Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky

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Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869), in an 1869 portrait by Konstantin Makovsky (1839–1915)

Russian composer (b. 2/14 February 1813 at Troitskoye, near Tula; d. 5/17 January 1869 in Saint Petersburg), born Aleksandr Sergeyevich Dargomyzhsky (Александр Сергеевич Даргомыжский).


Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky was born into a cultivated gentry family which lived in the countryside in the province of Tula. In 1817, however, the family moved to Saint Petersburg, where Aleksandr's father had found a well-paid administrative job. Aleksandr started having piano lessons at a very early age, but he also started working in the Treasury Department in the autumn of 1827, when he was just fourteen. Nevertheless, he continued studying music privately and by the 1830s had achieved a certain renown in Saint Petersburg as an accomplished amateur pianist and composer of romances and pieces for violin and piano. In 1835, Dargomyzhsky started visiting Glinka's house regularly, and they would play through overtures by Mendelssohn and symphonies by Beethoven arranged for piano duet. Dargomyzhsky also helped his new friend in organizing the rehearsals for A Life for the Tsar (1836).

The first opera Dargomyzhsky managed to complete was Esmeralda, written between 1838 and 1841 and based on Victor Hugo's Romantic novel Notre-Dame de Paris. He was unable to get it staged immediately, and this disappointment led him to concentrate more on writing songs for a while. When Esmeralda was finally staged — in Moscow in 1847 — it was not particularly successful. Dargomyzhsky resigned from government service in 1843 and travelled to Paris for the winter of 1844–45, where he met Glinka again.

It was in 1843 that he first had the idea of creating an opera based on Pushkin's tragic poem Rusalka, but only in 1848 did he start writing the music. As Dargomyzhsky saw it, Glinka in his two operas had concentrated on lyrical qualities, whereas he wanted to develop the dramatic potential of Russian music. He wrote the libretto for Rusalka himself, making several changes to Pushkin's text and adding peasant songs, dances, and choruses. However, the scant interest shown by the Imperial Theatres' Directorate in his new project led to periods of dejection in which he put away the score he was working on. Dargomyzhsky was able to draw encouragement from a concert in Saint Petersburg on 9/21 April 1853 at which Pauline Viardot sang four of his romances to great acclaim, and from Glinka's warm praise for what he saw of the score of Rusalka on his return to Russia in 1854. Finally, by the summer of 1855 the orchestration of the opera was complete, and Rusalka was premièred at the old building of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 4/16 May 1856. It was considerably more successful than Esmeralda, but, still, by 1861, the opera had only run to twenty-six performances. The critic Aleksandr Serov, however, wrote several articles praising Rusalka as a genuinely Russian work, the first since Glinka's two pioneering operas.

In the 1840s and 50s Dargomyzhsky also gave singing lessons to amateurs, without charging any fee for them. Thus, for example, he taught Mariya Shilovskaya (1830–1879), the mother of Konstantin and Vladimir Shilovsky, and became a close friend of the Begichev-Shilovsky family. It was at the latter's house in Moscow that Tchaikovsky seems to have met Dargomyzhsky in 1866 or 1867 [1]. In 1856, Mily Balakirev and César Cui visited Dargomyzhsky for the first time, but they did not yet become friends. It was around this time, too, that Dargomyzhsky began reconsidering his ideas about vocal expression in opera and song. In a famous letter of 1857 he insisted: "I do not wish to degrade music to the level of entertainment. I want the musical sound to express the text directly, I want truth!" [2]. In his romances Dargomyzhsky now sought to give a musical characterization to each verse, even each individual phrase, in an attempt to reproduce the intonations of real human speech, and in this respect he was to have a tremendous influence on Modest Musorgsky.

