What happens when a great composer dies and leaves a major work of classical music unfinished?
Usually, the completion and ultimate salvation of such a work falls to the composer’s pupils, fellow musicians, and other comrades-in-arms.
The most famous case of such a musical rescue operation is, arguably, Mozart’s Requiem. The story of his final piece has become a fascinating subject not only for musicologists and cultural historians but also for creative artists and the general public. The thrilling legend has been passedfrom Alexander Pushkin, who explored the rumors related to Mozart’s death shortly after receiving an enigmatic commission for a requiem mass in his drama Mozart and Salieri in 1830; to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, following Pushkin’s text almost verbatim, wrote his one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, in 1897; to Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which premiered in 1979 and was adapted as a film in 1984.
As we now know, Antonio Salieri, the villain allegedly responsible for Mozart’s mysterious demise, was actually the victim of a long-lived defamation campaign. He did not poison Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
However, there was never any mystery about who had worked on Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. One of the musicians in charge of the task was Franz Xaver Süssmayr, whose claim to fame is precisely that: he was the composer who completed Mozart’s Requiem. Another Austrian composer who played a role in producing the final version of the score was Mozart’s student and friend Joseph von Eybler. There is an interesting practical detail related to the story. Mozart’s widow, anxious about the final payment for the commissioned Requiem, askedSüssmayr and Eybler to finish it and thus secure her husband’s honorarium. (The question remainsas to whether Constanza remunerated them for the job.)
In a similar turn of fate, one of the most popular operas of all time, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, was left unfinished when the composer died in 1924. The task of completing this opera was given to Puccini’s compatriot, Franco Alfano (1875–1954). Although during his lifetime Alfano attained a respectable professional status as composer and pianist, he is, not unlike Süssmayr, mainly known as the composer who completed what became a staplein opera houses around the world: Turandot. The general recognition of Alfano’s role did not prevent him from the criticism and casual edits of his reconstructive efforts by opera conductors and directors. Moreover, when Luciano Berio composed a new ending for Turandot in 2001 many opera lovers found his contribution to Puccini’s unfinished finale more fulfilling than Alfano’s.
Next to these tales of admirable dedication to music and friendship, the account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s completion of works left unfinished by Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin becomes a story of epic proportions.
All of these Russian composers started their musical life in the early 1860s as members of the legendary group the Mighty Five, which also included Mily Balakirev and César Cui. The only professional musician among the Five was Balakirev, the group’s organizer and leader. Their union was cemented by a common belief in the unique nature of Russian musical tradition and radical ideas about how to create new, authentically Russian compositions. But even during the music-making-in-the-garage period, three exceptional talents stood out more and more from the rest: Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov.
By the time Mussorgsky died in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov, who had joined the group 20 years earlier, had undergone a transformation: from a young naval officer with musical aspirations to a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, one of the leading cultural figures in Russia, and a prolific composer, all the while remaining a relentless student ofmusical art.He was always close to Mussorgsky; they even lived as roommates back in 1871. As Rimsky-Korsakov later described it in his memoir, My Musical Life:
This could well be the only example of two composers living together. . . . In the morning until noon Mussorgskyusually used the piano, and I copied or orchestrated something I had already fully thought out. By noon he would go off to his duties at the Ministry and I had the piano. . . . That fall and winter we spent in constant exchange of ideas and plans. Mussorgsky had been composing and orchestrating the Polish act of Boris Godunov and the mass scene “Near Kromy.” I was orchestrating and completing The Maid of Pskov.
After Mussorgsky’s death, his entire musical archive was passed to Rimsky-Korsakov, who now faced the challenge of saving the ideas of the late composer by reconstructing entire musical parts from Mussorgsky’s chaotic notes and occasionally from his own memory. For the next several years he dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the restoration and preservation of the Mussorgsky oeuvre. He not only completed the opera Khovanshchina and created a new masterful—albeit controversial—version of the orchestral score of Boris Godunov but also prepared numerous vocal pieces composed by Mussorgsky for publication. Five years later, Rimsky-Korsakov made a celebrated orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain. It’s no wonder that he noted in a letter of 1882 to his friend, the music critic Sergei Kruglikov: “It seems to me that my own name is Modest Petrovich and not Nikolai Andreevich; and that it was I who composed Khovanshchina and, arguably even Boris Godunov.”
Alexander Borodin of the Mighty Five died in 1887 without completing his longtime musical project, the opera Prince Igor. (In all fairness, it should be noted that Borodin’s main occupation was as a professor of chemistry.) And again, Rimsky-Korsakov stepped in to save an unfinished masterpiece. This time he relied even more than in the case of Khovanschina on his formidable memory and on valuable assistance from Alexander Glazunov. Unfortunately, Borodin’s working method was based on performing his opera in progress for his friends rather than writing down his music in any detail. Rimsky-Korsakov did not cease to work on Borodin’s opera until it had been finished, published, and produced at the Mariinsky Theater in 1890. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s own words, “Both Glazunov and I were pleased with our orchestration and additions.”
So, how to explain such unfailing care given by a musical genius and superb composer to the legacy of other composers? How to interpret his staunch determination to foster the works of other people? What can shed light on that kind of altruistic behavior?
Part of the answer certainly lies in Rimsky-Korsakov’s personality, whichwas characterized by generosity, honesty, and, in Igor Stravinsky’s words, “deeply sincere, not for show magnanimity.” Indeed, at the outset of the Mighty Five, Rimsky-Korsakov’s nickname within the Balakirev’s circle was “Sincerity.” A comparable account comes from one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s student at the Court Choral Cappella (now the Glinka Cappella). He fondly recalls how typically mischievous choirboys paid high respect to their teacher, who carried out his responsibilities with the utmost dedication and professionalism.
Another factor that arguably made Rimsky-Korsakov ready to stand up for his fellow composers is discernible from his background. The very idea of service to others was ingrained within theRimsky-Korsakov family, which could trace its lineagebackto 14th–centuryRussia. Furthermore,several generations of the clan served as naval officers. It is not without reason that the coat of arms of the family is adorned with images of two silver anchors. Thus, it was predictable that the parents of the then 12-year-old Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov enrolled him inthe Russian Imperial Naval College in St. Petersburg. “I never thought about becoming a musician,” wrote the composer years later in his memoir, “but my dream of becoming a marine enchanted me.”
The dream of his youth was fulfilled when, six years later, naval officer Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a three-year-long journey around the world.The influence of this sea voyage on Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and artistic imagination is well known and has been studied by music scholars.However, for the purposes of this essay, it is worthwhile to point out a fundamental part of life on a naval ship: the dependence of a sailor on the entire crew and of the crew on each sailor. In that context, such notions as a sense of duty and service to others quickly lose their air of abstract morality and become practical necessity.
Yet, there is another important factor illuminating the unprecedented gift of Rimsky-Korsakov to the prestige of Russian music. It may sound paradoxical, but in his service to his fellow composers, Rimsky-Korsakov—who was not a religious man and was frank about it—followed a principle that is integral to Russian Orthodox teaching and practice.
A significant part of the intellectual life in 19th-century Russia revolved around the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. The former perceived Russian history and destiny as unique and incomparable with other nations; the latter advocated the European way of life and hoped that Russia would earnestly adhere to Western civilization. Leaving aside the host of historical, philosophical, and religious questions relevant to this subject, it is necessary for us to point to a specific social and spiritual principle called sobornost’. This term, coined by early Slavophiles, conveys the idea of the ontological unity between nature and the living community of people as well as the need for cooperation within that community. The etymological roots of the term sobornost’ indicate multiple meanings, reflected in the verb sobirat’—translated as “to put together” or “to unite”—and in the noun sobor, understood alternatively as “cathedral” or as the church “council” or “gathering.”
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, unlike his early mentor Balakirev, had never been an apologist for Slavophilism. His dream of building a distinctly Russian school of classical music, which was shared by all his musical allies, had little to do with Slavophile ideology or politics.
However, some aesthetic and ethical ideals of the Russian Slavophile thinkers and the Mighty Five were intrinsically related. Aside from an understandable like-mindedness on the importance and special value of the folk musical tradition, the notion of sobornost’ serves as the common denominator for both groups.
The prominent Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev (1893–1988), working from the concept of all-unity as developed by Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900), Semyon Frank (1877–1950), Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) et al., even believed that the principle of sobornost’ had found its aesthetic manifestation in 19th-century Russian opera, particularly in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. “Here,” he wrote about the opera, “all-unity and transfiguration is already achieved.”
The Snow Maiden was the composer’s own favorite opera. As he putit in a letterof 1896to Vladimir Stasov: “ I have already written my Ninth Symphony in the form of the opera The Snow Maiden.” In saying this, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov, implied that he considered this work to be his finest musical creation. Yet the unparalleled status of Beethoven’s Ninth had been determined not only by the perfection of its composition and the richness of its musical language but also by its musical projection of utopian idealism.
In bygone days, long before “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” invaded our cell phones, the Russian analogue for the European vision of humanity living in a golden age was the community of people living by the principle of sobornost’.
