Wagner in Russia (1)
Wagner conquers Russia
Author : Jos Hermans
“So now I’m in Asia, really in Asia, my child! The Kremlin is a conglomeration of wonderful buildings from A Thousand and One Nights; from it you have a view of this city of 400,000 inhabitants and 800 churches, some of which have five domes; everything is colourful, bright, gilded, domed - so weird and wonderful that I had to burst out laughing in amazement.”
(RICHARD WAGNER, Letter to Mathilde Maier, march 21/22, 1863)
"Germans and Slavs - that works". Richard Wagner wrote it in his last letter from Venice on February 11, 1883, two days before his death, to Angelo Neumann, the busy and successful theater impresario who was touring Germany and Europe at the time with his "Richard Wagner Theater" and who performed the Ring of the Nibelung in 14 German and 10 foreign cities between September 1, 1882 and June 5, 1883. With his remark, Wagner meant that the Ring was unlikely to be successful in Romanic countries, but much more likely in Scandinavia (where Neumann's tour did not go) or in the East: "Russia - Stockholm - Copenhagen - in the end also Hungary - Everything OK."
Six years later, this prediction came true. Neumann's troupe gave guest performances in St. Petersburg and Moscow in March and April 1889, and performed the entire Ring five times in the two imperial court theaters. The conductor was the young Karl Muck, who was still working in Prague at the time, and the Munich-based Karl Lautenschlager was responsible for the set design. Heinrich and Therese Vogel (later replaced by Therese Malten), both with Bayreuth experience, were among the singing protagonists. The orchestra (106 musicians in all!) was provided by the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and, in the words of Angelo Neumann, "could stand comparison even with Bayreuth. The event was electrifying.
In Russia, the era of a tremendous Wagner euphoria dawned. By the time of the First World War, Wagner's works had conquered the Russian opera stages and even achieved a certain dominance in St. Petersburg and Moscow, measured by the number of performances. Even leading Russian musicians such as Tchaikovsky or the representatives of "The Five" - Stasov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui - could not escape the fascination of Wagner's music after an initial strict rejection. The impact of this phenomenon was enormous and also infected literature and painting. Russian musicologist Ella Machrova gives the following insightful characterization of this phenomenon : "A real Wagner boom was unleashed by the young 20th century. For almost a decade and a half, Wagner was an epicenter of Russian culture. And not only musical culture. [...] Russian art of the so-called "silver age" is unimaginable without Wagner, without the influence of his ideas, his service to the "artwork of the future" and the future of mankind. The statement may seem paradoxical or even presumptuous, but the peculiarity of the Russian "silver age" grew and blossomed on an aesthetic ground prepared by the German artist Richard Wagner. There is the originality of Russian masters like Alexander Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (especially his later work), Vyacheslav Ivanov and Aleksandr Blok, Andrei Belyi and Valery Bryussov, Nikolai Roerich, Aleksandr Benua [Benois] and many others, but we have long forgotten to recognize the roots of their art. We have ceased to understand how much our art owes to Wagner at the beginning of the 20th century. Russian "Wagnerianism" of this short period represents one of the most interesting pages in the history of domestic art. [...] In fact, no other country was so "infected" by Wagner as Russia."
Of course, all this had a prior history. First of all, it should be remembered that opera in St Petersburg and Moscow under tsarist rule was government controlled, and repertoires were dictated by the extremely conservative tastes of the nobility, who were at that time in the grip of Italomania.
It is ironic that it should have been a writer who was the first in Russia to perceive Wagner’s greatness. In 1858, the poet and essayist Pyotr Vyazemsky remarked prophetically in his diary that Wagner’s music was ‘not only the music of the future, but the music of eternity’. The few Wagnerians in Russia at this time were heavily outnumbered. Before Wagner’s visit to Russia, only two critics ventured on to the pages of the Russian press to defend the composer against the increasingly scurrilous attacks: the composer Aleksandr Serov and the critic Konstantin Zvantsov. In Serov, Wagner found a gifted ally, for his animated and well-informed articles raised the quality of music criticism in Russia to unprecedented levels of professionalism.
Serov became acquainted with Wagner's writings even before heard any of his music, first reading Opera and Drama in 1852 (a year after its publication) and treating it with a healthy scepticism. When he discovers The Artwork of the Future two years later, however, these feelings have given way to boundless admiration. A similar change of heart also takes place with regard to Wagner's music. When Serov first hears the overture of Tannhäuser at the 1856 Philharmonic Society concert, he finds it "absorbing and even striking, but certainly not beautiful, and incapable of bringing any pleasure from a musical point of view". During his first trip abroad in 1858, he subsequently heard six performances of Tannhäuser in a row, and by the time he returned to Russia his conversion to Wagnerism was total. Wagner's dreamed synthesis of all the arts was the basic motive for Serov's admiration for Wagner : "I am fascinated by Wagner. I play and study his works; about him I read, speak, write, preach. I am proud to be his apostle in Russia". In 1859, Serov heard Lohengrin in Dresden and visited Wagner in his Swiss asylum in Lucerne. On that occasion he heard for the first time the just-completed music of Tristan. In 1864 they meet again, this time in Vienna. In 1868 he sees a performance of Tristan and the premiere of Meistersinger in Munich, and in the summer of 1869 he visits Wagner again in Tribschen. Hans von Bulow and Cosima characterize him as the "Russian Richard Wagner."
