The Birth of Chaos from the Spirit of Harmony: The End of St. Petersburg by Vladimir Dukel'skij

Igor Vishnevetsky, Emory University

My paper offers the first analysis of Vladimir Duke'skij's Russian oratorio, The End of St. Petersburg (1931-37), composed to the texts of seven major Russian poets and premiered in 1938 in New York. This work has been inspired by Pudovkin's film and bears a certain resemblance to it in a dreamlike sequence of musical episodes reenacting the desolation and despair governing the doomed city.

The idea behind my analysis is that the powerful visual impulse played a lesser role in the creation of oratorio than the texts themselves. Dukel'skij (a.k.a. Vernon Duke, 1903-1969), an accomplished Russian poet himself, was fully aware of the cultural connotations in the texts which he had chosen for St. Petersburg (the selection included poems by Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Tjutchev, Annenskij, Kuzmin, Axmatova, and Majakovskij). In an unpublished letter to conductor Serge Koussevitzky (currently, in The Koussevitzky Archive, Library of Congress) Dukel'skij defined St. Petersburg as a verse epic (èpopeja) set to music.

In my analysis, I will show some specific ways in which those poems influenced the composer's choice of musical form for different segments of The End of St. Petersburg. Most significantly, the progression from a stylized solemn chant of the initial episode (lyrics by Lomonosov) to the most rhythmically complex and violent section of the oratorio (setting to music "My May" by Majakovskij) provides a listener with a musical counterpart to the complex development of modern Russian verse. Also, I will argue that Duke'skij had presented his own reassessment of the history of modern Russian poetry--from the eighteenth century onwards--which he identified completely with that of St Petersburg.

Finally, Dukel'skij's affiliation with Eurasianism and his friendship with Prokof'ev who--back in the USSR--worked on a similar Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of October (never performed in Prokof'ev's lifetime) will shed additional light on Dukel'skij's ambitious project.

In sum, I will present a brief evaluation of one of the most significant--though widely overlooked--expositions of the fall of the Petersburg utopia in twentieth-century Russian art.