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Russian Composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev’s Connection With Literature Essay

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Relations between music and literature can be observed most vividly in the Romantic era. Romantic critics have argued over the relation of music with other arts but still agreed that that the strongest connection can be observed between music and poetry. Music and literature supplement each other and when it comes to songs or operas they contribute to the creation of a masterpiece only when successfully applied together. The famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was an extremely talented and highly respected person though his works were sufficiently praised only after his death. Almost all of Russian composers used Pushkin’s writings as the basis of their works with Glinka being the first who started Pushkin tradition in Russian opera. Without any doubt music and literature differ in form and content since literature becomes possible in letters, a specifically written art, while instrumental music becomes possible as an autonomous art form independent of its traditional link with words (Prieto, 2002). However, in songs the instrumental part is to a large extent dependent on the lyrical parts because a song without words can not be regarded as a worthy musical composition and “in this kind of relationship music acts as a model for a literary mode of creation” (Prieto, 2002). Over the years a number of composers tried to create a composition which would become eternal and which would perpetuate their talent and what they tried to express in their works. Writing music is a challenging task; writing music which would correspond to verses emphasizing what they express is even more challenging. A number of composers attempted to write music to the immortal works of Alexander Pushkin and William Shakespeare but Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergey Prokofiev’s musical compositions deserve special attention since some of them were regarded as failure back then but are considered masterpieces these days. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the composer of ten operas, Romeo and Juliet, Mazeppa, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin being among them but the latter remains one of his most successful works. He paid special attention to the depiction of human feelings aiming to impress the audience namely emotionally for, as he noted, “where the heart is not touched there can’t be any music” (Harewood, 1994). Sergey Prokofiev’s music was aimed at impressing the listener by its deepness and originality rather than firm and perceptible connection with literature. To reveal the extent of connection of Tchaikovsky’s and Prokofiev’s musical compositions with literature some of their works should be thoroughly considered and compared.

To begin with, Romeo and Juliet was written by Tchaikovsky in 1869 and it is based on Shakespeare’s play with the same name. For some reason Tchaikovsky’s connection with Shakespeare’s work was very vague and he either failed to understand the essence of the play or just was not inspired enough by it since the first two versions of the opera turned out to be a failure. Perhaps, the unhappy love story of two young people and their tragic death at the end of the story was not enough to fill the composer with enthusiasm for work. However, his Romeo and Juliet staged in 1886 was successful: “this is the best music ever to illustrate some of Shakespeare’s most luscious lines, far superior to Gounod’s trivial, long-winded lucubrations, and more relevant than, and at least as lovely as, Bellini’s forgotten opera. Already Tchaikovsky is writing music that bears his unmistakable sign manual” and now “it is the first composition Tchaikovsky wrote that is still played today (Wallace Brockeay, 2007) it is worth mentioning that the realization of the theme of love and human feelings is more vividly observed in Tchaikovsky’s operas based on Alexander Pushkin’s creative work.

It is necessary to mention that in 1877 Tchaikovsky’s friend Elizaveta Andreyevna Lavrovskaya who was also a singer, suggested him writing an opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Pushkin was a highly respected writer and, just like Shakespeare in England, Pushkin was held in reverence in Russia, which is why Tchaikovsky first absolutely rejected the idea of writing an opera being afraid to deal with a sacred Pushkin’s work. Nevertheless, the composer soon got down to writing being utterly captivated by Eugene Onegin and enchanted by the main heroine Tatiana: “Tchaikovsky was emotionally touched by the characters, particularly Tatiana, and he managed to find precisely the right music to define her youthful love, its unhappy outcome, and her growth into a mature woman of beautiful honesty, commitment, and even dignity” (McCants, 2003). He preserved the most of the story line, at the verses of the original poem were kept as well. Still, there are some evident differences between the opera and the novel. The aim of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is to show by means of satire the arrogance of people belonging to the upper class, focusing particularly at the character of Eugene Onegin who is depicted as a spoiled and rather bored socialite. Tchaikovsky presented the novel in the opera from a slightly different perspective. What he concentrates at is romance, the diversity and significance of the characters’ feelings. According to Arblaster (1997), Tchaikovsky noted that he did not want kings and queens, popular uprisings, battles, marches, in a word anything that belonged to grand opera. He was looking for an intimate but powerful drama on the conflict of circumstances which he had seen or experienced, and which could move him inwardly. What’s more, the opera shows very vividly the composer’s affection to his favorite, Tatiana, whose role in the original novel is not as prominent as it is in the opera by Tchaikovsky: “Her twelve minute “letter aria” is one of the great scenes in all of Russian opera, and in no other opera of any nation has the depth of feeling and impetuosity of youth been so clearly and so movingly portrayed” (McCants, 2003).

