Rimsky-Korsakov is known in America today primarily for his color-saturated
orchestral tone poems Scheherazade, Russian Easter Overture, and Capriccio espagnol, as well as for his
edited and re-orchestrated versions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’s Prince
Igor, now somewhat out of favor. In Russia, he is known more properly for
his own operas, which reveal the scope of his talents and his imagination much
more fully. And he was a prolific and highly gifted songwriter, though his
songs are virtually never heard outside his native land—a situation Anna
Netrebko is thankfully trying to correct.
Like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov
specialized in the romance, the most
popular song style in 19th-century Russia. This genteel genre was
designed primarily for singing in cultivated Russian households and had little
to do with the rougher nationalistic works that Rimsky-Korsakov’s colleagues in
the “Mighty Five,” especially Mussorgsky, were creating. We do, however, hear
in some of the songs the exotic “oriental” effects featured in Russian
nationalistic music when it explored the Asian side of the country’s heritage.
There was another quality Rimsky-Korsakov adopted from the nationalists in his
songs: his clear and respectful setting of the poems he chose. Unlike
Tchaikovsky, he tended to set the words in a through-composed manner, typically
avoiding strophic musical repetition and
shunning word repetitions unless
they occurred in the original verse. And in contrast to Tchaikovsky’s elaborate
piano parts, he preferred understated accompaniments, placing the emphasis on
the singer and her declamation of the words.
A Closer Listen
it is, in the still of the night” is the first of three settings of
poetry by Apollon Maykov, a poet whose verse
fueled a creative explosion in the summer of 1897, when Rimsky-Korsakov composed more than 40 songs in a
Schubert-like frenzy. In this subtle song, the poet touchingly addresses
himself, refusing to reveal even in his verse the source of his inspiration.
“Forgive me! Remember not the
downcast days” from 1883 is, for the Romantic era,
a surprisingly positive response to a lost romance, refusing to wallow in
regret. Tchaikovsky set this same poem by Nikolay Nekrasov three years later.
Two more songs from the prolific year 1897 are “It
was not the wind, blowing from the heights” and “The
lark’s song rings more clearly,”
both set to verse by Aleksey Tolstoy, a distant relative of the novelist.
Nature imagery unites these songs, the first tender in its gratitude, the
second bursting with the energy of spring’s arrival (a theme running strongly
throughout Russian art).
Rimsky-Korsakov was only 22 in 1866 when he set “On
Georgia’s hills” by
Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. At this time, he was pursuing a career as a naval officer and was basically an
amateur musician, composing songs and piano pieces for his social
circle. Nevertheless, this song is far superior to a conventional salon song;
it sets Pushkin’s beautiful words with great sensitivity and restraint. Pushkin
created this poem in 1829 when he was in Georgia and separated from his young
fiancée, to whom he’d recently become engaged.
“The line of flying clouds grows thin” is a much later and more mature
Pushkin song from 1897. At the age of 21, Pushkin had left St. Petersburg
because of his radical ideas and was living in the Crimea, hence the reference
to southern waves, which we hear in the piano. This is one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s
finest songs, in which voice and piano merge perfectly to create a profoundly
the realm of rose and wine,” “Zuleika’s
Song,” and “Captivated by the rose, the
revolve around sensuous Persian-inspired poetry set to equally sensuous music
in the composer’s best “oriental” style. The first is based on Afanasy Fet’s
translation of Georg Daumer’s German imitation of the 14th-century Persian poet
Hafez. Ivan Kozlov wrote the verse for “Zuleika’s Song” for his translation of
Lord Byron’s The Bride of Abydos,
passing it off as Byron’s. A very early work from 1866, “Enslaved by the Rose,
the Nightingale” is Rimsky-Korsakov’s most thoroughly orientalized song and
closes with a marvelously virtuosic wordless vocalise.
The final two songs, “The Nymph”
“Dream on a Summer’s night,”
are the last two songs Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, again setting poetry by Apollon
Maykov. The first song, about a Russian Lorelei who lures but fortunately does
not kill unwary sailors, was composed for the Lithuanian lyric-coloratura
Nadezhda Zabela, whom Rimsky-Korsakov considered his ideal soprano and for whom
he wrote the title role in The Tsar’s
Bride. In turn, “Summer’s Night Dream” was dedicated to her husband, the
powerful Russian painter Mikhail Vrubel. In this most outgoing and dramatic of
the composer’s songs, a virginal girl dreams of a passionate encounter with a
nocturnal intruder and then by morning’s light wonders if it were really a
dream. Here, Rimsky-Korsakov lets an unusually prominent and harmonically
fascinating piano part paint the feverish atmosphere, beginning with the first
uncanny, shimmering notes.
