Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Golden Cockerel

Discoursing once more on Russian music, this time focusing on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel  (previously Swan Lake and The Firebird) and Russian classical music in general.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) the composer of The Golden Cockerel (1907) was one of the 'Mighty Five', also known as 'The Mighty Handful' (Russian: Могучая кучка, Moguchaya kuchka) a group of amateur composers who aspired to create a music which was distinctly Russian. Utilizing folk-song and emphasising the 'asiatic' and oriental aspects of Russia's vast Empire, along with developing a highly original orchestral style and coloration, the 'Mighty Five' endeavoured to create music equal and antithetical to the Western Viennese tradition of music-making. However, in reality the 'Mighty Five' were only four of any significance, for music critic Cesar Cui never wrote any music which was Russian in either style or melody.

Although only amateurs, the four remaining composers of the 'Mighty Five' together created characteristic Russian music in subject-matter, melody, rhythm and orchestral colour. One fanciful way to contrast the styles and artistic temperament of these four Russian composers is to loosely juxtapose them to another group of equally ground-breaking composers, the British 'Fab Four' of 1960's pop music, the Beatles.

The highly-original genius of 'rebel' group member Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the composer of the epic national opera Boris Godunov with its sharp observations upon the relationship between church and State in Russia, and the hallucinatory nightmare tone-poem Night on a Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky also had a hedonistic streak of self-destructive bravado in him, resulting in his premature death from alcoholism aged just 42.  He's not unlike a kind of 'John Lennon' figure in his revolutionary ideals and love of the people to the Russian Nationalist composers.

Like Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was also self-taught. Over decades of industrious study he created his own unique sound and orchestral palette, which, combined with his ability to integrate folk-song from Russia's many regions into his music, resulted in his appointment as a professor at the prestigious Russian Conservatoire and becoming a leading figure of Russian music, particularly after Tchaikovsky's death in 1893. As a mainstream composer, especially in the popularity of his operas, many of which were regularly performed from the 1890's onwards, and long outliving Mussorgsky and Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov roughly equates as the 'Paul' of the Russian 'Fab Four'.

The quieter, often overlooked, but no less talented, if not the most productive member of the Russian 'Fab Four', was the chemistry professor, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). Borodin's tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia aurally depicts the geographical vastness of Russia's Imperial Empire, while his opera Prince Igor with its famous Polovtsian Dances, harks back to the splendour of Russia's early history. Borodin may be considered as the 'George' of the Russian Fab Four.

The group's mentor Balakirev, himself an original composer as his oriental tone-poems Islamey and Tamara demonstrate, performed the role of impresario not unlike Brian Epstein in his influence upon the group's image and ambitions. Cesar Cui (1835-1918 )  fulfills the role of  'Ringo' in this analogy.

Although he wrote over 15 operas, Rimsky-Korsakov is nowadays only known by many today for the miniaturist tone-poem, The Flight of the Bumble-Bee, however, a closer familiarity with his music reveals that during  a white-heat of creativity, he composed three great orchestral masterpieces - the suite Capriccio Espagnol, a dazzling pastiche of Spanish melodies, the gorgeous in 'Neo-oriental' orchestral colour, Scheherazade, an orchestral showcase and one of the most frequently recorded works in the classical music repertoire, and the stirring Russian Festival Easter Overture based upon the Slavic liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Miraculously, all three of these works for large-scale orchestra date from the single year span of 1887-1888.

