From Russia with Mozart

By Leon Botstein

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

The history of Russian music in the classical tradition is well understood in terms of the ambivalences and contradictions in its development. During the nineteenth century, issues of national identity became intertwined in an art form that was initially perceived as an aspect of Russia’s forced Europeanization or Westernization. Since the days of Peter the Great, Russia’s legendary modernizer who built the magnificent eighteenth-century city on the sea that bears his name, the Russian monarchy and aristocracy emulated the ways of their neighbors to the West. This created a conflict with religious orthodox traditionalism and rural customs and culture. The notorious eighteenth-century monarch Catherine the Great, German by birth, further deepened an ambition to bring Russia into the West through art, architecture, music, and learning. The language spoken at court was French. But even despite Russia’s crucial role in the defeat of Napoleon, which gave it a permanent presence in European politics, western Europe—England and France, and the German-speaking principalities—viewed Russia as strange, vast, and exotic—an “oriental” backwater. Alexis de Tocqueville helped popularize the idea that Europe’s future was contingent on the twin pillars of grandeur and barbarity: America and Russia. This sentiment was echoed repeatedly by European intellectuals throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the field of opera and concert music, Russia was a relative latecomer. The Russian court patronized Italian opera. Indeed Verdi’s La Forza del Destino was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1862. But professional music-making got off to a late start in comparison to the rest of Europe. The milestones of Russian musical history in terms of classical music date exclusively from the nineteenth century and point to seminal contributions by non-Russians, including Liszt, who toured Russia in the 1840s. Russia, like America, remained a frontier well into the early 1900s.

But Russia’s leading composers and writers were both fully aware of their position as “provincials” and yet proud of a long and venerable cultural heritage. Pushkin may have admired Byron, and Tolstoy George Sand, but they were equally keenly aware of something particularly Russian which deserved to be celebrated. After the revolt of the Decembrists in 1825 and the bloody suppression that followed, a permanent émigré community formed, based primarily in Paris, where Turgenev, for example, lived. Indeed, absence from a cold, harsh autocratic homeland seemed to become a prerequisite for Russian artists and intellectuals in search of the Russian spirit. Perhaps because of an identity sharpened by exile, an influential and original Russian voice emerged in both literature and music after 1830.

The unequivocally towering figure in the history of Russian arts and letters was Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), who died in a duel at the age of 37. For Russians, he is perhaps the most beloved of all writers. There is often more than one statue to him in the major Russian cities where flowers placed by appreciative readers may still be found. Vladimir Nabokov’s edition of Eugene Onegin and the controversy surrounding it generated by Edmund Wilson is just one recent example of the continuing allure of Pushkin’s work. One is hard pressed to find a Russian composer who has not set some of Pushkin’s verse. Even Prokofiev wrote incidental music for Eugene Onegin.

Pushkin himself, not unlike many of the greatest artists and writers, was profoundly self-critical. In Mozart and Salieri, the tension between the two figures has an autobiographical dimension. One might assume that Pushkin represented the Mozart of Russian letters. But Pushkin thought his contemporary, the romantic poet Mihail Yurievich Lermontov (1814-1841; author of the seminal novel A Hero of Our Times) was actually the true Mozart of poetry. It was Salieri, the hardworking, politic also-ran, deprived of the spontaneous genius of a Mozart, with whom Pushkin identified.

The irony of that identification is instructive. Ever since Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s dubious popularization of Pushkin’s drama, Mozart has been associated with a post-romantic notion of childlike undisciplined genius, whereas Salieri has suffered from a characterization of labored mediocrity. But Pushkin knew that was not quite the case. That anachronistic assessment drastically undervalues Salieri’s music and accomplishment as well as his marked influence in music history. Similarly, there was nothing naïve, blasé, or undisciplined in Mozart’s musical creation.

