Boris Asafyev

Tchaikovsky Research
Boris Asafyev (1884-1949) in 1928

Russian musicologist and composer (b. 17/29 July 1884 in Saint Petersburg; d. 27 January 1949 in Moscow), born Boris Vladimirovich Asafyev (Борис Владимирович Асафьев), also known by his literary pseudonym Igor Glebov (Игорь Глебов).

Early Years

The son of a humble official, Boris had a rather dreary childhood, marred by poverty. His mother, a peasant's daughter, had to take on sewing jobs in order to make ends meet. However, when Boris's love of music manifested itself very early on (aged 5 or 6, he was already improvising on the family's piano), his father began taking him to concerts in Saint Petersburg. As a child he often spent the summer months near Pavlovsk, where his grandfather was a night-watchman at the palace, and Boris would regularly walk the four kilometres from their hut to the Pavlovsk railway station to attend the free concerts there. Thanks to these he had the chance to hear a wide repertoire of music, but his first love was Tchaikovsky, as he later recalled: "In early childhood the first music that caressed me was Tchaikovsky's: my mother would hum to me Lullaby in a Storm [No. 10 of the Sixteen Songs for Children]. The evenings at the Pavlovsk station near Petersburg, unforgettable for so many Russian musicians of former generations, trained my ear, especially with regard to Tchaikovsky's music" [1]. Boris also remembered how in the autumn of 1893 the long cortège at Tchaikovsky's funeral had processed past their house on Nevsky Prospekt.

In the autumn of 1894, Boris began attending a gymnasium in Saint Petersburg, but soon the family's economic situation meant that he could not carry on there, and two years later, thanks to a relative, he was sent as a state-aided pupil to a gymnasium in the seaport town of Kronstadt. As a boarder at the school he was very homesick at first, but on Sundays he was often invited to the houses of school friends whose families lived in Kronstadt, and as a result his cultural horizons were widened considerably. Recognizing Boris's musical abilities, the school bought a piano so that he could practise in the evenings. During his time in Kronstadt he was in high demand as an accompanist in various houses and also learnt to play the flute. After taking his school-leaving exams in the spring of 1903, he returned to Saint Petersburg, eventually enrolling, in September, at the Faculty of History and Philology at the city's university, even though his dream was to become a composer.

In March 1904, he finally mustered the courage to call on Rimsky-Korsakov. The great composer, whose lyrical opera May Night was a lifelong favourite of Asafyev's, tested the young man's knowledge of Russian music and listened to the piano pieces and songs that he had brought with him. At the end of this meeting, Rimsky-Korsakov encouraged him to apply to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

A few months later, in August, another important encounter took place when he met Vladimir Stasov. The veteran champion of the "Mighty Handful" invited Asafyev to visit his dacha every Sunday, where they would go through Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila and other works on the piano, and he gave Asafyev the opportunity to work under his supervision at the Imperial Public Library. At Stasov's dacha he also met Glazunov, the painter Ilya Repin, Maksim Gorky, and the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin. Stasov's enthusiasm and vitality had an invigorating effect on Asafyev, who would later describe these years as his "artistic university". In particular, he gained first-hand experience of the traditions of the "Mighty Handful", because Stasov introduced him to the house of Aleksandra Molas (née Purgold, 1845–1929), the sister of Rimsky-Korsakov's wife Nadezhda. Musorgsky and Borodin had composed many of their songs for Aleksandra, and the young Asafyev had the chance to accompany her on the piano as she performed these and other vocal works of the "Mighty Handful" at her soirées. Stasov also entrusted him with the task of copying the score of Musorgsky's comic opera The Marriage.

In September 1904, Asafyev, while still continuing his studies at the History Faculty, passed the entrance exams at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and was awarded a full scholarship. It was also during these exams that he met the 12-year-old Sergey Prokofiev, who became his fellow student and friend. At the Conservatory, Asafyev studied in the theory and harmony class of Anatoly Lyadov and in the instrumentation class of Rimsky-Korsakov. Another fellow student of Asafyev's was the composer Nikolay Myaskovsky, with whom he played through many 4-handed piano arrangements. Throughout 1906, Asafyev worked on his children's opera Cinderella, the idea for which had been suggested to him by Stasov. The latter's death in October that year was a bitter blow for him, but in the winter of 1906/07 he did succeed in staging Cinderella with a cast drawn from the children of acquaintances, as well as with the assistance of Vaslav Nijinsky, then in the final year of his studies at the Imperial Ballet School, who choreographed the dance numbers in the opera. Although a revised version of Cinderella would later be performed in music schools and clubs, this opera, like all of Asafyev's subsequent works in that genre (11 operas in total), never made it onto the repertoire of a professional theatre, much to his disappointment. In 1907, he composed another children's opera, The Snow Queen, based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, and this was premiered at a Saint Petersburg music school in January 1908, again with Nijinsky responsible for the dances. Shortly afterwards, though, Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova told Asafyev that her husband was angry with him for daring to compose operas and have them performed in public without his teacher's permission!

Asafyev obtained top grades in his graduation exams at the History Faculty in the spring of 1908, but this success was clouded by the death of Rimsky-Korsakov in June. For, despite his disapproval of Asafyev's unauthorised composing, some months earlier he had hinted that he would soon allow him to join his free composition class. After Rimsky-Korsakov's death, Asafyev decided to leave the Conservatory without completing his course, although Glazunov persuaded Lyadov to allow Asafyev to come to his house for private lessons. Glazunov also helped Asafyev to find occasional work as an accompanist at the Conservatory. It was just enough to live on, and in April 1909 he was able to marry Irina Stepanovna Khozyasheva (1885–1969), whom he had first met as a gymnasium student in Kronstadt.

