Nikolai Rimsky Korsakovs Penultimate Opera


02 Nov 2017

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Testament to the nationalist tradition in Russian opera?


SID: 200552439

Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of BA Music

School of Music, University of Leeds, March 2013


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya [Skazaniye o nevidimom grade Kitezhe i deve Fevronii], will be discussed here through both a musicological and analytical perspective. Its conception saw the amalgamation of Russian history, folklore and ideas of pantheism coalesced with Christian mystery. The libretto was provided by Vladimir Nikolayevich Bel’sky and its mixture of sources both pagan, Orthodox Christian and Rimsky-Korsakov’s pantheistic sentiments ensured its affinity with the symbolist movement of the Russian Silver Age and religious syncretism. However, the opera’s provenance in legend and history, with Russian orientalist influences and ideas of realism in contrast with supernatural elements, exhibit the work as a summation and valedictory to the ideals and heritage established by Mikhail Glinka and the moguchaya kuchka in the previous half a century. In my research I intend to use Kitezh as a touchstone from which to explore the nationalist tradition within Rimsky-Korsakov’s repertoire and chart its development through the career of Russia’s foremost operatic contributor, and the foundations that were established for the modernist movement in Russian opera.

Chapter 1

Introduction – Realising ‘Russianness’

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is recognised most widely as composer of the orchestral works Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and the symphonic suite Sheherezade; however, the composer’s true stylistic idiom lay within the realm of opera, having written fifteen by the time of his death. Their subject matters vary widely from historical drama, to opera-bylina [1] and more importantly folk and fairy-tale legend. Most remain as standards in the repertory of modern-day Russian opera companies, offering important and intriguing case-studies into the development of Russian music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

V. V. Yastrebtsev, a student and biographer of Rimsky-Korsakov, recalls the composer’s first notions for his penultimate operatic work in 1902, ‘Today Nikolai Andreyevich confessed that he is writing an opera about the period of Tatar rule over Rus, that is, on the subject of The Invisible City of Kitezh.’ [2] Rimsky-Korsakov felt that the work would be the final statement of his artistic oeuvre, before embarking unexpectedly on his final and better known opera (in Western circles) The Golden Cockerel (1907), a satirical and parodic take on political events in Russia and also his former musical style.

During the earliest stages of the opera’s conception, Yastrebtsev states that ‘Rimsky-Korsakov means to write this opera in a very Russian style.’ [3] . In 1903 this is perhaps unsurprising, as the concept of a musical idiom that was inherently Russian had been established as a subject of vociferous debate for well over half a century. Moreover, it was a year later that Rimsky-Korsakov was of the opinion that ‘the Russian style (in music) will come to an end, for even it has its limits’. [4] 

In order to justifiably evaluate The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh as a reflection of Russian nationalist ideas and the extent to which it does or does not fulfil this judgement, it is important to examine the origins of nationalist thought in Russian music and how its theories were disseminated to form differing and often conflicting interpretations within Russia’s artistic landscape. In doing so, a clearer understanding of how these concepts came to be represented and arguably maintain a ubiquitous presence (albeit in varying degrees) in Rimsky-Korsakov’s creative output, will be established.

In discussing the well-known and reflective scene of ‘Natasha’s Dance’ in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Orlando Figes questions ‘Are we to suppose, as Tolstoy asks us to in this romantic scene, that a nation such as Russia can be held together by the unseen threads of native sensibility?’ [5] . The Countess demonstrates an effortless imitation of a folk peasant dance despite no prior knowledge of this traditional folk practice. The scene can be recognised as the very epitome of a prevailing ideology in Russia essentially rooted in Romantic nationalism and refers to the notion of a collective spirit and ideal embraced by the whole Russian nation, which transcends questions of social class and cultural diversity.

