Few Russian composers could resist setting verses by Alexander Pushkin, and his influence on the development of Russian music was indirectly as great as his influence on literature. This collection demonstrates the compelling power of the poet, and the beauty of the music he inspired. It is performed by Joan Rodgers, herself an acknowledged master of Russian repertoire, and Malcolm Martineau.
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Russian poetry doesn’t begin with Pushkin, just as Russian music doesn’t begin with his contemporary Glinka, but it is hardly an exaggeration to see both of them as the source of all the fine things that Russian music and literature have produced since the early nineteenth century.
Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) was far from being some impossible Sacred Monster to be treated with distant respect, but a very real human being, full of passions and contradictions, sudden enthusiasms and hesitations, a great lover and a clear-eyed observer, a man who springs vividly to life in everything he wrote or did. Few writers in any language can match Pushkin for the variety of his styles and subjects. His re-tellings of the old Russian folk tales he heard in his childhood are full of wonder, humour and mystery. His education at the Imperial Lycée gave him a grounding in the Classics which is reflected in his sculpted metres and rhythmic virtuosity. With a worldly life in St Petersburg there began the series of lyrics which explore every aspect of love. There followed some years spent in Southern Russia, where he encountered the exotic, Asiatic part of his country; then, with his return to the North, he embarked on a series of large-scale works in verse and prose which delve into Russia’s past and its evolution towards his own times, giving a precise literary reflection of every level of Russian society, with its particular traditions, customs and ways of speech.
Few Russian composers could resist setting verses by this compelling figure, and his influence on the development of Russian music was indirectly as great as his influence on literature. For one thing, Pushkin’s poetry encouraged musicians who set his words to be clear, concise and direct. The Russian language itself, with its rich clusters of consonants and dark, liquid vowels, has a unique fascination, and the general practice among Russian composers of setting one note per syllable results in a close bond between words and music, with vocal lines intimately shaped by poetic stresses and phrasing.
Like Pushkin himself, Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857) drew on a wide range of foreign models and made them essentially Russian. His early songs, most of which adopt the French and Italian styles that prevailed in the cosmopolitan salons of St Petersburg, have a distinction and charm that mark out a great melodist and a great lover of the human voice, though he often allowed himself great liberties with the texts he set. Confession (1839) sidesteps the intensity of Pushkin’s ten strophes by setting only the first and third as an elegant waltz. Adèle (1849) and Here I am, Iñesilla (1834) are also dance songs. The first, marked ‘tempo di polka’, is an ardent invitation to love, the second a serenade anticipating some of the gestures of Glinka’s two overtures on Spanish themes. Do not sing to me, fair maiden was composed in 1828, before the poem was even published. I remember the wonderful moment comes from 1840, four years after the production of A Life for the Tsar had made Glinka the most famous composer in Russia. It was dedicated to Ekaterina Kern, Glinka’s twenty-two-year-old lover at the time. Pushkin had written the poem in 1825 for Ekaterina’s mother, Anna Kern, who later gave Glinka Pushkin’s autograph manuscript.
A friend of Glinka, Aleksandr Dargomïzhsky (1813– 1869) still preserved something of the gentleman amateur in his many songs, once declaring that: ‘If there had been no women in the world, I should never have been a composer.’ He was, however, a keen student of folk-music and a pioneer in Russian vocal declamation and word setting, above all in his seminal operatic setting of The Stone Guest, Pushkin’s version of the Don Juan story. The flow of To his friends (c1850) seems to spring directly from a naturally spoken recitation of the poem. The folk-like simplicity of A girl and a boy (c1841) is somewhat deceptive, since much of its charm is due to sophisticated changes of metre.
Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894), one of the nineteenth century’s greatest pianists, a hugely prolific composer in all forms and founder in 1862 of the St Petersburg Conservatory, had an ambiguous relationship with composers of a more nationalist tendency. Born in present-day Moldova to a family that converted to Russian Orthodoxy, his musical formation came mainly from Germany, although it was more likely the anti-Semitism so endemic in both Russian and German society that led him to complain that he was often considered a German in Russia and a Russian in Germany. He was equally at home setting texts in either language. The two Pushkin settings performed here—The singer and Night—show a clear musical debt to the manner of Schumann and Mendelssohn, though the Russian language gives them a sound and character very different to the songs of those masters.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) is far better known for his orchestral music and operas than for his songs, of which he wrote around eighty, most of them quite late in his career. Three of the songs performed here, however, date from the 1860s, when he was still destined for a career in the navy and described himself as ‘an officer-dilettante who sometimes enjoyed playing or listening to music’. This was far too modest. He was one of the most active members of the group of St Petersburg composers—the critic Stasov called them the Kuchka (‘the mighty handful’)—who aimed to follow in the footsteps of Glinka and Dargomïzhsky by creating in an authentically Russian style free of foreign influences. Although these early songs (What does my name mean to you?, The hills of Georgia and My voice, calling you) are by a composer who had only recently acquired the basics of musical technique, they show no lack of striking ideas, particularly in their evocative accompaniment figures. The first and third show several differences from Pushkin’s published texts, suggesting that Rimsky-Korsakov might have set them from memory. ‘You’ and ‘thou’ (1883) is dedicated to his wife Natalia, herself an accomplished musician. The remaining three songs date from 1897, the year in which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Mozart and Salieri, the first of his three operas on Pushkin subjects. Echo is one of the few Pushkin verses set by non-Russians, opening Benjamin Britten’s Pushkin cycle The Poet’s Echo (1965); Do not sing to me, fair maiden shows the composer of Sheherazade still dreaming of distant lands, while A line of flying clouds shows his melodic gifts at the service of suggestive nature painting.
