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University of California Press
Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement / Edition 1

Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement / Edition 1

by Simon A. Morrison


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An aesthetic, historical, and theoretical study of four scores, Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement is a groundbreaking and imaginative treatment of the important yet neglected topic of Russian opera in the Silver Age. Spanning the gap between the supernatural Russian music of the nineteenth century and the compositions of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, this exceptionally insightful and well-researched book explores how Russian symbolist poets interpreted opera and prompted operatic innovation. Simon Morrison shows how these works, though stylistically and technically different, reveal the extent to which the operatic representation of the miraculous can be translated into its enactment.

Morrison treats these largely unstudied pieces by canonical composers: Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Rimsky-Korsakov's Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, Scriabin's unfinished Mysterium, and Prokofiev's Fiery Angel. The chapters, revisionist studies of these composers and scores, address separate aspects of Symbolist poetics, discussing such topics as literary and musical decadence, pagan-Christian syncretism, theurgy, and life creation, or the portrayal of art in life. The appendix offers the first complete English-language translation of Scriabin's libretto for the Preparatory Act.

Providing valuable insight into both the Symbolist enterprise and Russian musicology, this book casts new light on opera's evolving, ambiguous place in fin de siècle culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520229433
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/05/2002
Series: California Studies in 20th-Century Music , #2
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Lexile: 1480L (what's this?)

About the Author

Simon Morrison is an Assistant Professor in the Music Department at Princeton University

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Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement

By Simon Morrison

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-22943-6


This book concerns the efforts of Russian composers to create Symbolist operas, efforts that were evaluated in their own time as successes, as failures, and, perhaps most frequently, as successful failures. The four composers in question occupy different places in the history of Russian Symbolism. The first, Pyotr Chaikovsky, was prescient, anticipating, rather than actually joining, the movement; the second, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was resistant, conceiving his penultimate opera as a rationalist and realist response to Symbolist decadence, yet nonetheless succumbing to it in the end. The third composer, Alexander Scriabin, was obsessive, extending, in his metaoperatic project, the precepts of Symbolism to hazardous extremes. And the fourth composer, Sergey Prokofiev, was parodic: his third completed opera constitutes a modernist response to the atavism and excesses of the Symbolist movement. Despite the pronounced stylistic and technical differences between the composers, their creative activities provide case studies of the amazing potentials and equally amazing pitfalls of the Symbolist enterprise. On one level, their works affirm that music, inasmuch as it defies the barrier of meaning, can invoke the otherworldly; on another level, their works attest to the insurmountable barrier between the representation of the miraculous and its enactment.

Russian (and, for that matter, French) Symbolist opera does not travel lightly: each of the operas featured in this book carries an enormous amount of philosophical and aesthetic freight. For this reason, in the first half of this introduction I will provide a brief overview of the Symbolist movement that will define the musical symbol versus the poetic symbol, evaluate the relationship between Symbolist writers and musicians, and outline the contents of the book. In order to clarify and extend some aesthetic and theoretical observations, in the second half of the introduction I will summarize the solitary and unique effort of a Symbolist poet to create a Symbolist opera, The Rose and the Cross (Roza i krest). The core of this drama might best be described as an impossible song intended to transport its hearers, willingly or unwillingly, into a trance-like state.

The Musical Symbol

The Russian Symbolist movement is often divided into two generations of writers: the first, "decadent" generation includes the poets Konstantin Balmont (1867-1941), Valeriy Bryusov (1873-1924), Zinaida Hippius (1869-1945), and Dmitriy Merezhkovsky (1865-1941); the second, "mystic" generation includes Andrey Belïy (1880-1934), Alexander Blok (1880-1921), and Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949). The list is far from complete, and the division between the generations is inherently artificial, since the "decadents" and "mystics" worked with each other and Symbolism occupied only part of their careers. But one generalization can be made: whereas the first generation found inspiration in French Symbolism, the second found it in German idealist philosophy. Bryusov's activities centered on enhancing the perceived musicality of poetry through the manipulation of sonorous word combinations. He similarly employed ambiguous and suggestive words that, he deduced, referred back to an essence, a universal meaning beyond the power of language itself to express. From the French Symbolists, he determined that there were three interrelated genres of Symbolist poetry. The genre includes "works that give a complete picture, in which, however, something incompletely drawn, half-stated, is perceptible; as if several essential signs are not shown." Bryusov cites the sonnets of Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98) as examples. The second genre includes "works which have been given the form of a complete story or even drama, but in which separate scenes have a significance not so much for the development of the action as for a certain impression on the reader or viewer." Bryusov does not furnish an example of this genre, but he likely had in mind the drama Pélleas et Mélisande (1892) by Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), which he translated in 1905, and which Claude Debussy had previously turned into the preeminent Symbolist opera. The third genre includes works that "appear to you to be an unrelated grouping of images." Bryusov here cites Maeterlinck's "Hothouse Bloom" ("Serre chaude") the opening poem in Hothouse Blooms (Serres chaudes, 1889), Maeterlinck's first collection of poetry. The emphasis in Bryusov's three-part schema is on the Symbolist poet's unique perception of the world and the symbol's capacity to disclose the hidden content or inner essence of reality. By revitalizing conventional verbal syntax (this being confined to outer appearances and rational thought) Bryusov sought to cultivate a poetry of pure suggestion. Within his verses, he made fleeting allusions to ancient legend and ancient history, broke apart lines of verse into discordant and concordant phonemes, and relied upon such irrational adjective-noun pairs as "satin gardens" ("atlasnïye sadï"), "violet hands" ("fioletovïye ruki"), and "chocolate skies" ("shokoladnïye neba").

