The Christmas Tree was first performed in 1903 in Moscow. It took seven years for the opera to come to St Petersburg, prior to which there had been dozens of productions from Berlin to Perm – a phenomenal success. Then the opera – and the composer – was forgotten for a long time; at least, in the Country of Soviets, angels (and for a long time Christmas trees) had nothing to do. Only a waltz survived from the opera – for many this is the only familiar work by Rebikov.
The plot of The Christmas Tree unfolds... Arguably across the road from our own houses: according to a remark of the composer, the sets for the street represent the town or city where it is being performed. The composer desired maximum truth – “no pathos and no effects.” The heroine must sing “with as much life as possible” – or even not so much sing as accentuate the whole role. Rebikov was referring to the experience of Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest and Musorgsky’s The Marriage, in a sense he anticipated Schoenberg’s Sprechgesang and in terms of genre he came close to Schoenberg’s mono-drama. The composer himself did not call The Christmas Tree an opera – it was a “musical-psychological drama”.
At the Mariinsky Theatre The Christmas Tree has been included in a series of short operas for children, though it could be part of the linked subscription featuring operas for adults. The fairy-tale source and the Christmas theme should not put people off – after all, it would be difficult to call The Nutcracker a children’s ballet. There is little of childhood in the ghost of a mother appearing to her frozen child with the words “I am death!”, and the music slowly disperses into the open universe. The rhythmic libretto with the pathos of the acceptance of life reminds us of yet another adult fairy-tale – Iolanta – and in the sheet music we can clearly see the influence of Tchaikovsky’s late works – apropos, one of the few who supported the young composer Rebikov.
“There was a time when only the grand things were noticed and everything that was small or miniature was swept away. It may be debatable whether humanity has ‘shrunk’ or whether our vision has improved, but humankind has taken a microscope and discovered a whole new world, no less interesting than that seen through a telescope.” These words belong to the composer Vladimir Rebikov. He is a man with just such a microscope, a composer of “little music”. The larger part of his work is miniatures, either for piano or vocals. Rebikov composed the latter in a special genre he himself conceived – melomimicry: neither pantomime nor romance, neither operatic song nor everyday speech – a trusting talk, a look deep into each other’s eyes. The composer referred to his method as musically psychographic (“Music is the stenography of emotions” was Tolstoy’s theory, which he had learned in his youth). The aim was to convey in sound a mood or an emotion, to rouse the audience and to achieve a hypnotic effect.
Some considered Rebikov’s psychographics and melomimicry a bold innovation; others thought it poor-quality self-conscious writing and almost everyone believed it to be eccentric at least. To that we must add Rebikov’s musical language with its sliding chromatic scales, heavy harmonisation and parallel fifths– a language that appeared in the 1890s from somewhere that no-one knows. (At an audition at the Moscow Conservatoire the stern Taneyev declared Rebikov’s style to have a lack of hearing and rejected the entrant). Rebikov, in fact, had outstripped time, at least by a decade. They say that when he performed his own works in Paris the composer heard the audience saying “It’s like Pelléas et Mélisande! The red-faced composer showed the publications of his own works and explained that it had all been done before Debussy.
The composer later admitted that he had not planned the dissonances especially but was just looking for an internal spirit for the music that would effortlessly express “the chords with the approval of the management.” And again he repeated his incantation: a chord is beautiful if it conveys a mood and an emotion. He always remained an adherent of psychographic concepts, and towards the end of his life he had been forgotten by everyone. Legend has it that he was found frozen to death in his house in Yalta during the fierce winter of 1921 – although it is known that Rebikov actually died in August. Folklore identified the composer with his heroine, the girl from The Christmas Tree – an opera that was considered the composer’s greatest work even when he was still alive.