The Revival of "Ruslan and Lyudmila"

The Revival of "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (Возобновление «Руслана и Людмилы») (TH 264 ; ČW 528) was Tchaikovsky's second music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 17 September 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains Tchaikovsky's intervention in the acrimonious debate between Aleksandr Serovon the one hand, and Vladimir Stasov and the 'Mighty Handful' on the other, as to which of Glinka's two operas was the greater, whereby Tchaikovsky clearly sided with the Wagnerian Serov in preferring A Life for the Tsar as the more coherent work and being a true 'music-drama' in contrast to Ruslan; an enthusiastic tribute to the originality and creativity of Glinka's genius which secured him a place in the pantheon of great composers, though lamenting at the same time the social circumstances in pre-Emancipation Russia, which had condemned Glinka to remain a dilettante in some respects; an invaluable description of Glinka's genius as being primarily that of "a lyrical symphonist"; a discussion of the highlights of Ruslan in which Tchaikovsky points out jestingly that Glinka's music was sometimes "simply too good" for the stage with all its practical limitations; further sarcastic remarks about the methods used by the impresario Merelli to lure Muscovites to the Italian Opera.

History

Completed by 17/29 September 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing a new production by the Russian Opera Company of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 12/24 September 1872, with Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova as Lyudmila and Aleksandr Dodonov in the role of the good sorcerer Finn.

English translation

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The leading lights of Russian musical criticism, who unanimously place Glinka's name at the very head of the independent Russian school of music, as well as alongside the names of the greatest composers of all times and nations, nevertheless disagree sharply amongst themselves with regard to the two greatest works by our country's musical genius—namely his two operas. Some of these critics, led by Serov[1], have openly sided with the earlier of the two—with A Life for the Tsar.

The late Serov tried to show, in a long series of articles entitled "Ruslan and the Ruslanists", that no matter how beautiful the music of Ruslan may be, how mature the mastery is which Glinka displayed in the latter, and how rich it is in terms of the delightfulness of its melodic invention, the lushness of its instrumentation, and the abundance in it of flashes of contrapuntal brilliance, this work must nevertheless be regarded as the failed creation of a misguided, albeit great artist. Serov's judgement was based on that very same point of view which served as the motto for all his activity as a critic, that is on the Wagnerian principle that "opera is a music-drama".

There is no drama in Ruslan, so argued Serov. The libretto of this opera was made up out of various many-coloured patches, sown together hastily. It has a great number of individual unconnected episodes which follow on from one another in no meaningful order; there is a lack of characters and dramatic situations in the course of the plot. The feebleness of the libretto, both in purely literary terms and with respect to historical truth and trueness to life—all this paralyses one's full aesthetic appreciation of the work by tiring and irritating the listener.

In A Life for the Tsar, on the other hand, we have the tragic situation of Susanin, whose inner struggle between his feelings as a family man and civic duty ends with the moving triumph of the latter, which leads the hero of the opera to sacrifice himself unconditionally for the good of his country. And we also have the interesting contrast between two hostile nations at war with one another. In short, despite the weakness of the libretto as far as literary skill is concerned, this opera, in addition to the plenitude of everlastingly beautiful musical elements which sprung forth from this great artist's soul, has a dramatic action which becomes ever more complex as it moves forward, in accordance with the laws of aesthetics, and which concludes in the all-reconciling moment of death. Thus, in the view of Serov and his followers, A Life for the Tsar is a real opera, and, moreover, a splendid one at that, whereas Ruslan is just a series of charming illustrations to accompany the fantastic scenes of Pushkin's naïve poem.

The exact opposite is maintained by the other group of representatives of our country's musical life, whom Serov called the 'Ruslanists'. This faction, which also has its voice in the music criticism of our press thanks to the musical reviewers [2] who write for the feuilleton of the Saint Petersburg Bulletin (Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti), eschewing the support of any philosophical principles whatsoever and refusing to become involved in aesthetic abstractions, has decided that Ruslan is not only Glinka's best opera, but that generally speaking it is the best of all operas, so to speak the king of operas.

