Music and imperial ideology (Glinka’s case) Yurii Chekan

Площа біля Кремля. Ескіз невідомого художника до опери «Життя за царя» (1874)

In 1836, seventeen Europe’s new operas have premiered: seven in Paris, three in Naples, two in London and one in each: Venice, Leipzig, Vienna, Magdeburg and St. Petersburg [22]. Only two of them — “Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer and “A Life for the Tsar” by Mikhail Glinka remained in the standard repertoire of opera houses to this day [6, 1326]. Others — including works by famous artists (Gaetano Donizetti and Richard Wagner) and composers of the “second plan” (Daniel Auber, Saverio Mercadante, Heinrich Marschner) and the authors only known today to narrow specialists (Michael Balfe, John Hull, Hippolytus Monpas) — have sunk into oblivion.

Isaac Levithan. Sketch for “A Life for the Tsar” (1885)

A happy theatrical fate of Glinka’s opera is easily explained by an undoubted artistic perfection of the work. Sophisticated and verified musical drama, beautiful arias and choruses, spectacular dancing scenes, an organic combination of the traditional Italian bel canto singing and Russian motives — everything in Glinka’s masterpiece distinguishes with its artistic perfection, the supreme skill. However, unlike other operas — predecessors and immediate contemporaries that are also part of the standard repertoire of opera houses (the same “Huguenots” by Meyerbeer or created a year earlier Bellini’s “Puritans” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”), this case is not limited only by the outstanding artistic properties of the text.

What is also significant, is the fact that astonishing Glinka’s opera is astonishingly compliant to the requirements of Russian imperial ideology with its three well-known “Uvarov” principles — orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality [5, 514-519]. Glinka, by precisely “hitting the tone of the age, was officially recognized. ‘A Life for the Tsar’ was for almost a century an officially patriotic opera, a banner and a symbol of the autocratic Russian nationalism, “- Leonid Sabaneev rightly considered [16, 36]. Obviously, it was no accident that Nicholas І, who was present at the premiere, agreed to have the opera dedicated to him. “A Life for the Tsar” didn’t just illustrate certain ideologemes that were important to the empire, but also actively shaped and emotionally tinted them. Hence, the empire that was interested in continuing the reproduction and transmission of particular thinking viruses — strongly contributed to their proliferation, and thus ensured the functioning of opera in society, especially — of its stage life.

        Let’s review some of the facts.

The premiere of “A Life for the Tsar”, dedicated to the opening of the restored St. Petersburg Imperial Bolshoi theatre was an event of national importance and extremely carefully prepared. Suffice it to say that there has been held at least 36 orchestral rehearsals. In one of them, according to the Glinka’s memoirs, the composer met the king Nicholas I, who personally supervised the preparation process of the performance. The emperor asked the author of the opera if he’s satisfied with the performers — and was very pleased by Glinka’s positive response. It is also known that before the opera was accepted for direction by the Directorate of Imperial Theaters in winter 1835-36, it’s author (who was an outstanding teacher-vocalist) worked through it’s fragments with the soloists of Imperial theaters, who were getting ready to perform the leading roles — bass Osip Petrov (Ivan Susanin) and alto Anna Vorobyova (Vanya).

In March 1836 the entire first act of “A Life for the Tsar” has been performed in the house of Prince Michael Wielhorski (this performance was attended by the Head of the Imperial Theaters in both capitals, Alexander Gedeonov). After the opera has been accepted for production (April 1836), the conductor of the Russian Imperial Opera Catterino Cavos first conducted the ensemble rehearsals with strings (by quartets) and then — with brass “until all the performers were able to play decently” [4, 70]. And only then the general orchestral rehearsals began — first in the halls, then on the stage of the Imperial Oleksandrynski theatre (because the Bolshoi was already being rebuilt). In the fall the rehearsals were transferred to the Bolshoi theatre. Decorations for each of the three acts have been done by a different artist, designer and chief machinist of the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters Andreas Roller (I act Epilogue, front curtain), Alexei Kondratyev (third act); for the second act and epilogue were used sceneries made by the famous Italian artist Pietro Gonzaga, who for 37 years has remained the first painter of the Russian court. Dances have been set (according to show bills) by a French choreographer Antoine Titus, but a great amount of work there has been done by a famous Russian dancer and choreographer Nikolai Goltz.