In reflecting upon The Snow Maiden, it is not hard to notice that the “community” in the opera symbolizes the same utopian model. Strictly speaking, from the Orthodox point of view the term sobornost’ should not be used in relation to the opera’s pantheistic kingdom. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky did not hesitate to visualize (in several works) his own dream of the ideal society, which exists on “the beautiful planet,” outside historical Christianity.
It seems that in his musical life as well as his mortal life Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired by both the unity between nature and the living community of people, and the need for cooperation within that community. His remarkable devotion to his “musical community” strikes one as an unpretentious manifestation of a deeply Russian idea.
Marina Kostalevsky is associate professor of Russian at Bard College. She received her MA from the Leningrad State Conservatory and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She was a lecturer and teaching assistant at Yale University as well as the Yale Summer Piano Institute, and a music instructor at Rutgers University. She has also served as accompanist and music adviser at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Her publications include Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The Art of Integral Vision (1997) and articles in the Russian Language Journal, Voprosy Literatury, Russian Literature, Transactions of Russian-American Scholars, Pushkin v XX Veke, Moskovskii Pushkinist, and Dictionary of Literary Biography. She is editor of The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive (2018).
In turn-of-the-century Russia, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) enjoyed popularity and critical acclaim as one of the principal members of a group of composers dubbed by Vladimir Stasov, a critic and ardent supporter of national tendencies in music and art, the Mighty Five (Moguchaia Kuchka). In no small measure this was due to the critical writings of Stasov himself. But in the West, the appreciation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music received a major boost when several of his compositions were chosen by Sergei Diaghilev for his productions that aimed to promote Russian culture abroad in the first decade of the 20th century.
By then, Diaghilev had emerged as a promoter of Russian art, music, and ballet and as the founder and director of the Ballets Russes(1909–29). In his youth, Diaghilev had briefly pursued a career in composing and at one point even sought to take instruction in music theory from Rimsky-Korsakov himself, presenting him with his first compositions for evaluation. Rimsky-Korsakov famously told the young man that his work was “absurd,” whereupon Diaghilev “became offended and, on leaving, declared arrogantly that nevertheless he believed in himself and his gifts; that he [would] never forget [that] day and that someday Rimsky-Korsakov’s opinion [would] occupy a shameful place in his [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] biography and make him regret his harsh words, but then it would be too late.”
His disappointment about Rimsky-Korsakov’s perhaps unjustifiably harsh judgment led Diaghilev to abandon his compositional aspirations but did not diminish his interest in and appreciation of music in general, or of the nationalist Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov in particular. Among the Mighty Five, Modest Mussorgsky was Diaghilev’s favorite, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, especially compositions with a distinct national flavor, also appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. At the same time, Diaghilev’s thorough grounding in music added a special dimension to his work as a producer. It also gave him the confidence to synthesize music with movement and stage design, a synthesis often achieved through selection and, at times, revision of compositions at the expense of their organic unity.
Diaghilev’s exportation of Russian culture began in earnest in 1907 and came in the wake of very successful projects in Russia itself. Working principally from St. Petersburg, Diaghilev’s accomplishments ranged from his leadership, together with Alexandre Benois, of the artist society the World of Art(Mir Iskusstva) and the publication, under the eponymous title, of one of Russia’s most illustrious art journals, to a series of pioneering exhibitions of Western art in Russia and of Russian art both domestically and in the West. A vast exhibition of Russian historical portrait paintings in the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, which opened under the patronage of the tsar in February 1905, was a memorable accomplishment that paved the way to a survey of Russian art in Paris at the Salon d’Automne in 1906, and then, after a “trial” concert at the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, to a series of music and dance events across Europe.
Giving prominence to Russian composers and artists (especially those associated with the Mighty Five and Mir Iskusstva), this extraordinary series of performances was inaugurated in Paris with five concerts billed as “Russian Music Through the Ages.” In addition to Diaghilev and a cohort of influential Russian and French dignitaries, the concerts’ organizing committee included Rimsky-Korsakov as well as Sergei Taneyev, Alexander Glazunov, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The carefully crafted inaugural programs featured masterpieces of Russian music: Mikhail Glinka’s Russlan and Liudmila (overture and act 1) and his Kamarinskaya; Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Second and Fourth Symphonies and the arioso from The Witch (Charodeika); a generous selection of excepts from Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor; Mussorgsky’s Trepak, “Song of the Flea,” act 2 of Boris Godunov, and excerpts from Khovanshchina; Taneyev’s Second Symphony; Anatoly Liadov’s Eight Folk Songs, and Baba Yaga; Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Second Symphony;Rachmaninoff’s Second Concertoand the cantata Spring; Mily Balakirev’s Thamar; Glazunov’s Second Symphony and “Symphonic Impression”; Sergei Lyapunov’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; and César Cui’s “Romantic Piece” from the opera William Ratcliff. Rimsky-Korsakov was represented by his symphonic poem Christmas Eve, the introduction to act 1 and Liel’s two songs from The Snow Maiden (Snegourochka), the third scene from the opera-ballet Mlada (The Night on Triglav Mountain), the symphonic suite from Tsar Saltan, and the underwater scene from Sadko (1896).
The Paris concerts also introduced to French audiences, in person, some of the most celebrated figures in Russian music: conductors included Rimsky-Korsakov, Felix Blumenfeldt, Rachmaninoff, and Glazunov, and among the cohort of singers were the likes of Félia Litvinne, a Russian-born, Paris-based dramatic soprano already an international phenomenon, and Feodor Chaliapin, then an up-and-coming opera bass on the verge of international celebrity.
The program booklets prepared for the occasion included biographies of the featured composers, along with reproductions of their portraits painted by prominent Russian artists such as Ilya Repin, Léon Bakst, Nikolai Kuznetsov; analyses of compositions; and reproductions of sets from Russian operas and of singers in their costumes. Particularly numerous were depictions of Chaliapin in some of his roles, including Boris Godunov, the part that ultimately brought him critical acclaim.
Diaghilev’s Paris concerts were significant milestones in Rimsky-Korsakov’s professional career. At long last, his music was introduced to a much broader Western audience, while the opportunity to travel to Paris also provided him with a chance to return, after a lengthy hiatus, to conducting. However, Rimsky-Korsakov was at first reluctant to go to Paris, and only Diaghilev’s plea and a promise of excellent care convinced him.
The concerts, especially the compositions and orchestrations by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Borodin, made a deep impression on Parisian audiences, giving Diaghilev confidence to pursue new projects, one of which, a staging of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, presented in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, received much critical acclaim in 1908. This introduction of Russian opera, with sets created by Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Youn, and Benois, made it possible for Diaghilev to bring the Russian ballet to Paris in 1909.
Diaghilev’s first Saison Russe(Russian Season), at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1909, included, in addition to opera, several ballets. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions were featured prominently in the season’s offerings. The first program on May 19 opened with Le festin, a dance-suite divertissement set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Glazunov, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. It was choreographed by Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Alexander Gorsky, and Felix Kshessinsky, with sets by Konstantin Korovin, who, along with Bakst, Ivan Bilibin, and Benois, also designed the costumes. With principal dancers that included the rising stars of Russian ballet—Tamara Karsavina, Fokine, Vaclav Nijinsky, and Adolph Bolm—the production was received enthusiastically by public and critiques alike, some of whom described it as akin to a miracle.
With this and other productions presented in Paris as well as Berlin, London, and Monte Carlo in subsequent seasons, Diaghilev succeeded in creating a new type of ballet, in which music and dance were combined with stage design by professional artists who also frequently led the way in envisioning the often exotic ambiance of the performances that so enthralledWestern audiences. Music played an important but perhaps auxiliary role, much to the chagrin of the composers (and their heirs). Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, believed that in operatic and dance productions music should be the principal and not a subsidiary element. Had he lived to witness the Ballets Russes productions, his conviction would inevitably have clashed with Diaghilev’s vision in which carefully selected and adapted music was but one of several constituent elements in a unified performance.
On May 24, Parisian audiences were treated to another Rimsky-Korsakov creation, his opera The Maid of Pskov (Pskovitianka). Written in 1872 and performed in Russia for the first time in January 1873, this opera, with scenario and libretto by the composer, did not stay in the repertory of the Mariinsky Theater for long, probably because of its controversial plot centering on the democratic Novgorod Veche, a subject presumably not fitting for the Imperial stage. In addition, Rimsky-Korsakov here was moving away from the traditional style of opera composition, using instead what Stasov called “the forms of a new Russian school.” His abandonment of traditional operatic forms and reliance on a more declamatory technique was not to the liking of the musical establishment. Stasov was incensed by the Russian public’s failure to notice the opera’s beauties, the dramatism of the “veche” scene, the incisive portrayal of Ivan the Terrible, the beauty and expressiveness of the nanny’s fairy tale, the comical characterization of Matuta, and the multiple folk choirs, which, he argued, only an exceptionally talented composer could have created. The unenthusiastic reception of the opera by contemporary audiences and critics was balanced by the positive reaction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s friends. Praising the veche scene for “its power, beauty, novelty and effect,” Borodin, for instance, deemed the music to be of “unbelievable beauty.”
