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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 4 Nations, States, and Peoples
Richard Taruskin


III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-11a Ein’ feste Burg in Les Huguenots, Overture, mm. 1–13

Perhaps the most piquant case history involving the relationship between music (particularly opera) and ideas of nationhood was that of Russia, which emerged as a European musical “power” at about the same point in its history as its emergence as a political and diplomatic power. Consequential musical contacts between Russia and Western Europe were a result of the “Westernizing” campaign of Tsar Peter I (“the Great,” reigned 1682–1725), and mainly occurred, to begin with, in Peter's new capital, St. Petersburg, named for the Tsar's patron saint. Over the course of a rough century beginning in the 1730s, Russia participated in the musical commerce of Europe first as a consumer only, then as a producer for home consumption, and finally as an exporter.

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-11b Ein’ feste Burg in Les Huguenots, Act I, “Choral”

Since the period in which Russia emerged as a musical power was precisely the period when Herderian ideas about the essential reality of national character—and the merits of cultural difference—were gaining credence, it is not surprising that the second phase of Russian participation, that of domestic production, should have placed a premium on national “markings,” often secured by the incorporation of “natural artifacts” from the surrounding peasant culture, newly valued under Herder's influence.

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-11c Ein’ feste Burg in Les Huguenots, Act V, height of the massacre

The first published collection of transcribed Russian folk songs (narodnïye pesni, a term directly translated from Herder's Volkslieder), arranged for voice and parlor piano, was issued in 1790. It was compiled by an aristocratic admirer of Herder named Nikolai Lvov, with musical arrangements contributed by a hired hand, an immigrant Bohemian pianist named Johann Gottfried (or Jan Bogumir) Pratsch. The Lvov-Pratsch collection immediately became an avidly mined quarry of raw thematic material for composers in the European tradition (including such Europeans as Beethoven, who mined it for his “Razumovsky” Quartets, op. 59).

Later, when Russia became a musical exporter in its own right, the cultural-commercial value of its product was much enhanced by its exoticism, providing another incentive for national coloration. Utilizing Russian peasant lore within literate or “fine-art” musical products is often seen as an example of Russian “nationalism” in music, and the term can be justified in various contexts so long as it is not forgotten that the nations of Western Europe were just as nationalistic as Russia in the post-Napoleonic period. Indeed, Russia received its notions about national character, and its nationalistic aspirations, from the West; Russian “nationalistic” music has therefore to be regarded as an aspect of the country's musical Westernization.

For the only Russian music to which the word “nationalistic” is ever applied is the music composed by urban Russians with elite Western training, in Western forms, and for Western media. The truly indigenous music of Russia, that is its folk music, is never called nationalistic, because it has no sense of an “other” against which its character is to be measured, and without a sense of the other there cannot any true self-consciousness. “And what should they know of England who only England know?”28 asked the British poet Rudyard Kipling in the heyday of imperialist expansion. The same question is worth asking of any country that seeks national self-assertion, whether in art, in politics, or in art politics.

In any event, no other country was ever more conscious of the power and value of musical “semiosis”—musical “sign” language, often involving the appropriation of musical symbols “from life”—than Russia. As long as there has been a significant school of Russian composers in the European art music tradition, there has been a musically defined mythology of the Russian nation and its history, and it has often sought expression through the incorporation—or more precisely, the “professional assimilation”—of folklore.

The presence of that “significant school” in Russia is often dated precisely to the year 1836, the same year that witnessed the Paris premiere of Les Huguenots. And the crucial event that gave that year its significance in Russian musical history was also an operatic premiere: that of A Life for the Tsar, a “patriotic heroic-tragic opera” by Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804–57).

This was not by a long way the first Russian opera, let alone the first opera premiered in Russia. The history of music as a continuously practiced secular fine art in the European literate tradition begins for Russia in the year 1735, ten years after the death of Peter the Great, when his niece, the Empress Anne (or Anna Ioannovna, reigned 1730–40), decided to import a resident troupe of Italian opera singers to adorn her court with elegant imported entertainments. Anne's operatic project could be called a continuation of Peter's legacy into a new cultural sphere.

The main reasons why Russia had stood culturally apart from Western Europe until the advent of Peter the Great were two: first, Russia accepted Christianity (in 988) from Byzantium, the seat of the Greek (Eastern) Orthodox Church; and second, from around 1240 until 1480 Russia was ruled as a conquered territory by the Mongol empire, from a seat in Central Asia. Under the suzerainty of an Islamic empire, the Russians and their local rulers, while still Christian, were for two centuries politically and economically cut off from all other Christian states. By the time the Muscovite princes were able to shake off their Muslim overlords, Byzantium and all the former Greek territories had fallen to the Ottoman Turks, another Islamic empire. Thus Russia had become an isolated Orthodox power, and took pride in viewing itself as the “Third Rome,” the true seat of Christendom.