Osip Petrov, the very first singer of Susanin’s role

The premiere was a great success. After the performance, Glinka was invited to the royal box, where Nicholas І personally thanked the author for his work. Later, the director of the Imperial Theaters Gedeonov gave the conductor Cavos “a luxury conductor’s baton, granted by His Majesty the Emperor” [15, 216] and Glinka received the “imperial gift: a ring of 4,000 rubles, consisting of topaz surrounded by three rows of wonderful diamonds” [4, 73] and was appointed to be a conductor of the Court cappella. Over the next two months, before the closure of theaters due to the beginning of the Lent, “A Life for the Tsar” was sold out (after adjustment of the theater hall it was able to bear 2000 visitors) twenty times.

Thus, the success of the opera was absolute. Of course, to the sensitive composer’s hearing came rumors about the rejection of his work by certain aristocrats, the opera was supposedly called “the coachman music,” and Faddey Bulgarin published a negative review on it in “Northern Bee”. However, more important for the author and illustrative for understanding of the perception of works of public and powers was the general support that “A Life for the Tsar” has been given: a cycle of notes by prince Vladimir Odoevski on the pages of the same “Northern Bee” and “Literary addition to the russian invalid” where opera was highly rated; a positive review in the journal “Moscow observer” written by a qualified music critic Gennaro Neverov; famous impromptu toasts by Vasily Zhukovski, Peter Vyazemski, Michael Wielhorski, Alexander Pushkin, presented in honor of the composer on December 13, 1836. Let’s recall one of them that belongs to Vyazemski:

For the beautiful novelty

The word of mouth shall praise

Our Orpheus Glinka

From Neglinnaya to Neva.

            The last line — “From Neglinnaya to Neva” — unites the symbols of two capitals, old and new: Moscow (Neglinnaya) and St. Petersburg (Neva) — and represents coeval’s awareness not only of artistic, but also political importance of Glinka’s work.

After the premiere the opera “A Life for the Tsar” has led a hectic life. Only in the capital of the Russian Empire — St. Petersburg — during 60 years 660 performances took place. By the late nineteenth century the opera was staged in cities of the Russian Empire as well as in theaters in other countries: in Moscow (1842), Prague (1866), Revel (1873), Milan and Kazan (1874), Riga and Hanover (1878) Tiflis (1880) and Nice (1881), London (1887), Berlin, Copenhagen, Manchester, Helsinki (1888) Koburg (1889), Paris (1896), Poznan (1899) and Hamburg (1900). It should be noted that on the European stages the work was performed in translation to European languages: Czech in Prague, Italian in Milan and London, Latvian in Riga, German in Hanover, Poznan and Hamburg, French in Paris. In the opera houses of Russia — in both capitals and in the provinces, in Imperial theaters and in private entreprises — “A Life for the Tsar” was unfailingly included in the repertoire of opera troupes, often opening the theater season. It has become a tradition of Russian opera, as was written in an 1889 “Artist” magazine, “if there are many <…> completely irrational traditions <…> then there are others which we can not disapprove. These include a custom of Russian opera annually opening it’s performances with it’s ancestor — “A Life for the Tsar” “[19, 68].

Unknown author. The scene from the opera (1830s)

Glinka’s opera in the Russian Empire has often been a marker of socially and artistically important events. Thus, in 1860, it has opened the Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg; in 1870, “A Life for the Tsar” opened in Perm Opera and in 1912 — in Yekaterinburg.