Rimsky-Korsakov would refine the opera several times, ultimately creating a third and final version in 1892, which was extremely well received when it was performed by Savva Mamontov’s Private Opera Company in Moscow in 1896, with Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible.
Arguably, the intrinsic Russianness of The Maid of Pskov, and, as Boris Kokhno pointed out, “the tremendous impression Chaliapin . . . made” on Diaghilev, coupled with the sets by Golovin, compelled Diaghilev to present it in Paris. For the staging, Diaghilev relied on his experience of producing Boris Godunov the year before and he made some adjustments in accordance with his (and not necessarily Rimsky-Korsakov’s) vision of the piece. (For instance, the version of Boris presented in Paris included several of Mussorgsky’s original scenes, omitted in Rimsky-Korsakov’s redaction of his friend’s opera.)
By changing a few elements here and there in The Maid of Pskov, and fitting together others, and relying in these instances in no small measure on Chaliapin’s talent, Diaghilev sought to present a synthetic production that matched his aesthetic vision (and practical considerations), albeit at the expense of the integrity of the musical composition. The opera’s original title, for instance, was replaced with Ivan the Terrible. This change was made strategically and for promotional reasons: the name of the Russian tyrant was thought to resonate with French audiences. At the same time, the new title underscored more precisely the plot of the story, which is dominated by the character of Ivan the Terrible. The opera was enthusiastically received by the French public, who witnessed Chaliapin, now famous for his portrayal of Tsar Boris, appearing in the title role, with sets and costumes created by Nicholas Roerich and Dmitry Stelletsky, two artists whose work was steeped heavily in the aesthetics of Russia’s historical past.
In addition to excerpts from Glinka’s Ruslan and Liudmila and the one-act ballet Les sylphides, to music by Chopin, the second program of the 1909 season at the Théâtre du Châtelet (June 2) presented the one-act ballet Cléopâtre. A revised version of Nuits d’Égypte (Egyptian Nights), with music by Anton Arensky and choreography by Fokine, it had originally premiered as part of a benefit concert at the Mariinsky Theater in March 1908. For the Paris production, Fokine extended and revised the original ballet. Diaghilev again made additional adjustments: he commissioned Bakst to design the sets and costumes for the production and replaced the “happy ending” of Nuits d’Égypte with a more dramatic pantomime and, on Benois’s advice, added symphonic excerpts by several Russian composers, including from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “magical” 1890 opera-ballet Mlada, to Arensky’s score.
Set in ancient Egypt, Cléopâtre tells the story of two young lovers, Amoun and Ta-Hor. Amoun falls in love with the beauty of Queen Cleopatra, who resolves to spend a night with him. In return, Amoun must die the following morning. Ta-Hor falls short at trying to dissuade Amoun, whose passion for Cleopatra is too strong. The ballet concludes with Ta-Hor finding the dead body of her unfortunate lover.
In the Paris premiere, the part of Amoun was danced by Fokine and Ta-Hor by Anna Pavlova, while the part of Cleopatra was performed by Ida Rubinstein, an amateur dancer and a student of Fokine. As Cleopatra,Rubinstein appeared on stage in a sarcophagus from which, veiled and swathed in ribbons, she emerged to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. One of the ballet’s most memorable moments, it was described by critics with considerable admiration. Jean Cocteau recorded his impressions of the scene and of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music:
Then a ritual cortege was seen to appear. There were musicians who plucked long, oval-shaped citharas, their tones richly resonant yet as soft as the breathing of serpents. Flutists, their arms raised in angular poses, blew from their sonorous pipes. . . . Finally, borne on the shoulders of six colossi, there appeared a kind of ebony and gold casket. . . . The bearers set the casket down in the middle of the temple, opened its double lid, and from within lifted a kind of mummy, a bundle of veils, which they placed upright on its ivory patterns. Then four slaves began the astonishing maneuver. They unwound the first veil. . . . The twelfth veil, dark blue, Mme. Rubinstein released herself, letting it fall with a sweeping . . . gesture. She was wearing a small blue wig, from which a short golden braid hung down on either side of her face. There she stood . . . unswathed, eyes vacant, cheeks pale, lips parted . . . and as she confronted the stunned audience she was too beautiful, like a too potent Oriental fragrance.
Cléopâtre was perhaps the most sumptuous Ballets Russes production of the 1909 season, which in no small measure was due to the exoticism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and, even more so, to Bakst’s revolutionary and daring costume designs, which created a sensation.
This production inaugurated a series of oriental ballets, which “became the hallmark both of the Ballets Russes and of Rubinstein herself” (Edward Forman). The unqualified success of Cléopâtre encouraged Diaghilev to produce, as part of the 1910 Saison Russe, another exotic ballet. Choreographed by Fokine and premiering at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra on June 4, the new ballet was set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade: a symphonic suite inspired by themes from One Thousand and One Nights and composed in less than a month in the summer of 1888.
The ballet tells the story of Shah Shahriar, who suspects his favorite wife, Zobéide, of being unfaithful. He pretends to go hunting and as soon as he leaves, the ladies of the harem persuade the Great Eunuch to let the black slaves in. An orgy ensues, led by Zobéide and her favorite slave. The Shah suddenly returns and orders the transgressors to be executed. Seeing that he hesitates to punish her, Zobéide stabs herself and dies at the feet of her Shah. The Paris premiere showcased Rubinstein as Zobéide and Nijinsky dancing the part of Zobéide’s favorite slave.
Like Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade was received favorably by Parisian balletomanes. The success of the production was predicated as much on the combination of music and choreography as on the artistic vision of Léon Bakst, whose “décor and costumes turned theatrical concepts of the period upside down, and engendered the so-called ‘Ballets Russes style.’” In his account of the production, Boris Kokhno wrote that “the miming of Ida Rubinstein, Nijinsky’s dances, and the ensembles devised by Fokine aroused a degree of interest that was unusual for a dance performance; quite simply, they created a sensation.” At the same time, Lifar recalled that “it was largely Bakst to whom that success was due. With the very rising of the curtain [created by Valentin Serov and inspired by Persian miniatures] storms of thunderous applause rang out in recognition of the painter’s genius. Indeed, the public went quite mad about Bakst’s sets and costumes, and their success eclipsed everything Diaghilev had so far presented.”
The fervent reception of Schéhérazade in general and of Bakst’s designs in particular was, however, accompanied by a polemic surrounding the manner in which Diaghilev had used Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. Some critics found the procedure “entirely legitimate,” while others, echoing irate protests by none other than the composer’s widow, argued that Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was “maltreated and distorted” and attacked Diaghilev “for desecration, and for condoning a ‘criminal practice.’” Despite this indignation, even the most vociferous opponents could not but praise Diaghilev’s creation in the end, with one critic writing that notwithstanding how “ridiculous and shocking . . . this falsification of the meaning, the expression of the music may be, one almost forgets it when one sees Schéhérazade, so overwhelming is the magnificence, the originality of the spectacle presented to our eyes. . . . Schéhérazade is, without doubt, one of the loveliest, perhaps the loveliest, of all the productions the Russians have offered us yet.”
The success of Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade in the 1909–10 Saisons Russes, combined with difficulties in managing the dancers’ time commitment to Ballets Russes productions (many of them had standing contracts with Imperial Theaters and danced for Diaghilev during leaves of absence), prompted Diaghilev to establish a permanent dance company with headquarters in Monte Carlo. The impresario managed to enlist some of the most brilliant artists, who were willing to support his enterprise even if it meant severing ties with the Imperial Theaters. Among them were Adolph Bolm, the future star choreographer of American ballet, and Tamara Karsavina, the creator of the part of the Firebird.
With his new company in place, Diaghilev set about to develop the repertoire for the upcoming 1911 Saison Russe, in which Rimsky-Korsakov’s music would continue to play a prominent role, demonstrating Diaghilev’s steadfast commitment to the traditions of the Russian national school of music. In addition to a new ballet by Tcherepnin-Bakst-Fokine entitled Narcisse, an abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Nijinsky’s major vehicles—Vaudoyer-Weber-Bakst-Fokine’s Le spectre de la rose and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka—the season included “The Underwater Kingdom”scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. First presented by Diaghilev in 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition was now part of a production choreographed by Fokine with sets and costumes, beautiful in their ethereal Symbolist style, designed by Boris Anisfeld.
Although indubitably successful, the scene from Sadko, presented in Paris with the vocal parts, was received perhaps less enthusiastically than Le spectre de la rose and Petrouchka. This, however, did not prevent Diaghilev from returning to the piece and its magical theme in the future, and to present it in a revised version at the Metropolitan Opera during the 1916 Ballets Russes tour of the United States. The Metropolitan Opera production featured Bolm’s choreography with sets and costumes by Natalia Goncharova.