Serov's cult of Wagner did not endear him to the rest of the composing fraternity in St. Petersburg. Alexander Dargomyzhsky, by this time the doyen of Russian music, shared the same year of birth with Wagner and an interest in the dramatic possibilities of opera, but otherwise had little in common with him. He first became acquainted with Wagner's music in 1856, when Serov lent him the piano arrangement of Tannhäuser, and his verdict was that there was "much poetry" in the libretto, but that Wagner's vocal writing was unnatural. He found Wagner's aesthetic theories as unpalatable as his music and subjected both to a relentless stream of mockery in the satirical journal Iskra. However, Dargomyzhsky's hostility toward Wagner was most likely due to uncertainty, and it is interesting to note that parallels were subsequently drawn on more than one occasion between his and Wagner's compositionional methods.
Dargomyzhsky found Wagner's music threatening, and feared that his theory of the "art of the future" would "interfere withe development” of the young Russian school and "halt its momentum." None of the five composers in the Balakirev circle who made up this "young Russian school" (the Mighty Five) would ever admit to feeling threatened by Wagner, but the eloquent silence with which most of the group greeted the first performances of his music in Russia and his arrival in Petersburg speaks volumes. It was a time when Russian literature, painting and music were in the process of gaining national independence and aesthetic sovereignty. A temporary separation from overpowering influences from Western Europe, as formulated by the Mighty Five was therefore quite understandable.
Neither Musorgsky or Balakirev expressed any real opinions about Wagner in their writings, although the latter's hatred of Wagner was apparently "intense," and was equalled in ferocity only by that of Cesar Cui, who from 1864 acted as the group's spokesman in the press. Rimsky-Korsakov was moved to write a great deal about Wagner in later life, but for the present was under the spell of Balakirev. Borodin was the sole member of the group who had actually heard operas by Wagner performed (Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin he had heard in Mannheim in 1861). Whatever nascent feelings of respect he might have begun to nurture towards the composer, however, had to be suppressed when he joined ranks with the Balakirev's circle in 1862. Pyotr Boborykin, a close associate of the group, confirmed that "they had no enthusiasm whatsoever for Wagner." Vladimir Stasov, the group's chief ideologue, also played an important role in fostering anti-Wagner sentiment.
By the 1860s Wagner had become something of a musical celebrity, and in November 1862 he received an invitation from the Philharmonic Society in St. Petersburg to conduct two concerts of his own music the following year for a fee of 2,000 silver roubles. As an ex-revolutionary and friend of Bakunin, he will be kept under surveillance throughout his stay by the tsarist secret police. Wagner gives his first concert on Feb. 19 at the Hall of the Nobility, with 130 musicians at his disposal, selected from the imperial orchestra. He will entertain his Russian audience with excerpts from all of his most recent works. They even hear many excerpts from the Ring and Die Meistersinger, works Wagner is still writing. Thus the Russian public is amongst the first ever to hear the Walkürenritt and the Feuerzauber music from Die Walküre, the Schmiedelieder from Siegfried and the overture to Die Meistersinger, as well as such well-tried favorites as the overture to Lohengrin.
The day after his first concert, Wagner wrote in a exalted (and exaggerated) tones to Mathilde Maier, "The concert is over. It was quite frightful; I have never had such a warm reception as here in Russia!!! The audience - three to four thousand people - almost devoured me!!! ... When I had to repeat the Lohengrin prelude, my nerves began to give way and it was as if the whole orchestra - 130 people - were transformed into angels and were greeting my arrival in heaven with particularly ecstatic music. It was a sublime, moving moment! .. '
At the second concert, held Feb. 26, Wagner will combine for the first time the prelude (Liebestod) and the conclusion (Verklärung) from Tristan und Isolde. His third concert, held on 6 March at the Imperial Opera House (home to the Italian opera during the season), was a benefit for himself. The previous two concerts had been extremely successful, and the third was apparently no exception, if Wagner is to be taken at his word: "The concert itself succeeded beyond expectations, and I do not ever recall being received more enthusiastically by an audience than was the case here, for even the initial applause was so stormy and lasted so long that it overwhelmed me, something which was otherwise not easy to achieve. The fiery dedication of the orchestra itself seems to have contributed greatly to the enthusiasm of the public. For it was my one hundred and twenty musicians themselves who repeatedly instigated the tempestuous outbursts of applause, an event that appeared unprecedented in St. Petersburg. From some of them I heard such exclamations as 'Let's admit we didn’t know untill now what music is!'"
