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The author of numerous works on Russian cultural history races through the 300-year rule of the Romanovs (1613–1917), examining the rulers' complicated relationships with creative artists.
Volkov (The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, 2008, etc.) is not so much interested in specific works, but rather the choreography of artists and emperors. Although he occasionally devotes a few paragraphs to a major work (e.g., Pushkin'sEugene Onegin), the author maintains focus on the personalities and political atmosphere. He begins at the premiere of Mikhail Glinka's operaA Life for the Tsar in 1836; both Pushkin and Turgenev were in the audience awaiting the arrival of Nicholas I. Volkov then moves back to the beginning of the dynasty, to Peter I, whose view of the arts "was utilitarian"—a view shared by a number of his successors. The next major figure is Catherine the Great (the author dispels some of the more bizarre stories about her sexual appetites), who was a writer, a passionate art collector and a patron of the poet Gavrila Derzhavin. Volkov points out a tsarist pattern: Each new one endeavored to ignore the accomplishments of his/her predecessor and to forge a new sort of leadership. Nicholas I, a voracious reader, pulled Pushkin back from exile; other artists danced in and out of favor, as well. The author also tells stories of painters and musicians—sometimes expending pages on sexual speculations (why did the homosexual Tchaikovsky marry?) and with wicked asides about some notables (Tolstoy was "clumsy, ugly, and passive-aggressive"). Volkov often declares the obvious—Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky's most popular work, and to be fully appreciated, the novel should be read in Russian.
Occasionally cantankerous, but swift, erudite and easy to follow.
You could rarely find another case of sheer genius contained in a totally inappropriate vessel. There was nothing to indicate that Glinka, a thirty-year-old musical dilettante from a poor provincial noble family, who was short, ugly, sickly, hypochondriacal, and led a raucous and bohemian life, could become the undisputed father of Russia’s music as much as Pushkin was the progenitor of Russian literature.
Moreover, the geniuses of Pushkin and Glinka were equal, with the only difference being that in logocentric Russia the poet stood in the center of cultural discourse while the composer inevitably ended up in the background. And of course, Pushkin’s biography was much more dramatic and paradigmatic. (In the West, the esteem for Pushkin and Glinka is still based primarily on respect for their preeminence in Russia.)
Even in his youth Glinka dreamed of writing a “Russian” opera. But how did he move from fantasy to reality? That happened in 1833 in Berlin, where Glinka studied composition for six months. The love-prone Glinka met seventeen-year-old Maria: “She had rather Israelite origins: tall, but not yet formed figure, with a very beautiful face, and she resembled a Madonna” (from Glinka’s Notes). The easily inflamed Glinka started sketching musical themes (in the Russian national style) that later were used in A Life for the Tsar.
When Glinka, prompted by news of his father’s death, had to return to Russia, he first longed to return to Berlin and Maria, with whom he was “in constant correspondence,” but in St. Petersburg he met Maria Ivanova, “a kind, naïve half-German.” Pushkin’s sister fumed, “Michel Glinka has married a certain Miss Ivanova, a young thing without money or education, quite homely, and who to top it off hates music.”
But it was this marriage (which ended in scandalous divorce) that encouraged Glinka to finish his opera as if on a single breath: “The weather was beautiful and I often worked with the door opened into the garden, drinking in the pure, balsamic air.” As Anna Akhmatova noted in a poem a century later, “If you only knew the rubbish / from which poetry grows, knowing no shame.”
As it sometimes happens (but very, very rarely) in these situations, everything around A Life for the Tsar moved smoothly. Glinka was immediately accepted into Zhukovsky’s circle, which met in the Winter Palace, where the poet lived as Tsarevich Alexander’s tutor, “a select company, consisting,” as the composer put it, “of poets, literary men and in general refined people.”8 Among the guests were Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol (who read his new comedy, The Marriage, when Glinka was there), Prince Vyazemsky, and Prince Odoevsky.
Pushkin and Zhukovsky took a lively interest in the libretto of A Life for the Tsar, and the latter wrote verses for the opera’s final pro-monarchistic apotheosis and in particular for the concluding march-like chorus, “Glory!,” which for many years was considered the unofficial anthem of Russia: “Glory, glory, our Russian Tsar! Our God-given Sovereign Tsar!” In the opera, the people gathered on Red Square in Moscow greet the triumphant entrance of the new monarch, Mikhail Romanov, with this vivid, majestic (but not pompous—it was Glinka at his best) music accompanied by two brass bands.