Up to the time of Peter, virtually the only literate musical tradition in Russia was that of Church chant and its derivative polyphonic genres, preserved in a neumatic notation of a kind that had not been used in Western Europe since the days of the Carolingians. So alien was the secular art music of the West from any indigenous Russian music that the Russian vocabulary distinguished radically between the two. Russian chant was called peniye (“singing”). All Western art music, whether vocal or instrumental, was called musika, later changed to muzïka. (The sign ï represents a Russian vowel similar to the English short i, but pronounced much further back in the mouth; in Russian transliterations, the letter i stands for the same sound as the Italian i, namely the English long e.)

The first Russian musika treatises and practical scores, which began appearing in the late seventeenth century, disseminated what was known as partesnoye peniye (“part-singing”) or khorovïye kontsertï (“choral concertos”): that is, a cappella adaptations of Venetian-style “concerted” motets for the use of Orthodox choirs in what is now Ukraine, an area bordering on Catholic Poland. (They had to be a cappella because the Orthodox Church, strictly interpreting the last line of Psalm 150—“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”—forbade the use of inanimate instruments for divine praises.) One of these treatises, the Grammatika musikiyskaya (1675) by the Ukrainian singer and composer Nikolai Diletsky, has the curious distinction of containing the earliest graphic representation of the complete chromatic circle of fifths.

The earliest indigenous secular genre of muzïka practiced in Russia was called the kant. Kanty were simply songs in partesnoye peniye or choral concerto style furnished with secular texts of any kind. These genres were short-lived and fairly primitive attempts at hybridizing native Russian genres with high-prestige Western styles.

The Italian opera, though at first a wholly imported court luxury that had no contact at all with native genres (or even native musicians), eventually took root and thrived. The first opera to have its premiere on Russian soil was Il finto Nino, overo La Semiramide riconosciuta (“The feigned child;” or, “Semiramis recognized”), an opera seria by Franceso Araja or Araia (1709–70), the Naples-born maestro of Anne's troupe. (Should this be called the first Russian opera?) Araja stayed in St. Petersburg until 1762, through the reigns of Anne and her three immediate successors. In 1755, he composed an opera seria, Tsefal i Prokris (“Cephalus and Procris”), to a libretto in Russian by the court poet Alexander Sumarokov (1718–77), to be enacted before the court of the Empress Elizabeth by a cast of serfs. (Or was this “the first Russian opera”?)

Araja was succeeded, during the long reign of the Empress Catherine II (“the Great,” reigned 1762–96) by a very distinguished line of St. Petersburg maestri di cappella: Vincenzo Manfredini (served 1762–65), Baldassare Galuppi (1765–68), Tommaso Traetta (1768–75), Giovanni Paisiello (1776–83), Giuseppe Sarti (1784–1801, with interruptions), Domenico Cimarosa (1787–91), and Vincente Martín y Soler (1790-1804, with interruptions). These were among the biggest names in all of Europe. Catherine lured them to her cold, remote capital by offering them huge “hardship wages,” and they definitely put St. Petersburg (which in terms of international diplomacy stood for all of Russia) on the international musical map. One of the most famous operas of the late eighteenth century, Paisiello's Barber of Seville (1782), had its premiere in the Russian capital. Sarti, Catherine's special favorite, was Mozart's closest rival in fame and prestige (as Mozart acknowledged by quoting his music in Don Giovanni).

Two changes that took place under Catherine had far-reaching, if not necessarily intended, significance for the eventual growth of a national school of composition. First, comic operas (often French ones, with spoken dialogue) were performed at Catherine's court alongside the more serious Italian fare. And second, native-born composers began to receive training from the maestri, mostly in order to furnish modest comic operas in the Frenchy popular style that the maestri felt it beneath their dignity to compose.

Thus the first European-style comic opera by a native composer to receive performance in Russia was Anyuta (“Little Annie”), a comédie mêlée d'ariettes presented at the empress's summer residence in 1772, in which the vocal numbers were sung to the tunes of well-known folk or popular tunes. It was modeled, by one of Catherine's court poets, directly on a French favorite called Annette et Lubin. The musical arrangements, by a composer whose name has been forgotten, have not survived, but the work, artistically insignificant as it must have been, is historically famous because according to some people's definition, this was “the first Russian opera.”