“A Life for the Tsar” has gained particular political and imperial weight in Kyiv in December 1867 [7]. It was kind of an echo of Slavic Congress, held in Kyiv in May of that year. The main ideology of the Congress — the image of a single, consolidated Slavic world with the center in Moscow, which appears as an all-Slavic capital; priority of an Orthodox Church as the only true religion; linguistic unification — resonated with the concept of “A Life for the Tsar”. The subject of the Opera also became relevant and gained particular specification in connection with a clearly anti-Polish direction of the Russian position at the congress. Its basis was to transpose the “opposition Russian — Polish into the opposition Slav — freak of the Slavs, to the Slavic brotherhood a Pole — is Judas, who joined the West” [7, 166; see also: 10].

In Kyiv, where the Polish question was particularly relevant, “A Life for the Tsar” was the meeting point of purely artistic (melomaniac) and political (imperial) interests: “for Panslavists Glinka’s opera has been, apparently, a kind of a rhetorical model of their ideology — with the national myth of the united Russian world: socially monolithic people, united by the national idea and deep fetters associated with its tsar-Slav; “Villains” — Poles — eternal traitors of the Slavic unity, and in the subtext — the spiritual superiority of Orthodoxy; final celebrations at the Kremlin square articulated the idea of Moscow to Panslavists as the “pantheon of Pan-Slavism ‘” [7, 171].

Large pieces of opera that embodied its intonational, and therefore — ideological concept and thus broadcasted the complex of imperial ideologemes, were carried out in the Russian Empire during socially important events. For example, celebrations over the coronation of the last Russian emperor — Nicholas II — at the Moscow Bolshoi theatre (17 May 1896) included a performance of the overture, the first act and the final chorus “The “A Life for the Tsar” overture has started, after which the whole first act was performed. <…> When the act was finished, the so-called “regular” curtain fell down, and in a few minutes a scene full of apotheotic majesty appeared. The illusion of national jubilation, the sound of “Glory” <…> was impressive! “- enthusiastically wrote a contemporary in his report on the pages of “Russian musical newspaper” [9, 705-706].

The Empire supported the Russian opera financially; the support became especially noticeable after the theatrical reform made by Alexander III (1882), since the theater was no longer seen as entertainment, but as a public educational institution that meets government’s educational tasks. Of course, significant funds went to the staging of “A Life for the Tsar” .

After the October Revolution of 1917 in new social and political conditions, opera with its original lyrics was banned as the one that promotes monarchism. Several productions were made with a libretto adapted to new realities — called “Sickle and Hammer” with lyrics by Vadim Shershenevich (staged by singer and opera director Maximilian Maksakov — Odessa, 1924; there are also mentions also of staging this edition in Yekaterinburg in 1925); called “Minin” with libretto by Nikolai Krasheninnikov (in Baku in 1926) [11, 358; see also: 14]. Starting from 1926 the opera was banned for productions in its revised form, too [3, 70]. Only in 1939 Glinka’s opera returns to the repertory lists, not least due to Stalin’s taste preferences: “whole musical and theatrical repertoire of the country was defined by the tastes of one man who still got the perfect example of operas of his time. It was the Soviet version of “Life for the Tsar”. A Former akmeist poet Sergei Gorodetski wrote a version of the libretto that finally pleased the leader. Since 1939 Glinka’s opera under the new name “Ivan Susanin”, banned for the production before, is the main opera product of the Stalinist musical theater “[3, 359].

Mikhail Scotti. “The feat of Ivan Susanin” (1851)

Therefore, an officially patriotic opera, one of the musical signs of the nineteenth century Empire and a “main opera work” of the Stalinist Soviet empire. How could Glinka’s work become a symbol of two public entities that seem so different?

It should be noted from the start that in the further analysis we rely solely on the music — and leave the differences between Yegor Rosen’s and Sergei Gorodetski’s opera librettos beyond the area of our consideration. It’s because the musical component in this case is a crucial aspect of artistic text, we know that Glinka wrote the music first, and then Rosen adapted his lyrics to it. Glinka recalled: “During the spring, i.e. April and March, according to my plan he [Rosen — Y.Ch.] wrote the lyrics to the 1st and the 2nd act. He had a lot of work to do: not only most of the themes, but also the drafts of plays were already done, and he had to adjust the lyrics to the music, which sometimes required the most amazing timings. B[aron] Rosen was good at that: you order this many poems of a certain size, two-, three-syllable and even non-existent, doesn’t matter to him — a day later you come to him and it’s already done” [4, 65]. Similarly, Gorodetski has worked with earlier prepared musics. Based on these considerations, we can state that it is the music component that is the main carrier of meaning; its ideological conformity requirements were exactly the main factor that led to a special place of Glinka’s opera in the art of Russian and Soviet empires.