In Ruslan, so goes the argument of these ardent critics who are, however, also famous for their penchant for paradox, Glinka displayed a greater power of creativity than in his first opera. He appeared here fully armed with the mastery of artistic maturity and advanced along new paths in the realm of art which he was the first to point out. According to them, Glinka showed himself in Ruslan to be a bold pioneer who had thrown off the shackles of routine and convention, whereas in A Life for the Tsar he had still subordinated himself to the old forms, and only within the boundaries of these obsolete forms did he manage to display a strong and original, but not yet fully developed, creative gift.

If we compare these two divergent opinions and attempt to somehow reconcile them, we cannot but arrive at the conclusion that Serov's criticism goes deeper and is more sensible. Adopting a specifically musical standpoint, he does not in any way deny the evident merits of Ruslan: there is a greater amount of musical material in the latter, and it is of better quality. But it is well known that great works of art are valued not so much for the immediate creative force which reveals itself in them as for the perfection of the forms into which this force is channelled, the balance of the parts, the successful fusion of the work's idea with its outward expression.

After all, not for nothing is Beethoven considered to be indisputably the greatest of composers, even though every musician knows that Mozart and even Schubert, too, were endowed with an intensity of musical inspiration that was not lesser than Beethoven's, if not actually greater. If we are to look for Glinka's place in the musical pantheon, then it is only by virtue of the strength of his mighty creative genius that he can be ranged alongside the greatest representatives of his art. The point, though, is precisely that fate did not give him the environment [obstanovka] and conditions for development which would have been necessary for the full flourishing of his enormous gifts. He remained but a lion in the sheepskin of dilettantism [3].

One ought to read Glinka's memoirs [4], published in Mr Semevsky's journal [5], in order to understand to what extent his milieu, the spirit of the age, and social conditions all combined to prevent him from consciously following the path to which this artist of genius was drawn by his profusely gifted nature. Like the knight-heroes [bogatyri] of Russian legend, he was endowed with a strength of whose extent he was not aware, and he was not able to channel it accordingly. Despite being, by the character of his musical temperament, first and foremost a lyrical symphonist, he did not bequeath to us almost a single symphonic work. And yet, in this field, judging by certain episodes in his two operas, he would have been able to give us incomparable masterpieces.

Lacking the encouragement of a highly developed musical environment, unable to find the necessary backing and support in the people who surrounded him (the authority of Prince Odoyevsky[6] was simply not sufficient for this), Glinka sought an outlet for his inspiration, and, carried away by some detail in the scenario proposed to him, he would fall upon it with the ardour of an artist bursting with ideas, without weighing and considering carefully all the conditions which would have been essential for the success of the planned work.

Thus,A Life for the Tsar, for example, came into being as a result of the fact that Glinka was captivated by the effect of contrasting the mazurka's triple meter with the long drawn-out melancholy [protiazhnaia zaunynost'] of Russian folk song. Ruslan was composed for the sake of a few fantastic scenes which really did awaken his musical inspiration, but it was the inspiration of a symphonist. That is why it so came to happen that A Life for the Tsar, composed on the basis of a scenario which happened to work well, turned out to be an excellent opera, whereas Ruslan, which consists of a series of unconnected fantastic little scenes whose text was drawn up by a number of different persons at various points in time, cannot be classed amongst the greatest operas because of its lack of organic unity and complete absence of dramatic motifs. It is merely a fairytale spectacle accompanied by the most splendid music.

There is no doubt that if our operatic literature were richer in notable works, or that if Glinka had lived to compose two or three more operas which met the requirements of the stage and of dramatic interest to a greater extent than Ruslan, the latter would not have maintained itself in the theatre as long as other operas and would in fact have entered the concert repertoire, alongside such splendid operas as Weber's Oberon, for example, or Schumann's Genoveva, which appear on the stages of German opera houses only every now and then, if at all.

If we consider Ruslan exclusively from a musical perspective, then we cannot but be amazed at the great variety and richness of its musical charms. The overture, fiery, brilliant, triumphant and joyful as it is—for only at the very end is it darkened strikingly by a whole-tone scale which suggests the evil spells of Chernomor—opens up a series of outstanding musical pieces, which are unfortunately not linked together by some kind of unity in the dramatic plot. The limited space of a newspaper review does not allow me to talk at length about the music of Ruslan. For this an extensive article would be necessary, so I will just limit myself to briefly pointing out the best passages in the opera.