Meanwhile, two talented Ukrainian-born lads, Maxim Berezovsky (1745–77) and Dmitri Bortnyansky (1751–1825), were sent by Catherine in the late 1760s (probably after apprenticeship with Galuppi) to complete their studies in Italy with the famous Bolognese pedagogue “Padre” Giovanni Battista Martini. Both of them had opera seria performed in Italy before returning to Russia and being put to work modernizing (that is, Italianizing) the repertoire of the Imperial Chapel Choir, replacing traditional peniye with arty Italianate muzïka. Berezovsky's opera, Demofoonte (1773), to a libretto by Metastasio himself, received performance first. As the earliest opera by a native Russian composer with an entirely original score (albeit sung in Italian, and never performed in Russia), maybe this was “the first Russian opera.”

Or maybe that distinction belongs to Misfortune on Account of a Coach (Neschast'ye ot karetï, 1779), an opéra comique (or singspiel, or whatever) by Vasily Pashkevich (1742–97), one of Catherine's court musicians, which was the first opera by a native Russian composer (unless, as his surname seems to suggest, he turns out to have been a Polish immigrant) to a Russian libretto, performed in Russia. By the end of the century there were dozens of Russian musical comedies by Russian composers in existence, some of them quite elaborate and expertly composed.

By the time A Life for the Tsar was produced, they numbered in the hundreds and included a few that could bear comparison with the finest German singspiels. At least one—Askold's Grave (Askol'dova mogila, 1835) by Alexey Nikolayevich Verstovsky (1799–1862)—counts as a full-fledged “Russian romantic opera,” fully comparable (indeed heavily indebted) to Weber's Der Freischütz. So why was Glinka's opera immediately greeted (in the words of the novelist Nikolai Gogol) as “a wonderful beginning”?29 And why does Glinka, rather than Verstovsky, now have such an unshakeable historical position as the founding father of the “Russian national school”?

Glinka's was not even the first Russian opera to employ a markedly “Russian” (that is, folkishly Russian) style. Such a style was virtually built into the Russian singspiel genre, which as far back as Anyuta had employed popular songs to match their stock of peasant or otherwise lowborn characters, just as popular, folk, or folk-style (volkstümlich) tunes were doing in comic operas everywhere in Europe. They normally featured at least one “Papageno type” as a matter of course, and a Papageno had to sing folk songs, whether real or invented.

A vivid example of the Russian brand of this standard-issue eighteenth-century Volkstümlichkeit comes from Yamshchiki na podstave (“The post-coachmen at the relay station,” 1787), with words by Count Lvov (soon to compile his folk-song anthology), and music by an emancipated serf, Yevstigney Fomin, whose backwoods given name betrays his peasant origins. This number shows a trio of rustics named Timofey, Yan'ka, and Fadeyevna (Timothy, Johnny, and “Thaddeus's little girl”) going into a dance to entertain their owner, the local barin (landowning lord). Verisimilitude is achieved by the use of a famous tune (“The Birch Tree”) that became more and more famous over the course of the nineteenth century as composer after composer borrowed it for local color, and by the use of pizzicato strings to imitate the balalaika, a sort of triangular-bellied Russian banjo (Ex. 4-12).

Glinka's music never got any more “Russian” than this. Likewise, Askold's Grave, whose composer Verstovsky outlived Glinka and could never understand his rival's immediately recognized historical status, much less come to terms with it, contains a wealth of beguiling choral “fakesongs” (well-counterfeited folk songs) to characterize the opera's peasants. One of them (Ex. 4-13), called “The Moon Shone at Midnight,” is sung in authentic responsorial style, with a solo “intoner” (zapevala) and a choir that answers in rough-hewn “harmonizations” (podgoloski, literally “undervoices”). Others show the slippery modal “mutability” (peremennost’ in Russian) exhibited by many Russian folk songs, with cadences that alternate between the tonic and the “natural minor” seventh degree. These choruses are every bit as authentically “national” as anything Glinka ever wrote. They display many idiosyncrasies of performance style, like the “voice-throwings” or octave leaps at the ends of phrases, that are neatly drawn from life. So why, finally, did Glinka and not Verstovsky get the credit for ushering true narodnost’ (nationhood) into Russian musical art and thereby establishing the Russian national school? Did it have to do with something more (or at least other) than folklore?

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-12 Yevstigney Fomin, Yamshchiki na podstave, no. 8

For answers to these questions we must turn to contemporary witnesses. In a review that appeared in a Moscow newspaper shortly after the premiere of A Life for the Tsar, a would-be composer named Yanuariy Neverov, who had studied briefly in Berlin and had his head stuffed full of Herderian romanticism, declared that “delightful Russian tunes” by themselves would never create a truly national style. For that you needed more than tunes; in fact you needed more than a musical style. You had to achieve the “organic unity” that comes from a “dominating idea.”30 Glinka, in other words, was truly narodnïy (nation-embodying) because he was ideologically, not merely decoratively, narodnïy. He used his folk or folklike melodies, in a manner that precisely corresponded to the difference between Mozart's Volkstümlichkeit and Weber's, or between the peasant folksiness of the Enlightenment and the national folksiness of romanticism, not merely to evoke a pleasant peasant flavor or provide a tasty condiment to the main dramatic course, but to evoke an all-encompassing idea of Russia that lay at the heart of the dramatic conception. That, and only that, was true narodnost’.