That was some years later, though. For the time being — that is the early 1860s — Dargomyzhsky was busy collaborating with the artists and writers who worked for the satirical journal The Spark (Искра). One anonymous caricature of 1862, in which Dargomyzhsky is believed to have had a hand, ridiculed the Italomania of theatre-goers in Saint Petersburg and the fact that, according to an infamous Imperial regulation of 1827, Russian composers could not command a fee higher than 1143 rubles for operas acquired by the Theatres' Directorate, whereas foreign celebrities often received astronomic sums. Verdi, for example, was paid 17,000 rubles for the right to stage La forza del destino at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1862. This caricature shows Verdi sitting in the director's box during one of these performances, his arm around the waist of a lady with a label pinned to her dress that reads "Opera 17,000". Standing in the centre of the box is the theatre's manager, and behind his back is a wretched beggar-woman carrying a sack filled with the scores of such works as Rusalka and Ruslan and Lyudmila. She symbolizes Russian opera and the caption has her imploring: "Some alms, please!" The manager's reply is: "Come, come! Clear off, God will help you. Can't you see, the gentleman here and his lady are more important than you" [3].

In the 1860s Dargomyzhsky wrote three orchestral fantasias full of humour: Baba-Yaga (1862), Little-Russian Kazachok (1864), and Finnish Fantasy (1867), all of them clearly inspired by the example of Glinka's famous Kamarinskaya. During a trip to Brussels in the winter of 1864-65 the overture to Rusalka and Kazachok were performed at a concert in his presence, and he was enthusiastically greeted by the public and the Belgian press.

At the end of 1865 Rusalka was revived at the Mariinsky Theatre, and this time it was a tremendous success, establishing Dargomyzhsky's reputation as Russia's foremost living opera composer. This triumph encouraged him to embark on a new opera, The Stone Guest, based on Pushkin's 'little tragedy', in which he wanted to use all the original verses unchanged, eschewing traditional arias and choruses to achieve a continuous recitative. He took great pride in the 'revolutionary' nature of his enterprise, and it seems that he did not really intend The Stone Guest for the stage at all [4]. In the spring of 1867, Dargomyzhsky was elected president of the Russian Musical Society and he nominated Balakirev as music director. He also successfully lobbied for the latter's Free Music School to be allowed to share the premises of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Later that year he helped to organize Berlioz's concert tour to Russia.

From the spring of 1868 the members of the "Mighty Handful", together with Vladimir Stasov, would meet regularly at Dargomyzhsky's flat in Saint Petersburg, to play him their own works and also to hear the latest sketches for The Stone Guest — a work which they were all very enthusiastic about. Musorgsky, in particular, tried to apply the principle of absolute musical fidelity to the text in an abortive opera project based on Gogols comedy The Marriage [Женитьба]. When he started working on his song cycle The Nursery [Детская] later that year he wrote a dedication to Dargomyzhsky in which he called him "the great teacher of musical truth" [5]. Dargomyzhsky helped his new friends to find well-paid music lessons and used his influence to get their works performed.

Tchaikovsky and Darghomyzhsky

When Tchaikovsky, now a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, made a trip to Saint Petersburg in April 1868 he was invited by the members of the "Mighty Handful" (who had been impressed by his article defending Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's Serbian Fantasy earlier that year — see TH 257) to attend their musical soirées at Dargomyzhsky's apartment [6]. It seems to have been on these occasions that Tchaikovsky became better acquainted with Dargomyzhsky, and there were traits in his character which did not appeal to him. However, as Dargomyzhsky was already fatally ill, he was able to look more leniently on his failings, including his contemptuous attitude towards Anton Rubinstein. It is significant that Tchaikovsky's first published work was his arrangement for piano solo of Dargomyzhsky's most famous orchestral fantasy, which appeared as Little-Russian Kazachok (TH 174) later in 1868. At a benefit performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia for Désirée Artôt in Moscow in 1868 it also seems that in the Lesson Scene she sang two romances by Glinka and Dargomyzhsky (just as her teacher Pauline Viardot had done during her appearances in Russia twenty-five years earlier) which were orchestrated for her by Tchaikovsky [7].