The figure of Mozart—precisely because he represented an elaborate and refined eighteenth-century classicism that contained a powerful political subtext of criticism—was deeply significant to Russian artists and audiences. In the context of the courts and urban patrons of Europe, Mozart had managed to give voice to an intense expressiveness combining music and text. He left a legacy that far outlasted his more conventional contemporaries. For Russian artists in the early nineteenth century trying to fashion a balance between individual expression and tradition, Mozart was an icon of transformative originality, a symbol of the triumph of the individual artist. He thus became a seminal figure, invoked repeatedly in Russian music in the most unexpected ways. Tchaikovsky, for example, wrote his fourth suite, Mozartiana, in 1887, and paid a lengthy homage to Mozart in the loaded pastoral of the second act of The Queen of Spades (1890, also based on a Pushkin text).

Perhaps it is not entirely surprising then that Pushkin, already deeply engaged with Mozart, chose for one of his last works a subject indelibly associated with the composer: Don Juan. The Stone Guest cannot but help invoke Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The overwhelming power of Mozart’s setting of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s brilliant libretto, and the subtlety with which Mozart treats the issues of infidelity, desire, and the libertine privilege of the aristocratic class, have made the opera an object of continual, intense scrutiny. The figure of Don Juan was originally derived from the behavior of a notorious Spanish king, but Mozart’s depiction led the figure to become eventually a symbol of the romantic movement, as evidenced by the interest of Byron, Pushkin, and Kierkegaard. Especially for Russians living under an autocracy in which crown and church worked hand in hand, one of the most intriguing dimensions of Mozart’s version of Don Juan was the tension Mozart created between the overt moralism audible in the exercise of retribution by the Statue and the heroic exercise of liberty by the Don. There can be no more poignant emblem of cold authoritarianism than The Stone Guest. Mozart’s Don Juan refuses to repent and in so doing suggests the rebellion of the individual against the iron hand of authority. Don Juan becomes a model of human fearlessness, devotion to mortal existence, and resistance to superstition and religion, despite the evident terror evoked by his ultimate fate. Pushkin renders Don Juan even more sympathetically than Mozart. Don Juan is an iconoclast who exercises freedom. His death is not the consequence of immorality or compulsive seduction, but of the aesthetic capacity to recognize beauty and persuade a woman who knows exactly who he is to respond to him. More than in Mozart, the death of Pushkin’s Don Juan is a reminder of the hollowness and hypocrisy of codes of honor and morality. The Stone Guest appears to be a simple morality tale, but precisely for that reason, in the particular Russian context defined by censorship and submission to authority, the hero’s expression of individuality, independence and resistance to the restriction of freedom and choice took on an encoded political suggestiveness.

If the drama The Stone Guest suggested Mozart’s opera to his audiences, imagine what setting the drama as an opera evoked. But that is exactly what Alexander Dargomizhsky (1813-1869) intended. A contemporary of Mihail Glinka, Dargomizhsky was one of the pioneer Russian composers, technically an amateur and largely self-taught. Like Glinka, he sought success in opera. But it was Glinka who set the tone for the Russian operatic tradition through a marriage of nationalist Russian subject matter and materials to western European formal models in musical composition. After a sojourn abroad, Dargomizhsky rejected his early efforts as too imitative of French grand opera. Like Glinka, spending time outside of Russia made Dargomizhsky return to Russian roots. Specifically for Dargomizhsky, those roots were the peculiar and special attributes of the Russian language. What better and more ideal synthesis could be found than Pushkin’s The Stone Guest? Its subject matter was European, but its realization and the power of its text pure Russian. Its setting would be too.

Like Mozart, Dargomizhsky planned to alter the traditional model of opera and create an innovative kind of drama with music. In this case, it took its form directly from the literary source. Thus what we can hear in the opera is Pushkin’s text, not a revised libretto. The Stone Guest became Dargomizhsky’s most important project. In 1859, he entered into the circle of Balakirev, whose project it was to develop a distinctly Russian voice in music. By the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in the field of opera but also in instrumental music, that initiative had grown into a decided rift between the “Westernizers” and those intent on putting a distinctive Russian stamp on western forms of musical composition.

