Piano: Yana Zubova, Anatoly Kuznetsov
In the creative biographies of each of the composers of the Mighty Five (a group that emerged in St Petersburg in the late 1850s and early 1860s) romances and songs held a special status. And this status was defined not by the number of works (Alexander Borodin wrote just sixteen and Mily Balakirev, Modest Musorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote several dozen, while César Cui wrote more than four hundred!), but rather by their relationship with the genre itself. A relationship that resembled that of the “high” genres of the symphony and opera: very serious, demanding of themselves in terms of their ideas, the choice of poetic text, the expressive means used for their embodiment, avoiding “banal words” and the direct influence of everyday parlour romances.
For Cui, the chamber vocal genre was a “territory” where ideas, images and feelings emerged – the true core of his art. First and foremost this entails lyricism – light, lofty and noble, frequently meditative and with the composer’s signature style of refinement and elegant embellishment. Cui wrote romances throughout his entire long life and – as a musician and critic – he knew to perfection the art of romances by his contemporaries and his predecessors. In the Mighty Five Cui was considered a connoisseur of expressive declamation and the secrets of embodying words in music. It was logical that he subsequently penned the book The Russian Romance – the first Russian study of the genre. Of all of Cui’s romances the ones that stand out are those to verse by Lermontov, Nekrasov, Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Heine, Mickiewicz and Richepin. The finest romances were written to verse by Pushkin (I Loved You, The Statue at Tsarskoe Selo, The Wish and Thou and You), Maykov (Oh What, in the Silence of the Night and Weary with Grief) and Heine (Head Rising from the Waters and You Don’t Love Me); an entire plethora of other beautiful romances are, unfortunately, rarely performed today.
In Balakirev’s music, the chamber opuses – romances, songs and “small” genres of piano music – almost never coincide in terms of imagery or themes with the main mass of his music (which is marked by epic features and an interest in folk genre prototypes). The exception comes with his works with oriental themes that brought the composer deserved glory and which to this day remain popular. Balakirev travelled to the Caucuses on three occasions (1862, 1863 and 1868), recording the folklore of mountain peoples and introduced his colleagues of the Mighty Five to his research. “These new sounds for us ... were a kind of revelation,” recalled Rimsky-Korsakov later. One real masterpiece in the genre of the “eastern” romance was the Georgian Song to famous lines by Pushkin. Outside traditional genre definitions – Balakirev’s romances Song of the Goldfish and Song of the Old Man are well known – it is one of his greatest works. But it is, of course, lyricism that occupies the most important position in the composer’s chamber and vocal music. It ranges from the early romance Embrace Me, Kiss Me to lyrics by Koltsov (which ingeniously refracts the song and romance tradition of the 1830s–1840s) to the refined and impressionistic romance A Whisper, a Timid Breath to famous lines by Fet (composed in 1904). In the composer’s late works, philosophical lyricism was to occupy a key position (the most successful pieces including When the Yellow Cornfield Waves, Nocturne and Dawn).
For Borodin, both when young and in his mature years, turning to romances and songs was a particular matter – “one-off” works. It is not at all surprising that almost every one of his mature romances is a true masterpiece. If we try to select the very best of them then it probably has to be the brilliant elegy For the Shores of Your Distant Homeland to verse by Pushkin. Composed as a reaction to Musorgsky’s death, to this day it remains an unsurpassed peak of tragic lyricism. It was essentially in romances that Borodin was closest to Musorgsky – regardless of all the differences in their creative personalities: here we meet vivid characterisation, comedy (Hubris and To the People at Home) and highly subtle and psychologically deep lyricism (From My Tears, My Songs Are Full of Venom and The False Note). The latter two are marked by supremely aphoristic expression, previously to be found in Russian music only in the comic romances of Dargomyzhsky (The Titular Councillor and The Worm). In its purest and “unalloyed” form, Borodin’s style (a unique blend of epos, drama, lyricism and fairytale fantasy) appears in the romances The Sleeping Princess, The Sea Princess and Song of the Dark Forest.