Also in 1909, Nijinsky introduced Asafyev to Serge Diaghilev, who had come over to Saint Petersburg from Paris with the intention of copying the manuscript score of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina (after the great success of Boris Godunov in Paris the previous year). He was also looking for a Russian fairy-tale ballet that would appeal to Parisian audiences and he asked Asafyev to recommend a young composer. Asafyev suggested Igor Stravinsky, and soon afterwards the latter was commissioned by Diaghilev to compose The Firebird. Later that year, the balletmaster Nikolay Legat asked Asafyev to write a classical dance for Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, and this short work, entitled Butterflies, was performed as part of a divertissement at the Mariinsky Theatre in December 1909. It was his first composition to be played by an orchestra.

Nijinsky and Legat were able to pull some strings on Asafyev's behalf, and in the autumn of 1910 he was appointed a répétiteur pianist with the Mariinsky Ballet. Asafyev worked under the Italian conductor Riccardo Drigo (1846–1930), who had conducted the premieres of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker twenty years earlier. Drigo generously helped Asafyev in his work by playing through with him four-handed arrangements of the difficult ballet scores of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov. Asafyev also had the opportunity to observe Eduard Nápravník on the conductor's rostrum during opera performances. The long summer breaks at the Mariinsky meant that from 1911 to 1916 Asafyev could travel to Germany, Italy, and France for a few months each year in order to visit museums, libraries, and art galleries. During a stay in Kiev and the area near Kamenka in the summer of 1916, Asafyev met another 'veteran' of Russian music, the critic Nikolay Kashkin, whose character he greatly admired. Kashkin lived to see Asafyev's first publications on Tchaikovsky and approved of them.


In May 1917, Asafyev was promoted to the post of musical consultant to the Mariinsky Ballet. His duties now involved composing extra numbers to be inserted in classical ballets, as well as re-orchestrating Ludwig Minkus's The Bayadere. Before Mikhail Fokine left Russia for good in 1918, Asafyev was able to work with him on some of his innovative choreographic productions, making orchestral arrangements of Balakirev's Islamey, Glinka's Jota aragonesa, and Gluck's Orfeo.

During his first years at the Mariinsky, Asafyev had still cherished the hope of making his mark as a composer, but he was soon disheartened by the critics' indifference to his music and by the theatres' reluctance to take on his stage works. In 1914, therefore, encouraged by Myaskovsky, he decided to devote most of his energies to music criticism, and the editor of the first journal for which he worked chose the pseudonym "Igor Glebov" for him. Asafyev had opted to write under a pseudonym because he was not confident of success in his new role. Although these misgivings proved unfounded and within a few years everyone was aware of who Igor Glebov was, Asafyev continued to use his nom-de-plume in most of his later publications. With his brilliant, if at times high-flown style, Asafyev enthusiastically championed such bold new works as Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1913) and Prokofiev's Scythian Suite (1915). At the same time he defended the music of Taneyev against those who accused it of 'dry academicism' and, in particular, that of Tchaikovsky, which some modernist critics were now dismissing as sentimental and outdated. As Asafyev later recalled: "For me, Tchaikovsky's music was always the truthful art of real life, and I could not look on calmly at the way that his music was being pronounced to be fit only for clerks and women cooks" [2].

After the October Revolution in 1917, Asafyev began teaching at the State Institute for the History of the Arts in Petrograd, eventually becoming a professor and, in 1920, head of its music history faculty. From the very start, it seems, he had welcomed the Bolshevik seizure of power, and in 1918 he wrote the first Soviet ballet, Carmagnole, for workers' clubs. (This was to be a precursor of his later ballet The Flames of Paris.) From 1918 to 1921, he worked for the music section of the People's Commissariat for Education (Narkompros), helping to re-organize musical life in Petrograd. This included the writing of programme notes and leaflets for popular concerts. Asafyev was also able to pursue his own research interests, which ranged from music history to the more mundane aspects of musical bibliography and archival work. In the latter field he already had considerable experience because from 1916 onwards, at the request of Kashkin and the editors of various music journals, he had been working in Moscow on the archives of Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, and Stepan Smolensky; and in Petrograd on the archive of Nápravník, which he helped to copy and catalogue. Soon after the October Revolution, Asafyev had started collecting material on Tchaikovsky's life, and in June 1918 he wrote to Kashkin:

I confess to you frankly that I have had the following bold and daring thought: would it not be possible to obtain, through Tchaikovsky's relatives and his friends, permission for me to work on his archive — that is, both on what is now available and on all that may come to light. Moreover, I myself would do everything I could to track down any such documents. My conscience tells me that my idea is not sacrilegious, since of all the young writers on music no one worships Tchaikovsky and cherishes his memory more than I do: I am entitled to say this with a calm and clear conscience [3].