Surprisingly, however, but Tchaikovsky still wrote another opera Mazeppa regardless the fact that it depicted those “popular uprisings, battles, marches” he held such a detestation in. Although here he again concentrated more at the scenes devoted to love and what it involved. Mazeppa is written on the verses of Pushkin’s Poltava in which Pushkin combined stirring battle scenes with a merciless portrait of Mazeppa, whom, according to Jellinek (1994), he characterized as a man of ambition, steeped in perfidy and crime though hardly anything of Pushkin’s panoramic vision was retained in Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa. In his opera Tchaikovsky focuses on the conflict which arose because of Kochubey’s younger daughter falling in love with Mazeppa who was much older than she: “Set against the turbulent eighteenth century struggle of Ukrainian and Swedish forces against Tsar Peter the Great, Tchaikovsky provided his most satisfying music for the ill-matched lovers, Mazeppa and Maria” (McCants, 2003). What Mazeppa was interested in most of all was not the historic events which took place in that period of time but feelings and sufferings of the characters: “It is obvious that Tchaikovsky’s concern was human emotions, not the national issues motivating the participants in the Great Northern War, not even the cause of Ukrainian independence championed by Mazeppa…” (Jellinek, 1994). Just like in case with Eugene Onegin he was expressing emotions conveyed by words with the help of music.

The idea to write an opera based on Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades was suggested by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest and again the composer first rejected the idea stating that he was unmoved by the subject and replied that he was more concerned with his new symphony (Boyden-Kimberley-Staines, 2002). The matter was that Tchaikovsky wanted to write music on the basis of stories which to at least some extent touched human feelings and were connected with love whereas The Queen of Spades was a tersely told ironic ghost story, a tale of obsession (Brown, 2007). Nonetheless, after meeting the Director of the Imperial Theatres he reconsidered the suggestion and presented a finished score in June of 1890. This time Tchaikovsky put forward the conditions under which he agreed to write the opera with the main and the most drastic changes concerning the end of the tale. The original story ends with Lisa getting through the tragedy and getting married and Herman’s going mad which “was too open-ended for Tchaikovsky, who elected to kill them both, then add insult to injury by forgiving Herman after his suicide” (Boyden et al., 2002). In general, this opera is more sophisticated than the one written by Tchaikovsky before, namely Eugene Onegin, since The Queen of Spades is “a propulsive drama rather than a series of lyrical scenes” for which “juxtaposition of intense emotion and delicate, archaic music” (Boyden et al., 2002) is the dramatic principle. Still, what Tchaikovsky remained true to when writing the opera The Queen of the Spades was his depiction of something that only humans can possess. He did not have a possibility to show the deepness of emotions and love tragedy since this is not what the tale is all about but he still managed to illuminate human condition, namely, the obsession: “Although it [the opera] is often criticized for failing to convey the ironical tone of the short story by Pushkin upon which it is based, the opera transmutes the original narrative into an artistic experience of equal dignity, and it also enables the audience to be moved by the human frailty of its hero” (Zajaczkowski, 2005). The performance of the opera is impressive and really splendid with a rich but unobtrusive and clear-textured orchestra. The opera is expressive but it is not sentimental which can’t but evokes respect to the composer and admiration with his talent.