It is most complex to define the place chamber vocal music holds in Musorgsky’s work: in terms of the wealth of its ideas, imagery, content, emotions and intonations as well as its variety, the genre cedes nothing to his instrumental and operatic opuses, possibly, in a sense, even surpassing them. Musorgsky pushed back the borders of the genre further than any other contemporary composer. He introduced genres into the general “field” of the Russian romance and traditions into Russian music that had not existed there before (the “étude in the folk style” Kalistratushka) or which had been considered marginal, such as comic songs (the parody “musical pamphlets and jokes” The Classic and Rayok, the “life scene” The Seminarist and the “worldly tale” The Goat). But traditional genres, too – the ballade (Forgotten after the famous painting by Vasily Vereshchagin), the literary monologue (From My Tears Grew a Great Deal) and the elegy (Elegy from the cycle Sunless) – sound absolutely typical of Musorgsky, completely rethought.
The composer enjoyed particular success in folk genres (the humorous song Darling Savshina, Yeryomushka’s Cradle Song and the children’s prayer of lament The Orphan). With staggering depth, precision and hitherto unknown psychological truth he reveals a child’s world (the song cycle The Nursery). Sunless (to verse by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov) was the first Russian song cycle in which the poetic text was written at the same time as the music, a cycle with one lyrical hero and a flowing narrative. Today, too, this work amazes with the means that Musorgsky discovered to convey mental states, shades of psychological changes, a combination of a condensed gloomily expressive atmosphere and the heart, warmed by some lyrical emotion. One of the crowning achievements of the composer’s late vocal works came with the cycle Songs and Dances of Death to verse by Golenishchev-Kutuzov. These are four portraits of Death (deceitfully comforting, tender, seductive and, finally, demonically triumphant) and its victims (a sick child, a young girl, a freezing peasant and soldiers who have died on the battlefield). Never has Death appeared in one work with so many faces, almost acquiring flesh and blood – and hence all the more terrifying!
Rimsky-Korsakov’s romances and songs lie in the “shadow” of his opera and symphony music and the vocal works of his contemporaries. Apropos, this forms a highly vivid portion of his output, featuring numerous original characteristics. Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest of the Mighty Five, and studied more under his comrades than under their predecessors. Perhaps that is why even in his early romances he did not turn to tradition, reviving it, but instead went boldly ahead. For example, in Hebrew Song and the romance Arise, Come down... to verse by Mei, the composer not only presented two totally independent embodiments of an eastern theme (vivid and fresh), but for the first time he also used a mass of expressive means, typical of his mature style. Knowing how established the opinion would be in the future that the true field of Rimsky-Korsakov’s art was the epos, the fairytale and fantasy, one can only be amazed at how powerfully, sincerely and deeply the composer embodied lyrical emotions in his early romances. Among his opuses of the 1860s – early 1870s there are no weak or unsuccessful works, while the most inspired – The Fir and the Palm, Over the Hills of Georgia, The Golden Cloud Did Sleep, I Believe, I Am Loved and To My Song – cede nothing to the finest romances of the time.
The second major group of works was completed in the late 1890s when Rimsky-Korsakov insistently sought out new intonations and expressive means, selecting the genre of the romance as a unique experimental field. His work also touches on the theme of the purpose of the artist (the cycle To the Poet to verse by Maykov and Pushkin as well as The Prophet). Not all works from this period enjoyed equal popularity; the most successful were The Clouds Begin to Scatter, Not Wind, Blowing from that Height and Of What in the Silence of the Night.
Despite all the originality of their interpretations of the genre of the romance by each of the Five, there are features that unite them: common sources (Glinka, Dargomyzhsky and, to a lesser extent, Schumann), the influence of the age (for example, all except Rimsky-Korsakov paid tribute to the genre of “Russian song” that was incredibly popular from the 1830s to the 1860s), the particular focus on poetry by Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, Pushkin, Koltsov and Heine, the incredibly broad range of the genre, an active interest in intonation themes (particularly eastern ones), sensitivity to the lexis, a deep sense of poetic imagery and psychology. Borodin and Musorgsky also emerged as talented authors and translators of texts for their own romances (Borodin’s The Sleeping Princess, The Sea Princess and Song of the Dark Forest and Musorgsky’s The Orphan, The Seminarist, Rayok and the song cycle The Nursery in particular stand out among these vivid and innovative works).