Although Asafyev did not in fact visit Klin at the time, he did support Nikolay Zhegin, the curator of Tchaikovsky's house (which in 1921 became a museum), in his efforts to gather together all of the composer's letters, as well as memoirs about him. The fruit of this early research was the publication, in 1920, of a volume co-edited by Asafyev and Vasily Yakovlev, and entitled Прошлое русской музыки. Материалы и исследования (The Past of Russian Music: Documents and Investigations). This volume — originally scheduled to appear in 1918, the 25th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death, but delayed by the civil war — contains some of Tchaikovsky's letters to Nikolay and Aleksandra Hubert, as well as Kashkin's memoir of what Tchaikovsky had allegedly told him about his marriage to Antonina Milyukova. (This memoir includes Kashkin's report of his late friend's confession that in September 1877 he had tried to catch his death of cold by wading into the freezing waters of the Moskva River — a report whose veracity has subsequently been questioned).

In 1919, Asafyev was appointed to the post of director of the Central Music Library of the State Academic Theatres in Petrograd. During the ten years of his directorship he oversaw the cataloguing of this library's invaluable collections of music scores, and also ordered from abroad the scores of operas by Stravinsky and Prokofiev. During the 1920s, Asafyev continually lobbied for Stravinsky's music to be performed in the Soviet Union — a token of his admiration for that composer which would culminate in his Book About Stravinsky (1929). Despite his love of the music of the past, Asafyev genuinely felt the need to support the work of contemporary composers like Stravinsky, Myaskovsky, and Prokofiev, and he was well placed to do this not just as a music critic, but also because in 1921 he had helped to found the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd. Asafyev was its artistic director until 1930 and he wrote many brochures for its concerts.

In fact, Asafyev's most famous book, Симфонические этюды (1922) — recently translated into English by David Haas as Symphonic Etudes: Portraits of Russian Operas and Ballets (2008) — arose on the basis of such programme notes, though not for symphonic concerts, but for opera performances in Petrograd. This book consists of 19 etudes, or essays, on the operas of Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, Serov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as the ballets of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, and the first ballets of Stravinsky. Among the most compelling essays in the book, which is addressed to the general reader and contains just one musical quotation, are the two devoted to Asafyev's favourite composer: 'The Operas of Tchaikovsky' and 'The Queen of Spades'. In the former, Asafyev singled out for praise The Enchantress, which he considered to be an unjustly neglected work and which he (unsuccessfully) tried to have staged in 1926. The latter essay explores the underlying tragic nature of Tchaikovsky's music and discusses The Queen of Spades as the composer's attempt to come to terms with the problem of evil in a series of "dialogues with Death".

Another striking essay in Symphonic Etudes is that on Musorgsky, in which Asafyev departed from Stasov's view of the composer of Boris Godunov as a realistic chronicler of the Russian people's sufferings and portrayed Musorgsky as an "incorrigible dreamer and visionary" [4]. Asafyev also pointed out how Stasov had failed to appreciate Musorgsky's final works, with their introspection and pessimism. On the whole, Asafyev's book showed a highly emotional and intuitive approach to music which in some respects was influenced by his reading of the idealist philosophers Henri Bergson and Nikolay Lossky. Given that the book appeared in 1922, that is, when the Bolsheviks had firmly consolidated their grip on Soviet Russia, it does seem remarkable, as David Haas has noted, that Asafyev was "bold enough to praise Stravinsky openly, to wax poetic over the artistic treasures of the 19th century, yet avoid all mention of Marx, Lenin, the masses, and the October Revolution" [5]. It was also in Symphonic Etudes that Asafyev introduced the term intonatsiya, by which he referred to the characteristic contour of a musical work — in Yevgeny Onegin, for example, this is the interval of a minor sixth, which in Russia is sometimes called the "Lensky sixth" as this interval is a prominent feature of Lensky's aria, as well as of much of Tatyana's music in the opera. Asafyev would develop the concept of intonatsiya in his subsequent publications.

Symphonic Etudes had a stimulating effect on many Soviet readers in the 1920s, especially on young music students such as the 19-year-old Dmitry Shostakovich, who, in a letter of 1925, remarked how glad he was to be at the Leningrad Conservatory now that Asafyev was teaching there: "I have always appreciated Asafyev very much as a musician and for his visceral love of music" [6]. This is certainly borne out by the conclusion of Asafyev's essay on The Queen of Spades, in which he reflected on how, though it was true that a critic had to have a solid basis of aesthetic criteria in the evaluation of musical works:

Only the passion of worship and love helps one to see what is hidden and hear the unheard amidst the vanities of life and the grip of a classroom tablature. Having heard things of value in something dear, I learned to hear it, too, in what was not. Therefore I cannot help bowing to the memory of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose music compelled me to ponder over music [7].

Eventually Asafyev's book would be denounced by the Soviet establishment for its "idealistic" and "subjective" tendencies, and, in particular, the image of Tchaikovsky presented in it would be dismissed as false because of Asafyev's emphasis on the "fatalism" and "pessimism" of such works as The Queen of Spades [8].

Two other important, but shorter, books by Asafyev which also appeared in 1922 were Tchaikovksy's Instrumental Music (Инструментальное творчество Чайковского), in which he again defended Tchaikovsky's legacy against attempts by modernist critics to disparage its significance; and P. I. Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works (П. И. Чайковский: Его жизнь и творчество), which was the first Soviet monograph on the composer. In the latter book, Asafyev explained the tragic nature of Tchaikovsky's music as a consequence of the extreme sensitivity that was a distinguishing trait in his character ever since childhood and also observed that a fear of death had haunted him all his life, culminating in The Queen of Spades. This was one of Asafyev's favourite books, and in later years he wanted to revise it and bring out a new edition.

