Bard Music Festival Rediscoveries Blog

The Magic of Pushkin in Rimsky-Korsakov's Fairy-Tale Operas

July 31, 2018
by Olga Veronina Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s relationship with Alexander Pushkin’s works was long and intense. He paid tribute to the national poet by transforming two of his fairy tales and one of his “little tragedies” into operas (The Tale of Tsar Saltan, 1899–1900; Mozart and Salieri,1897; and The Golden Cockerel, 1906–7) and composing more than 20 songs and romances to his poems. Pushkin’s “Oleg the Wise” became a cantata (1899), while several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s choral compositions were also set to Pushkin lyrics: the “Bacchus Song” (1875), for example, is a chorus for four male singers who vocalize the poet’s passionate appeal to his friends, alumni of the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum: “Let’s raise our glasses, let’s bring them together! / Long live the muses, long live reason!” It was at the Lyceum’s 1815 exam that the Russian cultural elite noticed Pushkin’s genius and applauded his early literary efforts—not unlike it applauded, 50 years later, the 21-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov’s debut with his Symphony No. 1 in E Minor at a St. Petersburg City Duma concert.

When the Russian public celebrated Pushkin’s precociousness or Rimsky-Korsakov’s youthful talent, it did so based on their talent, but also because both epitomized something previously infrequent in national culture: not just the purity of lyrical voice and originality of artistic vision, but fearlessness to create authentically Russian poetry and music as well. Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Symphony, premiered in 1865, was, in fact, Russia’s first, while Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, which he began as a Lyceist in 1817 and saw published in 1820, was both a reworking of an East Slavic folktale and a parody of Voltaire’s The Maid of Orleans. The older poets who inspired or mentored Pushkin, including Gavriil Derzhavin and Vasily Zhukovsky, could not achieve such an effortless grafting of borrowed motifs onto a native narrative stock. Poetic efforts of Pushkin’s predecessors usually ran in a different direction: they transported Russian elements onto an appropriated background, more often than not of a Western European origin.

Like Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov was capable of articulating this phantom property, “Russianness,” by embracing domestic cultural prototypes. While Pushkin relied on the rich and flexible patterns of the Russian vernacular, which he lovingly adopted for his literary purposes, Rimsky-Korsakov saturated his music with melodious folk motifs, voice modulations of pre-Bortniansky church singing, and funky rhythms of such “pagan” rituals as maslenitsa (Shrovetide) and the Mermaids’ Week. Both owed much to the national folk tradition, citing and readapting songs, fairy tales, epic narratives, legends, and bylinas (Russian folk epics or ballads). It is not surprising, then, that Rimsky-Korsakov’s “collaboration” with Pushkin—across decades—began with his editing of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila score: the work that combined the romantic and the heroic, the solemn and the subversive, and that contained enough jokes to keep the audience laughing even as they were getting goose bumps from contemplating the supernatural (the wizard who kidnaps Ruslan’s bride after the wedding feast is so old that he can only circle hopelessly around his prey, doing her no harm).

Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired by Glinka, Pushkin’s contemporary and acquaintance. Of Glinka’s two Italianate operas, Life for the Tsar (1834–36) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1837–42), he adored the latter. The critic Vladimir Stasov reports that as an adolescent Rimsky-Korsakov spent all his pocket money on the score of Ruslan, which was then sold in installments—an ideal comic books proxy for the young composer. In the 1870s, he would return to Ruslan when some of the Mighty Five (as Stasov dubbed the group of nationalist composers made up of Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and César Cui) decided to prepare an edited version of the opera for publication. Shortly after completing his share of the work, Rimsky-Korsakov began to write an orchestral piece to Pushkin’s prologue to Ruslan. He spent the summer of 1879 composing the “Fairy-Tale,” or “Baba-Yaga” as it was then called. No one liked it then, however, the composer included. In a letter to a friend he complained: “I haven’t done anything this summer. Only started a musical étude ‘Baba-Yaga,’ but it is not turning out well, and I am not sure I will be continuing it.” Soon, Rimsky-Korsakov would conceive and start working on a new opera, The Snow Maiden. This was his first fairy-tale creation, and it fared much better than “Baba-Yaga.” Having completed it, Rimsky noticed: “I have felt myself a mature musician and a sure-footed opera composer.”

Alexander Benois stage design for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan.”

Considering how important the poem Ruslan and Lyudmila and Glinka’s musical rendering of it were for Rimsky-Korsakov, it is a paradox of sorts that the composer so intent on reworking imaginative, legendary, and mythical stories would attempt an opera based on Pushkin’s fairy tale—The Tale of Tsar Saltan—only at the very peak of his career, in 1899, the year that marked the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth. Was it the anxiety of Glinka’s influence or the kind of awe in which every educated Russian of Rimsky-Korsakov’s generation held Pushkin? Even in 1880, when the monument to the national poet was erected in Moscow to the accompaniment of dozens of documentary exhibits, art shows, concerts, lectures, and celebratory dinners, Rimsky-Korsakov contributed only his “Fairy Tale (Baba-Yaga)” to the celebration. He conducted the piece, which by then had acquired “color and brilliance” in his eyes, at a Russian Musical Society’s concert on January 10, 1881. By then, the tide of the Pushkin festival had receded, the unveiling of the monument nearly forgotten.

