purposes. In this context re-translated English texts were mostly assimilated into the Russian romance as simply a byproduct of sorts. It was only after such a process of collateral, or perhaps accidental, adoption of British texts that Russian art song composers became confident enough to be interested in the potential commentaries that they could elicit from these Russian translations of English texts. The crisis of identity that fanned the flames of Russia' so-called Silver Age at the fin de siecle therefore found its echo in the English Romantic verse with a particular fixation, it could be said, on that of Shelley-Balmont.

This fusion of Russian and British became so integral to composers and those inheriting that legacy, that rather than being presented as a special case (for instance through the composition of a set of 'English songs' - although we do indeed meet such endeavours for instance in Shostakovich), the oeuvres inspired by this distinct Russian-British fusion were placed within song cycles alongside art song appealing to those iconic hallmarks of Russian cultural identity - Pushkin, Lermontov (although I always feel as though a disclaimer here it needed to remind us that he was of Scottish descent!), Fet, and others.

It is this erasing of boundaries that great art unfailingly seems to embody, and that is such a blessing to those touched by it as creative practitioners, researchers, historians and general public alike!


From there the proceedings moved through a wonderful if fast-paced kaleidoscope of Russian-British cultural borrowings, conversations, adaptions and collaborations:

Justin Vickers (Illinois State University, USA)

Britten, Pears, and Pushkin: The Poet’s Echo in Translation

Justin Vickers, accompanied by Karyl Carlson, gave a performance of Britten in translation during the opening concert the previous night.

Maria Razumovskaya (Guildhall School of Music & Drama, United Kingdom)

Confluences of Russian music and the English word in Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago

My paper looked at the interweaving of Macbeth and Hamlet in the thoughts of Pasternak, and how these fused with his experience of the Russian concert scene and his friendship with the pianist Heinrich Neuhaus.

Yaroslava Kabalevskaya (Moscow State Conservatory, Russian Federation)

Modern Productions of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ in the Russian Theatre

Yaroslava Kabalebskaya surveying a huge array of issues that make Shakespeare's 'Tempest' so magnetising for Russian artists and producers

Michelle Assay & David Fanning (University of Huddersfield & University of Manchester, United Kingdom)

The Greatest Hamlet that Never Was: Shebalin’s incidental music

Michelle Assay & David Fanning giving a glimpse into a production that suffered even more setbacks than the ill-fated 'Scottish Play'!

Irina Kozhenova (Moscow State Conservatory, Russian Federation)

Verdi’s Unfulfilled Intentions: The Conundrum of Embodying Shakespeare

Irina Kozhenova from the Moscow Conservatory continued to trace the longstanding Russian fascination for Shakespeare

Antonina Maximova (State Petrazavodsk Conservatory, Russian Federation)

London productions of V. Dukelsky in late 1920s: from ballet a la Russe to English thriller

Antonina Maximova bringing some eloquently defined research from the Petrazavodsk State Glazunov Conservatory

Olga Manulkina (Saint-Petersburg State University, Liberal Arts and Sciences & the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory, Russian Federation)

The Duenna by Sheridan—Prokofiev—Tcherniakov: Identifying the Genre

Professor Olga Manulikina's fascinating keynote speech illuminated current Russian-British influences on stage and its redefinition of canonic genre.


It is always really heartening to support papers from recent alumni, but even more so when they show such tireless energy in initiating active and fruitful partnerships that formed their roots during their postgraduate days. The enthusiasm and confidence with which Patrick Friel and Yulia Kupriyanova illuminated their ongoing active collaborations between Russia and the UK made these presentations all the more special.

Patrick Friel (University of Manchester)

Summons: composing for 'Russian' voices, interpreting 'British' music

Patrick treated us to a live demonstration of his work, led by the Saint Petersburg-based choral conductor Alexandra Makarova and the Festino Chamber Choir

Yulia Kupriyanova (Moscow State Conservatory, Russian Federation)

Cooperation between the Moscow Conservatory and the Royal College of Music in London

Yulia documented an uplifting journey of determination and thriving friendship between two historic institutions, the Moscow Conservatory and London's Royal College of Music, which she actively shapes and nurtures.


A special address by the British composer Professor Philip Grange from the University of Manchester (Setting English in theory and practice: Philip Grange discusses his approach to text setting in recent song cycles) expanded on the presentations and conversations he and Paul Archbold (Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Studies, University of London) took part in, thanks to the initiation and logistical prowess of Lidia Ader, at the State Saint Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, the previous day.

R to L: Professor Philip Grange, his doctoral student Patrick Friel, and Dr Paul Archbold in the Rimsky-Korsakov State Museum, Saint Petersburg

Philip Grange talks about his work with postgraduate students and professors at the Saint Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory of Music on 14 February 2020.

Philip Grange's 'A Puzzle of Shadows' was given its Russian #premiere in the opening concert of our 'A Voice Between Nations' project by musicians from the MolOt Ensemble.

Philip Grange congratulating the MolOt Ensemble after its premiere. He had spent the afternoon giving a public workshop on the work and introducing his characteristic soundscapes to Russian audiences.


Lidia Ader and Nina Kostenko (the Director of the State Rimsky-Korsakov Museum in Saint Petersburg) presented their new publications: Year by Year: Rimsky-Korsakov – 175 and The Colour of Time. Rimsky-Korsakov’s family through the lens of M. Steinberg and V. Rimsky-Korsakov.


A brief dash to pick up a hot drink and an assortment of traditional Russian brioche savoury-filled pies and sweet pastries laid out for delegates by the Rimsky-Korsakov Museum was followed by yet more action! I had given Dr Christina Guillaumier, from the Royal College of Music in London, a rather impossible brief: to lead and chair a roundtable that would provide a friendly platform to push around some ideas and observations on the theme -

Interactions between Britain, Russia, and beyond in words and music

‘Words of Many Meanings.’

• the dynamics of source and (mis)translation in artistic work and pedagogy

• issues of language in the critique of composition, musical analysis and performance

• English-language musicology urgency of rethinking the canon in terms of attitudes to female composers/performers compared to Russia (i.e. whether the Soviet legacy of having women in authoritative positions, and the associated language/rhetoric, has had some sort of impact on this?; or Russian contemporary gender politics)

• talking about music within and beyond the conservatoire (audience engagement, development etc.)

Christina Guillaumier starts off discussions in the roundtable by sharing productive initiatives developed at the Royal College of Music, London.

The roundtable was an invigorating finale to the events of this one-day conference. Conversations kept developing and resurfacing throughout the course of the evening, celebratory party, and indeed the following days. It was such a privilege to see and feel how much scope and eagerness there was in this one room to lay down foundations for enduring collaborative and bilateral partnerships between different institutions, individuals and nations.

Conversations were spirited very much into the late evening. The conference participants and Guildhall School students were invited to a traditional Russian networking 'furshette' - another chance to sample Russian cuisine - with delicacies harking back to Imperial Russian and the best of Soviet kitchens - and, of course, vodka and Georgian and Moldovan wines.


If there was one thing that this conference really demonstrated, it was the intrinsic and unshakeable will of art to borrow, adopt, assimilate, (mis)translate and redefine; and channel any obstructions or boundaries on its course into dynamically mobile confluences.

@UniofOxford @CrossLangDyn @OWRILanguages @OfficialUoM @SASNews @IMLR_News @GuildhallSchool @BritishCouncil

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