The external plan of musical playwriting in “A Life for the Tsar” / “Ivan Susanin” has been thoroughly investigated and repeatedly described in musicological literature. Let’s recall its main points. Opera’s intonational concept is based on two contrasting areas of intonation. The first one is based on personalized vocal (solo or choral) sound, melody as the major element in the system of means of musical expression, cantilenity in nationally well-defined genre forms (lingering song, romance, etc.), the prevalence of duple meters and moderate rates. These are the signs of “internal”, “its own”, “I” that is naturally associated with the embodiment of Russian imagery.

The second intonational area is opposing the first by all parameters: it is based on domination of depersonalized instrumental sound, rhythm as the main element of the means of musical expression, dancing style in the genre versions of polonaise (“Polish”), mazurkas, krakowiak; the advantage of ternary meter (duple-metered krakowiak is marked with syncopation that is not present in duple meters of the “Russian” sphere) and accelerated pace. All these signs give reasons to link them with the “outside”, “alien”, “non-I”, i.e. Polish camp, opposed to Russian. Note that this intonational concept was deliberately chosen by the composer, before he started working with Rosen “… suddenly a plan of the whole opera emerged, and so did the idea of opposing Polish music to Russian; finally, many subjects and even workthrough details — all together flashed in my head “[4, 64].

However, as we mentioned earlier, the described opposition represents just one, external plan of an intonational concept of the opera. Such decisions will become typical for Russian historical operas: let’s recall, for example, “Boris Godunov” by Modest Mussorgsky, where vocal cantilenity of the Russian camp is opposed Polish instrumentalism (this is one out of three lines of dramaturgic contrasts in Opera) or “Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin, in which Slavic melodiousness is opposed by the dancing and marching Polovets style (this Borodin’s opposition is complicated by internal intonational contradictions that exist in the Ancient Rus camp). In other words, romantic intonational storyline “I — non-I”, solved through contrast or clash of vocal and instrumental, spiritual and corporal, psychological and hyletical, melody and rhythm — is quite common in the history of European music in general and Russian music of post-Glinka’s age in particular. Therefore, in our opinion, it is not the key element of understanding the imperial success of “A Life for the Tsar”.

“Ivan Susanin”. Bolshoi Theater (1939)

Aside of the external plan, the intonational concept of “A Life for the Tsar” has several internal plans. This, among other rhings, is the orientation on the “second-plan genre” — the spiritual choral concert and oratorio, which gives us reasons to consider the opera as “national-historic liturgy” [21, 92-101]. But this idea can be realized only in uncropped productions of the opera, and there practically wasn’t any, either in the imperial or Soviet era. That’s why conceptual depths of its lyrics, analyzed by Tatyana Cherednichenko, but not popular with the empire, mostly remained as largely potential abilities of Glinka’s lyrics, not the realities of the musical-historical process.

Finally, an important internal plan of the concept of Glinka’s masterpiece is the purely intonational level of art organization that is embodied in the sound matter of thematic invention in music. It is implemented in every setting (regardless of the amount of cuts) and therefore “works” in any case. Therefore, in our opinion, it’s worth focusing on, thinking about how contents of the opera resonate with imperial ideology. The musically-thematic level of the opera is also well acknowledged in musicology: it is recognized that the musical composition of the opera is based not only on the contrast between “Russian” and “Polish”, but on accurately built thematic organization of the “Russian”. The two themes of the opera (the Introduction and Epilogue) are not only intonally related to each other but are also exist in Susanin’s part (Susanin’s respond to Poles in the third act). Moreover, if the subject of the Introduction (“In the hurricane, in the thunderstorm” in the version of Rosen, “My Motherland” in Gorodetski’s version) is repeated by Susanin, the theme of the Epilogue (“Glory”) — is forseen.