As far as Sergei Prokofiev is concerned, he was also a successful composer whose works are treated with due respect even these days. His Romeo and Juliet based on Shakespeare’s play was the realization of the lyrical aspects of his music which was difficult for him to express in some of his other works. Just like in case with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s ballet was not an immediate success and it took time and a number of revisions to make it attractive for the audience of those times. The fact that a number of other composers attempted to write music for this play made it even more challenging: “When approached to write the music for the ballet, Prokofiev was reluctant. Romeo and Juliet has already been adapted to operatic by fourteen composers, to say nothing of Berlioz’s dramatic symphony and Tchaikovsky’s overture” (Jacobson-Kline, 2002). What is notable for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is that he, like Tchaikovsky in case with The Queen of Spades, had to change the end of the play and it was rather a drastic change since in his version the story had a happy ending, though unlike Tchaikovsky who changed the ending because of personal reasons, Prokofiev introduced changes for the convenience of the dancers: “The causes which pushed us into such vandalism were purely choreographical: living people can dance, those who are dying would never do it lying down” (Zolotnitsky- Ganf-Egunova, 1999). This entailed a serious problem, namely whether the spectators would adequately appreciate such an ending, in other words whether they would consider it modern and entertaining or whether they would question its authenticity. The music is what made Shakespeare’s piece of writing alive but this is not what made it glorious. Sergey Prokofiev’s contribution into the world of music is without any doubt significant and his music to Romeo and Juliet is a result of fruitful and persevering work but it is the ballet which made the performance world-famous. The dancers are brilliant and it is amazing how they feel every beat of the rhythm and perceive the music. Prokofiev’s melodies intertwine with the actions on the scene producing an unforgettable expression.

When it comes to Eugene Onegin, Sergey Prokofiev first refuses to write the music. Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was very successful and it would have been difficult to surpass him: “No, after Tchaikovsky it would be rather awkward.” Prokofiev had replied at that time” (Nestyev- Jonas, 1961) But later the idea of writing the music to those parts which Tchaikovsky omitted in his opera came to the composer: “I think it will be unusually interesting to see Lensky arguing heatedly with Onegin over a bottle of Ay, Tatyana visiting his empty house, or Onegin on the banks of the Neva […] It is my intention to adhere as closely to the original as possible” (Nestyev- Jonas, 1961). To write the music for the missing scenes Prokofiev reread the novel and worked especially hard to produce a masterpiece: “he composed a series of characterizations of the principal characters and a number of poetic scenes depicting life on a country estate. He composed a few themes for Onegin and three lyrical themes for Tatyana, which were supposed to express the gradual development of her passion. He considered particularly successful the music depicting the rustic quietude of the Larin estate and a few dance fragments for the ball at the Larin’s” (Nestyev- Jonas, 1961). In other words, Prokofiev, to some extent, surpassed himself but this turned out to be of no result since it seemed impossible to eclipse Tchaikovsky’s opera. Incidental music for Eugene Onegin by Prokofiev remained unpublished though he managed to use some moments from it in his War and Peace; this never sufficiently praised musical composition is still included in the list of Prokofiev’s works (Nestyev- Jonas, 1961). Another failure expected Sergey Prokofiev with The Queen of Spades based on the work of Alexander Pushkin. He started working at the incidental music for this novel together with his restoring the missing parts of Eugene Onegin. Prokofiev’s The Queen of Spades faced the same tragic destiny and was never published. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Sergey Prokofiev never established himself as a composer. He wrote a great number of duly appreciated musical compositions and was acknowledged as a very talented composer: “Posterity will not be able to understand our difficult and glorious period of life without intently listening to the works of Sergey Prokofiev, and contemplating his extraordinary fate” (MacDonald, 1995).

Thus, the connection of Tchaikovsky’s music and pieces of literature lies in the ability of the music to render the characters’ feelings and emotions to their fullest possible extent which for some reason failed to be conveyed by verses alone. The influence of literature on the musical composition is immense as the composer is, first of all, inspired by what is written in the piece of literature, just like Tchaikovsky was inspired by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: “if ever music has been composed with true passion, with love of the plot and the characters, then it is music to Onegin. I was melting and vibrating from inexpressible delight when composing it. And if even a tiny part of what I experienced when composing this opera echoes in the listener, I would be gratified and I don’t need anything else” (Pacific Opera Victoria, 2005). Sergey Prokofiev’s connection with Alexander Pushkin’s works is less observable. In spite of the fact that Pushkin was one of the most favorite Prokofiev’s writers he never managed to properly connect his music with the works of this outstanding man of letters. Both the composers were extremely talented and their works are listened to and respected even these days but what can be stated regarding everything discussed above is that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky showed stronger connection with the works of Alexander Pushkin whereas Sergey Prokofiev was more successful in writing music to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which though not from the first time but still brought him fame and acknowledgement.


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