With this ballet—with the central parts danced by Bolm, a Russian, and Doris Faithfull, an English ballerina—Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, as well as the phenomenon of the Ballets Russes itself, were at long last appreciated by American audiences.
Ballets Russes European productions during the 1912–13 seasons increasingly relied on music by contemporary French composers—Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt—although Russian music by Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky was also featured prominently, in productions such as Thamar and L’oiseau d’or (the pas de deux of Princess Florine and the Blue Bird from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty). In 1913, Diaghilev also produced two of Mussorgsky’s operas, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, but the music of Rimsky-Korsakov was visibly absent from the repertoire of these two seasons. Even Khovanshchina, completed, revised, and scored by Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, was orchestrated at Diaghilev’s request by Stravinsky and Ravel. Allegedly, Diaghilev was dissatisfied with Rimsky-Korsakov’s treatment of Mussorgsky’s work. After careful study of the original manuscript, he wished to produce a new version, and “to orchestrate certain parts, to re-orchestrate certain others and to have a new chorus for the finale. Mussorgsky, in the case of the finale, had merely sketched in a theme, the melody of a Russian song.” Diaghilev did not like Rimsky-Korsakov’s solution for the final chorus.
Over the next three years (1914–16), however, Diaghilev returned several times to Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions. In 1914 in Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the impresario presented a host of new productions, which, in addition to the new ballets Les papillons, Le légende de Joseph,and Midas,and operas by Stravinsky and Borodin (Le rossignol and Prince Igor), included Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera La nuit de Mai (May Night) and, significantly, his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel (Zolotoi Petushok), or Le coq d’or.
In 1915, music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden was used in Le soleil de nuit (Midnight Sun), a new ballet based on a medley of Russian pastimes and dances. Choreographed by Léonide Massine, Diaghilev’s new star choreographer and dancer, with sets and costumes by Mikhail Larionov, one of the leaders of Russia’s nascent artistic avant-garde, this production was presented in December at the Geneva Opera. Eight days later, in Paris, Diaghilev once again produced Schéhérazade. In 1916, this was followed by the staging of the new version of Sadko at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among these productions, Le coq d’or is perhaps the most noteworthy. It was the last major work Rimsky-Korsakov completed before his death at the age of 64 on June 21, 1908. Le coq d’or stands out as much for its fascinating production history in Russia as for its remarkably innovative and successful Ballets Russes staging in Paris in 1914: its success, some claim, saved this otherwise colorless and dim season. Due to the opera’s (and Alexander Pushkin’s original story) satirical and anti-tsarist tone, approval by the Russian censors was complicated and performances were limited originally to private opera companies. The opera’s premiere thus took place only on October 7, 1909, at Moscow’s Solodovnikov Theater in a production by the private Zimin Opera Company. A month later, it was performed at the city’s Bolshoi Theater. Despite ill health, Rimsky-Korsakov had continued to work on the orchestration until the very end. Seeing no prospects for Le coq d’or in his native country, he contemplated the possibility of productions abroad. In his last letter to his friend and music publisher, Boris Jurgenson, Rimsky-Korsakov asked him to write to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, French critic and ardent promoter of Russian music, to suggest a staging of the opera in Paris.
Diaghilev, perhaps unaware of the composer’s wish, adopted the opera (no doubt because of its tangible national qualities) to be presented as a hybrid opera-ballet performance during the 1914 Ballets Russes season. The design of sets and costumes for this production was entrusted (at Benois’s suggestion) to Natalia Goncharova, a young artist who hitherto had not worked for Diaghilev and who represented Russia’s cutting-edge artistic practices. Her neoprimitive and intensely colorful décor, designed and painted on location (with the help of her artist-partner, Mikhail Larionov), captured the imagination of Parisian audiences. This ensured both Goncharova’s own reputation as a theatrical designer and the enormous success of Le coq d’or. As Sjeng Scheijen pointed out, the appeal of this opera-ballet was predicated to a certain extent on innovative dramaturgy, in which dance and mime on stage superseded the role of the singers, who were relegated to performing from the wings. But it was Goncharova’s designs, which were inspired by Russia’s historical past and folk art and featured “bright combinations of red, orange and yellow, blending primitive and naïve patterns of flowers and leaves with abstract motifs and decorations,” that stole the show.
By recognizing Goncharova’s artistic potential (a skill that distinguished him as a promoter of arts) and by expertly fusing her designs with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and with Fokine’s innovative choreography and direction, Diaghilev once again created a production of exceptional artistic merit, a potential classic of the Ballets Russes’ repertoire for years. Unfortunately, this was not going to be the case due to Diaghilev’s “ongoing feud with the Rimsky-Korsakov family following the cuts he made to Schéhérazade and Khovanshchina.” Though the family’s “attempts to prevent Coq d’or from being performed in Paris failed, . . . the impresario was ordered to pay them 3,000 francs in compensation.” After the ballet’s unqualified success in Paris in 1914, it “was permanently shelved,” never again to be performed by the Ballet Russes. This no doubt reflected negatively on Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer of opera and, more broadly, on his artistic legacy.
Despite this controversy and its effects, Rimsky-Korsakov’s music played a crucial role in the triumphs of the Saisons Russes. Although the composer did not live to witness these successes, appreciation of his compositions in the West, then and now, is due to a significant degree to the efforts of the Russian impresario, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s unsuccessful student, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev.
Oleg Minin is a visiting assistant professor at Bard where he teaches Russian modern art, literature, and language. He is editor at large of Brill’s Companions to the Slavic World, author of numerous articles on the visual and literary culture of the Russian Silver Age and the avant-garde, and co-editor (with Marcus Levitt) of the 19th volume of the journal Experiment (2013) devoted to the study of the satirical press of the 1905 Revolution. Minin is the co-author (with John E. Bowlt and Graham Howe) of One Hundred and One Photographs: Emil Otto Hoppé and the Ballets Russes.(Art-21 Century). Published as a bilingual English and Russian edition, this book examines artistic legacies of Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the Ballets Russes more than a century ago, and Emil Otto Hoppé, who photographed the stars of that illustrious company between 1911 and 1921.
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 Minorat 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 Lyudmilascore: 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 theTsar (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.”
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.
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).
In April I found myself visiting St. Petersburg, the city where Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov lived most of his 64 years, for the third time in just nine months. These trips have only been tangentially related to the Bard Music Festival’s exploration of the composer this summer, although they have offered welcome chances to follow through on various leads, to walk the streets he did, and to see his apartment, which now houses the Rimsky-Korsakov Museum.
The immediate reasons for my trips related to Smolny College, a joint program of St. Petersburg State University and Bard College, the first liberal arts program in Russia, which Bard co-founded in 1998. Each summer a group of graduate students from Smolny’s program in Music Curatorial, Critical, and Performance Studies comes to the Hudson Valley for four weeks to study English and take classes connected to the Bard Music Festival (BMF). Regular attendees of BMF have no doubt encountered some of these students over the years.
St. Petersburg was the last city on my list of leading capitals of classical music that I visited. From my hometown of New York City to London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Berlin, and beyond, I have relished opportunities to experience music in historic settings, often in the same halls and operas houses in which great compositions premiered, and to explore places still haunted by the masters. While I had been to Moscow in 1981, St. Petersburg eluded me until 2014.
Even on a first visit one can immediately feel an uncanny familiarity with much of the city because of detailed descriptions in Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky and Nabokov. Unlike most other cultural centers, St. Petersburg is relatively new and built practically from scratch. Inspired by Peter the Great’s Westernizing vision at the beginning of the 18th century, it was an unlikely and inhospitable place to situate a great city, but the setting on the Neva River and the many constructed canals (Amsterdam was Peter’s principal model) resulted in extraordinary beauty. Despite devastating floods, disrupting revolutions, and the long World War II siege of Leningrad (as the city was then called), St. Petersburg has always rebounded.
While literature provides an imaginary introduction to the city, its museums, theaters, and concert halls offer chances to encounter a wide range of artistic masterpieces. The vast Hermitage Museum houses one of the supreme collections of visual art. This 1,500-room complex of buildings is, like the Louvre, itself an architectural marvel. Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary film Russian Ark (2002) provides a 96-minute single-shot Steadicam tour through the ages and will be screened at the SummerScape film series on July 26. The chance to see magnificent paintings by Rembrandt, Leonardo, and other old masters in the Winter Palace is now complemented by the newly opened galleries of the General Staff Building, which house 19th- and 20th-century art, including major works by Picasso, Matisse, and others.
