Books and Brews: Russian Literature and Russian Beers


Today was the second episode of Books and Brews.  Last month was poetry and coffee beer.  This month, we did Russian literature and Russian beer, with guests Michael Agnew, beer cicerone, Dr. Chris Powell speaking on the great Russian novelists, and Ross Fishman, co-owner of Kramer's School of Music, talking about Pushkin and his importance to the Russian people.  Also joining us was Laura Hedlund, the regular host of Food Freedom Radio.

The hour flew by.  In addition to sampling Baltica lagers--each of which is numbered--and English Courage Imperial Russian, which is an English beer favored by Catherine the Great, we sampled some of the great Russian orchestral pieces, which were used as bumper music.  I talked about The Great Gate of Kiev and the 1812 Overture in a previous post.  Today, we heard small parts of the 1812, Baba Yaga, Night on Bald Mountain, and Scheherazade. 

great books, Russian authors, great Russian novels, great novels, anna karenina
Among us, we drew some parallels between Russian literature and music.  I admittedly know Russian orchestral pieces from the perspective of a trombonist.  But the pieces are very often strong, powerful, and, at times, dark.  Bald Mountain, for example, is the story of witches convening and dancing madly atop Bald Mountain (or Bare Mountain, depending on the translation.)  Rite of Spring is hardly a cheery children's story, either.

Another common feature of Russian orchestral music is that it so often tells stories.

Pictures at an Exhibition is stories within the story of a man walking through a picture exhibition, looking at The Hut of Baba Yaga (a picture based on an old Russian story), The Great Gate of Kiev, The Gnome, The Old Castle, and more.

Flight of the Bumblebee, Prince Igor, Peter and the Wolf, Scheherazade, The Firebird--each is a musical story.  I had hoped to tell on air one of my favorites, but we ran out of time, so I'll tell it here:

Lieutenant Kije, by Prokofiev, is the story of a fictitious man--I mean, fictitious even within the fictional nature of the story itself.  A clerk, in compiling the military roster, has a slip of the pen (that's a non-computerized typo for you young-uns!) and writes Lieutenant Kije.  The tsar, on seeing the name, is intrigued by it and asks to meet this man.

Because he fears to admit to the tsar that he made a mistake.  Conveniently, the tsar was already in a rage about being awoken by a 'shriek' from the dalliance of two courtiers.  So, they solve both problems by blaming the nocturnal disturbance on the non-existent Lieutenant Kije. 

The full story is well worth looking up, but suffice it to say here, the courtiers are now forced to make up continuing stories about Lieutenant Kije over the years, as the tsar continues to ask after this man he never quite is able to meet--and to award him lands, money, and promotions!  Kije leads quite the interesting life!  But finally, on being cornered by the tsar some years later, demanding to meet this extraordinary man, the courtiers sadly announce his death.

The non-existent Kije is given a lavish funeral with full military honors.  But the tsar wants his lands and money returned.  The courtiers, alas, have spent it all themselves.  They tell the tsar Kije spent it in high living.  The angry tsar posthumously demotes Kije all the way back down to private!

Who says all Russian stories are dark?

But wait, I believe I got ahead of myself!  One thing Ross, Chris, and Laura H talked about was how often Russian literature has sad endings, as opposed to the frequent happy endings we favor here and now.  Ross talked about two fairy tales in particular--the dough that runs away and gets eat by a fox (a Russian variation on our gingerbread man) and the golden fish, in which a fish grants a poor fisherman all the wishes he wants in exchange for his (the fish's) life. 

The fisherman graciously throws the fish back, saying he doesn't need anything.  His wife, however, is of a different opinion.  Her steadily increasing demands on the fish, however, eventually see her demoted--like poor blameless (though non-existent) Kije--from tsarina in a palace right back to old woman in a hut by a broken trough.  Sad ending?  Yes, but as Ross said, there are lessons to be learned from sad endings.

Speaking of sad endings--Pushkin himself came to a sad ending.  He was as hot-headed as the Bruce, and as enthralled with the ladies as Shawn.  This led him to a number of duels.  The last of those man, when he was 37, didn't end as he would have preferred.  Is there something to be learned from this?  I would think so!  Of course, some will take the lesson to be: draw faster, strike harder, and train with your weapon more often!  So to speak.

Chris spoke of Anna Karenina--a woman who had everything but failed to appreciate it.  Instead, she fell in love with a Vronsky, left her husband for him, and eventually lost everything as a result.  Again, a tragic ending (Ross gives the spoiler on air), but some deeper things to think about.

Literature--good literature--shapes our lives, broadens our horizons, and deepens our thinking.  (As is the point of my Literature and Life series.)

Ross read I Love You, by Alexander Pushkin (posted yesterday) in both Russian and English.  Once more, we talked about the deeper lessons for all of us in this poem--a self-sacrificial love that thinks not of oneself, but of the beloved, as the narrator understands the love is not returned, but expresses only the deepest wishes that the beloved to be loved so deeply again by another.  (More on love in literature.)

As I didn't get a chance to read it on air, I'll post here a Pushkin poem I really like.

The Muse

In my young years she loved me, and a seven-fluted
A fine-toned panpipe gave me, and as I soft, muted
Sounds wrung from out its depths, as my limp fingers touched
The hollow, tuneful reed, she by me sat and watched
And smiled to hear me play with skill that slow was growing
Hymns by the gods inspired and too the songs sweet-flowing
That in a bygone age the Phrygian shepherds sang.
With music all day long the silent oak grove rang
As taught I was by her, a privilege accorded
In secret to a few; at times the Maid rewarded
My diligence; her curls she'd fling back from her face
And from me take the pipe and play with such sweet grace
That by her breath revived and powers celestial granted
The reed was, and the heart with sacred song enchanted.

1821
Translated by Irina Zheleznova

We also sampled beers with each segment, moving from the lightest to the heaviest and darkest:

Baltica, we learned, names its beers by number, and the lower the number, the lighter the beer.  We tried the following, keeping in mind that I am not a beer expert, and am relaying from the notes I took while also trying to listen.  If there are mistakes here, they are my mistakes in note-taking/interpreting, not Michael's.  But you can always listen to the program and hear his words directly!

Baltica 3: low color, pale, and refreshing.  This was in my top 2 or 3 of the 4 we tried.

Baltica 4: a higher alcohol content (5-1/2% according to my notes, which hopefully I got right as I was trying to listen and write!), with caramel malt, sweeter, less hop, and less bitter.  Have I said I'm not much of a beer connoisseur?  But I tasted immediately what Michael was talking about.  It's more subtle, maybe than we generally think of 'sweet,' but yes, it was sweeter than the Baltica 3.

Baltica 6: This is a porter, darker still, that originated in England but was picked up by Russian brewers.  You won't taste as much of the 'burnt roast' as you might in a stout, and if you pay attention, you'll pick up some fruit notes.

Courage Imperial Russian Stout:  This is an English beer, but as it was imported especially for Catherine the Great, we included it.  This was the strongest of the beers, at 10% alcohol, with licorice and coffee flavors.

To learn more about the people on the program: Michael Agnew  Chris Powell  Ross Fishman

Next month: Irish literature, Irish beer, and of course...Irish music!











COMING UP:

  • February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson.  Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman Pushkin and Russia, and Dr. Chris R. Powell on Russian literature.  We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.
  • March 20-24, 2017: Indie-Con, an online convention of indie authors in which I'll be participating with guest blogs, Q&A, and critiquing.

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