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Dargomzhsky, Aleksandr Sergeyevich

(b Troitskoye, Tula district, 2/14 Feb 1813; d St Petersburg, 5/17 Jan 1869). Russian composer. The outstanding figure in Russian opera between Glinkas lapse into creative impotence and the advent of Tchaikovsky and The Five, Dargomzhsky had an influence, and has a historical importance, out of all proportion to the frequency with which his music was ever performed. His songs and orchestral works are also of historical importance in the development of Russian music. Dargomzhskys father, the illegitimate son of a nobleman, and a wealthy landowner in the Smolensk district, possessed a caustic wit his son was to inherit. He had eloped with Princess Kozlovskaya, a minor poet whose sentimental verses and pallid dramatic scenes were published during the 1820s and 1830s. Her interest in French culture was communicated to their six children. Though it is recorded that she disliked music, her eldest son Viktor was an accomplished violinist, a daughter played the harp, and Aleksandr showed remarkable early promise as a pianist and composer. He was born on his fathers country property where his parents had taken refuge from the Napoleonic army. A sickly child, he began to speak only at the age of five. Thanks to lessons with the fashionable master Benedict Zeibig, he was to become a noted singing teacher, but his voice was always high-pitched and squeaky. In 1817 the family settled in St Petersburg. The children received the customary home-based education in which the arts played an important role. Dargomzhskys first piano teacher was his German governess, Louise Wohlgeboren, but he soon made sufficient progress to take lessons with Adrian Danilevsky, whom he later described as a fine musician. Danilevsky did not consider composition a fitting occupation for a young aristocrat and tried to discourage his pupils creative tendencies. (Apparently he met with little success since a number of songs and piano pieces, chiefly dances, survive from the 1820s.) Dargomzhsky completed his practical studies with Franz Schoberlechner, a pupil of Hummel, and was much in demand as a pianist at society gatherings and charity concerts. From 1822 he studied the violin with P.G. Vorontsov. Although he was often asked to make up a quartet, he never fully mastered the problems of intonation (a shortcoming celebrated by his brother Viktor in satirical verse) and soon lost interest in the instrument. Following in his fathers footsteps, he entered government service in autumn 1827; a reputation for efficiency won him regular promotion. Like most young men of his class, he regarded music as a leisure activity rather than a serious pursuit. He engaged in sociable forms of music-making and attended the opera, where he probably heard an Italian company in works by Rossini, Mozart, Fioravanti, Mercadante and Pacini, among others. Though several of his compositions were published some in journals, others perhaps at his own expense he received no training in the theory of music. However, in winter 18334 he was introduced to Glinka, who lent him the notebooks in which he had worked exercises in thoroughbass and counterpoint for Siegfried Dehn. With Glinka he played piano duets, organized concerts, and analysed Beethovens symphonies and Mendelssohns overtures. He also attended the orchestral rehearsals of A Life for the Tsar and determined to follow Glinkas example by writing a full-length opera. His love of French literature led him to base his first libretto on Hugos Lucrce Borgia, but he had made little progress by 1837 when, on the advice of Zhukovsky, he gave his attention to

the libretto which Hugo had prepared for Louise Bertin from Notre-Dame de Paris (Hugos novel was in great vogue in Russia during the late 1830s). By 1841 Dargomzhsky had completed the music and a Russian translation of the text of his first opera, smeralda, and had given the score to the director of the Imperial Theatres. However, the opera is rooted in the tradition of French grand opra, and at this time the repertory of the Russian opera houses was dominated by Italian works, so the young composer had to wait until 1847 for its premire. In spite of the generally acknowledged power of the dramatic passages and the assured handling of the choral scenes surprising in so inexperienced a composer it had little success and was not revived until many years after the St Petersburg premire in 1851. Dargomzhsky was understandably depressed by the delay in obtaining a performance of his first large-scale work, and his feelings were exacerbated by Glinkas continuing popularity. However, he obtained some comfort from the flattering attentions of his numerous female singing pupils. (V.T. Sokolov recalled that he gave lessons only to ladies and girls and took no monetary payment.) Indeed, about this time he remarked, If there had been no women in the world, I should never have been a composer. They have inspired me throughout my life. For these uncritical admirers he wrote a series of songs (the larger part of his vocal music is for womens voices), many of which were published and became popular. While most are typical examples of the abstract romance, chiefly interesting for their melody, several, including Vlyublyon ya (I am in love), Lileta and V krovi gorit (The Fire of Desire), suggest an early interest in melodic declamation. In September 1844 Dargomzhsky went abroad for six months, staying mainly in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Vienna. He became acquainted with Ftis and Vieuxtemps, and was introduced to Auber, Donizetti, Halvy and Meyerbeer. The grands opras which he had previously admired now struck him as unnatural, but he was full of praise for the satirical vaudevilles and fascinated by the steady procession of rogues through the French law courts. Like Glinka a decade earlier, not until he was absent from his native land did he realize the merits of its culture; he wrote to a friend on his return in May 1845, There is no nation in the world better than the Russian, and, if the elements of poetry exist in Europe, they exist in Russia. He began to experiment in his songs with the imitation of characteristic melodic patterns of folk music and the intonation of Russian speech (Dushechka-devitsa: Darling Girl, Likhoradushka and Mel'nik: The Miller) and undertook a serious study of Russian folksong, the fruits of which were seen in the opera Rusalka. This was the great project of Dargomzhskys middle period and his most enduring work for the stage. It was based upon Pushkins unfinished verse tragedy of the same name, and the composer worked on it from 1848 to 1855. Anything but realistic in impulse, Pushkins play was a romantic Singspiel libretto in the tradition of Kauers Das Donauweibchen, long a Russian favourite. Dargomzhskys opera could be seen as the culmination of a long line of German and Russian water-nymph operas. Yet the accent with him (as, arguably, with Pushkin) is not on the supernatural aspect of the subject, or on the means of its embodiment in fantastic music, but on the highly charged confrontations of the main characters a Kievan Prince, a Miller and the latters daughter (Natasha in the opera), whom the Prince seduces and abandons, and who, having thrown herself into the Dnepr, becomes the queen of the river nymphs (rusalki) and lures her tormentor to his doom.