In 1924, a further volume containing letters by Tchaikovsky and memoirs about him came out under Asafyev's editorship: Tchaikovsky: Reminiscences and Letters (Чайковский: Воспоминания и письма). Asafyev had himself prepared for publication the memoirs of Vladimir Pogozhev, manager of the Imperial Theatres' office during the last decade of Tchaikovsky's life. Glazunov's reminiscences of Tchaikovsky, which he had written down at Asafyev's request, were another valuable contribution to this volume.

Although he remained on the staff of the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (Russian abbreviation: GATOB), as the Mariinsky was renamed in 1917, Asafyev did not do much composing or arranging for the ballet company during the 1920s. Scholarly and teaching work now took up most of his time. In 1925, he was appointed professor of music history at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he soon became one of the leading figures. He backed a number of reforms in the curriculum, including the introduction of a free composition class, and also helped to set up a musicology department, which he would head for several years. Glazunov and a few other professors, however, were opposed to his initiatives.

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975) in 1933

From 1925, Asafyev was also on the board of directors of the Leningrad Association of Contemporary Music and lobbied for the programming of works by Berg, Hindemith, and Stravinsky at concerts in the city. Shostakovich, however, felt deeply offended when Asafyev failed to attend the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 the following year, and in a letter to a friend he insinuated that it was because Asafyev, whom he described as a "little intriguer", resented the fact that the symphony was due to be performed under the auspices of a rival organization [9]. It should be stressed, though, that Shostakovich's sarcastic remarks about Asafyev in private letters and conversations down the years were not quite fair. Later in 1926, for example, Asafyev helped Shostakovich to obtain a teaching post, and in 1929 he would defend his opera The Nose when it came under attack from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) [10]. More generally, unlike other lesser Soviet composers, Asafyev was not envious of the younger man's genius and growing world fame (after the First Symphony was performed in Berlin in 1927), and he never tried to put a spoke in his wheel [11].

In 1927, Asafyev initiated a project for the staging and publication of Boris Godunov in Musorgsky's original version of 1867. (The opera had so far been performed only in the composer's own revised version of 1872 and in Rimsky-Korsakov's edited version). Despite protests from Glazunov, who believed that Rimsky-Korsakov's editing had improved the opera, Asafyev persevered in his cause [12]. He was assisted by his friend, the musicologist Pavel Lamm, who had copied all the autographs of Boris and Khovanshchina. The original version of Boris Godunov was published in 1928 by Muzsektor (a branch of the State Publishing House Gosizdat) and by Oxford University Press, and its world premiere took place at GATOB, Leningrad, on 16 February 1928.

Another important production in which Asafyev was involved was that of Alban Berg's Woyzeck in Leningrad in June 1927, just eighteen months after its world premiere in Berlin. Berg himself came to Leningrad for this performance and thanked Asafyev warmly for his support, because the latter had defended Woyzeck against attacks by RAPM hack critics who argued that the opera was alien to the mentality of the proletariat! Asafyev understood that, after the horrors of World War I, it was no longer so easy to write melodious music, and in a letter to Berg in 1929 he said that he considered Woyzeck to be the most important contemporary opera by virtue of its protest against cruelty and violence [13]. Asafyev was also responsible for inviting such distinguished foreign conductors as Otto Klemperer and Ernest Ansermet to the Soviet Union.

Asafyev himself was invited by the directors of the Salzburg Festival to organize and lead a visit by the Leningrad Conservatory's opera studio to Salzburg in the summer of 1928. This was the first visit abroad by a Soviet music theatre ensemble, and the Conservatory students gave performances of Mozart's Bastien und Bastienne, Dargomyzhsky's Stone Guest, and Rimsky-Korsakov's Kashchei the Immortal. The visit was a great success, even though some hostile critics spoke ironically of Musorgsky, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Asafyev (whose books were becoming known abroad) as the "Leningrad Bolsheviks"! In Salzburg, Asafyev briefly met the writer Stefan Zweig, and, moving on to Vienna, he met the eminent Austrian musicologist Guido Adler. After that he travelled to Paris to visit Prokofiev and Chaliapin.

The "Reactionary"

Towards the end of the 1920s, Asafyev came under attack from RAPM for the content and style of his books, which were said to be pervaded by "counterrevolutionary, anti-Marxist idealism", "reactionary formalism" and "religious mysticism". (This was not surprising, since the RAPM ideologues had, for example, declared Tchaikovsky's music to be decadent and alien to the Soviet people [14].) Asafyev's lectures at the Conservatory and elsewhere were disrupted by hecklers, and defamations of his work and character appeared in the press. He appealed to Anatoly Lunacharsky, the head of Narkomproz, for support, but by 1930, under relentless pressure from RAPM he had no choice but to resign from his teaching posts at the Conservatory and the History of Arts Institute [15].

Asafyev decided to interrupt his musicological work for a while and began composing more intensely again. The situation improved in April 1932, when a Central Committee resolution disbanded RAPM and other Proletarian Associations in the arts, replacing them with unions of composers, writers, and artists. Asafyev successfully applied to be admitted into the Leningrad Composers' Union as a composer rather than as a musicologist (which was also permitted), but he was frowned upon by some of his fellow members, as he later recalled: "The composers declared that I should not be voting together with the composers, but with the musicologists. The latter for their part pointed out that I was not a scholar" [16]. Indeed, in the 1930s, music students who cited his books in exams would often have their marks lowered by their professors, who considered that Asafyev's writing lacked "discipline" and "methodology".