Amongst these we find, first of all, the great, epic-style Introduction to Act I, with the delightful song of Bayan, accompanied by the harp and piano. Unfortunately, the whole middle section was later cut from this Introduction—something that disfigures it considerably, since the long, massive stretto with which the Introduction ends no longer matches the reduced form of the whole scene.

Then, in this act we also have a splendid ensemble in which the passionate melody of the Khazar prince Ratmir: "Breg daleky, breg zhelannyi!" [Distant shore, yearned-for shore!] produces such an enchanting impression. After Lyudmila has been spirited away, amidst peals of thunder and the sudden descent of darkness, there follows a canon in which the protagonists, in a scene of compelling veracity, express the sense of horror and bewilderment that is shared by all. Here Glinka gave us an amazing display of his tremendous technical skill, for the whole canon is constructed on a pedal tone, i.e. on an E-flat repeated in the bass part throughout the whole number and periodically appearing in the second beat of the bar in the pizzicato of the double-basses and cellos.

Act II consists of three episodes: the ballad of the good wizard Finn, the scene between the coward Farlaf and Naina, and, finally, Ruslan's great heroic aria in the deserted battle-field, littered with the bones of fallen warriors and guarded by a giant Head. Of these three numbers the first is particularly remarkable: Finn's ballad. Glinka took as the theme for this ballad a short Finnish song, which he spun out through a long sequence of manifold variations that are of great contrapuntal interest and are brilliantly scored.

But the fine qualities of all three of these numbers are eclipsed by the profoundly inspired small Prelude which opens Act II. In the compressed and utterly original form of this entr'acte music Glinka, with broad and powerful strokes such as great artists alone are capable of, and with compelling artistic truthfulness, managed to convey for us at one and the same time the fear experienced by Farlaf before the old sorceress, the longing of a dejected Ruslan, and the sorrow of the fantastic giant Head. If Glinka hadn't written anything else apart from this brief piece, a connoisseur of music would for its sake alone have to count him among the foremost musical talents.

From Act III, I shall mention the chorus of girls in Naina's castle, which, like Finn's ballad, consists of a series of splendid variations on a single theme, as well as Ratmir's famous aria "I zhar i znoi..." [Sultry heat…], which Glinka, especially in the adagio that introduces this aria, succeeded in adorning with purely oriental lassitude and passion.

Act IV transports us into the enchanted world of Chernomor's magnificent garden. The music of this act presents us with a whole series of musical miracles that completely overwhelm the listener. Both arias of the languishing Lyudmila, interrupted by an off-stage chorus of flowers, Chernomor's March, the girls' dances, the Lezghinka, the chorus "Kto pobedit..." ["Who will triumph…"]—all these are first-rate, incomparable gems of musical composition.

However, if the recent performance in Moscow [7] were the only occasion on which I'd heard Ruslan, then the beautiful details of the latter chorus—in which, by means of an extraordinarily original syncopated rhythm, Glinka conveys the bewilderment of Chernomor's attendants as they see their master fighting in the air with Ruslan—would have utterly escaped my appreciation. This is because our theatre's very own thunder god, Mr Valts [8], likes to demonstrate, at the readiest available opportunity, his power and skill in hurling bolts of stage thunder which, though quite harmless, it is true, are nevertheless ear-deafening.

Indeed, such is Mr Valts's zeal that against the rumbling noise of his machinery neither the orchestra nor the chorus can be heard. In this way the question put by the librettist into the mouth of the chorus:

"Kto pobedit i kto pogibnet / I zhreby nas kakoi postignet?"
[Who will triumph and who will perish / And what fate will befall us?]

...is easily resolved. The fate befalling the gentlemen of the chorus is a lamentable one: no matter how much they exert themselves, nobody can hear them.

In Act V I would like to single out Ratmir's aria, the charming chorus: "Akh ty, svet Lyudmila" [Oh you, radiant Lyudmila!] and the finale of the opera, which is of a grandiose and joyfully triumphant nature.