It is not clear whether Tchaikovsky actually got to hear excerpts from The Stone Guest at these gatherings in Dargomyzhsky's flat. Perhaps the members of the "Mighty Handful" were afraid that the extreme 'realism' of this opera — influenced by the views of such radical publicists as Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) [8] — would be too much for the young Conservatory professor! In 1871, for example, the members of the "Mighty Handful" refused to perform The Stone Guest for Ivan Turgenev during his visit to Saint Petersburg that year, as they were indignant at the scathing remarks he had made about the immaturity of Russian music in his 1867 novel Smoke (Дым) [9]. Dargomyzhsky died on 5/17 January 1869, leaving the piano-vocal score of The Stone Guest unfinished, butCui added the last sixty bars and by the autumn of 1870 Rimsky-Korsakov had completed the orchestration.

The "Mighty Handful" wanted to see The Stone Guest staged as soon as possible, but because of the abovementioned Regulation of 1827 the Theatres' Directorate refused to pay the 3,000 rubles that the guardian of Dargomyzhsky's heirs (the children of his youngest sister) asked for in return for the rights to the opera [10]. Cui and Stasov launched a press campaign to raise the missing sum, and The Stone Guest finally had its première at the Mariinsky Theatre on 16/28 February 1872. It was received frostily by the public, but Stasov hailed it as "one of the greatest creations in the world". Tchaikovsky does not seem to have come to Saint Petersburg to attend any of the few performances The Stone Guest was given before being dropped from the repertoire, but he did study the score, and in two articles he wrote in 1874, as well as in his diary in 1888, he made very critical comments on what he saw as a misguided attempt to introduce 'truth' onto the opera stage, which was after all based on the magic of illusion (see the detailed references below).

An opera whose vocal line, apart from two interpolated songs for Laura (one based on Glinka's brilliant Jota aragonesa) involved "a continuous, one might say unrelieved, quasi recitative, constantly hovering on the brink of arioso", as Richard Taruskin describes it [11], and which only showed a few flashes of inspiration in the orchestral accompaniment, was simply not an opera in Tchaikovsky's view! It was probably under Tchaikovsky's influence that Herman Laroche, in the article he published on The Stone Guest in 1887, referred to it not as an opera but rather as "an excellent study in recitative" [12]. Tchaikovsky retained his aversion to The Stone Guest all his life, and even made no secret about it at the name-day party of Rimsky-Korsakov on 9/21 May 1893 [13]. It is therefore rather ironic that a few days after the first, hugely successful, performance of Yevgeny Onegin at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 19/31 October 1884, one critic, Konstantin Galler (1845–1888) wrote a favourable review of Tchaikovsky's opera in which he asserted that "there is no doubt that Yevgeny Onegin was created under the influence of Dargomyzhsky's declamatory style (in The Stone Guest) and the arioso style of the most recent contemporary composers"! [14].

As for Dargomyzhsky's humorous orchestral pieces, Tchaikovsky, despite making a piano arrangement of the Kazachok fantasia, does not seem to have thought too highly of them. They were certainly not models for his own symphonic oeuvre in the way that Glinka's two Spanish Overtures and Kamarinskaya clearly were (although Tchaikovsky deliberately wrote the final movement of his Suite No. 2 "in the style of Dargomyzhsky") In an interesting letter Musorgsky wrote in 1873 about Tchaikovsky [quoted in more detail in the entry for Musorgsky], the latter is described ironically as expressing his disapproval of Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova's piano transcription of Dargomyzhsky's Finnish Fantasy [Чухонская фантазия] [15].

Dargomyzhsky's vividly dramatic Rusalka, on the other hand, would always be listed by Tchaikovsky amongst the best Russian operas, together with A Life for the Tsar, Ruslan and Lyudmila, and Serov's Judith (see e.g. TH 283).

Arrangements by Tchaikovsky

In 1868 Tchaikovsky also orchestrated an unidentified romance by Dargomyzhsky for a benefit performance by Désirée Artôt.