The masterpieces of Western art that Catherine the Great began to collect for the Hermitage in the late 18th century are of the stature one encounters at the leading international museums. Far less familiar and much closer to home is the art exhibited in the Russian Museum, housing national treasures. Most of these are artists unknown in the West. Some images will be familiar from album covers, such as portraits of composers like Ilja Repin’s of Modest Mussorgsky, or from set designs and collaborations with the enterprising impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
I have become particularly fascinated by the Russian Museum because it allows chances to make connections between musical trends—from Mikhail Glinka through the Mighty Five to Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitrii Shostakovich, and Soviet-era composers—and visual ones. You can compare responses in different artistic media to issues of nationalism, Orientalism, autocracy, folklore, history, socialist realism, and so forth. One cannot help thinking that a particular painting is the visual counterpart to a tone poem by Rimsky-Korsakov or a symphony of Shostakovich. We often encounter music used for film soundtracks, and I found my inner ear providing a kind of soundtrack while looking at paintings. It is also fascinating to think about technique and training, which was more advanced for 19th-century Russian painters, many of whom studied abroad than for self-taught native composers, who lacked conservatories until the brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein founded them in St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectively, in the 1860s.
And then, inevitably, there is the politics—from Tsar Nikolai I’s cardinal values of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationhood” through the communist era to the Russia of Vladimir Putin today. My trip to Moscow in 1981, during the dark Brezhnev days, made an indelible impression on me concerning daily life in the Soviet Union. Politics under 300 years of Romanov rule is perhaps less known than under communism, and our knowledge may come largely from literature as well as from celebrated operatic presentations that deal with early history, back to Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, which closes the Bard Festival this summer on August 19. Mussorgsky’s BorisGodunov and Dvořák’s Dimitrii, which Bard staged last summer, concern the “Time of Troubles” just before the Romanovs came to power in 1613, itself the subject of the first great Russian opera, Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836). These political themes will be the subject of Panel 2 this summer on August 18.
Another great joy is experiencing St. Petersburg’s unusually vibrant musical life, at least with respect to classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is thrilling to see BorisGodunov at the original Mariinsky Theater, where it premiered, and to have the chance to see Russian operas by Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others that are relatively rarely performed outside of Russia. Most revelatory for me, since I attend far less frequently in New York, is going to the ballet and experiencing the grand Imperial style in choreography that has changed little in more than a century. In April, I saw Giselle and RomeoandJuliet marvelously performed, but also more unusual fare, such as Carnaval, Schumann’s great piano composition that so influenced Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, in a collaborative orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Liadov, and others. Michel Fokine choreographed this for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1910. There were many such joint ventures among Russian composers, not just ballets like Les Sylphides, but also operas, keyboard and chamber compositions, and so forth. Carnaval was paired that night, as in 1910, with a notorious production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, an Orientalist orgy so politically incorrect that it would be almost unimaginable to present this in America today. As with other productions I have seen in St. Petersburg offering a demonized Islamic other, I am left feeling uneasy but grateful to experience the historical context that was so much a part of 19th- and early 20th-century theater, ballet, and opera. Not so many years from now productions of Puccini’s MadamaButterfly, long one of the most often performed operas in America, may seem just as awkward.
My trip in April coincided with Orthodox Easter, this year falling a week later than in the West. One of Rimsky-Korsakov’s best-known pieces, to be played on the opening concert this summer, is his Easter Festival Overture, and on the August 19 choral concert we will hear excerpts from Rachmaninoff’s remarkable All-Night Vigil, which I heard complete in concert. I attended a lengthy midnight Mass at the resonate Kazan Cathedral. I also went to the Tikhvin Cemetery where almost all of the great Russian composers are buried, Rimsky-Korsakov alongside the others in the gang of Five: the Rubinstein brothers, Glinka, and Tchaikovsky.
In October 1863, while serving as a young naval cadet, Rimsky-Korsakov docked in New York harbor and spent the next six months in America. He and some shipmates made the trip up the Hudson River, which he found “very beautiful,” to Albany, where they took a train to Niagara Falls. Rimsky-Korsakov thus passed by our campus, which more than a century and a half later honors his achievement and that of his marvelous hometown of St. Petersburg.
My first experience attending the International Chopin Piano Competition occurred during turbulent times. The summer of 1980 in Poland was eventful. At the end of June, the Communist government announced extensive price hikes. Overnight, as people rushed to buy produce, all food disappeared from grocery stores. Everything. The day after the announcement, shops everywhere were wastelands of empty shelves and unfilled display cases. To tone down this flagrant display of Communism’s failures, the shelves were later filled with millions of bottles of vinegar, the only produce that was not in short supply. This sight was to become the norm for the next several years. The people responded to these new economic hardships with a wave of strikes, out of which the now-legendary labor union Solidarity—the movement that brought down Poland’s Communist Party a decade later—was born. It was against the backdrop of these events that the 10th Chopin International Piano Competition took place, just weeks after the establishment of Solidarity.
Most Chopin enthusiasts remember this competition for Martha Argerich’s melodramatic resignation from the jury. She quit over what she viewed as unjust treatment of one of the contestants, Ivo Pogorelich, who did not advance to the finals. Unfortunately, even today, it is Pogorelich’s name that is more often recalled in relation to that competition than that of Dang Thai Son, the fine Vietnamese pianist who won it.
On the ground, way below the Mount Olympus inhabited by the jurors, clashes over Pogorelich’s playing started even earlier, during the first round of the competition. I was still close to my pianistic roots, having just played my diploma recital a few months before, and as an aspiring music critic I had plenty to say about Pogorelich’s pianism. I disliked just about everything about it. But I quickly found out that I expressed these views at my own peril. The customarily polite and elegant world of classical pianism was deeply divided. Emotions ran hot, and the diverging opinions pitched friends against each other with intensity of the sort some of us experienced during Thanksgiving gatherings in 2016, after the American election.
After he was eliminated in the third round, the fandom for Pogorelich reached the level of pandemonium. The recital, which he performed in Warsaw after the competition concluded, sold out in a flash (in the following months he also played debut concerts at Carnegie Hall, in London, and in other places). But one of my sassier friends, an aspiring film director, dragged me (kicking and screaming) into the office of the director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, where she demanded that additional on-stage seating be provided. We were among the lucky ones who got to hear the Divine Ivo! The less fortunate ones were seen scaling the building of the philharmonic to gain access to the grand event. Not since Liszt (or at least Paderewski) had the world seen so many young women sigh and shriek and throw flowers at their pianistic idol.
Although on the surface all this brouhaha around Pogorelich seemed to be about pianistic aesthetics, in actuality other forces were also at play. In fact, the intensity and divisiveness of aesthetic opinions were soon to be mirrored in the political arguments that ripped apart families, as some Poles sided with the authorities while their kin supported the opposition movement.
What was it about the slinky Yugoslav pianist that touched a raw nerve in Polish audiences? Sure, he had the good looks and allure of a bad boy, but his following extended far beyond those drawn to him by his sex appeal.
During Poland’s summer of discontent, the slowly simmering economic and political tensions and frustrations exploded in a collective act of rebellion. Pogorelich and his playing tapped into this defiance of authority: he disregarded rules and broke taboos; instead of the customary dark suits, he wore tight black pants and folksy shirts adorned only by a thin black velvet ribbon tie or even (gasp!) performed tieless; rumors circulated that he was in a relationship with his much older teacher (Aliza Kezeradze whom he indeed married later that year). Even his bad-boy sexiness exuded disobedience; it stood in sharp contrast to the refined Chopinesque charm of Krystian Zimerman, the equally handsome winner of the previous competition.
But beyond these outward trappings of rebelliousness, in his performances Pogorelich gave his Polish audiences a Chopin that was defiant, nonconformist, and modern. His transgressive, unsentimental playing offered a perfect antidote to the sappy concept of Chopin’s music trapped in the national and socialist narratives.
The case of Pogorelich highlights the Polish dilemma of Chopin’s legacy. Chopin’s music embodies Polishness. But the political narratives that shape its role in Polish culture have the capacity to both draw the Polish listeners in and drive them away.
Under Communism, Chopin was decisively placed among “the people.” He inhabited the Polish countryside, fraternized with peasants, and learned from their music. On the rare occasions when he was imagined in the city, he was seen as sympathetic to the woes of the common workingman. (Aleksander Ford’s 1952 film Chopin’s Youth serves as a good example of presenting Chopin in this manner.) His music, likewise, was hijacked to speak for and solemnize the new socialist order.
By the 1980s, many Poles had grown to resent the role Chopin’s music played in the service of the Communist agenda. Even for some professional musicians it was difficult to separate his expressive compositions from the solemn official ceremonies (akademia in Polish) during which Chopin’s music (and life) was imbued with a socialist spirit rivaling that of “The Internationale.” So, in reacting to Pogorelich’s performances, his Polish audiences were also responding to some three decades of Chopin being yoked to an oppressive political system.
Perhaps the most interesting postlude to the whole Pogorelich fuss is that the fall of Communism did not do away with the inner contradictions intrinsic to the Poles’ relationship with Chopin. On the one hand, there is a cognizance that Chopin’s music is somehow important. There is also an awareness that his name provides an internationally recognizable trademark of Polishness, one that is appropriated for various and nefarious purposes (for example, the Chopin Airport and Chopin Vodka), and that his music crosses linguistic and cultural borders with much greater ease than Mickiewicz’s poetry or Grotowski’s theater, with perhaps the single competitor being the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus. But for Poles, especially the young ones, the flip side of these positives is the lingering politicized image of Chopin as Poland’s official composer. In 2010 (the year of the Chopin Bicentennial and the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition), concerns about the persistence of this stilted image of Chopin led the organizers to embark on a campaign of de-propagandizing him. By midyear, the country was plastered with such terrific posters as these:
For the true aficionado of Chopin’s music, all this is irrelevant. The Pogorelich moment was unusual in the way it drew the audience of the Chopin Competition into politicized performance. . . or was it? The most recent competition (2015) coincided with the highly-contested parliamentary election that gave most seats to the Law and Justice Party. I was there, and there is a story to be told about that as well. . . maybe in a future blog post.