The few articles that Asafyev published in this decade show that to some extent he did adopt the jargon of Marxist-Leninism, and, after 1934, of Socialist realism. For instance, he began to emphasize how Tchaikovsky's music was 'realistic' and 'popular' (narodnyi). As David Haas has observed: "The few occasional pieces on 19th-century Russian opera composers penned by Asafyev in the 1930s were devoid of scholarly depth or critical insight but rife with ideologically acceptable platitudes, each of them pointedly reversing a position from the Etudes" [17]. Nevertheless, if the 1930s marked a low point in Asafyev's work as a publicist, it was in these years that he had the greatest impact on the Soviet stage as a ballet composer.

Following on from his work on the original version of Boris Godunov, Asafyev undertook the instrumentation of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina in 1930–31. It was also around this time that, according to some accounts, he suggested Leskov's grim story Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to Shostakovich as the subject for an opera. Shostakovich completed Lady Macbeth in December 1932, and the work was in fact originally dedicated to Asafyev. After its premiere in January 1934 Asafyev wrote two very positive articles on Shostakovich, in which he compared him to Mozart in terms of the richness of his talent.

Asafyev devoted his own creative efforts mainly to ballet, the musical genre in which he had the most experience, and his contribution to Soviet ballet between the 1920s and 40s was significant. For a start, in his capacity as musical consultant at GATOB (from 1935 the Kirov Theatre), he helped to preserve the legacy of Tchaikovsky's ballets, vetoing misguided attempts to improve Lev Ivanov's choreography for the 'white acts' in Swan Lake. He also persuaded the choreographer Vasily Vainonen to end his new production of The Nutcracker not with the fairy-tale apotheosis, but with the awakening of Masha (as Clara is called in Russian productions of the ballet) from her dream, thus emphasizing the theme of the continuity of life [18].

Galina Ulanova (Maria) and Pyotr Gusev (Girei) in a 1947 production of Asafyev's ballet The Fountain of Bakhchisarai at the Kirov Theatre

Working in the new style of "dramatic ballet" (drambalet), Asafyev wrote his two most famous ballets in quick succession: The Flames of Paris (1932) and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1934). For the first of these ballets, which deals with the storming of the Tuileries palace by the people of Paris in 1792, Asafyev drew on musical material from the works of Lully and Rameau, as well as on French revolutionary songs, including the Marseillaise, and fused these into a rousing score. The Flames of Paris was produced at GATOB on 7 November 1932, with choreography by Vainonen, and was soon transferred to the country's principal stage, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. To this day the Basque Dance in the final act, with its powerful rhythm, rarely fails to make an impression on audiences.

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai is a more nuanced work. Inspired by Pushkin's poem about the Polish girl Maria who is abducted by Girei, the Khan of Crimea, but whose delicate beauty awakens his genuine love, driving Zarema, once the favourite in Girei's harem, to stab her in a fit of jealousy, Asafyev wrote his ballet in just two weeks. The score contains highly lyrical moments, as well as striking Tartar dances. The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, with choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, had its premiere at GATOB on 28 September 1934, in a production conducted by the young Yevgeny Mravinsky and featuring Galina Ulanova as Maria. It was a huge triumph and was also transferred to the stage of the Bolshoi in Moscow shortly afterwards.

Other collaborations with Zakharov followed, including Illusions perdues (1936), based on Balzac's novel, and Captive of the Caucasus (1938), based on another poem by Pushkin. In 1938, Asafyev was made a People's Artist of the RSFSR. In the course of his career Asafyev composed 28 ballets, 11 operas, 5 symphonies, cantatas, songs, piano and chamber works (more than 150 compositions in total). Although he admired Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, he was not a musical pioneer himself, preferring to stay within the bounds of the nineteenth-century tradition. Still, even if Asafyev did not reach the heights of his famous contemporaries, his ballet music has considerable merits [19].

When the notorious Pravda editorial "Muddle Instead of Music" (often attributed to Stalin), attacking Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth, appeared in January 1936, the Leningrad Composers' Union swiftly convoked meetings to discuss the issue. Asafyev's conduct at this point would cost him irrevocably the respect of Shostakovich, who crossed out his original dedication to Asafyev in Lady Macbeth. However, if one looks at the article which Asafyev published in the journal Soviet Music in response to the Pravda editorial, it does seem that he was trying to find extenuating circumstances in Shostakovich's defence [20]. He even repeated his earlier comparison between Shostakovich and Mozart, arguing that the former showed an equally "naïve" approach to reality. Echoing the Pravda editorial, Asafyev did observe that Shostakovich's musical idiom contained vestiges of musical "modernism" and "decadence", but he stressed that this was a general problem faced by many other Soviet composers, too. Other sections of the article make for more painful reading, especially those in which Asafyev acknowledged that he had been "mistaken" in his earlier enthusiasm for "Western European bourgeois musical culture", and that Alban Berg's Woyzeck reflected the latter's crisis.

Shostakovich would never forgive what he perceived to be Asafyev's treachery, though it should be noted that even his close friend, the critic Ivan Sollertinsky, was forced to recognize that Lady Macbeth had some flaws [21]. During the latter half of the 1930s, the Stalinist purges reached their highest intensity, and many artists and intellectuals had reason to fear for themselves and their families. By agreeing with the official line on Lady Macbeth as a work redolent of "cynical sensuality", Asafyev was certainly not seeking to harm Shostakovich, but it is understandable why the latter was so alarmed and why he felt that Asafyev was currying favour with the Party's cultural ideologues. Still, Asafyev himself was also a target for attack in these years, and intrigues at the Kirov Theatre (as GABOT, the former Mariinsky, was renamed in 1935) led to his dismissal from the post of musical consultant in 1937.

