Program Four: The Legacy of Pushkin
About the Program
In the popular Russian film About Love, a Japanese Russophile travels to Moscow in hopes of meeting a man who shares her passion for the Russian classics. She dates six Russian men of varying ages and backgrounds, all of whom prove objectionable in one way or another: one only has eyes for his pint of beer, another conveniently forgets his wallet, a third relieves her of a few spare rubles with a yarn about his ailing grandmother. The young woman takes these offenses in stride, waving them off as endearing national quirks. Less forgivable, however, are the blank expressions with which the men respond to her catalogue of favorite artists (“Chekhov? Tarkovsky? Pasternak? Lermontov? Rachmaninoff?”). Only one name penetrates this stupendous cultural illiteracy: “Pushkin! Of course, Pushkin!” “Oh-ho-ho, Pushkin!” “Pushkin, who doesn’t know Pushkin?”
Pushkin’s central position in the Russian cultural pantheon was not always so secure. The poet lived a scant 37 years, from 1799 to 1837, but that was long enough to see himself judged as past his prime, his sparkling verse out of tune with the realist aesthetic that was soon to dominate the Russian arts. Literary critics of the next generation, particularly those of a utilitarian, realist bent, tended to view Nikolai Gogol as the greater artist; the critic Dmitri Pisarev famously dismissed Pushkin’s works as the apotheosis of a banal and meaningless status quo. In 1877, Tchaikovsky’s patron, the liberal intellectual Nadezhda von Meck, could summon only the iciest of responses to his planned adaptation of Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin: “I’m sure the music will be superior to the subject matter.” Fifty years after the poet’s death, only about 20 thousand copies of Pushkin’s works were owned privately in Russia—a nation with a literate population of some 20 million. Pushkin’s canonization as the patron saint of Russian letters would have a few more years to wait.
For one group of people, however, Pushkin never lost his appeal: Russian composers. One of Pushkin’s singular gifts was his ability to forge limpid and graceful iambs out of Russian, a language whose arbitrary stress patterns bedevil every foreigner who attempts to learn it. Beyond the musical qualities of his writing, Pushkin also offered composers an exceptionally broad assortment of settings and genres, from fairy tales to Shakespearean political dramas, from tender lyric poetry to caustic satires, from ghost stories and exotic fantasies to true-life society tales. These factors, along with the poet’s attractive concision relative to other 19th-century Russian writers (the word count of Eugene Onegin is 1/20th that of War and Peace) combined to keep Pushkin at the very center of the Russian musical tradition even when literary fashions ran in other directions. The canon of Russian vocal music would be threadbare indeed without this most musicalized of all Russian authors.
Pushkin’s career coincided with the development of the Russian romance, a genre contemporary with the German lied and other European song forms. Usually composed for voice and piano or guitar, the romance struck a balance between the folkish and the cosmopolitan, uniting traditionally “Russian” melodic features with Western-style harmonization and accompaniment. An intimate genre designed for the intimate space of the middle-class home, the romance dealt primarily with material of a sentimental nature, sometimes enlivened with a splash of exotic local color. The love lyrics, elegies, and Orientalia typical of the young Pushkin made for ideal subject matter, and during the 1820s and 1830s, Pushkin’s poems were regularly set by composers such as Alyabyev, Gurilyov, and Varlamov—the troika of Alexanders whose compositions defined the early idiom of the Russian romance. Texts by Pushkin have thus been a mainstay of the genre from its inception, and the “Pushkin romance” would remain a hallowed and prolific category well into the Soviet period. So strong was the association between Pushkin and the Russian romance that Tchaikovsky interpolated romances into both of his Pushkin operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. In those works the romance serves as an aural signifier of both a genteel domestic environment and a bygone, Pushkinian era.
In the realm of opera, Pushkin’s works have been the basis for some of Russian music’s boldest experiments. Mikhail Glinka’s 1842 adaptation of the mock epic Ruslan and Lyudmila used novel and inventive harmonies to represent the supernatural world, a device that would be appropriated by later Russian composers from Alexander Dargomyzhsky to Igor Stravinsky. Chief among this throng was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose two operas based on Pushkin fairy tales—The Tale of Tsar Saltan and The Golden Cockerel—both deck out their magic characters in avant-garde harmonic fashions. In 1869, Modest Mussorgsky transformed Pushkin’s Shakespearean drama Boris Godunov into the 19th century’s realist opera par excellence, capturing in music the rhythms and intonations of Russian speech. In the same year, Dargomyzhsky’s radical adaptation of The Stone Guest—one of four verse dramas known collectively as the Little Tragedies—set Pushkin’s words verbatim in continuous recitative, with musical repetition restricted to the places in which the original text repeats. (The remaining Little Tragedies would be set in similar fashion by Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, and Sergei Rachmaninoff at the turn of the 20th century.) Given this history, it was both ironic and inevitable that Stravinsky would turn to Pushkin for his own “reform” opera, Mavra—a neo-classical work designed specifically to refute the progressive, nationalist legacy of Dargomyzhsky and the Mighty Five.
“Pushkin—he is our everything,” wrote Apollon Grigoriev in 1859. This statement was deliberately divisive: the conservative critic meant to defend art’s right to autonomous beauty against those who would measure its worth in terms of social utility. In music, however, Pushkin has been a truly universal figure, transcending Russian music’s seemingly unbridgeable gulfs: between the nationalists and the cosmopolitans, the autodidacts and the conservatorians, the classicists and the radicals.
—Emily Frey, Swarthmore College