As Glinka reminisced, “As if by magic I suddenly had the plan for the entire opera and the idea of juxtaposing Russian music to Polish music; and then, many themes and even details of their development—all lit up in my head at once.”
The music for A Life for the Tsar was composed at a feverish pitch, ahead of the libretto. Baron Rozen often had to submit texts to fit quite complex melodic lines and ornate rhythmical figures. Glinka was satisfied: “Zhukovsky and the others used to joke that Rozen had tucked away already prepared verses into his pockets, and all I had to do was say what sort I needed, that is, the rhythm, and how many lines, and each time he would pull out just as much as was needed of each sort, out of different pockets.” It sometimes seemed that Glinka didn’t care at all about the words in his opera, as long as they were easy for the vocalists to sing: “Write whatever you want as long as you remember to always go to an ‘a’ or ‘ee’ for the high notes.”
Assured of his own genius, overly ambitious, and often quite capricious, Glinka was inexplicably offered friendly collaboration at every turn. As a result, Zhukovsky, Pushkin, Prince Odoevsky, Count Vladimir Sollogub, and Nicholas I himself were all involved in the opera’s creation. Everyone, it seems, understood the cultural and historical significance of what was happening before their very eyes.
Only stupid and greedy theatrical officials tried to sabotage the work during rehearsals. The director of the theater wrote rude letters to Glinka alleging, as the composer later recalled, “that I was forcing the artists to sing in a room filled with tobacco smoke, which was bad for their voices.” But the patronage of Nicholas I protected the inexperienced author, who under other circumstances would have been brought to his knees.
The opera was first called Ivan Susanin, then A Death for the Tsar, and got its final name, A Life for the Tsar, at the wish of Nicholas I: “He who gives his life for the Sovereign does not die.” For that phrase alone, Nicholas I deserves to be listed among the collaborators of Glinka’s opera.
At the premiere, connoisseurs were astounded by the opera’s innovative style and originality. Prince Odoevsky best expressed that feeling of an avant-garde breakthrough: Glinka was able “to elevate folk song to tragedy.” It was done without sentimentality or melodrama, in the Glinka style—lyrical, but pure and restrained.
Gogol, in his celebrated “Petersburg Notes of 1836,” captured the delight of Glinka’s fans: “He happily melded in his creation two Slavic musics; you can hear where the Russian speaks and where the Pole: one brings the broad melody of Russian song, the other the rash motif of the Polish mazurka.”
The first audience was particularly moved by the scene in which Susanin bids farewell to life and then dies at the hands of the Poles. The choristers depicting Poles attacked the singer “with such frenzy that they tore his shirt, and he had to defend himself for real” (from Glinka’s Notes). Susanin died with the words “Our Tsar is saved.” At the moment even the severe Nicholas I shed a tear, but after the performance he told Glinka, “It is not good that Susanin is killed on stage.” Naturally, the necessary changes were made.
From the Hardcover edition.
Chapter 1 The First Romanovs: From Tsar Mikhail to Peter I 3
Chapter 2 Kantemir, Lomonosov, and Barkov 23
Chapter 3 Catherine the Great and the Culture of Her Era 31
Chapter 4 Paul I and Alexander I: Karamzin and Zhukovsky 49
Chapter 5 Alexander I, Zhukovsky, and Young Pushkin 65
Chapter 6 Nicholas I and Pushkin 83
Chapter 7 Lermontov and Briullov 107
Chapter 8 Gogol, Ivanov, Tyutchev and the End of the Nicholas I Era 125
Chapter 9 Alexander II, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky 149
Chapter 10 Herzen, Tolstoy, and the Women's Issue 162
Chapter 11 Tchaikovsky and Homosexuality in Imperial Russia 176
Chapter 12 Dostoevsky and the Romanovs 193
Chapter 13 Alexander III, the Wanderers, and Mussorgsky 209
Chapter 14 Nicholas II and Lenin as Art Connoisseurs 225
Posted September 13, 2012
Maybe it's the translation, but I don't think so. Reads like a rambling one-sided conversation in a pub. The author assumes familiarity with obscure Russian artists and writers and jumps back and forth from story to story with no discernable reason. This could have been such an interesting book, but either no one bothered with editing it or the editor was just as bad as the writer. Disappointed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.