Halina Goldberg is Professor of Musicology at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, and affiliate of Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, Polish Studies Center, and Russian and East European Institute. She is the author of Music in Chopin’s Warsaw (Oxford University Press, 2008; Polish translation O muzyce w Warszawie Chopina, 2016), and editor of The Age of Chopin: Interdisciplinary Inquiries (Indiana University Press, 2004). Goldberg interests focus on the interconnected Polish and Jewish cultures. Much of her work is interdisciplinary engaging the areas of cultural studies, music and politics, performance practice, and reception, with special focus on 19th- and 20th-century Poland and Eastern Europe, Chopin, and Jewish studies. She also serves as the Project Director for the Digital Scholarly Commons dedicated to the study of Jewish Life in Interwar War Łódź: http://jewish-lodz.iu.edu
by Byron Adams, University of California, Riverside
As part of my preparation for writing program notes for this year’s Bard Music Festival, I read widely about Fryderyk Chopin and his life, especially his years in Paris. Simultaneously, I have been working on a scholarly article about the history and reception of Gabriel Fauré’s lapidary Requiem, Op. 48. Quite unexpectedly, my research on Fauré’s masterpiece raised questions about Chopin’s funeral, which took place on October 30, 1849, at the Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Paris. Since Fauré worked as a choirmaster and organist at La Madeleine, as it is commonly known, from 1877 until 1905, I delved enthusiastically into the history of this church and its liturgy. Reading the work of musicologists such as Vincent Rollin, I realized that the liturgical practices of La Madeleine did not significantly change from 1842 until World War I. Thus the liturgy for Chopin’s funeral in 1849 was exactly the same as that used on January 16, 1888, when Fauré’s Requiem was first performed during a Requiem Mass held at La Madeleine.
In light of my increasing understanding of how Requiem Masses were celebrated at La Madeleine throughout the 19th century, I began to find reports of Chopin’s funeral to be confusing at best. Why? The more I learned about the history and liturgy of La Madeleine, the more certain aspects of Chopin’s Requiem Mass became puzzling and, at times, implausible.
My doubts arose in part from the history of the edifice itself. Napoleon ordered the construction of the building now known as La Madeleine as a temple to glorify the French army. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Louis XVIII decided to complete the building and consecrate it as a church. Due in part to its peculiar secular origin as a shrine to French military prowess, La Madeleine, after its consecration in 1842, assumed the status of a national church. There are two other reasons for this unusual status: the first is the size of the building, which lends itself to state funerals, while the second is its strategic location in the very heart of Paris. However, it is hard to credit the British music critic J. W. Davison, who claimed to have attended Chopin’s funeral, when he wrote that 4,000 mourners filled La Madeleine on that solemn occasion. As this was (and is) physically impossible, perhaps Davison conflated the number of those who obtained tickets to the service (!) with the large crowd of people who, lacking tickets, were forced to mill about outside.
In addition, Roman Catholicism was the state religion in France until 1905, which meant that the government had a say in the regulation of churches. At the time of Chopin’s death, French law apportioned the degree of pomp allowed at funerals according to class, so that only “very important persons” could be buried with a “première classe” funeral that featured elaborate music. As an émigré and piano teacher, Chopin did not have a defined position within either French society or officialdom. One wonders at the strings that had to be pulled for this “première classe” Requiem Mass to be celebrated at La Madeleine—the “national church”—and who, exactly, pulled them.
There is also the matter of the music. As he lay dying, Chopin famously (and expensively) requested that Mozart’s Requiem (K. 626) be performed at his funeral. Thanks to the devotion of his pupil, the Scottish heiress Jane Stirling (1804–1859), Mozart’s score was indeed played, but several aspects of this performance are obscure. Some biographers, for example, have written that the soloists, orchestra, and chorus—who were recruited from the Opèra—had to sing behind a black curtain because women were forbidden to sing at La Madeleine. While it is true that women could not sing in the church’s choir, which consisted exclusively of men and boys, they could and did sing sacred pieces on the premises. On Christmas Eve of 1858, for example, Camille Saint-Saëns, who was the organiste titulaire of La Madeleine at the time, conducted the premiere of his Oratorio de Noël in the church, a work that includes operatic parts for soprano, and mezzo-soprano soloists—music far beyond the abilities of any boy soprano or alto.
Finally, there is the testimony of Hector Berlioz, who attended Chopin’s funeral at La Madeleine and wrote about it in a letter to his sister that was begun the same day. Berlioz did not care for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem, mentioning that it was “performed with care, but ineffectively.” He further remarks, “And some notes from the organ, and the De profundis sung in fauxbourdon moved the listener more than the so celebrated and so incomplete score of the great master.” Berlioz’s report reveals that the regular choir of La Madeleine was present for this mass, as it is hardly likely that an opera chorus could have mastered the tricky patterns of the traditional fauxbourdon on short notice. This “fauxbourdon”—which sounds very much like present-day Anglican chant—was used during French Requiem Masses for the Sequence, that is, the “Dies irae.” As Rollin has pointed out, this part of the liturgy was known in Parisian churches during the 19th century as the “De profundis.” (This is why Fauré’s Requiem omits the “Dies irae,” as these words were still sung in fauxbourdon during funeral masses in 1888.) Does this mean that the performance of Mozart’s Requiem at Chopin’s funeral omitted the “Dies irae” altogether? Or was the same portion of the liturgy sung twice during a single Requiem Mass?
As Lewis Carroll’s Alice exclaims in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!”
One of the aspects of Chopin’s biography that has, historically, been most difficult to write about is his predisposition to dandyism, which began in childhood, and its implications. For example, asked after a performance what he thought people like best, young Fryc said it was his new collar. His effete manner, refined bearing, and (as far as anyone knows for sure) underdeveloped love life have always been treated as something of a minefield. Particularly in the half century after his death, writers have slipped into the common pattern of associating his fragile health and unembarrassed artistic sensitivities with what previous generations called “the weaker sex,” and it was clearly a cause for discomfort. In my previous blog post I quoted the critic and Chopin biographer James Huneker:
“When [Anton] Rubinstein, Tausig, and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases, the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet it is the true Chopin. The young man’s manners were a trifle feminine but his brain was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises, Ballades, Scherzi and Études need a mighty grip, a grip mental and physical.”
There is plenty more where that came from. The image of Chopin as ladies’ entertainment goes back to his early years in Paris. In 1834, the critic Gottfried Wilhelm Fink wrote that the Nocturnes, Op. 15, “are really reveries of a soul fluctuating from feeling to feeling in the still of the night, about which we want to set down nothing but the outburst of a feminine heart after a sensitive performance of the same: ‘The Nocturnes surely are my entire life!’”
Huneker struggled for an explanation:
“[Chopin] writes home that ‘my manner of playing pleases the ladies so very much.’ This manner never lost its hold over female hearts, and the airs, caprices, and little struttings of Frédéric are to blame for the widely circulated legend of his effeminate ways. The legend soon absorbed his music, and so it has come to pass that this fiction, begotten of half fact and half mental indolence, has taken root, like the noxious weed it is.”
Chopin’s putative “effeminate ways” return again and again in Huneker’s book, noxious weed or not. He quotes the German propagandist Heinrich Pudor, who considered Chopin to be as decadent as Liszt: his “figure comes before one as flesh without bones, this morbid, womanly, womanish, slipslop, powerless, sickly, bleached, sweet-caramel Pole!” (Even Richard Wagner, who declared himself “the most German of beings,” earns Pudor’s contempt: “His cheeks are hollow and pale—but Germans have the full red cheeks!”) Huneker reported that Wagner had said, “I do not like the ladies’ Chopin,” yet the middle section of his little-known “Song without Words: For Ernst Benedikt Kietz” is a close approximation of precisely that style. Ultimately, these anxieties about who is more feminized than whom became something of an obsession.
Of the aforementioned writers, only Huneker hailed from the USA, where there is a long tradition of viewing any sort of classical music training as an indicator of likely sissydom, though such childhood “rules” (like those placing athletes at the top of the social hierarchy) are irregularly followed across geographical areas and America’s constituent cultures. Still, it does not take an advanced degree in gender studies to identify the anxieties associated with a man disposed to play the piano: too girly, or too refined, or (perhaps worst of all) too susceptible to maternal approval? Huneker can’t let it go. “Chopin in the mode masculine” is one of his descriptions, and he also nervously notes, “All artists are androgynous; in Chopin the feminine often prevails.” All artists are androgynous? Huneker also recounts, without further commentary, Anton Rubinstein’s program for Chopin’s Ballade No. 2:
“Is it possible the interpreter does not feel the necessity of representing it to his audience—a field flower caught by a gust of wind, a caressing of the flower by the wind; the resistance of the flower, the stormy struggle of the wind; the entreaty of the flower, which at last lies there broken; and paraphrased—the field flower a rustic maiden, the wind a knight.”