Among the relatively weaker parts of the opera we must include Lyudmila's first aria and the dances in Act III, whose music is certainly lovely, but nevertheless composed in a conventional ballet style. These two little dark spots on the bright horizon of Ruslan's music are, however, almost imperceptible. Much more important is a general flaw of Glinka's opera which derives from its very merits.

I do not think I'm saying anything particularly paradoxical if I observe that Glinka's music is simply too good. No one can really get away unpunished with ignoring the practical aspects of the stage, the question of ease of performance of the vocal parts, and a host of other small considerations which nevertheless count for a lot in the success of a work. Even the greatest artists must be able to check the tempestuousness of their inspiration if it carries them away too far from those conventional forms on which the 'stageability' of a work and hence its success depend so much!

Thus, Glinka, for example, didn't take into account at all the fact that opera singers are very rarely solid musicians. And yet his ensembles are incredibly difficult, so that in order to perform them successfully one would need either completely foolproof singers or, otherwise, such a large number of preliminary rehearsals as would be quite out of the question, given the schedules of our theatres. In this sense I could point to the trio in Act III, where the confusing quintuplet accompaniment and the intricate modulations would be difficult even for the most competent vocalists, let alone our Moscow singers. The result of this is a certain disorder in the orchestra and choruses which does not at all redound to the advantage of the music, even though the latter in this part of the opera is so full of fascinating combinations.

Or what about the flower chorus? Where can you find a chorus made up of the most ideally graceful figures, with the most exquisite voices, so as to ensure that this heavenly, poetical, and ethereally transparent music is performed with at least some degree of adequacy?! After all, the singing of flowers should, as it were, be a musical expression of their fragrance. And what a fine fragrance it must be if it is embodied by the plump women of our theatre's chorus! Now, if, say, some Offenbach had decided to compose a piece with a chorus of pumpkins, carrots, and turnips, then we wouldn't have had any problem at all: these market-garden crops would almost certainly have found worthy interpreters amongst the female members of our chorus. But roses, jasmines, lilies, and then these women in ripe middle age, with their amiable bourgeois countenances: the two just don't fit together!

I know that the chorus is supposed to sing off-stage here. But the point is that, first of all, the vulgar and banal timbre of our female chorus is quite in keeping with its outward appearance; and, secondly, however great the illusion of the stage may be, I still know, and from the side I can even see, how our eager, but voiceless female choristers are all huddled together in the wings, conscientiously working through their floral role.

In general, there is not much to say about the singers' performances and the overall impression made by this production. In any case the latter was hardly able to match the poetic nature of the work as such, even though some of the singers went about their roles with great diligence. Mrs Aleksandrova [9] was not in her best form this time: she sang clearly and reliably as always, but without any inner warmth. She didn't seem to be at ease in her role.

Mr Radonezhsky's [10] performance as Ruslan was awful in every respect. In the most sublime moments this mighty hero had the habit of tapping himself in the belly—a belly of quite impressive proportions—with his chubby little hand. This and his heart-rending howling left one with an impression of truly mighty anguish.

Mr Demidov [11], on the other hand, was quite a good Farlaf, thanks to the fact that in his acting and intonations he sought to imitate Petrov [12], a splendid performer of this role in Saint Petersburg. Mrs Eybozhenko [13] is endowed with all the qualities necessary for a successful rendering of the passionate and poetic nature of Ratmir: a beautiful voice, a very appealing outward appearance, and noble simplicity in her gestures. But why is this young singer so bad at keeping time? Why this constant tempo rubato, now excessively dragging out the rhythm, now briskly accelerating it? Let us hope that Mrs Eybozhenko will pay attention to this weakness of hers, lest it should become an incorrigible flaw. She was most successful with her aria in Act 3, which won her the unanimous applause of the audience.

Signor Finocchi, in whose benefit this performance was being given, has lost his voice altogether. This little handicap, so insignificant in a singer of course, and also a highly curious Italian accent in the lips of the Grand Prince of Kiev, produced a very comic effect:

"Chiada riudimuia, ch'ebo uzrodit' vame raduet!"

... cried the child-loving beneficiary [14], and it was as if we were seeing a decrepit Doge giving his blessing to a young couple from Venice's patrician class.