Neverov, and many others since, have noted that, paradoxically enough, there is actually less direct quotation of folk sources, less purely stylistic Volkstümlichkeit, in Glinka than in Verstovsky, or in many a forgotten eighteenth-century singspiel. His greater narodnost’, according to Neverov, came not from literal imitation of reality but, in true romantic fashion, from his own innerliche Herz, which, like that of any artistic genius, had been formed in the spirit of his nation. “Mr. Glinka has set about things differently” from Verstovsky, the critic wrote. “He has looked deeply into the character of our folk music, has observed all its characteristics, has studied and assimilated it—and then has given full freedom to his own fantasy,” thus producing “images that are purely Russian, native, clear, comprehensible, familiar to us simply because they breathe a pure narodnost’, because we hear in them native sounds.” But also because “all these Russian images are created by the composer in such a way that in the aggregate, in their cohesion, they have been marshalled and deployed in defense of Russia.”31

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-13 Alexey Nikolayevich Verstovsky, Askold's Grave, no. 10

There is a lot here to unpack, even before we get to the musical text itself. In the first place, Neverov is calling attention to Glinka's greater seriousness and his mastery of a self-consciously advanced international technique. This last was absolutely unprecedented in a Russian musician. To Neverov, A Life for the Tsar, and nothing earlier, was “the first Russian opera,” simply because it was the first Russian opera that was truly an opera, not a singspiel. It is sung throughout, thus becoming the first Russian opera to employ accompanied recitative as well as the full range of arias and ensembles. It competed ambitiously with the operas of Europe on every front, overcoming all taint of provincialism and successfully combining the virtues of many national schools.

Not only because of its musical continuity, but also because of its large-scale virtuoso vocal numbers in accelerating tempos, its multipartite ensembles and monumental finales, A Life for the Tsar demonstrated its composer's complete mastery of what in chapter 1 was called the “Code Rossini,” the full panoply of sophisticated Italian conventions. But the opera was also “French” in its liberal use of “recalling themes,” its ample choruses, and its popular tone, all characteristics of the old “rescue” genre, and of the nascent grand opéra as well, showing Glinka to have been entirely up-to-date, abreast of all the latest European developments. There is even a second-act ballet, just as there would have had to be in Paris. And finally, the opera was “German” in its harmonic complexity and the prominence accorded its rich, colorful orchestra. It had bigness and greatness stamped all over it. It was, in short, a bid for recognition as a major player on the world stage, such as Russia herself was making in post-Napoleonic European diplomacy.

Glinka's narodnost’ was thus paradoxically proved by his cosmopolitan eclecticism. But this seems more paradoxical to us than it did to the composer's contemporaries. Combining or “organically” uniting the best of the West—or, more generally, the best of the rest—was one highly preferred way of asserting Russianness (narodnost’) for members of Glinka's and Neverov's generation. It affirmed the universality of Russian culture, hence its superiority to all other cultures. Thus Neverov could praise Glinka's recitatives (the one area in which he had no competition from any other Russian composer) as the world's finest, because “they unite the expressivity and dramatic flexibility of the German with the melodiousness of the Italian.”

It was a deliberate synthesis of opposites at which Glinka was aiming. To recall the anti-Rossinian strictures of Prince Odoyevsky, the “Russian Hoffmann” and a friend of Glinka's (quoted in chapter 1), Russians drew an even sharper distinction than the Germans themselves between the “spirituality” of German romanticism and the “sensuality” of Italian opera. In German this was the opposition of Geist and Sinnlichkeit; the Russian equivalents were dukh and chuvstvennost’. German music in Russian eyes was all dukh, brains without beauty; Italian music was all chuvstvennost’, beauty without brains. Glinka resolved that his music, Russian music, would uniquely have both brains and beauty.

Because he grew up in a country that until the 1860s lacked the institutional means for training professional composers (i.e., conservatories), Glinka is often looked upon as a “naive” or self-taught composer, with all the limitations on technique that would seem to imply. That is a serious misapprehension. Despite a late start, and despite his being, as an aristocrat, an avocational musician (the only kind that in early nineteenth-century Russia had the leisure to indulge in composition), Glinka had an exceptionally well-rounded professional education in music—but one acquired the old-fashioned way, by apprenticeship and practical experience.