The knight having his way with a “rustic maiden” is an old trope, dating back to the medieval Robin-and-Marion plays if not before. It is important here only insofar as we need to remember that this image—there is a one-syllable word for the knight’s action, after all—was, historically, less appalling than it is today. Be it said: there is not the slightest glimmer in any of Chopin’s music or correspondence, or in the oral history concerning him, suggesting that such an interpretation of the Ballade would even have been conceivable to him. In his correspondence, he laughed off the idea of being mistaken for a séducteur as an inconceivable misunderstanding. So even if Huneker’s account of Rubinstein’s statement is correct, nothing is more distant from Chopin than this kind of image.
Closer to our own time, though, this seems to survive as a characteristically American anxiety: fear of weakness, fear of beauty, and fear of any emotion besides anger. This is a false polarity, however; the various warrior-poet traditions date back to King David, probably, and his mythic biography features not only battlefield prowess but also the Psalms—some of the most beautiful poetry in history—as well as raw expressions of emotion. Charles Ives’s father had been a Union bandleader in the Civil War, and music defined that composer’s early household culture (and a terror of feminization defined his psyche, for whatever reason). In contrast, another American modernist, George Antheil, wrote of playing his first childhood “sonata,” titled “The Sinking of the Titanic,” for his gang of friends, all of whom whooped and applauded. So it is worth asking what we are afraid of, why we have such contradictory reactions to Chopin: we love his music but need to make him a he-man in increasingly untenable ways. These concerns seem not to have bothered his contemporaries, including his friends from youth: Chopin was Chopin, however many men who were not-the-marrying-kind, so to speak, he associated with.
In American culture (and myth), the point of contact between dour Protestant duty and fierce western frontier independence is in a kind of exaggerated masculinity—less a strutting, performative machismo than an impassive can-do, git-’er-done resilience that suffers no beauty or softness: we have God’s own country to build, so we don’t have time for the fripperies of the luxurious classes, or for anything that might weaken us as men of God. Weakness, obviously, is of the Devil, and we have log cabins to build.
An American festival devoted to Chopin offers the ideal opportunity to stare this in the face. Returning to Huneker, above: were pianists today not to play Chopin “in passional phrases,” they’d be written off as “ladies’ Chopin,” falsifiers of the tradition. Concert pianism, as it has evolved, has far more in common with Liszt’s playing to the galleries and virtuosic Russian fire and brimstone than Chopin’s subtle, understated musical confessions to an informed circle of intimates. Generations of teachers, students, and audiences acclimated to Sol Hurok productions, international Chopin competitions, and RCA Red Label classical marketing require, it now seems, the exact opposite of how Chopin himself conceived and realized his own music, and what (apparently) audiences of the mid-to-late nineteenth century expected.
The global style change has been so gradual as to be almost unnoticed, but what has amounted to a 180-degree aesthetic reversal is noteworthy regardless. Heretical as it may seem, we need to reflect on the variety of performance approaches people have taken to Chopin’s music, and perhaps widen our own personal palette of desirable possibilities. One problem with music this familiar and beloved is that our expectations become ossified, and we come to mentally hum along with this repertoire as we do our favorite pop records. Chopin’s music deserves far better than comfortable familiarity, I would argue, and so we should be expanding our own horizons of expectation.
Jonathan D. Bellman is the Professor of Music History and Literature at the University of Northern Colorado, in the United States of America. He earned piano performance degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Illinois, and a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance Practices at Stanford University in 1990.
His most recent book, Chopin’s Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom, has just been published by Oxford University Press. His first two books, The Style Hongrois in the Music of Western Europe (1993), and The Exotic in Western Music (1998; a collection of essays by himself and others), were published by Northeastern University Press; his third book, A Short Guide to Writing about Music (2000; 2nd Ed. 2007) is a textbook published by Longman.
His articles and reviews have appeared in, among other publications, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Nineteenth-Century Music, Early Music, Historical Performance, and The Journal of Musicology. His research interests include musical exoticism and the music and performance practices of Frédéric Chopin.
He also still performs occasionally, and in spring 2009 premiered the reconstruction of a piece jointly composed in in 1833 by Felix Mendelssohn and Ignaz Moscheles, the Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s ‘Preziosa’.
by Richard I. Suchenski, SummerScape Film Series Curator
Few composers have had as important a place in the history of cinema as Fryderyk Chopin. His music was part of the standard repertoire used by silent film accompanists, and selected pieces (especially some of the waltzes and the third “Funeral March” movement from Piano Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, 1839) were common in both Hollywood and European films of the 1930s and ‘40s. In most cases, Chopin’s music—like pieces such as Beethoven’s popular “Minuet in G” (1796)—was used as a conventional emotional cue or an emblem of universal romantic values. The advantages and limitations of this approach are exemplified by Charles Vidor’s Technicolor biopic A Song to Remember (1945). With varying degrees of irony, postwar filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962), John Boorman (Hope and Glory, 1987), Luchino Visconti (The Innocent, 1976), and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salò, 1975) played off of this tradition.
Unsurprisingly, it was in Poland itself that the more specifically national, and even patriotic, elements of Chopin’s music were emphasized. As the leading Polish composer and an avatar of Romanticism—the country’s most enduring, adaptive, and influential artistic framework—Chopin and his music represented cultural continuity in the midst of tumult and trauma, frequently evoking aspirations that could only be addressed indirectly for censorship reasons. The most resonant and iconic example is the use of the “Military Polonaise” (Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1, 1838) at the end of a key scene in Andrzej Wajda’s elegiac war film Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Experimental filmmaker Eugeniusz Cękalski had explored similar issues in his Three Studies of Chopin (1937–44), and the husband-and-wife team of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson used pieces by Chopin and Karol Szymanowski to rally support for the Polish cause in the British propaganda film Calling Mr. Smith (1943). Aleksander Ford, who helped to establish the film industry in postwar Communist Poland as head of Film Polski and professor at the National Film School in Łódź, redirected these associations in the socialist realist biopic Chopin’s Youth(1952). Ford taught both Wajda and Roman Polanski, who powerfully used Chopin’s music to highlight the ambiguities of art, politics, and history in The Pianist (2002).
The filmmakers associated with Poland’s cinema of “moral anxiety” during the mid-1970s and early 1980s gave a new inflection to these traditions by using performances and recordings of Chopin’s music to deepen the stakes of the small but deeply significant ethical decisions made by their protagonists. Krzysztof Zanussi, who regularly collaborated with composer Wojciech Kilar and has also directed documentary portraits of Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutosławski, used Chopin’s music in many of his 1970s films, most prominently in the quietly devastating Camouflage (1977). Zanussi himself appears in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), which, like Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors (1979), employs music by Chopin at a critical moment of self-discovery. Kieślowski would later make parodic use of Chopin in his French-Polish black comedy White (1994). In the same period, Polish émigré Andrzej Żuławski reexamined both the historical and mythological aspects of Chopin’s biography with a mixture of irony and exuberance in the French film Blue Note (1991).
Chopin was also important as a reference point for the intimate chamber dramas Ingmar Bergman began making in the 1960s (he was married at the time to concert pianist Käbi Laretei). Most overtly, the challenges of articulating the controlled emotions embedded in Chopin’s preludes are used as a correlate to mother/daughter dynamics in Autumn Sonata (1978). Bergman’s most moving and mysterious film, Cries and Whispers (1972), explicitly emulates musical structures, and its title alludes to a review of Mozart by a Swedish critic. The score consists of only two pieces: the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor (BWV 1011, 1720), which recurs frequently in Bergman’s work, and Chopin’s 1833 Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4 (played by Laretei). Both pieces accompany enigmatic transitions, the latter associated with the movement of memory.
The SummerScape 2017 Film Series will provide an opportunity to explore many facets of Chopin’s legacy. The core films will be supplemented with relevant shorts and partner features exploring related issues. All programs begin at 7 p.m., with breaks between features.
Click here to access the full calendar of the SummerScape Film Series.
Header Image: Still from Cries and Whispers. Ingmar Bergman, 1972, Sweden.