The concept is enhanced through the belief that a national spirit or ‘soul’ is a natural outgrowth of the ‘people’ and as such is not only inherently Russian, but also implicitly ‘good’. This natural and even organic aspect alludes to the faith that was held by many during this period that folk music embodied the spirit of the people and was a pillar upon which Russia’s nationalist identity could be established. An equally important justification for the importance placed upon folk music was its rough and uncultivated nature, which stood at odds with the traditions of European art music and as Francis Maes states, ‘the two should be considered fundamental opposites, their difference reduced to the simple distinction between nature and culture’. [6] 

Furthering this point, Nikolai ChernÑ—shevsky (1828-1889) described folksong as "natural singing" and believed its pure and authentic nature served to heighten its sincerity, a sincerity which, according to him, was not replicated in "artificial" art music of the West. [7] In spite of this, it is necessary to remember that the views surrounding the idea of a "national soul" are wholly based in the nineteenth-century and Russia herself provided a significant contradiction to this philosophy through its continued implementation of serfdom. [8] 

St. Petersburg had well been established as Russia’s musical hub since the early eighteenth-century, with its prime imports being that of Western European art music and particularly Italian and French opera. The desire for a decidedly national school of composition then, grew as a reaction to the pre-eminence of foreign influences in Russia’s artistic environment. The debate which underscored the question of musical identity was evidently of nationalist origin and was being conducted between the so-called ‘Westernizers’ (zapadniki) and the Slavophiles. The zapadniki wanted to draw from Western models to facilitate a more informed and enlightened Russia, whereas the Slavophiles looked to Russia’s indigenous Slavic heritage to inform their ideals of society.

The development of a Russian style of music therefore, took place outside of the mainstream and its cause was aided by increasing urbanization. A cultural blend was being established between folk music of the peasantry and the array of styles that pervaded cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg in particular. Maes explains the importance of folk song collectors such as Nikolai Lvov (1790-1815) and states that "folk song gained access to the salons of the aristocracy and played a part in awakening the national consciousness". [9] This trend can even be seen in Western European art music, perhaps most relevantly in the example of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets.

Mikhail Glinka is roundly lauded as the great "father of Russian music" and his operas Ivan Susanin (1836 - A Life for the Tsar) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) have been widely regarded as landmark moments in the course of Russian music. His influence can be seen to permeate the consciousness of Russian composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most distinctly in Russia’s "Mighty Little Heap" or moguchaya kuchka, the group of five ‘nationalist’ composers consisting of Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), César Cui (1835-1918) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. However, Glinka was not the first Russian to make a serious contribution to music drama. Alexey Verstovky’s (1799-1862) Askold’s Grave (1835) was received with vigorous praise and numerous performances in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. The opera bears albeit a faint link with Kitezh through its juxtaposition of pagan and Christian Russia.

In the case of Verstovsky however, Russian and folk melodies were utilised primarily as decorative features and as Montagu-Nathan writes "The success of Verstovsky was due rather to the abundance of pleasing melody which graced his operas than to any special talent either for dramatic effect or in ingenuity of instrumentation". [10] 

It would be Glinka that was to elevate the state of Russian music through his use of folk melodies in Susanin and heighten them to the level of "tragedy". [11] Glinka too put faith into the natural aspect of Russian folk music and said "the common people compose; we only arrange" [12] . The element of patriotism in Susanin is crucial also, with Glinka claiming that "the opposition of Polish music to Russian" [13] was an important factor in his decision to embark on the work. Importantly, this clash of national forces is present in Kitezh also through the invasion of Lesser Kitezh by the Tatar-Mongols and the ensuing battle scene portrayed through the symphonic interlude The Battle of the Kerzhenets. Here, the two parties take on more symbolic representations of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ but the national element is still evident.

Susanin then, seemed to herald the long-anticipated inauguration of a new Russian style with its roots set firmly in folksong. However, the complications that arose from Glinka’s Ruslan and its utter dissimilarity in both subject and style, led Taruskin to state that "The Russian School, then, was confronted with a philosophical crisis at the very beginning of its existence". [14] The choice of subject, Pushkin’s epic fairy-tale, and the use of Russian melodies and ‘local colour’ now in an ornamental fashion seemed at odds with the integral role within the drama that these elements had played in Susanin.

The merits and pitfalls of both operas were to become the subject of intense discussion during the 1850s between two prominent Russian music critics in Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) and Alexander Serov (1820-1871). The results of these disputes would impact on the development of the Russian style and Stasov’s role as aesthetic mentor and ideologist of the kuchka established the myth of the "Russian nationalist school" during a time when intellectual opinion was still divided on Russia’s nationalist identity. I will now move to discuss the implications of these divisions in relation to the development of Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical style, and present a basis from which we can understand the motives behind the Kitezh opera.