Because Rimsky-Korsakov out-lived the tragically short lives of Mussorgsky and Borodin, he often took it upon himself to edit and complete his compatriot composers' unfinished works. It was not until an original manuscript of Mussorgsky's  tone-poem Night on a bare Mountain was discovered in the 1970's that the full extent of Rimsky-Korsakov's academic styled 'tidying-up' became known. Such are the differences between Mussorgsky's original, rough and vigorous aural depiction of a Witches Sabbath, to those of Rimsky-Korsakov's much better-known 'tidied' version, that the Dutch musicologist Francis Maes declared -

'Rimsky-Korsakov considered the work impossible in the form which Mussorgsky had written it. Rimsky-Korsakov's own version, therefore, cannot be fitted into the category of redactions and orchestrations; it is. rather, a radical composition, loosely based on the same thematic material but wholly different in structure, orchestral colouring, and expression, so much so, in fact, that Mussorgsky can no longer be considered its author.' [1]

Rimsky-Korsakov was paradoxically both a progressive and a conservative composer. His early style was based upon his mentor Balakirev, as well as Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt while in his latter development he was heavily influenced by Wagner and Debussy. Considered as directly influencing two generations of Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky, as well as non-Russian composers, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas and Ottorino Respighi, among others.

In his opera The Golden Cockerel Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov returned to a political theme. Transforming a poem by Pushkin, which in turn was based upon a tale by the American author Washington Irving, Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy-tale opera is in fact a thinly-disguised political statement which is highly critical of Russia's devastating military defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, its also a scathing attack upon Russian Imperialism and even ridicules on a personal level, the last of the Romanov's Tsar Nicholas II. Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera performed. The stress caused from its being banned most probably exasperated his medical condition of angina.

Musically, Le Coq d'Or ( as it's frequently known  from its first production in Paris 1914) features some of Rimsky's most developed and radical tonal language. The combination of full orchestra, chorus and soloists including a colorata soprano, results in a musical palette awash with oriental-coloured scales and melodies, often to gorgeous effect and exemplary of Rimsky-Korsakov's so-called Neo-Oriental style, which he first conjured in his Antar symphony, and famously in his large-scale, Arabian-themed orchestral suite, Scheherazade (1888).

In the prologue to the first of three acts of Le Coq d'Or, an astrologer appears announcing a disclaimer- although the following fairy-tale happened far away, a long time ago, such tales can be instructive, he informs the audience. Whether with this disclaimer Rimsky-Korsakov hoped to outwit the Imperial Censors isn't known. A few years earlier his support for students during the 1905 revolution, had resulted in a temporary suspension of his professorship from the conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. However the very name of the fairy-tale's Tsar Dodon is a deliberate word-play upon the name of the extinct dodo bird and throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.  

In the Introduction and Bridal Procession to the orchestral suite of  Le coq d'Or Rimsky-Korsakov employs the startling compositional device of a rapid change of key and mood; the opening alarm-call of the cockerel, announced by trumpet is swiftly followed by a brooding theme upon cellos, to depict the lugubrious mood of King Dodon in his palace. The Introduction quotes all the major themes and motifs of the opera, much of which is in Rimsky-Korsakov's highly-evocative 'neo-oriental' style, it also includes musical passages conjuring a dreamy fairy-tale world along with some exciting syncopated rhythms.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's support for students during the 1905 Russian revolution resulted in his being suspended from his teaching position at the Conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. How exactly he hoped to outwit the Imperial Censor's scrutiny is unclear, the very name of the fairy-tale's central character, Tsar Dodon, is a deliberate word-play which strongly hints of the Tsar's likeness to the extinct dodo bird; and in fact throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.

In the first act of the opera, King Dodon in his Palace, the grotesque and blundering Tsar Dodon, irritable, brooding and bored since youth, is presented by the astrologer with the gift of a golden cockerel which crows whenever a threat of danger to Dodon's kingdom occurs -

Watch out ! 
Be on guard !

However, Tsar Dodon prefers it when the golden cockerel crows the advice -    Go ahead and rule from your bed !

In essence, Rimsky-Korsakov portrays a Tsar who is suffering from the Russian psychological trait of Oblomovitis.

In Ivan Goncharov's hugely popular novel Oblomov (1859) the young nobleman Oblomov rarely leaves his room or bed and only moves from his bed to a chair in the first 50 pages of the novel. Incapable of making important decisions or of undertaking any significant action, the novel satirizes Russian nobility, whose social and economic function became increasingly questioned in mid-nineteenth century Russia. Allusion to Oblomov became well-known throughout Russia, as late as the 1920's, during the early years of the Soviet Republic, Vladimir Lenin declared, -  "the old Oblomov is still around, and we will need to wash, clean, rub and scrub him, before he can be of any real use."