After childhood and adolescent music instruction in piano and violin, both on his ancestral estate and at an exclusive boarding school in St. Petersburg, and after teaching himself the rudiments of form and orchestration by rehearsing and conducting his uncle's serf orchestra in the classical repertory, Glinka apprenticed himself at the age of twenty-four to Leopoldo Zamboni, the principal coach for the visiting Italian opera troupe, briefly mentioned in chapter 1, that was headed by Leopoldo's father Luigi, a famous buffo bass who had “created” the role of Figaro in Rossini's Barber of Seville. Zamboni schooled his local apprentice in the forms and conventions of Italian opera, as well as elementary counterpoint. Over the next two years Glinka attended the rehearsals and the extremely idiomatic Zamboni-led St. Petersburg performances of over a dozen Rossini operas.

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

fig. 4-8 Glinka conducting a chamber ensemble, in a drawing by V. Tauber.

In 1830 Glinka went abroad for an extended stay. In Milan he became personally acquainted with Bellini and Donizetti and under their supervision wrote creditable imitations of their work. Thus he acquired beauty. Then he went after brains, making straight for the Teutonic source. He spent the winter of 1833–34 in Berlin, under the tutelage of Siegfried Dehn (1799–1858), the most sought-after German pedagogue of the day, who through a combination of strict counterpoint and idealistic aesthetics “not only put my knowledge in order, but also my ideas on art,”32 as Glinka would put it in his memoirs. He returned to Russia shortly before his thirtieth birthday, the possessor of a fully professional, perhaps uniquely cosmopolitan, European technique.

And on top of all that he was “ideologically Russian.” The final element in the mix that made Glinka's opera the foundation of a national school had only marginally to do with musical style, but everything to do with the specific Russian concept of narodnost’ (nationhood) that then reigned. While it clothed itself, like all such romantic notions, in the rhetoric of antiquity, the narodnost’ embodied in Glinka's opera was a brand-new doctrine, promulgated as part of the general, Europe-wide post-Napoleonic reaction by Tsar Nikolai I (reigned 1825–55), the most reactionary crowned head on the continent. It was no progressive thing.

On the second of April 1833, Count Sergey Uvarov, the Tsar's newly appointed minister of education, circulated a letter to the heads of all educational districts in the Russian empire, stating that “our common obligation consists in this, that the education of the people be conducted, according to the Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationhood.”33 This troika of interdependent values to which Russians would henceforth be expected to subscribe—pravoslaviye, samoderzhaviye, narodnost’ in Russian—was formulated thus in direct rebuttal to the familiar French revolutionary slogan, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité (“liberty, equality, fraternity”). In this company narodnost’ would function as “a worthy tool of the government,”34 as Uvarov put it, or (as quite accurately, if maliciously, paraphrased in Soviet times) as “an ideological weapon in support of serfdom and autocracy.”35 The “Russian nation” was conceived entirely in dynastic and religious terms, autocracy (absolute monarchy) being related to Orthodoxy as “the ultimate link between the power of man and the power of God.”

These last words were written by Vasily Zhukovsky (1783–1852), Glinka's friend and mentor, who was himself an outstanding romantic poet as well as a government censor, and who authored the text to the fifth act or epilogue of A Life for the Tsar, a magnificent pageant of religious veneration that celebrates the birth of the nation in the person of the tsar. This was the brand of “nationalism”—Official Nationalism, as it came to be called—that was embodied in Uvarov's slogan, in Zhukovsky's poetry, in Glinka's opera, and in Neverov's critique.

Immediately after his return to Russia in 1834, Glinka joined Zhukovsky's literary salon. “When I declared my ambition to undertake an opera in Russian,” Glinka recalled in his memoirs, “Zhukovsky sincerely approved of my intention and suggested the subject of Ivan Susanin.”36 It was a predictable choice, even an inevitable one. For one of the cornerstones of Official Nationalism was the creation of a romantic national mythology, “a sense of the present based on a remodeled past,” in the apt words of Hubert Babinski, a historian of Russian literature. “Legend and history,” Babinski continues,

were a pleasing combination, and one sees among some Poles and Russians of this time that odd cultural phenomenon in which a legendary past is created to antedate and form a basis for recorded history. Not having an Iliad or an Aeneid [that is, an authentic national epic], they wrote their own mythical past from folklore, inspired by Herder's idea of creating a national consciousness out of national myths.37

Glinka's maiden opera, the first Russian opera that was really an opera and the earliest to achieve permanent repertory status, hence the cornerstone of the national repertory, was created out of just such a didactic mythography.