Unfortunately, The Stone Guest was left unfinished at Dargomizhsky’s death. It was completed by César Cui, a key figure in the nationalist school who had worked closely with Dargomizhsky, and by Rimsky-Korsakov, the great proponent of a distinctly Russian musical character. Both had witnessed many informal rehearsals of the opera with Dargomizhsky (who played Don Juan, while Musorgsky played Leporello, and the future Mrs. Rimsky-Korsakov sat as accompanist). When completed, The Stone Guest was a triumphant and important event in the history of music in Russia. It deeply influenced Musorgsky, who was perhaps the most daringly original of Russian composers, and whose own setting of Pushkin, Boris Godunov, has remained (apart from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin) one the most famous Russian-language operas ever composed.

Despite its historical importance, however, The Stone Guest is not well known and is rarely performed today, even in Russia. But to hear it alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting of Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri is to acknowledge the powerful twin influences of Mozart and Pushkin in Russia’s artistic heritage.

As a composer and teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov can be regarded, along with Tchaikovsky, as one of the most seminal figures in Russian music. He was the teacher of both Stravinsky and Maximilian Shteinberg (later his son-in-law), who in turn was the teacher of Dmitri Shostakovich. But although audiences are familiar with many of Rimsky-Korsakov’s works, such as Scheherazade, and the operas The Golden Cockerel and Sadko (the last owing in large measure to Valery Gergiev’s advocacy), Mozart and Salieri, an elegant and powerful gem, has been rather left out of the limelight. It represents a wonderful appropriation by Russian composers of an eighteenth-century tradition that had no parallel in Russia itself, except for the way in which the Mozartean discipline and classicism influenced the shape and character of Pushkin’s remarkable achievements as a writer. It centers on the legend of Salieri’s poisoning of Mozart and includes quotes from Mozart’s music, such as Don Giovanni, and, most significantly from the Requiem. It was written in 1897, in the middle of the so-called fin de siècle Mozart revival which occurred throughout Europe. If Mozart had been accused by some of his contemporaries of writing music that was too difficult, then it is a historical irony that in the mid-nineteenth century Mozart was dismissed by many as too light and facile. However in the years following the centenary of his death, a new generation that was weary of the excesses of Wagnerism recognized in Mozart the unique combination of crystalline clarity, emotional depth, and structural complexity. The two unsurpassed orchestrators of that era, Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov, were acutely aware that Haydn’s prediction upon hearing of Mozart’s death had been all too true: that no comparable talent would be seen for at least another hundred years.

Through both of the works on this afternoon’s program, listeners can contemplate the ironies in the evolution of Russian musical tradition. Setting out to emulate western European models, the genius of Russia’s native composers ultimately created a legacy that altered western European music forever. The enduring impact of Russian music on Europe and America is strikingly symbolized by the profound influence of Stravinsky. For all the claims of national essentialism in both performance and composition, the history of Russian music suggests the dynamic complexities and inexorable exchanges from which all culture is constituted.

Alexander Gerschenkron, the economic historian, once put forth a brilliant thesis regarding Russia’s economic development. In comparison to the West, Russia before 1900 might have been considered “backward,” particularly in terms of industrialization. But that “backwardness” turned out to be Russia’s powerful advantage; for Russia, in a condensed period prior to 1914, began to leap over the generations of development that other nations had endured. The historical priority of England’s industrialization had ironically by the late nineteenth-century led it to the verge of obsolescence. Similarly, Russian “backwardness” in terms of the development of musical culture, experienced an analogous circumvention of the grandiose clichés of European Victorian and late Romantic music. As a result, twentieth-century modernism owes much to the Russian masters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The two works on today’s program give ample indication of how two brilliant Russian artists turned what could be regarded as a deficiency into an opportunity to create path-breaking approaches to composition that ultimately commanded a leading place in the forefront of the development of music in the last century.