Such constructive emphasis on these themes makes us listen deeper into their genre and intonation origins.

Introduction’s chorus synthesizes three main origins: folk songs, vivating cantus and znamenny chants.

It resembles folk songs, first of all, with the nature of its artistic space organization, for a correlate to which in European academic music tradition stands the texture. The texture of this choir is marked, firstly, with an a capella sound (which is marked with the lack of orchestral accompaniment, usual for the opera of the nineteenth century). Secondly, with a variable number of voices: first singer — three-part texture — two-part texture — octave unison — two-part texture — four-part texture — octave unison (the academic norm is a fixed number of voices). The compositional level also reaches out to folk songs: a verse, consisting of a solo tune and a twice-repeated chorus (second repetition — option in the orchestra). Finally, intonational features of the subject also carry the memory of folk-song origins: modal variability within the stanza, plagality in the first sentence of the solo part, a beginning with an intonational formula «V — I — VI» , a lyrical cadential formula «V — VII# — I” . All these features give enough reason to verbalize the meaning of this part of the subject as “Russian”.

Another, somewhat less defined genre prototype of the first chorus’ subject is vivating cantus. Its features — in addition to already mentioned a capella quality — a typical textured formula (parallel movement of higher voices towards a tertia and the functional bass), a strict accent pulsation, synchronized with the change of harmony, a tonic-dominant connection, a bright major. A field of values that lies behind this sound can be verbalized as “glory”.


Finally, the third origin of genre and intonation of the subject are znamenny chants. The melodic figure «d-c-h-c» (vols. 5-6) is called “a cradle” and is a part of the body of coquises — “relatively completed steady musical phrases that combine several tonemes, have a particular rhythmic pattern as well as modal and intonational specificity” — singing components of monoact’s znamenny chants. Since znamenny chants are the oldest of the origins that are synthesized in the subject of Introduction’s chorus (folk songs are present here in their lyrical and, therefore, — relatively latter features), it can be stated that the semantic field labeled with this genre sign appears as the “eternal” .

Thus, the meaning of Introduction’s theme that is outlined by three discussed genre and intonational origins (despite the “royal” or “national-patriotic” words added, respectively, by Rosen and Gorodetski) is composing the formula “Russian” — “glory” — “eternal.”

The second key theme of the Opera (Epilogue’s theme) has similar genre and intonation origins, only in different proportions. The one that’s most clearly revealed is vivating cantus, hymnic component (parallel tertia movement in the higher parts, a distinct change of harmonies, the brilliant major-minor, the metric pulsation). Doubling the main lines in the choir and orchestra (including — the scenic one) creates the hyperpoliphony effect, resembling the sound of celebatory (vivatingly-panegyrical) partesny choral concerts. The “cradle” coquise becomes the thematic foundation of the chorus; the nature of znamenny chants shows itself in the wave-like profile of the narrow melodic line, with its dominating of second modulations, lack of leaps, the flavor of non-octaval monodic modes. Finally, the folk-song feature — just one, but extremely bright and expressive — we hear the «I-VI-V» progress — a kind of melodic turn, which was the key point of the Introduction. If, based on the foregoing, we try to verbalize the meaning of the Epilogue’s theme, the formula “Glory” — “eternal” — “to the Russian” seems to be the most relevant.

“A Life for the Tsar” in Berlin Staatsoper

Thus, the theme of two key chorals of the opera “A Life for the Tsar”, which, as we recall, are repeated in the protagonist’s part, are variant replicas of the same slogan that reflects and transmits ideologemes “Russian”, “glory,” “eternal”. Their relationship with the three earlier mentioned Uvarov principles is clear: “Russian” resonates with “nationality”, “glory” — with “autocracy”, “eternal” — with “Orthodoxy”.

This is how the first classical Russian opera has become both a generator and a translator of imperial ideology. However, can it be the other way in empires?


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The first publication at Congresul International de Muzicologie. Issue Year: 1/2016. Issue No: 3. Page Range: 92-98.

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