Richard I. Suchenski is the founder and director of the Center for Moving Image Arts (CMIA) and associate professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College. He is the author of Projections of Memory: Romanticism, Modernism, and the Aesthetics of Film (Oxford University Press, 2016), the editor of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Austrian Film Museum / Columbia University Press, 2014), and a contributor to many books and journals, including Artforum, The Moving Image, Viewing Platform: Perspectives on the Panorama (Yale University Press, 2015), and Robert Bresson (Indiana University Press, 2012). In addition to year-round CMIA programs, he has curated film series covering periods from the silent era to the present at institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, Austrian Film Museum, Museum of the Moving Image, George Eastman House, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Harvard Film Archive, Toronto International Film Festival Cinematheque, British Film Institute, National Museum of Singapore, and Yale University.
by Isabelle Naginski, Professor of French and Codirector, International Literary and Visual Studies Program, Tufts University
George Sand’s entrance into literature in the early 1830s was steeped in self-doubt and melancholia. Her pronouncements on poetic inspiration were full of angst. In an early journal, Sketches and Hints (1830–34), using a violent and bloody image, she looked inwardly in search of the mystery of her future self: “I dug deep down into my entrails to find the secret of my destiny,” she writes. She then conceded that her genius would bring with it a life of solitude, suffering, and public misunderstanding.
Early texts such as Letters of a Traveller and the novel Lélia depict genius as a curse and at the same time as a source of anxiety regarding the author’s literary worth. She creates, she claims despairingly, “with crude instruments such as the hoe and the trowel works which are roughly hewn, lacking in form, and always composed in moments of feverishness.” Yet she knows in her heart of hearts that she is a woman of genius, following in the footsteps of her great literary foremother, Germaine de Staël.
The association that the young novelist establishes between genius, intellectual superiority, and melancholy comes directly from Aristotle. In his writings, he spoke of the “Saturnine temperament” of superior artists and great men. This vision of genius has dominated Western thought and was exploited with particular intensity in the 19th century among French intellectual circles. Chateaubriand’s Romantic hero, René, who suffers from his own paralyzing superior intellect (later to be called “le mal du siècle”), Baudelaire’s “spleen,” and the group of poets, such as Verlaine and Rimbaud, who considered themselves to be superior but cursed (“poètes maudits”) are a few avatars of this pessimistic view of genius.
Unexpectedly, Sand seems to have changed the Aristotelian paradigm in 1837, at least for herself, when she composed a novel entitled The Master Mosaic Workers. In it she portrays two brothers, one who is a stereotypical melancholic artist, the other, Valerio, who embodies a new type. The latter’s carefree and cheerful behavior are signs that he is confident in his talent and does not need to mull things over in a somber way. Although less assiduous in his work, Valerio believes in his good fortune. He is more prolific when it comes to innovative ideas or sublime compositions. Through this innovative artistic type Sand presented a radically new conception of genius. “Ambition is a sickness of the soul,” the mosaic worker explains. “All light comes from a divine place.” Henceforth, this is the model that would guide Sand in her long writing career. Never again would her correspondence or her autobiographical or fictional texts expound the idea of literary production accomplished only through excruciating suffering.
Sand’s new vision of genius is Platonic in nature, since Plato was convinced that genius was a gift bestowed by the gods. In 1836 and 1837, when Sand was composing her novel, she was also avidly reading Plato in Victor Cousin’s French translation. The dialogue “Ion” is particularly crucial in this context: “Poets owe everything to inspiration.… They are the organs of god who speaks through their mouths.” As a result of her encounter with the philosophical and aesthetical theories of Plato, Sand’s attitude toward her capacity to write genially was transformed. She rejected the idea of a pessimistic Romanticism based on melancholic and solitary toil and replaced it with an optimistic Romanticism grounded in joy and solidarity. In other words, from an Aristotelian, Sand became a Platonist.
Years later, in her masterful correspondence with Flaubert, which spanned 14 years, Sand proposed various metaphors for the poetic inspiration that descended upon her. The author of Madame Bovary was an archetypical Saturnine artist who wrote painfully, slowly, and with great torment. As she attempted to present her friend with another vision of composition, Sand wrote: “The wind plays my old harp as it pleases. It has its upbeats and its low points, its strong notes and its weaknesses. In truth, it is all the same to me, as long as emotion comes, but I can find nothing in my inner being. It is the other who sings at will, either with success or with failure.” This “other” is her way of naming the Platonic muse. Sand had by now become a full-fledged Platonist. She scolded her friend for not understanding that the artist could act according to a different model from the one that was his. But Flaubert would have none of it, and he continued to write in suffering and frustration.
In History of My Life, the remarkable autobiography that Sand penned in the early 1850s, her treatment of Chopin’s genius is relevant to this discussion. First of all, she ranks Chopin as the greatest composer, surpassed only by Mozart. Secondly, she uses both paradigms of genius to explain his working habits:
His creativity was spontaneous, miraculous; he found it without seeking it.…But then would begin the worst heartbreaking labor I have ever witnessed. It was a series of efforts, indecision, and impatience to recapture certain details of the theme he had heard: … he now over-analyzed in his desire to transcribe it.… He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, changing a single measure a hundred times.
In this detailed account of how Chopin composed his musical works, we find the Saturnine obsession very much alive in the composer’s mind. But the fact that “he would spend six weeks on a page, only to end up writing it just as he had done in his first outpouring” demonstrates that he was fundamentally a Platonist composer who believed himself to be an Aristotelian one. His “spontaneous” creativity was in the end allowed to take precedence after six weeks of painful and useless rewriting.
Thus is confirmed Sand’s conviction that artistic inspiration comes from a mysterious place that the artist—whether composer or novelist—does not fully control or understand. He or she can only remain open to its manifestations. The wind that plays the harp is a master image of Sandian poetics and helps us better understand such geniuses as Chopin and the novelist herself.
 George Sand, Sketches and Hints, in Œuvres autobiographiques, ed. G. Lubin (Paris: Gallimard/Pléiade, 1970–71), 2:602.
 George Sand, Lettres d’un voyageur, ed. H. Bonnet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1971), 193.
 Aristotle, Problemata, section XXX. An apocryphal text according to some, but one for which no critic has been able to summon solid proofs one way or the other.
 George Sand, Les maîtres mosaïstes, ed. H. Lavagne (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Chêne, 1993), 47.
by Luc Sante, Visiting Professor of Writing and Photography
Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, at the age of 21. He would receive French citizenship in 1835; he would never return to Poland.
The city he settled in was undergoing its difficult passage into modernity. A three-day insurrection the previous July had ushered out the last Bourbon, Charles X, and brought in Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen Monarch.” The change of kings was a slight improvement, although Louis-Philippe had already begun throwing his weight around: that November, the caricaturist Charles Philipon was sent to prison for six months and fined 2,000 francs for depicting the new monarch as a pear with human features.
Beginning in mid-February 1832, Paris was in the grip of a cholera epidemic that would kill more than 18,500 citizens over the course of nine months. The Romantics, who were generally unaffected, were fascinated; at a soirée at Victor Hugo’s, Franz Liszt played Beethoven’s Funeral March to great effect. Chopin, who had just given his debut concert in Paris, was not yet well enough established to be there himself. That June, a minor uprising began at the funeral of General Lamarque, a veteran of Napoleon’s army; it would be remembered primarily because Hugo employed it as a set piece in Les misérables.
At the end of 1833, the Luxor obelisk was installed in the Place de la Concorde. The following April saw another republican insurrection, that one capped by the massacre of all the inhabitants of a house on rue Transnonain (today, rue Beaubourg), immortalized in a print by Honoré Daumier. In November 1835, Pierre François Lacenaire, a psychotic killer who became a literary celebrity, went up for trial—his memory is preserved in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise (1945). The year 1836, when Chopin first met George Sand, was also marked by the debut of the first two cheap daily newspapers, La Presse and Le Siècle, which both began the same day and altered the course of French literature with their frenzied competition over serial novels. That year also saw the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe in the Place de l’Étoile.
The first railroad line out of the city was opened in 1837; Louis-Mandé Daguerre first experimented with daguerreotypes in 1839; the first gas stoves and the first Christmas trees made their appearance in 1840. In 1842, when Chopin began showing signs of serious illness, the first French-made cigarettes arrived on the scene; not long after came the first railway disaster—57 dead on the Versailles line. In the following year, the first attempt was made at electric street lighting. Adolphe Sax won a musical competition on the Champ de Mars in 1845 and saw his instrument adopted by French military bands; that same year, the first electric telegraph line was installed.
The year the Chopin-Sand liaison came to an end, 1847, was also the year Henri Murger published Scènes de la vie de bohème, which somewhat fancifully documented a social type that had recently come to prominence in the capital. In 1848, when Chopin was so ill he weighed less than 99 pounds, the city erupted in thwarted revolution, with barricades filling the streets from February to June. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president of the Republic in December (he would stage his coup d’état, culminating in his crowning as emperor, in 1851). In 1849, the year of Chopin’s death, the first bureaucratic steps were taken that would ultimately lead to Baron Haussmann’s razing and rebuilding of large areas of the city. Chopin was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery—that is, all except his heart, which went back to Warsaw in an oil-filled urn.
Luc Sante is a visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard, teaching in both the Art History and Written Arts programs since 1999. His books include The Other Paris, Kill All Your Darlings, The Factory of Facts, and Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships, and, most recently, the first French Heritage Society Literary Award.