Motsart i Sal’yeri (Mozart and Salieri), Opera in One Act (1898)

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert From Russia with Mozart, performed on June 11, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As did the other members of the circle of young composers known as the “Mighty Kuchka,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) lionized the older composer Alexander Dargomizhsky (1813-69) after the latter embarked on the composition of his magnum opus, The Stone Guest, an operatic setting of one of Alexander Pushkin’s “little tragedies.” Rimsky-Korsakov and his colleagues embraced Dargomizhsky’s innovative work-in-progress as the bellwether of the musical future. For its first (posthumous) performance in 1872, Rimsky-Korsakov supplied the orchestration.

A quarter-century later, Rimsky-Korsakov revisited Dargomizhsky’s score, reorchestrating and retouching it. He also added a prelude based on themes from the opera. In the interim, Rimsky-Korsakov had traveled a great distance as a composer, from being a talented dilettante, the youngest member of the “Mighty Kuchka,” to academic respectability and distinguished rank in the world of Russian music (having mastered his craft by dint of self-education), notching up a half-dozen operas of his own along the way.

His seventh opera, the one-act Mozart and Salieri, which he dedicated to Dargomizhsky’s memory, was composed in homage to The Stone Guest. Choosing another of Pushkin’s “little tragedies,” Rimsky-Korsakov likewise set the text as it stood, with only minor cuts, in syllabic declamation reminiscent of its model. This was a self-conscious, nostalgic tribute; by 1897, to emulate Dargomizhsky’s approach was no longer to assume a radical stance.

Mozart and Salieri, based on the rumor of the murder of Mozart by a contemporary rival, can also be seen as a manifestation of creative anxiety. Rimsky-Korsakov’s own path to artistic maturity was an arduous one requiring discipline and diligence. He was prone to periods of self-doubt and reassessment. Analogies with the career and outlook of Pushkin’s Salieri are unavoidable. This is not a drama of action, of which there is virtually none. It is a psychological drama. Its center of gravity is located in the tortured introspection of Salieri’s monologues.

While the connection with Mozart derived largely from the coincidence in subject matter in The Stone Guest, in Mozart and Salieri it is central. Mozart is not merely one of the two characters in Pushkin’s play, the innocent, unsuspecting catalyst for Salieri’s humiliation and fatal resolve, but quotations from his music play a prominent role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting, together with stylistic pastiche that evokes the late eighteenth century. In Scene One, Mozart sings the appropriate snippet from The Marriage of Figaro as he describes the blind fiddler he has just encountered in a tavern performing his music. Then, when he commands the fiddler to “play some Mozart for us!” the old man obliges with a passage from Zerlina’s aria in Don Giovanni. (The “freshly-composed” piece Mozart auditions for Salieri later in this scene is a stylization.) Most noteworthy is the opening of his Requiem that Mozart “plays” for Salieri in Scene Two, just after he has drunk from the poisoned cup. We hear this now-beloved music not as if produced on a piano but in fully-orchestrated magnificence—the instrumentation adapted slightly from Mozart’s orchestra to Rimsky-Korsakov’s—together with off-stage chorus.

Salieri’s vocal declamation is less lyrical than Mozart’s and the opera contains only a single example of the historical Salieri’s music; following Pushkin’s stage directions, a motive he claims to admire from the opera Tarare trips off Mozart’s tongue in Scene Two. It is a forgettable trifle. In contrasting the vocal characterizations of the two composers and in making their own music audible—where Mozart’s stands out in highest relief—Rimsky-Korsakov dramatizes in sound rather than in action the perceived gulf in the magnitude of creative inspiration that is the source of Salieri’s inner torment.

The premiere of Mozart and Salieri took place in Moscow in 1898 at Mamontov’s Private Russian Opera, with the young Fyodor Chaliapin, in what would become one of his signature roles, creating Salieri.

Alexander Dargomizhsky received no professional training as a composer and his music was—and still is—rarely heard in performance. Nonetheless, he left an indelible imprint on the history of Russian music, a legacy due chiefly to his radical conception for the opera, The Stone Guest.

Frustrated and embittered by the lack of success of his earlier, more conventional, operatic ventures—in circumstances where the odds were heavily stacked against homegrown Russian opera in the first place—Dargomizhsky set his sights on reform. “I want sound directly to express the word. I want truth,” he proclaimed in the 1850s in an oft-quoted letter. This was a notion in harmony with the cultural climate of the era. So it was with this path-breaking aim in view that he embarked, late in life, on the composition of The Stone Guest.

Dargomizhsky selected Pushkin’s concise drama in verse on the Don Juan legend as the vehicle for his experiment in musical “realism,” with the intent of adopting the text of the play, without modification, as a ready-made libretto. The “truth” in its musical elaboration is not found in any concerted attempt to mimic the intonations or rhythms of spoken language naturalistically (influenced by Dargomizhsky’s example, Modest Musorgsky tackled that challenge in his unfinished setting of Nikolai Gogol’s The Marriage), but in the emotional intensification of the text’s expression. The impulse guiding Dargomizhsky’s setting is altogether lyrical; the opera’s style has been variously characterized as “melodic recitative,” “recitative-in-song,” or “heightened arioso.”

Pushkin had been inspired by Don Giovanni. Beyond streamlining the story, his treatment differs in a significant respect from that of Da Ponte and Mozart. In The Stone Guest the Commander—the stone statue of the title—is Donna Anna’s late husband, not her father. When Don Juan invites him to his rendezvous with his widow, it is to stand guard outside the door during their tryst. Pushkin’s Don Juan is more than impudent. Retribution at the hand of his rival is inevitable.

In keeping with an approach in which the musical development and structure are word-driven, The Stone Guest contains no arias or duets, no repetition or recapitulation in the vocal parts of musical phrases or motives that do not replicate those in Pushkin’s verse. (In the orchestra, however, we hear a few leitmotifs that come to be associated with individual characters. Most striking are the striding whole-tone scales in the bass that connote the “otherworldly” Commander.) The only self-contained “numbers” are in Act One, Scene Two, when in response to prompts from her guests, Laura sings two songs. Where Pushkin simply placed staging cues (“she sings”), Dargomizhsky inserted two of his own Spanish songs (the second a setting of another Pushkin poem); these songs additionally furnish the most conspicuous musical evocation of the locale in which the action is set.

Dargomizhsky did not live to complete The Stone Guest, but its admirers made sure it reached the stage. With the finishing strokes added by César Cui and, as mentioned above, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, it was first performed at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1872.