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His or Her Song?

Mikhail Lermontov was perhaps the most esteemed Russian Romantic poet of the Golden Age after Alexander Pushkin's death in 1837. Sometimes referred to as the 'poet of the Caucasus', Lermontov was actually of Scottish descent. He is considered by many to be the founder of Russian psychological realism. The exotic touch and complex psychological dramas of his poetry have proved a magnet for composers.

The fusion of fairytale and psychological or emotional realism was the territory where Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's genius found its fullest expression. This rich fusion formed the very heart of his output - his opulent operas, including The Night before Christmas, The Snow Maiden, The Golden Cockerel, Kaschei the Deathless, Sadko, and The Tale of Tsar Sultan. But it is in the compact genre of the art-song romance that Rimsky-Korsakov tried his hand at working out the monologues and soliloquies of his heroes and heroines.

One such romance amongst Rimsky-Korsakov's gems is a setting of part of Lermontov's «Отчего» [What cause] (1840):

Мне грустно, потому что я тебя люблю, И знаю: молодость цветущую твою Не пощадит молвы коварное гоненье! За каждый светлый день иль сладкое мгновенье Слезами и тоской заплатишь ты судьбе! Мне грустно, потому что весело тебе! Мне грустно, потому что весело тебе!

I am sad because I love you,

And I know - your blooming youth

Will not be spared by gossip's insidious persecutions!

For every bright day and sweet moment

You will pay in tears and sorrow to fate!

I am sad because you are happy!

I am sad because you are happy!

As part of the project 'A Voice Between Nations' we'd been looking at this song with Guildhall School soprano Alexandria Wreggelsworth and pianist Emelia Noack-Wilkinson. Bringing the song to their first coaching session I could see - especially compared to the confidence and imagination they brought to the other Rimsky-Korsakov songs they were working on - they were not comfortable. Their initial attempt lacked a sense of unified direction, and that always points to a lack of clarity in the performer's mind over what the music 'is about'.

One of the problems is the rather strange piano accompaniment. Looping around repetitively like a five-finger exercise it seems to be completely devoid of the emotional intensity of the text. The contradictions of the text - 'I am sad because you are happy' - present a narrator in complete emotional turmoil, yet the piano part seems to continue its ostinato pattern in some sort of stubborn oblivion.

During Alexandria's and Emelia's masterclass session with Maestra Olga Trifonova in Saint Petersburg, she immediately admitted:

'This is a man's song, I have never heard it sung by a female voice. I don't think it's one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most inspired works either. It's uncharacteristically, well... simplistic: lacking his usual psychological complexity.'

The lack of recordings of this romance, and its rare appearance on concert programmes even amongst famous Rimsky-Korsakov specialists such as Trifonova, indeed suggests that Trifonova's dismissive attitude seems to be representative.

Working with Alexandria she encouraged her to take on the persona of a man who is hopelessly in love. She asked for more melancholy and tenderness to be projected behind every note, more warmth in the tone:

'He says "you will pay in tears", but it needs to be sorrowful - he can see where her path of youth and naive frivolity is leading her, and yearns to be her protector. This is a fatherly figure - the male role, psychologically speaking - it needs more lyricism, comforting tenderness and regret.'


But... what if this is not a 'man's song'? What if this is the song of a young girl?

Maestra Olga Trifonova and myself in spirited conversation about whose song 'Mne grustno' really is - his or hers?


As a pianist, I am always looking to unravel the psychological drama of a song through the interaction of the text and piano 'commentary' underneath it. Hearing the romance on that very first coaching session with Alexandria and Emelia I immediately exclaimed, 'the piano part - it's an allusion to Schubert's lied "Gretchen" and her spinning wheel!'

Here is a video of the Russian pianist Lazar Berman playing Liszt's transcription of Schubert's 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' - which compresses the accompaniment and song line into one live in concert in 1984:

Now 'Gretchen' is very much the song of a girl. Gretchen sits at the spinning wheel - the piano monotonously alluding to its turning, and the left hand imitates the foot treadle - and sings that her 'peace' is gone. She is thinking of Faust and all of his promises. He has seduced her promising her everlasting love, but left her in disgrace and with child. It is another song full of contradiction. Goethe's Gretchen is hurt and losing her mind because she is still in love with Faust: she still carries in her memory the searing rapture of his kiss, and she chides his cruel absence with an outpouring of insincere words. She knows that she is in a wretched state and he, surely she presumes, is obliviously happy.

Of course, there is no way to tell for certain whether Rimsky-Korsakov was even thinking of 'Gretchen' when writing 'Mne grustno' - although, German lied was a revered model for Russian romances, and aristocratic artistic salons (such as Marina Olenina d'Alheim's House of Song) were undertook huge efforts to immerse the wider Russian audience into this world of 'spiritual awakening'. For me as a performer (or indeed in stimulating dialogue in a coaching session) in need of a coherent psychological narrative, however, it is not so important whether or not Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking about 'Gretchen' - but rather the that 'Gretchen' can become a stimulus: an important personal 'hook' that helps me build my interpretation as I try to 'translate' what I see on the page into a living musical moment.

So, if we take the narrator of 'Mne gustno' to be a girl, we can indulge in a completely different psychological world to the tenderness suggested by Trifonova. She is hurt and feels wronged. Like Gretchen there is bitterness - after knowing [his] blooming youth she feels abandoned and declaims [he] 'will pay in tears and sorrow.' Yet, this is no Gretchen. Where I do agree with Trifonova is that this romance there is indeed a simplicity - perhaps naivety. Rimsky-Korsakov is a master of drama and tragedy where he want to be. And here, it is obviously absent.

Is there not something of an insincerity in the heroine's spitefulness? It is over as quickly as it is stirred up. A childish tantrum? A stamp of the foot and melodramatic words uttered that, in hindsight, would be regretted? It wouldn't be the first for Rimsky-Korsakov's operatic heroines. So many of his heroines have a propensity for being spiteful towards the one they love, only to hurt themselves with each capricious outburst and 'playing hard to get.'

Take for instance Rimsky-Korsakov's opera set to Gogol's Night before Christmas. There, the beautiful and rather vain Oksana teases her beloved Vakula. She knows of his love for her, but taunts him in front of her friends and sends him away with the whim that she will only marry him if he brings her the Tsarevna's slippers. As Vakula leaves she realises just how much she loves him and reflects on the fact that she may have now lost him forever. Vakula disappears into the night. Unbeknown to Oksana, Vakula is flying through the night to Saint Petersburg riding on the back of the devil to fetch the slippers. In his absence Oksana hears gossip about how happy Vakula is now. She is beside herself and full of regret.

Oksana and Vakula from a film-realisation made by the Soviet Mosfilm studio in 1961

Of course, it's a happy ending with Vakula bringing back the slippers - but how wonderfully this psychological sketch of 'Mne grustno' fits into the childish and flirtation outburst, and its consequences, of Oksana!

Giving life to that spiteful pretence of hate, that childishness the interpretation can take on a more angular and volatile shape. That monotonous Gretchen-like accompaniment emphasising the insincerity and melodramatic aspects to the heroine's outbursts.

Sung by a girl it can be an entirely different psychological world. What is so liberating is how Lermontov's text is ambiguous as to who the narrator is - is it he or she? It doesn't say, but that decision can unveil such an entirely different emotional landscape!

Alexandria Wreggelsworth and Emelia Noack-Wilkinson live in concert in Saint Petersburg with their interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Mne grustno'

@BritishCouncil @GuildhallSchool

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