General Reflections on Dargomyzhsky

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 270 — while criticizing the secondary role allocated to the singers in Wagner's operas, Tchaikovsky mentions in passing the "austere renunciation of melodic beauty for the sake of authentic declamation" aspired to by Dargomyzhsky and Gluck.
  • TH 277 — Tchaikovsky includes Dargomyzhsky amongst those composers who had a strong gift of melodic invention but lacked the imagination to develop their themes in a richly varied manner.
  • TH 281 — praises the "astonishingly realistic" yet "gracefully melodious" recitatives of Rusalka, which was the finest product of Dargomyzhsky's "richly endowed and extremely characteristic musical individuality", but also points out the lamentable fact that Dargomyzhsky (like Glinka) had been condemned to dilettantism as a result of the age and social milieu into which he was born; criticizes severely the unending recitative of The Stone Guest and the very idea of "writing an opera without music"; observes that Dargomyzhsky lacked a feeling for "musical colour" and was therefore less successful in conveying the fantastic element in Rusalka.
  • TH 284 — during yet another enthusiastic tribute to Mozart's Don Giovanni, Tchaikovsky takes Dargomyzhsky to task again for The Stone Guest, which was "the lamentable fruit of a dry, purely rational process of invention" and sought to implement the narrow-minded "realism" that had been advocated by radical critics like Chernyshevsky; also mocks the "obtuseness" of the members of the "Mighty Handful" for proclaiming The Stone Guest to be one of the greatest operas ever written!

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • Letter 1541 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30–19/31 July 1880, in which Tchaikovsky summarizes what he had written to Nadezhda von Meck that very day about the significance of Bizet's Carmen in an age of decadence when "not only the new Russian school, but also Wagner and Liszt are essentially striving after what's pretty [хорошенький] and savoury [вкусенький]. The last Mohicans of the Golden Age of music were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Glinka (as for Dargomyzhsky, he's exclusively savoury), and in them one can already observe a transition from the sublime and beautiful to the savoury"
  • Letter 1585 to Nadezhda von Meck, 9/21–12/24 September 1880, in which Tchaikovsky explains that he wanted to take up some other type of work to distract him from having to think about his music all the time: "Should I perhaps write a monograph about some musician? The trouble with that is that so much has already been written about the great western composers, and as for Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, and Serov, I can't write about them with enthusiasm because as much as I value their works, I have a very low opinion of their personalities. I've already written to you about Glinka. Dargomyzhsky's personality was even less [intellectually] developed and interesting"

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Diary entry for 23 July/4 August 1888:
Dargomyzhsky? Yes! Of course he was a talent! But never has the dilettante type manifested itself so markedly as was the case with him. Glinka, too, was a dilettante, but his colossal genius acts as a shield against his dilettantism; and, besides, if it weren't for his fatal memoirs, we wouldn't have any reason to concern ourselves with his dilettantism. Dargomyzhsky is a different matter; his dilettantism lies in his very works and in his [musical] forms. Having a talent of medium quality and, moreover, not being equipped with technique, but still imagining oneself to be a pioneer — that is pure dilettantism. Towards the end of his life Dargomyzhsky was writing The Stone Guest, fully believing that he was breaking the old foundations and that on the ruins of these he would build something new and colossal. A lamentable delusion! I saw him during this last period of his life and in view of his sufferings (he had an ailment of the heart) I of course didn't feel like quarrelling with him. But I do not know anything more loathsome and false than this failed attempt to introduce truth into a sphere of art where everything is based on falsehood, and where truth in the everyday sense of the word is not at all called for. Dargomyzhsky simply had no mastery whatsoever (not even a tenth of what Glinka had). But he did have a certain piquancy and originality. He was especially successful at harmonic curiosities. But it is not in curiosities that the essence of aesthetic beauty lies, as many people think in our country. I ought to say something that would illustrate D's character (I saw him quite often in Moscow at the time of his successes there), but I'd rather not recollect [those details]. He was very abrupt and unfair in his judgements (e.g. when he disparaged the Rubinstein brothers), whereas he liked to talk about himself in a complimentary tone. During his illness before dying he became much more placid and even displayed a considerable warmth towards his lesser fellow-creatures. I just want to remember that. Towards me (in connection with The Voyevoda) he displayed an unexpected sympathy. He probably didn't believe the rumours about me hissing (!!!) at the first performance of his Esmeralda in Moscow [17].