The legend of Ivan Susanin had a tenuous documentary basis: a concession conferred in 1619 by Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich on a peasant named Bodgan Sobinin, and renewed to Sobinin's heirs by every subsequent ruler all the way down to Nikolai I, granting dispensation from certain taxes and obligations in recognition of the merits of Sobinin's father-in-law, Ivan Susanin, who,

suffering at the hands of said Polish and Lithuanian persons immeasurable torments on Our account, did not tell said Polish and Lithuanian persons where We were at the time, and said Polish and Lithuanian persons did torture him to death.38

That is to say, the peasant Ivan Susanin had at the cost of his life concealed from a Polish search party the whereabouts of Mikhail Fyodorovich, the sixteen-year-old scion of an old noble family named Romanov, who had been elected tsar by a popular assembly in February 1613, thus ending a “time of troubles” regarding the Russian succession and founding the Romanov dynasty that would rule Russia until 1917. The name of Ivan Susanin entered historical literature in 1792 and his heroic martyrdom was embroidered and immortalized by Sergey Nikolayevich Glinka, the composer's cousin, in his Russian History for Purposes of Upbringing, published in 1817, since which time it went into all children's textbooks and became part of every Russian's patriotic consciousness.

Timely parallels with Susanin's deed were suggested by the activities of peasant partisans in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon. In the aftermath of that war “Ivan Susanin” became a fixture of Russian romantic literature. There was even a singspiel on the subject by a transplanted Italian composer named Catterino Cavos, performed in 1815, the year of the post-Napoleonic restoration. Since a singspiel had to have a happy ending, Cavos's Susanin gets rescued at the last minute by a detachment of troops led by Sobinin. Glinka's tragic hero dies his historical death, hence the title of the opera. It was Tsar Nikolai's idea, actually; at first the opera was simply to be called Ivan Susanin. The direct participation of the tsar in its very naming suggests the context into which the opera should be placed. It reflects above all Glinka's enthusiastic commitment to the doctrine of Official Nationalism and his determination to embody it in symbolic sounds.

As the composer put it in his memoirs, his root conception of the drama's shape lay in the opposition of musical styles, Russian vs. Polish. This basic structural antithesis has many surface manifestations. The Poles (the hated “other”) are at all times and places represented by stereotyped dance genres in triple meter (polonaise, mazurka) or highly syncopated duple (krakowiak). They express themselves only collectively, in impersonal choral declamation. Choral recitative was something Meyerbeer, too, was experimenting with; but Glinka's purpose was different. By never letting a Polish character sing as an individual person, he effectively “dehumanized” the enemy the way good war propaganda always does.

The “Russian” music (that is, the music the Russian characters get to sing) is at all times highly personal and lyrical. To a very small extent—two instances, both involving the title character—it draws upon existing folk melodies. Susanin's very first réplique (sung line) in act 1—“How can you think of getting married at a time like this?” (addressed to his daughter Antonida and Sobinin)—is based on a tune Glinka once heard a coachman sing, and which he noted down in his memoirs (Ex. 4-14a; Fig. 4-9). At the other end of the opera, the triumphant moment when Susanin reveals to the Poles that he has led them all to their death in the woods instead of to the tsar, motives from the same tune are accompanied by a basso ostinato (Ex. 4-14b) derived from one of the most famous Russian folk songs, “Downstream on Mother Volga” (“Vniz po matushke po Volge,” Ex. 4-14c).

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-14a Folklore in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, Susanins “Chto gadat’ o svad'be”

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-14b Folklore in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, Susanin's “Tuda zavyol ya vas”

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-14c Folklore in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, “Vniz po matushke po Volge”

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-14d Folklore in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, Girls’ chorus: “Razgulyalasya, razlivalasya”

The only other demonstrably folkloric element in the opera (just as in Verstovsky's operas) were the choruses. One of them, a girls’ wedding song in act III, while set to an original melody, translates the traditional five-syllable (pentonic) line of actual peasant wedding songs into a five-beat meter notated with a time signature of , one of the earliest such usages in European art music (Ex. 4-14d). Otherwise, the Russian music is modeled on the idiom of the contemporary sentimental “romance,” an urban professional genre in which the Russian folk melos had been put through an Italianate refinery. Again, the objective was not to be “authentic,” but “legible” to an audience of urban operagoers. Legibility, in short, meant authenticity.

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

fig. 4-9 Coachman's song (quoted in the first line Susanin sings in A Life for the Tsar) as jotted by Glinka in the manuscript of his memoirs.