The entrance of Queen Shemakha which is sung by a colorata soprano in the fairy-tale opera, includes extensive and intricate octatonic scales which are as experimental and radical as those of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Queen Shemakha introduces an explicitly erotic element to the opera when teasingly she declares to King Dodon -

Thou art to be pitied knowing
The Queen only in her garments.
I am not so bad without them.
When I go to sleep, I look a long time in the mirror,
I throw off all my garments...
I look and see if anywhere
There is a mole or any blemish on my body..
Over my marble thighs

On my breasts fall drops of liquid fire
And I have breasts indeed !
They vie with the glory of the southern roses
Magnificent and firm - and they are
As white, light, and translucent as a dream.....

Tsar Dodon's  response to Queen Shemakha's erotic invitation is to announce he has a stomach-ache. His downfall occurs when, after his ill-matched marriage to Queen Shemakha, the golden cockerel pecks him to death, perhaps an allusion by Rimsky-Korsakov to the rumour that Tsar Nicholas himself was henpecked by his wife, and that it was the Tsarina who ruled the roost of the Imperial Household. Its also worth remembering that the very symbol of the Romanov, that of the double-headed Imperial eagle, the true subject of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'fairy-tale'  bears an avian similarity to the cockerel.

Its little wonder that the opera The Golden Cockerel was immediately banned from theatrical performance by the Imperial Censors. Rimsky-Korsakov's harshest words were reserved for Tsar Nicholas II personally, the operatic chorus singing these words-

He is a tsar in rank and appearance
but a slave in body and soul.
In behaviour and attitude he is a real ape.
His head is devoid of true emotion
his spirit is terribly lethargic.
Among the beauties with their shining eyes
he looks like a ghost.

Ominously, as if alluding to the methods by which autocratic governments remain in power, Tsarina Shemakha warns - Whoever we don't like is done for.

while the chorus, representing the common people, anxiously ask of their future - What will we do without a Tsar ?

When an essentially conservative member of Russian society such as Rimsky-Korsakov feels it necessary to use music as a vehicle to denounce political and social wrongs of his age, the warning signals of a society about to radically transform itself may be imminent. The catalyst for such a transformation occurred shortly after Rimsky's death, through the great loss of life experienced by the Russian people during the first World War, which triggered the 1917 revolution, the abolishment of Imperial Romanov rule and the establishment of the Soviet Republic (1917-1989).

The impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s 1914 Parisian production in ballet form of The Golden Cockerel, (known as Le Coq d'Or from its French production)  in which the singers performed offstage, while mimers and dancers portrayed the characters onstage, became the model for Rimsky-Korsakov's one-time pupil, Igor Stravinsky’s own stage works. A close study of the score of Stravinsky's innovative puppet-drama Petroushka (1910-11) reveals that its radical harmonies derive ultimately from the experimental octatonicism of his teacher, Rimsky's opera. Such was the high regard in which  The Golden Cockerel was held that, when in December 1917, the composer Sergei Rachmaninov hastily left Russia for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sledge, among his few possessions he carried with him were a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions including his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and two orchestral scores, one of which was The Golden Cockerel.

Sadly, Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera The Golden Cockerel performed. The stress caused from its being banned by the Censors probably worsened his medical condition of angina and he died before its first performance. However his introduction of overt political statement in music paved the way for a younger generation of composers to either integrate or denounce political ideology in their music. The musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker proposed his opera The Golden Cockerel to be the forerunner of the anti-psychologistic and absurdist ideas which  culminate in 20th century 'anti-operas' such as Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose (1930) and that it laid, "the foundation for modernist opera in Russia and beyond." [2] . Rimsky's name today is now celebrated as one of Russia's greatest composers, with the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire honouring him in its name.

