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Narcissus's Fall: Russia's Reimagining the Rose & Nightingale

The image of the rose and nightingale is deeply intertwined with Russia’s cultural identity. Look only to Russian fine art in the nineteenth century, and the nightingale, or those gathering to admire it, appears as an inseparable part of the epoch’s complex narrative of identity.

It is, of course, a borrowed and appropriated inspiration. Neither the heady fragrance of the rose, nor this unassuming brown little bird are natives of Russia - especially not its cultural melting-pot of imperial Saint Petersburg. Their roots, like the silk tapestries on which they were most commonly depicted, are in the exoticism of Diwan collections of Persian and Ottoman poetry. Their devotion was immortalised for European audiences by the ill-fated love story of Lord Byron’s Zuleika.

As with any borrowing, however, there is an element of reinterpretation through (mis)translation.

In the project ‘A Voice Between Nations’ for Year of Music UK-Russia, we looked at several settings of roses and nightingales in Russian translated from Byron. What was absolutely fascinating is how each Russian composer’s commentary on the subject was profoundly indebted to the artistic embodiment of lost hope and failure.

Take for instance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting of Zuleika’s Song Opus 26 no. 4 from Byron's Bride of Abydos. It’s not Rimsky-Korsakov's most famous rose-nightingale song, nor the most famous rose-nightingale of Russian poetry (think only of Pushkin's fascination with this symbolism). It is, however, one of the most delicate.

Despite being set to Byron, through Koltsov's translation and Rismky-Korsakov's re-interpretation, the meaning has shifted somewhat (and indeed it must be remembered that the Byron is different in meaning to the much later tragic rose-nightingale story of Oscar Wilde!). Byron’s Zuleika had given a rose to Selim, asking him to remember it is infused with the nightingale’s song, and so therefore is a symbol of devotion beyond measure. Yet, here we behold a beautiful rose and a nightingale who sings his songs of love in vain. They are not heard, or not understood, by the silent rose. With Byron's poetry we are filled with the hope that Zuleika's message of love and her longing to be together with him will be relayed to Selim. With the Rimsky-Korsakov there is no longing, no hope. Only pity..


When coaching this song to the students as part of the project it was a stark illustration to them of just how much the inflection of the Russian language matters to the integrity of Rimsky-Korsakov’s narrative. Right from the outset the music and words do not fit. They are two layers that vertically do not seem to combine. For instance, we define comfort with the chance of ‘sitting’ of a first beat - a musical cushion of sorts on a sumptuous divan grin which we scarcely want to move. Here, however, a fluttering trill of birdsong from the piano settles on an ambiguous C-sharp that will punctate the song. Is it the 5th of the tonic; is it the leading note that wants to take us to D major; is it the third of A major?

Above: the opening bars of the Zuleika's Song.

Having waited for one and a half beats of silence, the voice comes in. It is an unstable place metrically to start, and yet the word seems so important - the lover. The temptation is to revert to musical instinct: to join the piano and sit on that C-sharp, accenting the beginning of the narrative. Then with the work ‘rozi’ [rose], which is given a long rhythmic value of the dotted eighth note you have even more invitation to sit on the beat. It also takes place on that C-sharp. Oddly, it then seems there s a belated echo of C-sharp on the piano which encourages the singer to then fold away the rest of the phrase ‘solovei’ [nightingale].

In essence, the Russian language here is nothing but a chain of three words: lover - roses - nightingale.

To make sense of these we need the grammar. The tools that give the grammar to this chain of Russian words is simply the inflection we chose to give.

Instinctively - and very often in Western performances - we hear a diminishing inflection of importance:

Liubovnik rozi solovei

The lover of the rose is the nightingale.

That’s all very well, but this has now turned the statement into a complete sentence, and one in which the role of the nightingale is rather marginal at that.

Now, armed with a touch more trust for Rimsky-Korsakov’s setting, let us have a look at the same phrase. Following the piano’s flutter, ‘lubonik’ is metrically on the weakest part: two-and-a-half & three. In itself it is of fleeting importance, and instead we are drawn to hear it moving with longing towards the rose. The word ‘rozi’ is on the first, strong beat. We can afford to broaden and sit - enjoy her fragrance and beauty.

‘Solovei’ by contrast looks - like the little unassuming plain brown-plumaged bird - to be almost like an afterthought tucked away at the end of the phrase. In fact, the accented C-sharp in the piano part that break up the word ‘rozi’ into its two syllables has a dual purpose. On the one hand it gives the impression of the lines being unable to come together, mirroring the fate of incompatible rose and nightingale.

On the other, it has a very practical purpose of moving the remaining words to wards the final syllable of ‘solovei’. It seems strange - to hide the first and go towards the last. It is nonsense to an English ear for sure (mar-ma-lade; la-ven-der; aer-o-plane ?). However, in Russian when you come across a word of three syllables you almost always go towards the last. It is therefore only natural that the C-sharp of ‘solovei’ takes the first beat. Lover, rose and nightingale are all linked by that punctuating C-sharp.

Grammatically, shifting the importance this chain of words to rose (most important), nightingale (second), and lover (least stressed) we get a different structure unfolding for the listener. Unlike the former version, it is not a statement, but a sentence that is incomplete and urges us to want to hear how it will unfold:

Liubovnik rozi solovei

The rose’s lover — the nightingale — …


Trust in the composer, especially when our instincts scream at us to take another path is always difficult. Like in the legend of Narcissus, if all we see (or hear) as performers is the beauty of our own expressions, then that beauty is not the of the kind that can bring good into the world. Without trust in the composer, for performers it is a relationship that otherwise risks turning them into the nightingale singing in vain to the composer’s silent rose…

@BritishCouncil @GuildhallSchool

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