It was Stasov’s writings and influence that helped shape a vast proportion of historiography on Russian music well into the twentieth century. Through his propagation of certain hallmarks that characterised the "new Russian school", he helped to establish a division within Russian music. In an essay entitled ‘Twenty-five Years of Russian Art: Our Music’, included in Gerald Abraham’s collection of selected Stasov works, he pinpoints four distinguishing features that epitomised the music of the new and "progressive" composers of the kuchka, who he believed were to build on Glinka’s legacy.

Stasov believed that "open-mindedness" and a lack of preconception was of significant importance and this underscored his opinion that formal musical training was both unnecessary and even detrimental to the development of Russia’s musical identity. This first point is born out of the anti-Western debate discussed earlier and the anti-academic stance that Stasov defended. [15] It is amongst the principal reasons for the split in Russian music that developed between the nationalist camp, represented by the kuchka and Stasov who acted as their aesthetic advisor, and those considered to be Westernizers such as the Russian Music Society, established in 1859 and headed by Anton Rubinstein (1829-94).

The second of Stasov’s characteristics was the "constant search for national character", which essentially referred to the incorporation of folk-song into the music. Stasov held a highly romanticized view of Russian folk-song and states that "These songs are a part of each and every one of us; we need no archaeologists to unearth them so that we may come to know and love them." He furthers this by saying "Every musically gifted Russian is surrounded, from the day of his birth, by a truly national music", which explicitly ties the importance of folk-song with the essence of nationalism. [16] It is worth remembering at this point, three key members of the kuchka circle: Balakirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, were born outside of the capitals, in either the countryside or in Rimsky-Korsakov’s case the small provincial town of Tikhvin. As such, the importance of folk-song and folklore in their music could be linked to this early exposure.

The third and possibly the most overstated characteristic that has been assigned to Russian music is the ‘Orientalist’ element and as Maes writes, "In the West, orientalism is among the best-known aspects of Russian music, so much so, in fact, that is widely considered a feature of the Russian national character." [17] The reason behind this is partly due to Stasov’s advocacy of inflections of the Eastern regions of the Russian empire

It is important to remember these characterisations of Russian music in relation to Rimsky-Korsakov, as it would have been these features that were impressed upon the young musician when he came under the supervision of the avowed Slavophile and composer in chief of the "new Russian school", Miliy Balakirev. It was through the exertions of the kuchka during the 1860s, led by Balakirev, which would afford substantial meaning to the idea of a Russian nationalist school of composition.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s relationship with Balakirev and subsequent induction into the ‘Mighty Handful’ was facilitated by his then piano teacher, Theodore Canille. It was Balakirev’s domineering influence during this early period of the young dilettante’s career that saw him established in the Russian musical scene. Rimsky-Korsakov’s initial enthusiasm for the ideals preached by the kuchka will be discussed here in relation to some of his earlier works, when his implementation of them can be seen to be at its most pervasive.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s choice of his first operatic subject reveals much of his relationship with Balakirev and the circle. His association with the dramatist and poet Lev Alexandrovich Mey (1822-28 – 1862) produced three operatic subjects for Rimsky-Korsakov: ‘The Maid of Pskov’ (1872), ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ (1898) and ‘Serviliya’ (1901). However, the idea to use Pskov as the basis for his first operatic contribution was suggested and effectively confirmed by Balakirev and Mussorgsky. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s first version of the opera, the influence of his kuchkist contemporaries is both clear and prominent within the work. The ideal of kuchkist realism is strictly maintained throughout, a concept that derived itself from the ‘Realist’ aesthetic movement that emerged in Russia during the course of the nineteenth century.

One of the principal dogmatic assertions of kuchkist realism was, as César Cui stated "Vocal music must be in perfect agreement with the sense of the words". [18] As a principle this can hardly be viewed as revolutionary as it is a declaration that has been made by countless composers throughout music history – Wagner would be one such Western advocate of this principle. However, through closer examination of the development of Realist principles in Russian music, we find what Taruskin describes as "an aesthetic outlook that is peculiarly Russian." [19] It was the kuchka’s view in this period that the text in music should not be made subservient to any musical devices utilised to represent it or the drama that it constitutes. This idea is furthered by Cui who stated that "Each phrase of the text must have its equivalent in a correct musical declamation. It is from the sense of the text that the musical phrase must emerge, the tones being intended to complete the effect of the word." [20] In essence, if such requirements were not met and for instance the natural rhythms of speech were disturbed, then the meaning of the text would be altered and consequently the music would not represent the whole ‘dramatic truth.’