Andrei Bely's Symbolist novel Petersburg (1913) also reflects the fevered atmosphere of the dying years of the Romanov dynasty. Set in the 'window on the west' city of Petersburg, and greatly admired by James Joyce for its fragmentary narrative, Bely's novel features a psychological cat-and-mouse game between a high ranking bureaucratic official and his decadent 'asiatic' would-be anarchist son. Sometimes hilarious, at other times sinister,  the backdrop of an often crepuscular city, whose citizens, not unlike the Dubliners  of Joyce's Ulysses (1922) become a central character of the novel. Bely's Petersburg  not only depicts the social tension of  Russia before the 1905 Revolution, but is a landmark work of 20th century literature.

There can't surely be any connection between Sir Thomas Browne and Norwich with early 20th century Russian history and music, can there ? Well, there's these two tenuous connections - Firstly, in 1922 the English author Virginia Woolf wrote an introduction to a selection of Sir Thomas Browne's writings for the prestigious Golden Cockerel publishing house. Secondly, Browne's Norwich associate, Arthur Dee (1579-1651) was the eldest son of  John Dee (1527-1609) who secured for him the post of court physician to Tsar Mikhail I.  After enduring 14 Moscow winters, sometime in the early 1630's, Arthur Dee left Moscow to retire at Norwich. He abandoned his alchemical writings to the care of the Imperial Library. Centuries later,  the charismatic, shaman-like figure of Rasputin gained access to the Imperial Library through his influence at the court of the last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II. Rasputin is alleged to have stolen Arthur Dee's alchemical writings. They were later subsequently returned to the Imperial library.

I once imagined the possibility that a fairy-tale about a prophesying bird's introduction into a Royal household, which a whole Kingdom fatalistically begins to rely upon, may have symbolically alluded to what was a commonly-held concern of the time - the unhealthy influence of Rasputin upon Tsar Nicholas II and his family in matters of Russian politics. But no, the dates don't quite match up!

Although Milica of Montenegro and her sister Anastasia, both of whom were interested in Persian mysticism, spiritualism and occultism, are credited as introducing Rasputin to Tsar Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra in November 1905, Rasputin did not gain any real influence upon the Russian Royal family until 1908, long after Rimsky-Korsakov had completed The Golden Cockerel.


* Scheherazade - Berlin Philharmonic-Karajan 1967

* The Snow Maiden - Sadko -Mlada - Le coq d'or Suite
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz - Naxos 2011

* Capriccio Espagnol- Russian Easter Overture etc.
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

* Borodin Symphonies 1 - 3 Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

 * Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) 
    Night on a Bare Mountain -original and Rimsky's version
    Ukrainian  National Symphony Orchestra  Naxos 2003

[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) [1996].  A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

[2] Frolova-Walker, Marina (2005). "11. Russian opera; The first stirrings of modernism". In Mervyn Cooke. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera. London: Cambridge University Press.

* Natasha's Dance : A Cultural History of Russia.
   Orlando Figes Penguin 2003
*  From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 
    1870-1925  from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. 
    Royal Academy of Arts 2008


The Golden Cockerel 
soloists Albert Schagidullin  and Olga Tritonova
with the Chorus of the Mariinsky theatre, Orchestre de Paris 
conducted by Kent Nagano  directed by Thomas Grimm 2003.


Top - Ivan Bilibin: Court Astrologer and King Dodon

Video of Natalie Goncharov's art

Ivan Bilibin: King Dodon and the Queen of Shemakha

Below - Rimsky-Korsakov by Igor Repin

By a remarkable coincidence The Golden Cockerel  is currently being staged in a new production at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 

The World premiere of The Golden Cockerel was on 24 September 1909, at the Sergei Zimin Private Russian Opera, Moscow. It was  premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 14 February 1919  and the premiere of its latest production was on 25 December 2014, at Mariinsky-II, St Petersburg. Next performance, Sunday 1st February 2015.  Here's a trailer of the production.