The Tchaikovsky Archive

In 1940, Margarita Rittikh, head of the manuscript section at the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin, enlisted Asafyev's collaboration for various projects linked to the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth. Asafyev replied that he was too busy that year because he was in fact already working on a new study on Tchaikovsky's music. However, he accepted Rittikh's invitation to come to Klin in July 1941, adding that he had "long since dreamed of breathing the air of Tchaikovsky's house" and that he wanted to do some work on the autograph of The Nutcracker [22]. Nothing came of these plans, however, because of the German invasion on 22 June 1941.

Significantly, during World War II, publishing strictures lessened in the Soviet Union, and one consequence of this was that Asafyev embarked on a series of major studies, all issued under his pseudonym Igor Glebov, in which he regained much of the élan of his publications of the 1920s. Asafyev remained in Leningrad during the siege of the city by the German forces. The first winter of 1941/42 was particularly harsh, and Asafyev had to burn part of his archive to keep himself and his family warm (he and Irina had no children, but Irina's sister was living with them). Still, he managed to work on his monograph Yevgeny Onegin: Lyrical Scenes by P. I. Tchaikovsky: An Attempt at Intonational Analysis of the Style and Musical Dramaturgy («Евгений Онегин» лирические сцены П. И. Чайковского. Опыт интонационного анализа стиля и музыкальной драматургии), completing it in March 1942. This study would soon become a classic after it was published in 1944. Asafyev also began writing some interesting memoirs, in which he described his encounters with Stasov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Kashkin, Lyadov, and other notable figures in the world of Russian music [23]. In the summer of 1942, he was offered the chance to be evacuated from Leningrad with his family, but he refused. That summer he also completed his monograph on Edvard Grieg, which he had undertaken partly as a gesture of solidarity with German-occupied Norway, and which was published in 1948. It was also in the winter of 1941/42 that he commenced his famous tripartite study of Glinka and his times.

In February 1943, Asafyev, on whose weak health the hardships of life in besieged Leningrad had taken their toll, was evacuated with his family across the frozen Ladoga Lake and taken to Moscow. Before leaving Leningrad, he had to burn much of what remained of his archive (books, scores, letters) because they could only take the most essential things with them. Shortly after his arrival in Moscow, Asafyev was elected a member of the USSR Academy of Sciences — the first time that this honour was awarded to a musician. In April 1943, Margarita Rittikh came to Moscow to see Asafyev and to offer him the post of director of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum (which had recently been moved back to Klin after the evacuation of its collections to Votkinsk), but he declined on the grounds that the administrative duties of this role would not leave him enough time for other work, in particular the various articles and studies on Tchaikovsky that he planned to write that year, the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. Of the ten or so publications related to Tchaikovsky that Asafyev completed in 1943, the most important was the monograph The Enchantress, opera by P. I. Tchaikovsky. An Attempt to Uncover its Intonational Content [«Чародейка», опера П. И. Чайковского. Опыт раскрытия интонационного содержания), which was published in 1947. Asafyev's original intention of writing intonational analyses of Iolanta and The Nutcracker as well was not realised, but his thoughts on these two works fed into a cycle of essays which he wrote during 1943–44: The Music of My Motherland (Музыка моей родины) [24].

The musicologist Yelena Orlova later recalled how, after a conference in Moscow in November 1943 on Tchaikovsky's music for the stage, Asafyev had spoken to her about his plans connected with Tchaikovsky: "He dreamed of writing a study on the composer's life. He said that he was in possession of some interesting new facts, that he had all kinds of conjectures which had been almost fully confirmed. There were new documents. Letters. In particular, he had found out from Kashkin that Tchaikovsky was acquainted with Antonina Ivanovna while he was still at the School of Jurisprudence, that she was the sweetheart of his youth, that they knew each other well, and that the version [of their marriage] now circulating had been invented by N. G. Rubinstein" [25]. Clearly, Asafyev did not (and could not) have a complete picture of Tchaikovsky's life, but Valery Sokolov, in his 1994 biography of Antonina Tchaikovskaya, established that Tchaikovsky had indeed briefly met his future wife some years before their ill-fated marriage — in May 1872 at the house of Anna Khvostova's sister [26]. For some reason Asafyev did not realise his intention of writing a new book on Tchaikovsky's life or revising his 1922 book.