Views on Specific Works by Dargomyzhsky

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

  • The Stone Guest — letter 3143 to Nadezhda von Meck, 5/17 January 1887, in which Tchaikovsky explains how he had been trying to help Laroche to overcome his depressions and lethargy: "I spent an hour-and-a-half each day getting Laroche to dictate to me an article about Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, and the net result of it all is a very good article, which you will be able to read in the next issue of the Russian Messenger" [18]

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • The Stone Guest, opera (1872) — diary entry for 23 July/4 August 1888 (quoted above)

External Links



  1. Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 239.
  2. Lev Tarasov, Даргомыжский в Петербурге (1988), p. 162.
  3. Lev Tarasov, Даргомыжский в Петербурге (1988), p. 176.
  4. Lev Tarasov, Даргомыжский в Петербурге (1988), p. 212.
  5. In the original Russian: «великий учитель музыкальной правды». Quoted in Lev Tarasov, Даргомыжский в Петербурге (1988), p. 209.
  6. Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 267–268.
  7. See the notes by Nikolay Alekseyev on Désirée Artôt-Padilla in his compilation Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 27.
  8. See Richard Taruskin, Opera and Drama in Russia — As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s (1993), pp. 259–260. In his influential dissertation of 1855 — The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (Эстетические отношения искусства к действительности) — Chernyshevsky had pointed out, amongst other things, that in moments of overwhelming emotion no one would ever start singing a formally rounded aria! See also TH 284 where Tchaikovsky criticizes Chernyshevsky's simplistic argument and defends the autonomy of artistic beauty.
  9. Vladimir Stasov recalls this incident in his memoirs of Turgenev — see. V. G. Fridliand and S. M. Petrov, И. С. Тургенев в воспоминаниях современников ; vol. 2 (1983), p. 106. When Turgenev eventually got hold of the piano score of The Stone Guest and asked Pauline Viardot to play it through back in Paris, his reaction was one of bewilderment and disgust — especially at the way Cui had made it out to be infinitely superior to Mozart's Don Giovanni. Tchaikovsky's reaction was quite similar to Turgenev's — see TH 281 and TH 284 in particular.
  10. Lev Tarasov, Даргомыжский в Петербурге (1988), p. 230.
  11. Richard Taruskin, 'Russian Realism as Preached and Practiced', Musical Quarterly, 56 (1970), p. 444.
  12. Richard Taruskin, Opera and Drama in Russia — As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s (1993), p. 270.
  13. As recalled by Vasily Yastrebtsev (1866–1934) — see Из моих воспоминаний о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 214.
  14. Quoted in Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 326.
  15. Letter from Modest Musorgsky to Vladimir Stasov, 26 December 1872/7 January 1873.
  16. This was based on the same poem by Mikhail Lermontov which later inspired Tchaikovsky's own chorus The Golden Cloud Did Sleep (1887).
  17. Diary entry for 23 July/4 August 1888 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 215. The last sentence is not entirely clear: Dargomyzhsky's early opera Esmeralda was first staged in Moscow in 1847 and lasted just two seasons (notching up only eleven performances). Tchaikovsky, who was just seven or eight at the time, cannot have attended any of these performances, let alone taken part in any such hissing! Perhaps Esmeralda was revived later, when Dargomyzhsky had become more established as a composer, and it is one such occasion to which Tchaikovsky is referring.
  18. This article by Herman Laroche was published as 'With Regard to "The Stone Guest" in Moscow' (По поводу «Каменного гостя» в Мосвке) in the Russian Herald (Русский вестник) (1887), No. 1.