Why Tsar Saltan, then, and why in 1899? In spite of Rimsky-Korsakov’s proximity to Pushkin, his decision to fully embrace the poet as a creator of fairy tales with great operatic potential was probably determined by public taste rather than by his artistic preferences alone. Unlike the Pushkin Celebrations of 1880, the centennial resulted in a countrywide campaign to bring Pushkin closer to Russia’s semiliterate population—the men and women whose path to the poet’s monument was supposed to “never overgrow,” as Pushkin himself predicted in his 1836 poem, “Exegi Monumentum.” According to the bibliographer Nikolai Rubakin, Pushkin’s words were then a prophesy not yet achieved: at the turn of the century, the majority of Russian citizens were still deprived not only of great literature but of the most basic, utilitarian kind of learning. Rubakin’s research, conducted in 1895, demonstrated that among Russian rural youth, only two-fifth of males and one-sixth of females between 10 and 19 were literate. The ratio of those able to read to those who did not know their letters among their parents and grandparents, however, was even smaller: among 60-year-olds, one of six men and one of 14 women could read and, possibly, write. In other words, the proverbial narod (the common people), those crowds expected to flock to the poet’s monument, did not read. The chance that they knew their national poet, let alone were ready to celebrate his legacy, was low. The intelligentsia’s awareness of this fact resulted in the centennial celebrants’ new role: they were to expose the people to Pushkin, starting with his most comprehensible works, such as fairy tales—the works that the people themselves, including the poet’s famous nanny Arina Rodionovna, had created and steeped him in.

Ivan Bilibin’s stage design for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” (1909)

Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan was a fitting contribution to the campaign for the enlightenment of the people through Pushkin’s art. The choice of text, namely the rhymed, linguistically flamboyant tale memorably written in bouncy trochees—the rhythm by then most closely associated with folk poetry—immediately transformed the opera into a musical symbol of Pushkin’s narodnost, or national ethos, a quality which critics had by then also started to assign to the composer himself. It was Stasov who both suggested “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” and pointed out its validity for the celebration of the Pushkin centennial to Rimsky-Korsakov. Vladimir Belsky, who collaborated with the composer on The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) as well as on The Golden Cockerel, created the libretto that paid tribute to the rhythmical inventiveness and metaphorical richness of Pushkin’s storytelling while offering a varied and playful poetic terrain on which to exercise vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Most interestingly, Rimsky-Korsakov’s awareness of the folk roots of Pushkin’s “Tsar Saltan” (as well as his life-long fascination with Pushkin) prompted him to include in the opera a lullaby that his own children’s nanny, Avdotya Larionovna, used to sing in the nursery.

It is obvious that the illiterate people with little access to books were unable to attend The Tale of Tsar Saltan production at the Solodovnikov Theater (1900), Bolshoy (1913), or Mariinsky (1915). Nevertheless, Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Belsky’s, and Stasov’s effort made a notable contribution to the public project of de-monumentalizing the recently canonized author as well as to the evolving conception of the entire nation as an enormous, albeit undifferentiated, cultural audience. Along with other celebrants, they saw in Pushkin’s national ethos not only an ability to entice the masses with ideas, thus civilizing and ennobling them, but also reverence for the vernacular, admiration of the people’s rhetorical resourcefulness, and appreciation of the oral tradition that connected Russian folk heritage to Indo-European archetypal plots and tropes. Thus, Tsar Saltan, which seemed to the composer himself somewhat “dry” and “schematic,” incorporated not only Pushkin’s narrative and poetic structures, but also lubok imagery (in Mikhail Vrubel’s stage designs and costumes), the dances of skomorokhi (street performers), and the bouncy rhymes of chastushki—ridiculously short but sharp limerick-like ditties.

It was this belief in Pushkin’s affinity with the people’s culture and his fairy-tales’ edifying potential that allowed Rimsky-Korsakov to turn his next opera based on Pushkin into a satirical work. If Pushkin’s tales were for the people but also contained elements of “Russianness” as the kind of cultural sensibility everyone could share and understand, why not use them to deliver a message about Russia as it appeared now, the country in dire need of change? When the composer decided to work on the poet’s Russianized adaptation of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, he used the literary text for political as well as artistic purposes. Unlike Pushkin’s tale, however, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel contained easily recognizable references to the revolution of 1905 and the failed Russo-Japanese War, as well as to Russia’s expansionistic ambitions, the tsar’s inept leadership, and the never-ending unhappiness of the people. The opera, which would be his last, was initially rejected by the Censorship Committee and premiered only after the composer’s death.

Thus, with Pushkin’s help, Rimsky-Korsakov was transformed into a radical—a metamorphosis that neither the poet nor the composer would have truly welcomed. The change might have happened because Rimsky-Korsakov believed, as the critic Alexander Arkhangelsky wrote, that “the luminous, ideal world of Pushkin and our other great writers should soon illuminate the shadows” in which the illiterate masses dwelled—and lead them “away from the ‘power of darkness’ to the spaciousness of God’s light.” Or it might have been that by the end of the composer’s life his admiration for Pushkin and the Russian folk tradition turned into an understanding that fairy tales created by the great writer could lend themselves to musical adaptations of enormous power: artistic, enlightening, and civic.

Olga Veronina is an associate professor of Russian at Bard College. She received her M.A. from the Herzen University, St. Petersburg, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to coming to Bard, she served as the director of the Information Resource Center of the U.S. Consulate General in St. Petersburg, and as deputy director the city’s Nabokov Museum. Her publications include the highly praised edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra (trans. and ed., with Brian Boyd).