Very much in the manner of the grand opéra, the rhythm of the contrast between Russian and Polish musics unfolds at first at the rate of entire acts. After a first act consisting of Russian peasant choruses and romancelike arias and ensembles for the principles, the second act is entirely given over to Polish dances. Thereafter the rhythm of contrast is accelerated to reflect the mounting dramatic tension. The Poles’ approach in act III is telegraphed by a few strategic orchestral allusions to the act II polonaise. Their colloquies with Susanin in acts III and IV are always couched (on both sides) in stereotyped generic terms. At the tensest moment in act III, where the Poles forcibly seize Susanin and he cries out “God, save the Tsar!” Polish (triple) and Russian (duple) rhythms are briefly superimposed (Ex. 4-15).

III. Peasants and History (Russia)III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-15 Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, A Life for the Tsar, Act III, montage of “Russian” and “Polish” styles

Far more important than the sheer amount of folk or folklike material in the score is the use to which the material is put. This was Glinka's great breakthrough, and the reason why he is fairly regarded by Russian music historiography as a founding father. As Rossini-hating Prince Odoyevsky was first to discern and celebrate, what Glinka “proved” in A Life for the Tsar was that “Russian melody may be elevated to a tragic style.” In so doing, Odoyevsky declared, Glinka had introduced “a new element in art,” one that had repercussions not only for Russian music, but for all music in the European tradition.39

What Odoyevsky meant by “a new element” was that Glinka had without loss of scale integrated the national material into the stuff of his “heroic” drama instead of relegating it, as was customary, to the decorative periphery. Of the dramatic crux, including Susanin's act IV solo scena, which strongly resembles Florestan's dungeon scene in Fidelio (on which it may very well have been modeled), but where the national style is nevertheless particularly marked, Odoyevsky wrote, “One must hear it to be convinced of the feasibility of such a union, which until now has been considered an unrealizable dream.”

One reason why it had been so considered, as we have seen, was that before Glinka Russian composers had never aspired to the tragic style at all. What made it “feasible” was that the main characters in Glinka's opera were all peasants, hence eligible, within the conventions of the day, to espouse a folkish idiom (even an Italianized, urbanized one). But the tragic style nevertheless ennobles Susanin. He is not “just” a peasant; he has become an embodiment of the nation, a veritable icon, and so had the Russian folk idiom.

But while this made the opera musically progressive, it remained politically and socially reactionary; for the most advanced of all of Glinka's musicodramatic techniques was one that enabled him to harp from beginning to end on the opera's overriding theme of zealous submission to divinely ordained dynastic authority. The epilogue, which portrays Mikhail Romanov's triumphant entrance into Moscow following Susanin's sacrifice and the rout of the Poles, is built around a choral anthem (Ex. 4-16; Glinka called it a “hymn-march”) proclaimed by massed Meyerbeerian forces, including not one but two wind bands on stage, to a text by Zhukovsky that culminates in the following quatrain:

Slav'sya, slav'sya nash russkiy Tsar’,

Gospodom dannïy nam Tsar’-gosudar’!

Da budet bessmerten tvoy tsarskiy rod!

Da im blagodenstvuyet russkiy narod!

Glory, glory to thee our Russian Caesar,

Our sovereign given us by God!

May thy royal line be immortal!

May the Russian people prosper through it!

III. Peasants and History (Russia)III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-16 Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka, A Life for the Tsar, Epilogue, mm. 1–16

Glinka's setting of these words is in a recognizable “period” style—the style of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century kanty, the three- and four-part polyphonic songs mentioned above as the earliest Westernized secular genre in Russian music. (Ironically, and possibly unknown to Glinka, their ancestry was part Polish.) In Peter the Great's time such songs, chorally sung, were often used for civic panegyrics, in which form they were known as “Vivats.” The Slav'sya or “Glorification” theme in Ex. 4-16 is motivically—that is, “organically”—related to that of Susanin's retort to the Poles in Ex. 4-15 (on the defiant words “ne strashus’,” “I'm not afraid”), which was derived in turn from the opening peasant chorus in act 1 (and through that relationship related to the opening phrase of the overture; see Ex. 4-17).

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-17a Prefigurings of the Slav'sya theme in A Life for the Tsar, Epilogue, “Hymn-March,” mm. 1–4

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-17b Prefigurings of the Slav'sya theme in A Life for the Tsar Act I, opening chorus

But that only begins to describe its unifying role. As the composer and critic Alexander Serov (1820–71) first pointed out in an essay published in 1859, the Slav'sya theme, which in nineteenth-century Russia became virtually a second national anthem, is foreshadowed throughout the opera wherever the topic of dynastic legitimacy (that is, the divine right of the tsar) is broached (Ex. 4-18). The approach is gradual, beginning in act I with a minor-mode reference to the first two bars of the theme when Susanin (seconded by the chorus) dreams of “A Tsar! A lawful Tsar!” In act III, when news arrives of Mikhail's election, Susanin and his household bless their good fortune by falling to their knees in prayer: “Lord! Love our Tsar! Make him glorious!”—and between their lines the strings insinuate the same fragment of the Slav'sya theme, only this time in the major. When later in the same act the Poles demand to be taken to the tsar, Susanin defies them with an extended if somewhat simplified snatch of the Slav'sya theme, disguised mainly in tempo, and sung in the “remote,” hence highly emotional key of D♭ major:

Vïsok i svyat nash tsarskiy dom

I krepost’ bozhiya krugom!