Like Bryusov, Belïy aspired to liberate art from formalist constraints; unlike the older poet, however, he sought to engage art with religious and political causes. Belïy interpreted the Symbolist movement as a Gnostic journey toward a syncretic, pluralistic existence. He derived his thinking from an eclectic assortment of philosophical sources-some Western European, some Far Eastern, some cultivated in the soil of his own nation. From German classical philosophers, he gleaned that the nature and function of a symbol differed fundamentally from that of an allegory. On this point, he referred to two famous aphorisms by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): "the allegory transforms the phenomenon into a concept, and the concept into an image, but in such a manner that the concept can only be stated, confirmed or expressed in the image in a way that is always limited and incomplete"; and "the symbol transforms the phenomenon into an idea, and the idea into an image, but does this in such a way that the idea in the image has infinite repercussions, and remains intangible; even when expressed in every language it will always remain unexpressed." From German idealist philosophers, Belïy also gleaned that the symbol had the potential to render the immaterial material. "The aim of [Symbolism]," he declared, "lies not in the harmony of forms, but rather in the visual actualization of the depths of the spirit." The formalist definition of the symbol as a multivalent, multi-interpretable device became entangled in his imagination with religious concepts of transubstantiation, pagan beliefs in magical spells, and medieval occult doctrine. Belïy and his "mystic" Symbolist colleagues fantasized that their activities would precipitate the spiritual transfiguration of the world, although, inevitably, they differed on the actual date of its occurrence. For Belïy, Avril Pyman explains, "art was but one flank, albeit a most important one, of the intellectual army he was mustering for the redemption of all culture." "For Ivanov," she continues, "art was a temple or sacred grove of the spirits to which the poets, a chosen company, should be drawn to celebrate half-forgotten gods-a sanctuary of recollection to which, one day, all people would follow." Finally, "for Blok, art like life itself was a hell which must be traversed in order to emerge-somewhere beyond art-into the unimaginable light of a new Eden, a New life."

The distinction between the "decadent" and "mystic" Symbolists-exemplified in this brief overview by Bryusov and Belïy-thus rests on the distinction between an interpretation of the symbol as a device for suggestion and allusion on the one hand, and, on the other, as a device for disclosure and revelation. According to the first generation poets, symbols stimulated the imagination, invoking ancient times, recalling forgotten experiences, and, as a consequence, temporarily renouncing reality for dream, cognition for intuition. According to the second generation poets, symbols had the capacity to transform reality, to make the familiar unfamiliar (a notion later adopted by the Russian Formalists), and to have a narcotic impact on the psyche. Bryusov considered Symbolism to be magical: the symbol was apparitional and incantational, leading the reader on imaginary journeys to other times and places. Belïy, in marked contrast, considered himself to be magical, a divine creator capable of giving material form to the postulates of knowledge, of summoning different worlds into being. Steven Cassedy notes that Belïy, like the other "mystic" Symbolists, "assigned himself the same power of God in the logology of Eastern Orthodoxy: by pronouncing the Word (Logos), which then becomes incarnate, he (He) is creating a concrete 'world' reality that exists as a hypostatic emanation of his (His) own being." Bryusov, as a "decadent" Symbolist, did not share the spiritual fervor of his young colleagues. However theirs, not his, were the views that garnered attention as the Symbolist movement matured and that eventually captured the imaginations of composers.

