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Pushkin, Aleksandr (1799-1837)

Aleksandr Pushkin

born: 6 June 1799
died: 10 February 1837
country: Russia

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.

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’.

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.

from notes by Andrew Huth © 2009

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