Pod neyu sila Rusi tseloy,

A na stene v odezhde beloy

Stoyat krïlatïye vozhdi!

Our Tsar's home is a high and holy place,

Surrounded with God's staunch strength!

Beneath it is the power of all of Russia,

And on the walls, dressed all in white,

Winged angels stand guard!

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-17c Prefigurings of the Slav'sya theme in A Life for the Tsar beginning of Overture

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-18a More prefigurings of the Slav'sya theme in A Life for the Tsar Act I, no. 4 (voices only)

III. Peasants and History (Russia)

ex. 4-18b More prefigurings of the Slav'sya theme in A Life for the Tsar Act III, no. 11 (quartet)

Thus A Life for the Tsar is thematically unified in both verbal and musical dimensions by the tenets of Official Nationalism. The irony, of course, is that Glinka adapted the techniques by which he achieved this broadly developed musicodramatic plan from the French rescue operas of the revolutionary period and applied them to an opera where rescue is thwarted, and in which the political sentiment was literally counterrevolutionary. No wonder, then, that the opera became the mandatory season opener for the Russian Imperial Theaters; and no wonder that the libretto had to be superseded under Soviet power (which had a censorship as strict as Nikolai's, but of a rather different political complexion) by a new one that replaced devotion to the Romanov dynasty with abstract commitment to national liberation, and to an anachronistically secular concept of the Russian nation.

That malleability, as we have had ample opportunity to observe, was highly characteristic of nineteenth-century “national” opera, which was the product of an intense, continuing, and never entirely settled negotiation between musical style and “extramusical” associations. But since such associations are never entirely lacking, and cannot be, it is finally inappropriate to call them extramusical. They are as much a part of the work as the notes. The meaning of the work arises out of a process of interpretation in which the relationship between the notes and the associations to which they give rise is in a perpetual state of definition and redefinition. And that is why interpretation requires both an object and an interpreting subject, and why, therefore, it can never be either entirely “objective” or entirely “subjective” to the exclusion of the other.


(28) Rudyard Kipling, The English Flag (1891).

(29) Nikolai Gogol, “Peterburgskiye zapiski” (1836), in Sochineniya i pis'ma N. V. Gogolya, Vol. VII, ed. V. V. Kallash (St. Petersburg: Prosveshcheniye, 1896), p. 340.

(30) Yanuariy Neverov, “O novoy opere g. Glinki ‘Zhizn’ za tsarya,”’ quoted in David Brown, Glinka (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 112–13.

(31) Neverov, “O novoy opere g. Glinki ‘Zhizn’ za tsarya,”’ quoted in Tamara Livanova and Vladimir Protopopov, Opernaya kritika v Rossii, Vol. I (Moscow: Muzïka, 1966), part 1, p. 208 (italics original).

(32) Mikhail I. Glinka, “Zapiski,” in Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy: Literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. I (Moscow: Muzïka, 1973), p. 262.

(33) “Tsirkulyarnoye predlozheniye G. Upravlyayushchego Ministerstvom Narodnogo Prosveshcheniya Nachalstvam Uchobnïkh Okrugov ‘o vstuplenii v upravlenii Ministerstvom,”’ quoted in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825–1855 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959), p. 73.

(34) Ibid., p. 74.

(35) Entsiklopedicheskiy slovar’ Vol. II (Moscow: Sovetskaya éntsiklopediya, 1964), p. 542.

(36) Glinka, “Zapiski,” p. 266.

(37) Hubert F. Babinski, The Mazeppa Legend in European Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), p. 89.

(38) Quoted in Alexander V. Ossovsky, “Dramaturgiya operï M. I. Glinki ‘Ivan Susanin,’ “ in Glinka: Issledovaniya i materialï, ed. A. V. Ossovsky (Leningrad and Moscow: Muzgiz, 1950), p. 16.

(39) V. F. Odoyevsky, “Pis'mo k lyubitelyu muzïki ob opere g. Glinki: Zhizn’ za tsarya,” in Muzïkal'no-literaturnoye naslidiye, ed. G. B. Bernandt (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1956), p. 11.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 Nations, States, and Peoples." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-004003.xml