Stepan Gedeonov

Tchaikovsky Research
Stepan Gedeonov

Russian historian and dramatist (b. 1/13 June 1816 in Saint Petersburg; d. 15/27 September 1878 in Saint Petersburg), born Stepan Aleksandrovich Gedeonov (Степан Александрович Гедеонов).

Stepan's father Aleksandr Mikhaylovich Gedeonov (1790–1867) fought in the 1812 campaign against Napoleon. In 1816, he resigned from the army with the rank of Major and worked as a civil servant in Moscow for a few years before being appointed director of the Imperial Theatres in Saint Petersburg in 1833. Aleksandr Mikhaylovich was to hold this post for twenty-five years (1833–58). In 1847, he was also put in charge of the Imperial Theatres in Moscow. Gedeonov senior was not an ideal person to be at the helm of theatre life in Russia, as rather than improving the working conditions for the actors, singers, dancers, and musicians employed at the two capitals, he preferred to spend his time chasing after pretty actresses and playing cards.

The character of his son Stepan was quite different. Stepan Gedeonov was very earnest-minded and famous for his honesty and scrupulousness. He studied at the Faculty of History and Philology at the University of Saint Petersburg for two years (1833–35), acquiring a thorough knowledge of the classical languages. From 1835 to 1848 he worked as secretary to the president of the Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg. In spite of his austere frame of mind, Gedeonov became infatuated with the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot when she appeared with the Italian Opera Company in the Imperial capital during the winter seasons of 1843–46, and he became a rival to Ivan Turgenev, then an unknown young author with only a few poems to his name, in showering the famous singer with tokens of his admiration. Thanks to his father's influential position and wealth, it seems that Gedeonov for a while was the Russian admirer whom Viardot favoured most. Turgenev took a revenge of sorts in 1846, when he published a scathing review of Gedeonov's historical play The Death of Lyapunov (Смерть Ляпунова), in which he demonstrated, with exquisite irony, how its author had borrowed a little too much from Goethe's Götz von Berlichingen and Schiller's Wallenstein! This review, however, did not prevent Gedeonov's play from running successfully at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg for almost a decade.

In 1850, Gedeonov was appointed as the assistant to the leader of a Russian archaeological commission in Rome, and remained there for almost thirteen years. During his time in Italy, he bought many valuable historical artefacts and collections of paintings and sculptures for the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. In 1863, he returned to Russia and was appointed the first director of the Hermitage — a post that he would occupy until his death. During his directorship the Hermitage was re-structured significantly and important catalogues of its collections were drawn up, so that it soon became one of the foremost museums of art in the world. It was thanks to Gedeonov that the Hermitage was opened to the whole public in 1866, that is to people from all social classes (whereas in the past only those visitors who were dressed in official uniforms or in tail-coats with hat and gloves were allowed admission). In his capacity as director, Gedeonov made two important acquisitions for the Hermitage — the Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci and the Madonna Conestabile by Raphael, which he was able to secure for the Tsar's collection after lengthy negotiations in Italy, in which he had to avail himself of all his diplomatic skills.

While still remaining at the helm of the Hermitage, in 1867 Gedeonov was appointed director of the Imperial Theatres. Although his appointment generated high expectations that much-needed improvements would be made to the day-to-day running of the theatres, these remained largely unfulfilled. Other high-ranking bureaucrats, who were jealous of Gedeonov's position, ensured that his reform plans foundered. Besides, despite his love of Italian opera, he was more interested in overseeing the expansion of the Hermitage, so that he did not pay enough attention to the theatres. For some years he also edited the Moscow newspaper Russian Register (Русские ведомости).

In 1867, Gedeonov handed over to Aleksandr Ostrovsky the manuscript of an unfinished historical play set in the times of Ivan the Terrible, and asked the famous dramatist if he would become his co-author and complete it. Ostrovsky agreed, wrote the last two missing acts, and made some changes to the overall conception, so that the heroine of the play was no longer Ivan's fifth wife, the Tsarina Anna, but the sixth, Vasilisa Melentyeva, who was cruelly punished by her husband when he discovered that she had been unfaithful. The resulting play, Vasilisa Melentyeva, was premiered at the Maly Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1868 and subsequently became one of the most popular historical plays in Russia. The mezzo-soprano and actress Yevlaliya Kadmina, whom Tchaikovsky greatly admired, committed suicide during a performance of Vasilisa Melentyeva in Kharkov in which she was playing the title-role.

Gedeonov had always been greatly interested in history, and from 1846 onwards he carried out investigations into the origins of the early Russian state (Kievan Rus'), by which he sought to demonstrate that the so-called "Varangian theory" was incorrect. (According to this theory, the earliest Russian state, centred on Kiev, was founded by merchant-warriors from Scandinavia called Varangians.) The fruit of his many years of research was the monograph The Varangians and Rus' (Варяги и Русь), which was published in 1876 and is now recognized as a classic of Russian historiography. Gedeonov's historical interests were also reflected in the scenario he drew up in 1870 for a fantastic ballet entitled Princess Mlada, which was set in the 9th century in the Slav territories on the Baltic coast. The intention was that the music for this ballet would be written by Aleksandr Serov, with choreography by Marius Petipa. Serov's death in 1871, however, caused Gedeonov to rethink his original conception, and his scenario was eventually transformed into a libretto for an opera-ballet, with the music to be provided by four members of the "Mighty Handful" — Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov — who were each to contribute an act. Although they all completed their assignments by the end of 1872, the opera-ballet was never staged in this form.

As a result of intrigues at the court, Gedeonov was dismissed from the post of director of the Imperial Theatres in 1875, but he remained in charge of the Hermitage Museum until his death in 1878.

Marius Petipa staged a pure ballet version of Gedeonov's scenario for Mlada, with music by Ludwig Minkus, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 2/14 December 1879. In 1889–90, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the 1872 libretto of Mlada and created his own complete setting of the opera-ballet, which was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 20 October/1 November 1892.

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

3 letters from Tchaikovsky to Stepan Gedeonov have survived, dating from 1869 to 1875, of which those highlighted in bold have been translated into English on this website:

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