In a letter to Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky, written at the height of his labours on the opera, Dargomzhsky summed up his attitude towards Rusalka and what he took to be his task and achievement as a Russian composer: The more I study the components of our national music, the more varied the aspects I discern in them. Glinka, who alone up to now has given Russian music a grand scale, in my opinion, has as yet touched only one of its sides the lyrical side. His dramaturgy is too plaintive, the comic aspect loses its national character To the extent that I am able I am working, in my Rusalka, to develop our dramatic components. Both the comic and the dramatic components in Rusalka intersect at fullest strength on the character of the Miller. His main aria, which opens the opera, is cast in a jolly comicopera patter style, but one not so obviously modelled on the opera buffa as is, for example, Farlafs rondo in Ruslan and Lyudmila, which must have been in Dargomzhskys mind when he criticized Glinkas handling of the comic aspect. Otherwise the Miller takes part only in ensembles. The most striking of these is his duet with the Prince in Act 3, which begins with a lengthy accompanied recitative set directly to Pushkins original verses, in which the bereft and demented father, thinking himself a raven, pathetically recounts his daughters suicide. It amounts to a veritable mad scene. The vast historical importance of this passage for Russian opera was catalysed by Aleksandr Serov, Russias leading music critic by the time of Rusalkas premire in 1856. In a mammoth review which appeared in ten instalments in the St Petersburg weekly, Teatral'ny muzkal'ny vestnik (The Theatrical and Musical Courier), Serov raved about Dargomzhskys success in realizing the greatest of all musics potentials, that of combining with words to produce a dramatic truth greater than either art could achieve alone. After a theoretical evaluation of the composers achievement along these lines, he proceeded to a minute explication de textethat impressed many readers, among them Dargomzhsky himself. He sent Serov revealing congratulations for the latters penetration of my innermost and even unconscious thoughts; for he had not thought the Act 3 duet anywhere near so important. (His own favourite part of Rusalka was the Act 4 finale, where he had had not only to write the music uncharacteristically complex and symphonic music, in which he took especial pride but also to give the drama the ending Pushkins torso lacked.) He immediately acceded to the critics view; starved as he was for approbation, he was exceptionally vulnerable to the influence of those who praised him. In the majority of his songs composed after about 1847 his chief concern was with the direct expression of the emotional content of the text through simple and natural musical means usually a basically declamatory vocal line and straightforward harmonic accompaniment. His interest in humanity was not that of a philanthropist; when in the late 1850s, stimulated by his involvement with a group of progressive writers and artists, he wrote a handful of songs (Stary kapral: The Old Corporal, Chervyak: The Worm, Titulyarny sovetnik: Titular Councillor) which deal with subjects drawn from everyday life, his choice of texts was determined as much by their humorous and dramatic content as by their social relevance. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Dargomzhsky was encouraged to sustain an interest in the expressive potential of music by the prevailing aesthetic philosophy of his day. In 1857 he wrote an oft-quoted letter to a friend and pupil, in which he attacked those who loved Italian opera with its melodies flattering to the ear. He continued, I