The aesthetic conclusions that the ‘new Russian school’ arrived at were utterly opposed to the prevailing Western idealist perception of music, whose most significant exponent during this period was Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), a Bohemian-Austrian music critic based in Vienna. His 1854 work ‘Vom Musikalisch-Schönen’ (‘On the Musically Beautiful’) outlines the principle that the quintessential nature of music is its ability to distinguish what is indistinguishable in words and that "true beauty does not exist in objective reality" and thus can only be attained through a medium which eclipses it. [21] 

The corresponding view in Russia was espoused by another prominent writer of the period and has already been referred to in this essay, Nikolai ChernÑ—shevsky. His seminal work Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (1855) had a decisive influence on Stasov and the kuchka, and if we remember his comments regarding folk-song as ‘natural singing’, the following statement furthers our understating of the kuchka’s beliefs, "It is strange…that nobody has drawn attention to the fact that singing, being, in essence, an expression of joy or sorrow, does not by any means spring from our striving from beauty. Is it to be expected that a person under the overwhelming influence of emotion will think about attaining charm and grace, will concern himself with form? Emotion and form are opposites." [22] 

For the kuchka, the final sentence regarding ‘form’ simply served to reinforce their indifference towards musical training and the need for technical knowledge in the compositional process. Such things could only distort that which the music was intended to represent. The development of musical realism in Russia can also be seen as a reactionary process towards the prevalence of Italianate opera. Therefore, the doctrine not only authorized the lack of technical training within the Balakirev circle but it allowed their initial aesthetic views on music to be intrinsically linked with their nationalist sentiments.

Returning to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Pskov however, we can observe how these ideals were transmitted into the composer’s first major musical work. The progressive voices of Stasov, Balakirev and Mussorgsky emphasised to Rimsky-Korsakov the view that Russianness and realism should be of prime importance when writing this opera. It is worth remembering at this point that following this opera, Rimsky-Korsakov underwent a rigorous period of self-education not least as a result of his acceptance of a faculty position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1871 – a decision that was greeted with scorn from his kuchkist colleagues, particularly Mussorgsky. For Rimsky-Korsakov, the decision unearthed a self-awareness of his inadequacies in technical knowledge and particularly music theory. Subsequently, many of his earlier works were reviewed and Pskov was revised extensively. Therefore, in its reflection of the aesthetics held by Stasov and consequently the kuchka, and not necessarily what Rimsky-Korsakov would later come to think of the state of Russian music, Pskov is an ideal example to expose the beginnings of the new Russian style in one of its earliest manifestations. As Gerald Abraham describes it, "If anyone wants to see exactly what DargomÑ—zhsky and the younger Russians of the time were aiming at in opera, without choking himself with dust from the dry bones of "The Stone Guest" or bewildering himself with Mussorgsky’s genius in "Boris", he cannot do better than study "Pskovityanka."" [23] 

In terms of form, Pskov is a through-composed work which adheres to the realist principles in what Taruskin describes as "formlessness in the name of truth." [24] It is a historical drama that comments on the reasons behind ‘Ivan the Terrible’s’ decision to destroy the city of Novgorod but spare its Western sister city, Pskov. [25] The work established Rimsky-Korsakov’s place as an operatic revolutionary and the choral writing demonstrates the chorus in compelling engagement with the drama. For example, the beginning of the second act is effectively dictated by the chorus in which the republican council of Pskov, the veche, meet to discuss the implications of the Tsar’s potential invasion. The scene is both initiated by and interrupted with the use of a bell motif, which signals the Tsar’s arrival. The representation of the Russian bell was a hallmark of kuchkism that can be traced to Mussorgsky’s contemporaneous masterwork Boris Godunov (1873), of which the influences on Pskov are unmistakable. This resulted not only from their kuchkist associations but also their shared living arrangements during this period.

Amongst the more prominent aesthetic movements to emerge in Russia during the course of the nineteenth century was that of ‘Realism’ in art.



One must remember that in his role as aesthetic advisor to Balakirev and his kuchkist disciples,

Chapter 3

During Rimsky-Korsakov’s kuchkist period, he developed the reputation of being a fairytal

Chapter 3

During Rimsky-Korsakov’s kuchkist period, he developed the reputation of being a fairy-tale operatic composer and it would be in this vain that The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia would be recognised.


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