The Music in His Words

In his brief life, Alexander Pushkin wrote poems, plays and novels that transcended continents, cultures—and the literary realm. In the month of the 223rd birth anniversary of the founder of modern Russian literature, a look at how his works enriched the world of music.

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is, of all poets, Russia’s most adored and admired, widely translated, most frequently quoted, and, above all, most extensively set to music. His self-effacing words, “As long as there is one heart on Earth where I still live, my memory will not die,” take away from the impact that his writing was to have on authors, composers, librettists and not one, but countless readers. For, people across the globe continue to establish academies and institutes, construct roads and avenues and build squares to be named after Pushkin. And by doing so, they believe they are honouring themselves by showing deep respect to the founder of modern Russian language and literature.

His works, translated into all the major languages of the world, including most of the tongues spoken in India, must be regarded both as depicting most comprehensively the consciousness of the Russian people in general and as transcending borders of countries and continents. The rich legacy of Pushkin is rooted in his ability to create a language of astonishing simplicity and unbelievable profundity. He always had new ways of saying things.

Reinventing Russian

Though born and brought up in nobility in an atmosphere of predominantly West European cultural traditions (Pushkin’s family and the aristocratic class of Russia at the turn of the 19th century considered the Russian language much inferior to French which they spoke at home and in society), he went on to create a style of writing with depth of understanding human psychology that was adopted by Russian novelists like Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Pushkin served as the cornerstone of Russian literature. His works, with their novelty of conceptions, thrust on social responsibility, life-affirming positivity and confidence in the triumph of reason over age-old prejudice, of freedom and generosity of human character over servitude and oppression, rekindled hope in the future of mankind:

And long the people yet will honour me

Because my lyre was tuned to loving-kindness.

And, in a cruel Age I sang of liberty

And mercy begged of Justice in her blindness.

While Pushkin admired French literature and was deeply impacted by Byron and Goethe, he was able to match the high qualities expected of any language to be recognised as globally-impacting. Besides poetry, he pioneered almost every significant genre in Russian literature, including history play (Boris Godunov), historical romance and epic poem (Poltava), the immortal novel in verse Eugene Onegin (contemporaries hailed it as an encyclopedia of Russian life), the supernatural tale The Queen of Spades, and numerous fairy tales, which even today, children across Russia get acquainted with before they start going to school. Many of these works were to inspire operas, operettas, ballets apart from on-screen adaptations.

The greatness and musical beauty of Pushkin’s language emanate from his minute observations of the nuances and beauty of the rustic Russian that was spoken by the peasants and common masses. The poet, in his early childhood, frequently visited his grandmother’s estate in the Russian countryside and a few years later, during his banishment to the south of Russia because of his tacit support to the abortive Decembrist uprising of 1825, he interacted closely with the rural folks and serfs. It is here that Pushkin discovered the hidden melody of the common people’s Russian language. He worked on the beauty of this language and created a wonderful blend of rusticity and aristocratic Russian.

The writer of this article was witness to the love and adoration that the common Russians showered on Pushkin during his visit to the village Mikhailovskaye in 1974 to participate in the 175th birth anniversary celebrations of the great poet. The memories of the mammoth gathering of people from all walks of life flocking to the centre stage, singing, dancing and reciting aloud the verses and songs of their favourite “Our Pushkin” are difficult to erase. Similar was his experience in Moscow and other cities of the then U.S.S.R. on the 6th of June every year.

Pushkin is immortalised not only through his written words, but also through the myriad of musical interpretations of his writings—both romances/ popular songs as well as classical compositions. Scholars who studied Pushkin assume that 264 of his poems have been set to music and over 100 operas have been inspired by them. It is pertinent to mention that prior to the popularity of romances, Russian folk songs dominated the musical horizon. It was quite natural that the melodious words of Pushkin would capture the imagination of composers and musicians. In fact, his compelling, eloquent and supremely expressive words blended with the talent of great exponents of music created a new type of musical legacy—Pushkiniyana.

Several composers including Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov and Pyotr Tchaikovsky made good use of early Russian folk music in their compositions. Ritual songs (Obryadovye pesni) may be traced to the early traditions of wedding cultures. Some of the composers incorporated ancient wedding songs into their operas. Earlier, Russian weddings were celebrated over several days and included a time of lamenting for the bride as she was supposed to be on the verge of losing freedom. On the other hand, the groom’s family spent the time merrymaking with joyful songs. These wedding ritual songs have found their reflections in Dargomyzhsky’s Pushkin-based Rusalka and a handful of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas.

Fluid verse

Pushkin’s musically rendered poems and a substantial number of operas and ballets based on his works have played a role in enriching world culture. They have been staged in Russia as well as worldwide. In 1878 (41 years after Pushkin’s tragic death), Eugene Onegin was composed as an opera by Tchaikovsky. In this work, Pushkin introduced a new type of hero—the superfluous hero—who, like a vagabond, wastes his life, allows the girl who loves him to marry somebody else and lets himself be drawn into a duel in which he kills his friend. One is compelled to believe that the poet was foreseeing his own tragic end at the age of 37. Once earlier in his life he had commented, “Is 37 the lifespan of a genius!” referring to Raphael, as also the young deaths of his heroes Byron and Mozart (Pushkin’s poetic drama Mozart and Salieri became the basis of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera). How sad it is that the world of literature and music lost a genius of Pushkin’s calibre in a needless duel.

This was not the only work of Pushkin that found its way to Tchaikovsky’s compositions. Poltava became the basis of his opera Mazeppa. Tchaikovsky also adapted The Queen of Spades into an opera, as did French composer Fromental Halévy and his Austrian contemporary Franz von Suppé. In 1841, the famous composer Mikhail Glinka brought Ruslan and Lyudmila onto the stage. Based on folklore, Pushkin wrote his first long poem taking us to a different world where the wicked dwarf Chernomor kidnaps the beautiful Lyudmila and Ruslan sets out on an adventurous journey to rescue her. In 1869, Mussorgsky composed Boris Godunov.

This tragedy in words evolved around the feelings of Prince Dmitry, the last heir to the Rurik dynasty. It was rumoured that the assassination was carried out at the behest of Boris Godunov, so that he himself could ascend the throne. This work distinctly reflects on the poet’s silent support to the Decembrists.

Pushkin’s novella in verse The Bronze Horseman remains one of the strongest symbolical works—and later, musical compositions in the form of both ballet and opera—that mocked the mighty ruler who, in his quest to build his capital city subjugated the River Neva and forced the common people to submit to his will leading to the little man cursing the Tsar (Czar).

These and many more musical compositions based on the works of Pushkin bear testimony to the fluidity of verse when sculpted by deft hands. Celebrating Pushkin’s birthday, music lovers and his admirers pay tributes to Pushkiniyana, the symbol of love, rebellion and human dignity. Pushkins never die.

Their words and music make them deathless…

By Dr. B. Hasan. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the June 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.