Of the various reasons for the collaboration between poets and musicians, the most basic was a shared interest in resurrecting the theatrical practices of the ancient Greeks, practices which, in the poets' opinion, facilitated communal bonding and could, if reconstituted, enable society to regain lost unity. It was a fantasy akin to that which had obsessed Giovanni Bardi (1534-1612) and Jacobo Corsi (1561-1604)-the two members of the Florentine Camerata whom the Russian Symbolists occasionally cited-and that led to the creation of opera at the end of the sixteenth century. In "The Poet and the Mob" ("Poet i chern," 1904), Ivanov argued that the memory of the ancient bond between artists and the masses survived in legends and myths. As the designated custodians of these legends and myths, the "mystic" Symbolists set out to create ritual-based dramas that would resurrect the forgotten heritage. The endeavor became all-important to poets who emerged as a cultural force during a period of political and spiritual crisis in Russia and who sought through their art to bridge the chasm that had opened between the ruling elite and the rural populace, Church and State, adherents of theological doctrine and adherents of bourgeois morality. Although ridiculed by their opponents (one of them being Rimsky-Korsakov), the "mystic" Symbolists clung to the belief that communal art represented a possible solution to the problem of social disintegration. Ivanov, placing his rather dubious hopes for spiritual synthesis on the music drama, embraced the theory of art developed by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872), specifically the idea that artistic creation was regulated by "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" principles, the former comprising "dream," the "plastic energies," the "immediate apprehension of form," and "individualism," the latter comprising "drunkenness," "enchantment," "reconciliation" with nature, and "Primordial Unity." Music, as the most "Dionysian" art, generates a multiplicity of meanings, which lead, ultimately, to an all-encompassing meaning. In "The Hellenic Religion of the Suffering God" ("Ellinskaya religiya stradayushchego boga," 1904), Ivanov speculated that "perhaps once again genuine tragedy will arise from the matrix of music; perhaps the resurrected dithyramb will 'prostrate millions in the dust'" He implies here that music might one day form the basis of a universal drama.

Though fanciful, these abstract theoretical musings influenced actual operatic compositions. It inspired, for example, innovations in the handling of operatic time and space relationships and touched off dreams of expanding stage action to encompass what had previously seemed unencompassable. In Russian Symbolist opera, the past, present, and (even) future intertwine, with each musical, verbal, and visual level pockmarked with allusions to the others. The central images are those of falling and rising: fiery angels descending earthward and the religious faithful ascending heavenward. The origins of Russian Symbolist opera reside less in mythic Greece and mythic Russia than in the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth. Richard Wagner's music dramas were a colossal influence on the "mystic" Symbolists, chiefly for their verbal imagery (the references to omnipotent swords, endless nights, and grail pilgrimages), but also for their "symbolic" leitmotifs. They were venerated as well for their acoustic novelties: those moments in the scores that evidence disdain for secure semantic communication, where meaning becomes unclear, hence evocative of hidden ideas. The best examples of these effects are the unsynchronized horns, the frequent mishearings and misquotations, and the act III alte Weise of Tristan und Isolde (1859). Wagner's music dramas in large measure inspired Belïy to attempt to musicalize his poetry by freeing it from conventional rules of meter (that is to say, writing lines of varying length and cadence, usually not rhymed) and by experimenting with so-called verbal leitmotifs (unifying his works by repeating, intact or in variation, sonorous word and syllabic groupings). His experiments resulted in four verbal "symphonies": the 1st (Northern and Heroic) Symphony (Severnaya simfoniya: 1-aya geroicheskaya, 1900), the 2nd (Dramatic) Symphony (Simfoniya: 2-aya dramaticheskaya, 1902), The Return: 3rd Symphony (Vozvrat: 3-aya simfoniya, 1905), and The Chalice of Blizzards: 4th Symphony (Kubok meteley: 4-aya simfoniya, 1908). Referring to Belïy's turn-of-the-century memoirs, Rosamund Bartlett, author of the first comprehensive study of Russian Wagnerism, explains that "with phrases as his material ... [Belïy] wished 'to proceed as Wagner had done with melody,' using the themes as a 'strong line of rhythm' that would absorb subsidiary themes 'according to the rules of counterpoint.' Elsewhere he declared equally explicitly that the subjects of his first four books had been drawn from 'musical leitmotifs.'" Roger Keys adds that the plots of the "symphonies" tend to be cluttered, as Belïy endeavored to shake the reader's confidence that events would unfold logically. The unstable surface of these texts, however, achieves order on another level. In the 1st (Northern and Heroic) Symphony, for instance, Belïy combines a cluster of "negative" leitmotifs (images of lonely people and barren vistas) with a cluster of "positive" leitmotifs (pious rituals and radiant sunsets). The resulting mixture reflects Belïy's dream that "the confusion and purposelessness of earthly life" would be "resolved in a higher, cosmic or spiritual purpose."


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Table of Contents

Note on Dating and Transliteration

Chapter 1:
Chaikovsky and Decadence
Chapter 2:
Rimsky-Korsakov and Religious Syncretism
Chapter 3:
Scriabin and Theurgy
Chapter 4:
Prokofiev and Mimesis

Appendix: The Libretto of the Preparatory Act

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