In the role of Finn, Mr Dodonov was impeccable. Never before had I heard such an excellent and expressive performance of that difficult ballad in Act II. Mrs Turchaninova (Gorislava) displayed a fresh and beautiful soprano voice, but one that is unfortunately not at all stable, tending to sing too high, and her acting was lifeless and superficial.

Mr Vladislavlev's [15] Bayan, however, was simply indecent. No, Mr Vladislavlev, with your ability to produce such ghastly, goat-like sounds, you have no right to take on such an ideal and poetic role as that of Bayan. There is a limit to everything, and you, as an experienced and once capable singer, really should have been more honest with yourself. Of course, 25 silver rubles is quite a tempting sum, but it isn't the fault of the audience or of Glinka that the Moscow Directorate of Imperial Theatres—which is otherwise so stingy where it ought to be willing to spend more—should value your former achievements so highly!

The opera orchestra was playing this time, and so everything went much better than in the production of A Life for the Tsar [16]. The overture was played particularly well, and with great enthusiasm at that. As for the general flow of the opera and the overall impression made by the cast, there was admittedly much that could have been better, but, still, we didn't see that incredible chaos with which the Russian Opera Company regaled us last year, during its revival of Ruslan.

This benefit performance for Signor Finnochi might almost be seen as the swan-song for the Russian Opera Company in the current season. For the first performances of the Italian Company are swiftly approaching, and I was gripped by an ominous feeling when, in the middle of the evening, the tall and haggard figure of Signor Merelli, the tyrant of Muscovites' purses, appeared in one of the pit-boxes. His face was aglow with calm self-assurance, and on his lips there flashed from time to time a smile of either contempt or sly self-satisfaction. What was this crafty Italian thinking about? Most likely about the effect which the poster that is soon to appear with the recently added names of Mmes Mallinger [17] and Murska [18], will produce on the public, and about how delightfully naïve our theatre-goers are. For they are all willing to believe in the announced appearances of Mmes Lucca [19], Mallinger, and Murska, whereas in fact they will never get to hear any one of them!

Well, you can't blame him for smiling at such prospects! For Signor Merelli our blessed Moscow truly is a land of milk and honey. Here coarse charlatanry, systematic and brazen swindling are rewarded not with banishment in disgrace, but with pockets stuffed full of money and even with one or two honorary distinctions.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Aleksandr Serov (1820–1871), Russian operatic composer and music critic.
  2. César Cui and Vladimir Stasov, the principal spokesmen of the 'Mighty Handful' in the Russian press.
  3. The last sentence was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev — but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000, edited by Ernst Kuhn).
  4. Glinka's Notes from My Life (Записки из моей жизни), which were first published in serial form in 1870, in the Saint Petersburg-based journal Old Russia(Русская старина).
  5. Mikhail Semevsky (1837–1892), Russian historian and publicist, editor of Old Russia.
  6. Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky (1804–1869), Russian Romantic writer and musical critic who was a friend of Glinka's and wrote enthusiastic reviews of the premieres of his operas.
  7. The opera had been revived in Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre on 12/24 September 1872.
  8. Karl Valts (1846–1929) was in charge of stage effects at the Bolshoi Theatre for many years.
  9. Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova (1833–1903), Russian soprano.
  10. Platon Radonezhsky (1827–1881), Russian bass-baritone.
  11. Stepan Demidov (1822–1876), Russian bass.
  12. Osip Petrov (1807–1878), famous Russian bass of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, the first performer of Susanin in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, and an idol for the composers of the 'Mighty Handful'.
  13. Zinayda Eybozhenko, Russian contralto.
  14. The text of this verse should (in phonetic transcription) actually be: "Chada rodimyia! Nebo ustroit vam radost'!" [My two beloved children! Heaven will grant you happiness!]. In Finnochi's atrocious pronunciation the meaning of what he sings might be given as follows: "O my children, all that you should beget will make us joyful!" – note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Mikhail Vladislavlev (1825–1909), Russian baritone and heldentenor.
  16. Where the ballet orchestra had been playing — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  17. Mathilde Mallinger (1847–1920), famous Austrian soprano.
  18. Ilma di Murska (1834–1889), renowned Austrian dramatic soprano.
  19. Paoline Lucca (1841–1908), famous Austrian-born Italian soprano.