Question for Discussion: The Role of Music in The Master and Margarita
One of the more obvious, and delightful, elements of this story is the role of music in The Master and Margarita. Notably, many characters bear the names of famous composers: Berlioz, Rimsky, and Stravinsky, to name a few. In addition, a number of scenes feature actual music, either being played, or heard on the radio. Consequently the novel often seems to provide its own soundtrack. So what are among the ways Bulgakov uses music in this novel, and what do these say about his musical tastes?
Some things to consider include:
How does he present Jazz music, which in his time was an American phenomenon that was sweeping the globe? What are we to make of the description, during the party at Satan’s, that the jazz band and the orchestra seem to be “warring” with each other?
Does the representation of characters reflect Bulgakov’s view of the music created by a character’s namesake? For example: can the music of Berlioz be said to be “bald, and terribly eloquent”? Should the “voice” of Rimsky-Korsakov compositions be described as “sharp and unpleasant”? And could Prokofiev’s music be characterized as ebullient, and with a certain joie de vivre, like Margarita’s housekeeper Natasha Prokofievna?
Another related question concerns how Bulgakov felt about radio broadcasts, which had begun airing in Moscow only a few years before he started to write this novel. Especially notable is the music from the opera Yevgeniy Onegin, booming from radios everywhere in Moscow; out of doors, windows, rooftops, basements, courtyards . . . accompanying, and torturing, Ivan as he searches the streets of Moscow for the devious consultant, or professor. Radio makes other intriguing appearances in the novel as well.
Feel free to comment on any of these questions, and pose others in this discussion of music in The Master and Margarita.
‘The Master and Margarita’ is a novel that was written, and whose actions take place, in the Moscow of the nineteen thirties. It depicts ordinary Russians living in the capital of the Soviet Union, but confronted with some extraordinary, even supernatural, occurrences. Bulgakov uses this setting to make some subtle, and not so subtle, observations and critiques of Soviet society and politics. Knowing well that such criticisms were unacceptable to the Communist regime, Mikhail Bulgakov apparently gave no thought to ever trying to publish ‘The Master and Margarita’. In fact, it was not until 1966, twenty-six years after the author’s death, that a censored version was first published in the Soviet Union. Today the ‘The Master and Margarita’ provides a rare, honest glimpse into the day-to-day life of Muscovites at a time when their world was changing at a breakneck pace in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution.
This introduction will hopefully provide enough background to make some of Bulgakov’s observations easier to understand and appreciate. While this effort necessarily paints a picture that will seem rather grim, it should be kept in mind that the novel itself is absurd, comedic, and entertaining on many levels. This presentation puts The Master and Margarita into a genre of Russian fiction that uses fantasy, illusion, comedy, and absurdity, not to divert from or ignore a harsh reality, but rather to accept and embrace it, and more importantly, to disguise commentary and criticism of it from the ever-vigilant censor. This genre has a rich history in Russia from well before the Soviet era, as literary censorship was not invented by the Communist Party, but copied straight from the book of Tsarist rule. Continue reading “New Introduction to Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’”
In an earlier post—Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature—I compared Bulgakov’s Satan with the Devil that appears to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan, one of the Brothers Karamazov. There are many similarities. Both seem to be gentlemanly, and in Dostoevsky, Ivan is sure that this character is the product of the delirium from his own “brain fever”, in Bulgakov, when the Master first encounters the Satan character, he says, “it would, of course, be much easier to consider you the product of a hallucination.” (These are reminiscent, too, of Scrooge’s argument that the ghost of Jacob Marley may be the result of a “slight disorder of the stomach,” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).
In that earlier post, I was concerned mainly with the outward appearance of the Devil, as described by both authors, and his manner. But I also included some discussion of how Dostoevsky’s Devil muses on the nature of good and evil, and his place in the conflict between them. He argues to Ivan that he is not inherently evil, or even bad, but that fate had chosen him to be the representative of these things, as a counterpoint to good: Continue reading “More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”