Wagner's concerts inevitably aroused much interest in the Petersburg music world. The 20-year-old Tchaikovsky long retained his memories of Wagner's conducting, as is clear from his letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 1879: "Whoever did not hear those symphonies performed with Wagner conducting cannot fully evaluate them or comprehend their unattainable grandeur." There is no evidence that either Mussorgsky or Borodin attended any of Wagner's concerts, but in a letter dated Feb. 18, 1863, we find Cui inviting Balakirev to "go and see Wagner" the following evening. A letter from Balakirev to Rimsky-Korsakov (who was abroad for the Navy) contained the improbable verdict that the concert had contained "nothing new or interesting."
After the Petersburg concerts, Wagner spent twenty hours travelling to Moscow to give several concerts there at the invitation of the Imperial Theaters Directorate, which hoped to profit by the proceedings. The cold indifference that Wagner encountered in his relations with Russian officialdom in Moscow was in marked contrast to the official pomp of Verdi's visit a few months earlier. Leonid Lvov, head of the Bolshoi Theater (whom Wagner dismissed as "paltry") recognized only Italian opera and wanted to have nothing to do with the visit.
Wagner had originally come to Russia with the intention of giving two concerts and leaving the country at the end of February. However, because of the financial gains to be made from giving more concerts, and more importantly, the prospect of acquiring patronage from the Russian aristocracy, his stay in Russia had been considerably prolonged. As far as he was concerned, the evenings he had spent at court reading his works to Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna were a good investment, for he was convinced that "something good" would come out of his relations to this "important lady." Initially Wagner's assumption seemed correct, for Elena Pavlovna made Wagner a gift of 1,000 roubles (since his last concert was a charity event), intimating that she might renew the amount yearly until his position improved. Wagner's Russian venture had indeed been very lucrative, and at the time of his departure (he had now been in Russia for almost two months) he was already nurturing plans to return the following year. Further patronage from Elena Pavlovna might have been forthcoming, but Wagner made his financial appeals too swiftly, and the Duchess (no doubt offended by his lack of grace and unmoved by his gift of a luxury edition of the Ring) just as swiftly withdrew her support. For various reasons, Wagner's second visit to Russia never took place. The Philharmonic Society tried to invite Wagner to St. Petersburg again in 1866, but by this time King Ludwig II had become the composer's patron.
The first performance of Lohengrin in St. Petersburg was to follow in 1868. The conductor was Konstantin Lyadov, the father of the composer Anatoly Lyadov. However, the actual musical rehearsal was done by the young Kapellmeister Eduard Napravnik, who would later head the Mariinsky Theater for a long time. The style of the sets and the performance was traditional and historicizing, in accordance with the conventions of the time. Such well-known singers as Fyodor Nikolski and Yulia Platonova sang the leading roles. The production was divisively received and was not long-lived, but eventually became the basis of a future Wagner repertoire.
Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Dargomyzhsky treated Lohengrin with "complete contempt" when they attended the premiere, while from Dargomyzhsky there came an endless stream of ridicule, mockery and venomous criticism." Balakirev, meanwhile, informed Nikolay Rubinstein that he had been to see Lohengrin "for the first and last time." It was Cesar Cui, however, who poured most scorn on the production. Rimsky-Korsakov would later recall this in his "Chronicle of My Musical Life" : "Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky and I sat together with Dargomyzhsky in a lodge. We expressed our deep contempt for Lohengrin, Dargomyzhsky spread an inexhaustible torrent of jokes and vitriolic remarks. And this at a time when the Ring was already half-finished and the Meistersinger finished, works with which Wagner with an experienced hand showed the way forward for art more than we, the Russian 'innovators'."
In a new 1883 production, Lohengrin remained in the repertory until the late 1930s. In 1881, the work was also performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Tannhäuser followed in St. Petersburg in 1874 as the second Wagner opera. The conductor was now Eduard Naprawnik. The scenery was provided by the same team as for Lohengrin, again in the usual historicizing style. It met with spectacular success. Even the nobility - who otherwise only recognized only Italian opera - now apparently began to "drop by" the Mariinsky theater, which was still not quite seen as a respectable place of entertainment. According to one contemporary review, it was "so lifelike that the spectator who had once visited the Wartburg would begin to doubt whether he had not been transported to Eisenach in one second by a flying carpet." The choreography of the Venusberg scene was designed by the famous ballet master Marius Petipa. (Incidentally, in a new production of Tannhäuser in 1910 at the Mariinsky Theater, Mikhail Fokin choreographed the Venusberg scene with the later world-famous dancers Tamara Karsavina and Vyacheslav Nijinsky.) Nikolski and Platonova were again featured in the leading roles. Along with Lohengrin, Tannhäuser was one of the most popular repertory pieces in St. Petersburg. Shortly after its first performance in St. Petersburg, Tannhäuser appeared on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. In 1879, Rienzi followed as the third Wagner opera at the Mariinsky Theater. However, the performance was not a success and was canceled after five reprises.
And so Wagner had found his way into the Russian operatic repertoire with two of his most important early works. By 1914, Lohengrin had been performed 135 times and Tannhäuser 137 times in St. Petersburg alone. Wagner productions followed in several major provincial cities such as Kiev, Odessa, Reval (today's Tallinn) and Warsaw ( at the time the capital of a Russian Grand Duchy).
Next episode : The Ring in St Petersburg and Moscow