As a born melodist, Tchaikovsky created instrumental themes that seemed
designed for singing. Yet he is far better known for his operas than for the
approximately 100 songs he wrote throughout his career. As biographer David
Brown has pointed out, it is not only the language barrier that has stood in
the way, but also the fact that Tchaikovsky wrote in the style of the Russian
romance, which Brown describes as “a sentimental and soft-centered species
[that] closely parallels the Victorian drawing-room ballad.” Song romances were
adored for their love-obsessed lyrics and intense emotions by 19th-century
Russians, but they have generally not stood the test of time as well as
classical German Lieder.
Even in his own day, Tchaikovsky was criticized for twisting his word settings
around to fit his musical schemes; he did not hesitate to repeat words and
rearrange or even cut verse to accommodate the shape of the music. But
Tchaikovsky was unrepentant. “Our musical critics, often losing sight of the
fact that the essential in vocal music is truthful reproduction of emotion and
state of mind, look primarily for defective accentuations and for all kinds of
small declamatory oversights.”
Tchaikovsky was less concerned with the artistic quality of the verse he chose
to set than whether it evoked a strong
personal response in him. Therefore, though
he would set poems by great writers such as Pushkin and Maykov, he also
selected lesser verse by amateurs like the young Daniil Ratgauz and Grand Duke
Konstantin Romanov. As Christian Wildhagen writes, a striking feature of his
songs “is the way in which the composer identifies wholeheartedly with the
message of the poems, with the result that many of his songs are personal
A Closer Listen
in 1884 when he was composing his opera Mazeppa,
“Say, when under shady boughs”
was originally intended for the bass Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, who created the
title role. The words were taken from a comedy by Vladimir Sollogub. Over and
over, the singer breathlessly repeats the word skazi—“tell me”— as she seeks to discover the source of the
nightingale’s song, the young girl’s agitation. And the answer is always the
same: lyubov—“love.” Each of the
outer stanzas builds from a calm beginning to an ecstatic declaration, and the
rapturous piano postlude carries the emotion higher still.
The words of “Reckless nights”
(1886) were written by Aleksey Apukhtin, a close friend of the composer’s. The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna had
expressed an interest in Tchaikovsky dedicating a song to her, and he responded
with not one but the 12 songs of his Op. 60 romances. Many of these songs
revolve around the theme of night. Despite its title, this song’s music is
mostly restrained, drenched in nostalgia and regret for a failed love affair.
An early song from 1869, “Why?”
sets the great German poet Heinrich Heine in
Lev Mei’s translation. Each line is a question beginning with Otchevo (“Why”), and initially each
rises higher than the previous one, increasing the urgency. Tchaikovsky sets the singer’s final phrase, too, as a fragile
melodic question, hovering softly and without resolution.
From 1887, “Serenade”
sets a poem by the Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov, who was Tchaikovsky’s liaison
with the Tsarina. This is not the serenade of an ardent lover, but something
more innocent and closer to a lullaby. Using a lilting Italianate meter
suitable to the serenade genre, Tchaikovsky gives this song his lightest touch.
Tchaikovsky dedicated his “Lullaby”
of 1872 to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife Nadezhda, who was expecting their first
child. The charming verse with its folkloric imagery is by Apollon Maykov. This
is a lovely, supple strophic song with a delicate piano accompaniment to lull
the baby to sleep.
“Was I not a blade of grass in
the field?” is based on Ivan Surikov’s
adaptation of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. This heartbreaking lament of
a young girl forced to marry an old man she does not love draws more on the
modal world of Russian folksong than do most of Tchaikovsky’s songs. Searing in
its simplicity, it is one of his greatest songs.
Tchaikovsky composed “Amidst gloomy days”
in May 1893 as part of his six songs that comprise Op. 73; they were the last
completed works before his death that November. The verse is by the 24-year-old
amateur Daniil Ratgauz, who had sent them unsolicited to the composer the previous
summer. Despite the grim title, this is a rapturous paean to love remembered,
though the lovers are now separated. The singer’s rapid, breathless phrases are
framed by an ecstatic piano prelude and postlude.
“Amidst the day?”
from the same set of songs as “Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass?”
Tchaikovsky’s friend Apukhtin wrote the poem in praise of soprano Aleksandra
Panaeva after hearing her in a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s music. A lengthy and
virtuosic prelude and postlude make this impassioned song as much a showpiece
for the pianist as for the singer.
—Jan E. Bedell