Puškin and Russian Vocal Art of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

In my presentation, I will explore the Russian composers’ fascination with Puškin’s poetry that spanned two centuries—the nineteenth and the twentieth. I will concentrate mostly on the romances (art songs) set to Puškin’s lyric poetry. I am aiming at a cultural historical overview, which will include textual analysis and will explore the Puškinian legend of the nineteenth century and Puškinian mythologies of the twentieth.

In my analysis of the works of the nineteenth-century composers, I will look at the composers of the Golden Age, such as Glinka, Čajkovskij, Dargomyžskij and the Mighty Handful group. What especially attracted them to Puškin? His lyricism—as in “Ne poj, krasavica pri mne,” his Protean nature as in “V krovi gorit ogon′ želan′ja”? His historical and prophetic grasp as in the drama Boris Godunov?

The twentieth-century composers such as Šostakovič and Prokof′ev continued, in a sense, the tradition of the Golden Age by turning, once again, to Puškin. I will demonstrate how, in a sense, their treatment of Puškin was connected with the preceding legacy and with twentieth century Puškinian mythologies of Russian modernism— with the myth of Puškin’s centennial return that had inspired the intellectuals long before Puškin’s actual anniversary in 1937.

There have been numerous (some sources cite over three thousand) musical works set to Puškin’s poetry, including about a hundred operas. Hundreds of Puškin’s lyric poems and collected folk songs have received musical renditions. The interest in Puškin as a musical source arose when he was still a youth, studying at the Lyceum. Aleksej Verstovskij was among the first, in 1823, to render Puškin’s “Black Shawl” (“Gljažu kak bezumnyj na černuju šal′”).

In my analysis of the nineteenth century Puškinian musical phenomenon, I will focus specifically on the Glinka-Puškin connection, which points out the interdependence of literature and music. Glinka was a source of inspiration for Puškin’s “Ne poj, krasavica, pri mne.” At the same time, Glinka was the author of numerous romances set to Puškin’s lyric poems and composed Ruslan and Ljudmila, the very first Puškin opera. Puškin was also a connecting link in the Glinka-Dargomyžskij-“Mighty Handful” legacy. Dargomyžskij, whose musical productivity owed a great deal to Glinka’s encouragement, found Puškin to be the most influential source of inspiration. His opera, The Stone Guest, based on Puškin’s eponymous poem, demonstrated a forceful connection between literary and musical works through the prism of Puškin’s poetry. Dargomyžskij, in turn, influenced “The Mighty Handful” group, which included Balakirev, Borodin, Kuj, and such musical giants as Rimskij-Korsakov and Mussorgskij. While Kuj was an extremely prolific writer of romances based on Puškin’s poetry, Rimskij-Korsakov has been considered Puškin’s foremost vocal composer and Mussorgskij’s opera Boris Godunov transcends epic and epochal significance. For that particular cluster of the above-named composers, Puškin, thus, was a unifying thread in the music legacy that spanned several decades.

Čajkovskij’s fascination with Puškin deserves special mention. While he set only two romances to Puškin’s poems, he was fascinated by Tat′jana and wrote romances with Tat′jana’s character in mind—those were set to the poems of other composers—that served as musical studies for Tat′jana’s character in his opera Eugene Onegin. In my analysis of the twentieth century renditions of Puškin’s work, I will have to look closer at the relationship between the composer and authority, especially poignant in the case of Šostakovič, and analyze the role of the Puškin “cult” in the 1930s. Whether by way of official propaganda that resulted in the official Puškin celebration, or in the mythologies of Puškinian “centennial return,” Puškin was in the hearts and minds of the intelligentsia of that time. I will explore the tension between the official and unofficial Puškin “cults” and how that came to be resolved in the works of Šostakovič and Prokof′ev. My conclusion will aim at a connection between nineteenth- and twentieth-century vocal works based on Puškin’s poetry.