want the note to express the word directly. I want truth. This manifesto marks the beginning of a new and final phase in Dargomzhskys career. He forsook society drawing-rooms to move in higher artistic circles. In 1859 he was elected to the committee of the newly founded Russian Musical Society, and formed a slightly uneasy relationship with the group of young composers which had grown up around Balakirev, The Five. But, as he cast around for a suitable subject for another opera rejecting Pushkins Poltava, abandoning a fairy opera, Rogdana, and (as he later recorded) recoiling (for the time being at least) from the huge undertaking of setting Kamenny gost' (The Stone Guest; the third of Pushkins Malenkiye tragedii, Little tragedies) Rusalka was withdrawn from the repertory of the Imperial Theatres and once again he grew dissatisfied with his position in Russian musical life. The Balakirev Circle, weary of his self-centred grumblings and apparent hypochondria, dubbed his group of friends the Invalids, and no longer frequented his soires. As in the dark days of the early 1840s, he turned his thoughts to Europe and, no doubt reckoning that orchestral pieces were more likely to gain a performance there than an opera, completed two fantasias based on folksongs, Baba-Yaga and Kazachok. From late 1864 to early 1865 he was abroad, visiting Warsaw, Leipzig, Paris, London (with which he was favourably impressed) and Brussels, where he achieved public success with Kazachok and excerpts from Rusalka. Moreover, the management of the opera house expressed a wish to produce Esmeralda; however, Dargomzhsky pressed the claims of his opera-ballet, Torzhestvo Vakkha (The triumph of Bacchus), completed in 1848 but still unperformed, and eventually negotiations foundered. On this journey also he was cordially received by Liszt. In the spring following his return to Russia, heartened by his success in Brussels, he embarked upon an ambitious project, the culmination of his quest for truthful and accurate musical expression of emotions. Reconsidering the play he had previously put aside, Pushkins The Stone Guest, he decided to set it just as it stands, without altering a single word (in fact, he made a few minor alterations) so that the underlying meaning, the inner truth of the text, should in no way be distorted. To this end also, he employed the most simple and natural compositional techniques continuous melodic recitative supported by a mainly chordal accompaniment. This strange work, as he himself described it, attracted the attention of The Five, in particular Cui, who was at that time formulating his own theories of operatic reform. The composer was spurred on by the encouragement of these young composers, and the opera was given a great many runthroughs, at various stages of its gestation, the composer taking the part of Don Juan, Musorgsky that of Leporello, Dargomzhskys singing pupil Aleksandra Purgold both female roles, with her sister Nadezhda the future Mme Rimsky-Korsakov accompanying. Dargomzhsky shook off his depression at the disastrous failure of the first performance of The Triumph of Bacchus and worked at his operatic experiment in a kind of fever, but the demands made upon his time by the presidency of the Russian Musical Society, to which he was elected in 1867, weakened his already failing health. As he prophesied, The Stone Guest was to be his swan song. He died in January 1869, leaving the opera in piano score and still incomplete. At his request, Cui wrote the Prelude and the end of the first scene, and Rimsky-Korsakov finished the orchestration by the end of 1870. However, as a matter of principle, Dargomzhsky had insisted upon a higher performing fee than the Imperial Theatres were empowered by law to pay. Eventually the balance was raised by public subscription, and The Stone Guest was

staged in February 1872. It met with a cool reception, and, unlike Rusalka, which soon recovered from an unsatisfactory first performance and now commands a more or less regular place in the repertory, it has never been popular, even in Russia. A full-length numberless opera (but for two interpolated songs), it exemplified for the kuchkists the true music of the future (the Wagnerian being of course the false), for it embodied what they saw as the most salubrious of all possible operatic reforms. That is to say, it did away with artificial form while retaining the traditional lyric style. Set throughout in a kind of heightened arioso (or melodic recitative, as Cui called it), consisting of romance-like vocal phrases set to a figurative and harmonically regular accompaniment, The Stone Guestmight best be viewed as a gigantic through-composed art song in which the whole shaping force, save at the pettiest level, is exercised by the text. Its manner was very influential on Musorgsky, who paid heartfelt tribute to the late Dargomzhsky in a pair of dedications as the great teacher of musical truth. Many of Dargomzhskys individual expressive phrases are indeed inspired trouvailles, extraordinarily memorable and seemingly definitive. To those who understand and love the words on which it was modelled, The Stone Guest can seem a masterpiece; to others it can seem only a famous but rather dull opera. In Russia Dargomzhskys songs are acknowledged as an important contribution to the repertory. They range from the attractive and expressive lyrical romances and the engagingly simple composed folksongs of the late 1840s and early 1850s (pieces which point the way to Tchaikovskys vocal music) to the vivid and powerful dramatic ballads and the low-key but telling comic sketches of his later years, in which he proves himself a worthy forerunner of Musorgsky. His orchestral pieces, full of high spirits, are effective curtain-raisers, though neither the use of a programme nor of a series of variations on a folksong can prevent Baba-Yaga and Kazachok from showing up Dargomzhskys limited powers of musical architecture. There is little doubt that his predilection for vocal music was a result, at least in part, of the need to use a text as a formal prop. The Finnish Fantasy, Dargomzhskys only essay in sonata form, is more successful. Historically, these pieces are important for continuing the series of orchestral works initiated by Glinka which was to form the basis of the Russian symphonic tradition developed by subsequent generations. For well over a century Dargomzhsky has been remembered since his death, in western Europe at least, for the supposed influence of The Stone Guestrather than for his achievements. In his own country, his reputation as a composer in his own right rests assured. Though he cannot be ascribed to the first rank of Russian composers, the merits of his songs alone suggest that a reassessment of his music by Western writers and performers is now overdue. JENNIFER SPENCER, RICHARD TARUSKIN, STUART CAMPBELL