In January 1944, a musicology section was set up at the Moscow Conservatory on Asafyev's initiative, and his friend Vasily Yakovlev would subsequently work there. That year, Asafyev also helped to found the USSR Academy of Sciences' Institute for the History of the Arts. In the autumn of 1944, Margarita Rittikh again contacted Asafyev to ask him to reconstruct and complete two sketches for songs by Tchaikovsky which had been discovered by chance when the Klin museum's collections were evacuated to Votkinsk. Tchaikovsky had made these sketches (TH 225) in his copy of a book of poetry by the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. Asafyev duly completed the two songs — the first of several instances in which he developed Tchaikovsky's sketches. Asafyev also oversaw the initial stages of preparation for the Academy of Sciences' editions of the 'complete' works of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Boris Asafyev in 1947

It was in August 1945 that Asafyev visited Klin for the first time and had the opportunity to work on Tchaikovsky's archives. While studying the sketches for The Nutcracker he came across an English Dance which Tchaikovsky had decided not to use in the Act II divertissement. Asafyev's attention was soon riveted, however, by the sketches for the abortive Symphony in E-flat major. According to Yelena Orlova, Asafyev, after studying these sketches over several days, suggested that Tchaikovsky's decision to abandon this symphony with its "striving towards brightness" and to embark instead on the sombre Sixth Symphony was due to his visit to Montbéliard in January 1893 [N.S.] and his meeting with Fanny Dürbach, which had caused him to relive all the years that had passed since his childhood [27]. For a while Asafyev considered reconstructing the Symphony in E-flat major from the extant sketches, but in the end he abandoned this idea.

Inspired by his stay in Klin in the autumn of 1945, and by the surrounding landscape which he had liked very much, Asafyev spent the following year composing a ballet on themes by Tchaikovsky, entitled Spring Fairy Tale (Весенняя сказка). For this ballet he made use of the sketch "At sea" from the abandoned Symphony in E-flat major; a sketch entitled "O, how life is short (and how much suffering it contains!)" and the published songs Lullaby in a Storm (No. 10 of the Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54) and Does the Day Reign? (No. 6 of the [[Seven Romances, Op. 47). Spring Fairy Tale, with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov, was premiered at the Kirov Theatre on 8 January 1947.

Throughout these last years of his life, despite increasing ill-health, Asafyev actively supported the work of the Tchaikovsky House-Museum at Klin in the formal capacity of scientific consultant. He helped to organize conferences there and also initiated work on a Tchaikovsky encyclopaedia which was to take up two volumes: the first was to cover the composer's musical and literary legacy; the second was to deal with Tchaikovsky's ties to various institutions, organizations, and individuals, as well as providing information on Tchaikovsky's autographs, a bibliography, and a chronicle of when and where his main works had been performed [28]. Although a draft version of the encyclopaedia was ready by 1949, Asafyev's death meant that this ambitious plan had to be shelved. However, the material collected on the history of Tchaikovsky's works was eventually used in the important reference-book Tchaikovsky's Musical Legacy (Музыкальное наследие Чайковского), published in 1958. Another of Asafyev's unrealised plans was to bring out a new edition of Modest Tchaikovsky's Life of the composer, adding a fourth volume with details on the performance of his works after his death, as well as some new facts about Tchaikovsky's life based on letters which had come to light after Modest's death.

In 1947, Asafyev was awarded a Stalin Prize for his recently published book on Glinka. The following year again saw him in a controversial role vis-à-vis Shostakovich when the Central Committee issued its notorious decree of 10 February 1948 regarding "formalism" and "decadent western influences" in music. This was the start of a virulent campaign against Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Shebalin, which culminated in the first congress of the Composers' Union in Moscow in April 1948. Asafyev, pleading illness, did not attend the congress, but since he had recently been elected president of the Composers' Union, a speech was read out in his name (though he had not actually written it himself) which re-iterated the official condemnation of those composers [29].

For a conference due to be held at the Klin Museum later in April to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's birth, Asafyev had agreed to give a lecture on Tchaikovsky's early years and the composition of The Snow Maiden. His poor health, however, prevented him from travelling to Klin, and the lecture was delivered on his behalf by Yelena Orlova [30]. After Asafyev's death she would also play a major role in rehabilitating his critical legacy, since for a long time much of what he had written during the 1920s was treated as ideologically suspect by the Soviet authorities.


For works written or edited by Boris Asafyev, see Bibliography Index (A).