The most radical member of the Kuchka turned out to be Modest Musorgsky (1839–1881), though when he composed his first songs in the early 1860s he was far more of a dilettante than Rimsky-Korsakov. Over the next few years, however, his outlook deepened as he came to realize that music could be something more than mere entertainment, that it could be a means of reflecting and understanding the world. He resigned his commission in the army and devoted himself entirely to composition, completing his first version of Boris Godunov on Pushkin’s drama in 1869. Night (1864) and The magpie (1867) exemplify two sides of his complex character. The first, described as a ‘fantasia’, is dark and introverted; the second springs from his sharp observation of Russian folk culture.
The son of a French officer who had been wounded in the 1812 invasion and remained in Russia, César Cui (1835–1918) was generally more influential as a writer and critic than as a composer. An aesthete and a francophile, his finest achievements are not his large-scale works (which include three Pushkin operas) but rather his songs and piano music, which reveal an accomplished miniaturist. The three songs performed here come from his centenary tribute, Twenty-five Pushkin Poems of 1899. They all demonstrate a fastidious ear for the shades and stresses of the verse.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was very conscious of the fact that fine verse generally loses its poetic qualities when set to music and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he tended to shy away from setting first-rate poetry. Of his hundred-odd songs, only two have words by Pushkin, although his finest operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, take their subjects, if not their words, from Pushkin. Zemfira’s song, one of his earliest surviving compositions, is a miniature operatic scene from the dramatic poem The gypsies. Zemfira has tired of her lover Aleko, the man who believed he could find freedom among a group of gypsies but brings only jealousy and death. The nightingale is a folk stylization, the original verse adapted by Pushkin from an edition of Serbian folk poems that he read in German translation.
It was The gypsies that provided the springboard for the career of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943). Do not sing to me, fair maiden was composed in 1893 shortly after his one-act opera Aleko had been performed at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow and brought him to wide public attention. A major difference between Rachmaninov’s songs and those of many earlier composers is the type of performer they were written for. While some of his early songs are within the reach of talented amateurs, he generally demands the highest degree of technique and interpretation from both performers. The muse (1912) is a wonderful tone poem for voice and piano, comparable in expression and scope to some of the composer’s Études-tableaux for solo piano.
Almost contemporary with Rachmaninov’s The muse is the setting by his friend Nikolai Medtner (1880–1951). A withdrawn figure, conservative and deeply religious, Medtner came from a Baltic German family and, like Anton Rubinstein, he drew deeply from both cultures. The superficial traits of Russian music (what he scornfully referred to as ‘ethnographical trimmings’) held little attraction for him. He insisted on the importance of form, of organic unity, of the supremacy of melody and traditional harmony. His character may have been somewhat austere, but there is nothing in the least inaccessible about his finely crafted music. His favoured poets were Goethe and Pushkin, although the text of The waltz, very Pushkin-like, is actually by the poet’s close friend Anton Delvig. The rich harmonies of The rose and When roses wither bq give something of a fin-de-siècle quality to Pushkin’s simple lyrics, and indeed the songs of Medtner and Rachmaninov can be seen as the end of an era, for Russian culture would soon be convulsed by revolution and there would be little further scope for a language of such intimate sensitivity.
At the time when Soviet Russia was marking the centenary of Pushkin’s death, a double standard prevailed. Pushkin’s hatred of tyranny was all very well as long as it applied to the bad old Tsarist days, but any application to contemporary reality was out of the question. The 1937 celebrations tended to focus on his less controversial works, musicians choosing lyric verses that avoided confronting the sort of oppression Pushkin knew well from personal experience. In 1825 he had found himself on the fringes of the Decembrist revolt, which attempted to provide some sort of constitution for Russia. He spent the rest of his life either under virtual house-arrest at his small country estate, or under the watchful eyes of officialdom in St Petersburg, where Tsar Nikolai I appointed himself the personal censor of the writer he is supposed to have described as ‘the wisest man in Russia’.
Vladimir Vlasov (1903–1986) was a Muscovite who spent the dangerous years 1936–42 in remote Soviet Kyrgyzstan, where he founded and directed the National Theatre, writing several patriotic and nationalistic works. His setting of The fountain in the courtyard of Bakhchisaray, verses inspired by the ruined Tartar palace near Sebastopol in the Crimea, lets the words speak for themselves against a constant, Impressionistic rippling of water music. The contribution to the Pushkin centenary by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975) was his Four Romances Op 46, three of which directly and boldly address the question of the artist’s role in society. A girl, sobbing bitterly is the lightest of the set; in contrast to Dargomïzhsky’s setting, the quirky harmony and accompaniment subtly describe every passing action and emotion of the poem.
Andrew Huth © 2009