Category Archives: Rimsky-Korsakov and His World

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Marina Kostalevsky

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 passed from 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, asked Süssmayr and Eybler to finish it and thus secure her husband’s honorarium. (The question remains as 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 staple in 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 of musical 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 Mussorgsky usually 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, which was 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 the Rimsky-Korsakov family, which could trace its lineage back to 14thcentury Russia. 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 in the 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 put it in a letter of 1896 to 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).


Synthesizing Beauty: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Music in the Context of Diaghilev’s “Russian Seasons” in Paris

By Oleg Minin

In turn-of-the-century Russia, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (18441908) 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.

Valentin Serov, Charcoal Portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov, 1908
Leon Bakst, Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev, 1905

By then, Diaghilev had emerged as a promoter of Russian art, music, and ballet and as the founder and director of the Ballets Russes (190929). 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 Concerto and 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.

Alexander Golovin, Portrait of Feodor Chaliapin in the Role of Boris Godunov, 1912

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.

Léon Bakst, Costume design for Tamara Karsavina in Le Festin, 1909
Léon Bakst, Costume design for Vaclav Nijinsky in Le Festin, 1909

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 enthralled Western 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.

Period photograph, Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov, 1896

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.

Nicholas Roerich, Sketch of a Design for Ivan the Terrible ca. 1909
Nicholas Roerich, Ivan the Terrible’s Tent, ca. 1909

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.

Léon Bakst Costume design for Cleopatra Worn by Ida Rubinstein, Cléopatre, 1909

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.” 

Léon Bakst, Set design for Schéhérazade, 1910
Léon Bakst, Costume design for the Blue Sultana,  Schéhérazade, 1910
Léon Bakst, Costume design for Schéhérazade, 1910

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.

Boris Anisfeld, The Underwater Kingdom, Sadko, 1911
Boris Anisfeld, Costume Design for The Underwater Kingdom, Sadko, 1911
Boris Anisfeld, Costume Design for The Underwater Kingdom, Sadko, 1911

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.

Natalia Goncharova, Costume Design for The Underwater Kingdom, Sadko, 1916

 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 (191416), 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.

Natalia Goncharova, Stage Design for Act I, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova, Stage Design for Act III, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova, Costume Design, Boyar, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova, Costume Design, King Dodon, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova, Costume Design, Chambermaid, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova, Costume Design, Female Servant, Le Coq d’Or, 1914
Natalia Goncharova_Costume Design, Warrior, Le Coq d’Or, 1914

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.


by Olga Veronina

Mikhail Antokolsky’s design for the monument to Alexander Pushkin (Drawing by V. I. Lebedev, engraving by Karl Weyermann), 1875.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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