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Quoted in Б. В. Асафьев: Путь исследователя и публициста (1964), p. 12–15.
  2. Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 474.
  3. Letter from Boris Asafyev to Nikolay Kashkin, 14 June 1918. Quoted in Б. В. Асафьев: Путь исследователя и публициста (1964), p. 12–15.
  4. Quoted from Boris Asafyev, translated by David Haas in The Operas of Tchaikovsky (2008), p. 247.
  5. See David Haas's introduction in The Operas of Tchaikovsky (2008), xv.
  6. Letter from Dmitry Shostakovich to Boleslav Yavorsky, 16 December 1925. See Irina Bobykina (ed.), Дмитрий Шостакович в письмах и документах (2000), p. 49.
  7. Quoted from Boris Asafyev, translated by David Haas in The Operas of Tchaikovsky (2008), p. 224–225.
  8. A second edition of the book did not appear until almost fifty years later: Симфонические этюды (1970). In the five-volume edition of Asafyev's Selected Works published by the Academy of Sciences a few years after his death: Избранные труды (1952–57), only an abridged version of the study on 'The Operas of Tchaikovsky' was included. Moreover, the prefaces to these five volumes stressed Asafyev's "ideological errors" in the 1920s.
  9. Letter from Dmitry Shostakovich to Sergey Protopopov, 13 May 1926. See Irina Bobykina (ed.), Дмитрий Шостакович в письмах и документах (2000), p. 135.
  10. See Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (2006), p. 84.
  11. Shostakovich himself wrote to Asafyev on 11 November 1929 to thank him for having passed on an invitation to come to Berlin to attend a concert of his works due to be conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. See Irina Bobykina (ed.), Дмитрий Шостакович в письмах и документах (2000).
  12. Shostakovich, who embarked on his own edited version of Boris Godunov in 1940, agreed with Glazunov's view that Musorgsky had simply lacked the technical mastery to orchestrate many parts in his opera effectively. If we may trust Solomon Volkov's Testimony (1979), translated by Antonina W. Bouis (London]], 1987), p.176, this is what Shostakovich had to say about Asafyev's advocacy of Musorgsky's original orchestration: "Of course, there was one notable character, Boris Asafiev, who proposed that there was a theoretical basis for Mussorgsky's incompetence. This Boris was known for his ability to invent a theoretical basis for almost anything. He spun like a top. Anyway, Asafiev maintained that all the scenes I just mentioned [the coronation scene and the polonaise in the Polish act] were orchestrated wonderfully by Mussorgsky, that it was part of his plan. He intended the coronation scene to be lacklustre to show that the people were against Boris's coronation. This was the people's form of protest — clumsy orchestration. And in the Polish act, Asafiev would have you believe Mussorgsky was exposing the decadent gentry, and therefore let the Poles dance to poor instrumentation. That was his way of punishing them. Only it's all nonsense. Glazunov told me that Mussorgsky himself played all these scenes for him on the piano — the bells and the coronation. And Glazunov said that they were brilliant and powerful — that was the way Mussorgsky wanted them to be, for he was a dramatist of great genius from whom I learn and learn. I'm not speaking of orchestration now. I'm talking about something else". It is worth noting that Glazunov (b. 1865) is not known to have personally met Musorgsky (d. 1881), so this account may not be entirely accurate.
  13. See Asafyev's letter of 8 July 1929 to Alban Berg in Материалы к биографии Б. Асафьева (1982).
  14. See Пётр Чайковский. Биография, том II (2009), p. 583.
  15. See David Haas's introduction in The Operas of Tchaikovsky (2008), xvii.
  16. See Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 475.
  17. See The Operas of Tchaikovsky (2008), xvii.
  18. See the reminiscences of the ballet critic Yury Slonimsky in Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 158. Asafyev's idea was taken up by Yury Grigorovich in his outstanding 1966 version of The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi Theatre.
  19. A 1953 Soviet film The Stars of the Russian Ballet (Мастера русского балета), available on both video and DVD, includes abbreviated versions of The Flames of Paris andThe Fountain of Bakhchisarai (with Ulanova as Maria and Maia Plisetskaya as Zarema).
  20. For example, Asafyev wrote in his article: "Even now, when I have been reading through the score of Lady Macbeth again and again, I still sense in it, in comparison to the monstrous, nay, grotesque, masquerade in The Nose, an undeniable striving on the composer's part to overcome the nightmares of the past by creating a female character [Katerina] which is new in his oeuvre. By means of this character, by revealing the depths of suffering of the female psyche, Shostakovich was manifestly seeking a way to fill his music emotionally. This drama of everyday life provided him with the impulse, but at the same time the particularly harsh milieu of the Russian petty bourgeoisie [in Leskov's story] tempted him to present a coarsely naturalistic demonstration of mutual cruelty between people". Quoted from Yelena Orlova, Б. В. Асафьев: Путь исследователя и публициста (Leningrad, 1964), p. 262–263.
  21. According to Edison Denisov, who was a friend of Shostakovich's from the 1950s until his death, whenever he mentioned Asafyev's name, Shostakovich bristled. "He would repeat: 'I have met many good people and many bad people in my life, but never anybody more rotten than Asafiev.'" See Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (2006), p. 344.
  22. See Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве ( 1974), p. 257.
  23. They have been partially published (in Russian) as 'О себе' [About Myself] in Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 317–508.
  24. This cycle is included in Volume 4 of Избранные труды (1952–57). In 'On Foreign Lands and Peoples' («О чужих странах и людях»), one of the essays in the cycle, when discussing Iolanta, Asafyev cites excerpts from Tchaikovsky's letters to a certain Dr Ivan Yakovlev, who, according to Asafyev, was a fellow student of Tchaikovsky at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory before switching to medicine. In a note Asafyev explains that Dr Yakovlev, whom he knew personally, allowed him to make copies of ten letters which he had received from Tchaikovsky. The excerpts cited by Asafyev, if they are indeed authentic, contain some interesting reflections by Tchaikovsky on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as well as suggesting that the figure of the oriental doctor Ibn-Hakkia in Iolanta may have been partly based on Dr Yakovlev. The actual letters (or the copies made by Asafyev) have not come to light as yet.
  25. See Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 262.
  26. See Антонина Чайковская. История забытой жизни (1994), p.15–16.
  27. See Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 277}.
  28. See Воспоминания о Б. В. Асафьеве (1974), p. 271–272.
  29. Asafyev did not subsequently distance himself from these attacks, and given that elsewhere in this speech read out 'on his behalf' he had also 'recanted' his earlier enthusiasm for Stravinsky, this inevitably invited accusations of moral cowardice and opportunism. Yury Levitin, a former student of Shostakovich's, later observed: "It was the academician Boris Asafiev who played a perfidious role in preparing the initial measures for the Central Committee's Decree that followed. Although he himself did not take an active part in the ensuing persecutions, he lent his protection to his willing and trusty assistants". See Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (2006), p. 241. Shostakovich himself gave a speech at the congress, in which he promised that henceforth he would write melodious music for the Soviet people.
  30. Asafyev's lecture was later published as Б. В. Асафьев о музыке Чайковского. Избранное (1972).