Text of the booklet "ORFEO ED EURIDICE"
The origins and creators of the melodrama
Orpheus and Eurydice
An event highly significant in the development of Russian culture occurred at the end of Empress Catherine II’s reign in the late 18th century. A melodrama based on the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice by dramatist Yakov Knyazhnin and composer Yevstigney Fomin was highly acclaimed by theatre audiences, first in St Petersburg and then Moscow.
The forthcoming premiere in Moscow was announced in the following terms in a supplement to the newspaper ‘Mosskovskiye vedomosti’ in the year 1795: ‘On February 5th… the new melodrama Orpheus will be performed with the accompanying ballets and choruses of the infernal Furies. Music for the choruses and the melodrama as a whole written by the composer Fomin in the Ancient Greek style has been received very favourably in St Petersburg.’ This event was remembered in Russia for many years afterwards.
To this day, more than 200 years after the premiere, the melodrama Orpheus and Eurydice still leaves an extraordinarily strong impression. The sincerity of the lyrical episodes charms the listener and we are struck by the intensity of the dramatic scenes. Nevertheless our emotional response is qualitatively different today from reactions in the age of Catherine the Great, conditioned by historical circumstances and aesthetic factors that demand additional explanation.
Above all we are concerned with similarities and differences between the historical evolution of Western European and Russian theatre. In Western Europe the myth of Orpheus attracted the attention of composers and librettists at the same time as the operatic genre first appeared, at the turn of the 16th to 17th centuries. It is not hard to account for the invariable attraction felt by musicians and poets of that epoch to a story that brought concepts of ‘death’ and ‘love’ together in dramatic conflict. Moreover, the figure of the legendary singer given his lyre by the immortal gods in prehistoric times – a long-distant era, even from the perspective of Ancient Greece – stepped to the foreground. This theme was naturally taken up by the creative group known as the Florentine Camerata, since the very idea of composing an opera was understood by them as a revival of the principles central to Classical tragedy.
Jacopo Peri’s opera Euridice was staged in Florence in 1600 (in 6 scenes with a prologue), and a homonymous operatic composition by Giulio Caccini (in 3 scenes) in 1602. Five years later, in 1607, the brilliant Claudio Monteverdi presented his masterpiece to the public in Mantua: ‘L’Orfeo, Favola in Musica in 5 Acts with a Prologue’. After this almost every interpretation of the well-known myth either offers a new version of the opera’s typology (as for example the 1647 Parisian staging by composer Luigi Rossi entitled ‘L’Orfeo, Tragicomedia per Musica in 3 Acts with a Prologue’), or it is presented by the composer as a reform of the opera genre, as was the case with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Vienna in 1762, and Paris in 1774). Ballets with widely differing artistic treatments but invariably entitled Orpheus and Eurydice were notable occurrences linked to the names of eminent Western European composers and choreographers, for instance the ballet with music by Heinrich Schutz (Dresden, 1638), or productions by the choreographers Franz Hilverding (Vienna, 1752) and Jean Noverre (Stuttgart, 1763).
Familiarisation of the Russian public with opera as a cultural genre only began in the reign of Peter the Great (lagging behind Western Europe by 100 years) and progressed very slowly. The year 1702 heralded the arrival in Moscow of a troupe led by the entrepreneur Johann Kunst. Although their skills as professional artists might be called into question, for several years they offered dramatic and musical entertainments in German, in a specially constructed ‘comedy house’ on Red Square. A long intermission (1706–1731) followed. Even later, under Empresses Anna Ioannovna and Elizabeth Petrovna, the secular art of musical theatre was mostly perceived by Russian audiences as a foreign phenomenon, especially since operatic works were performed exclusively by theatre companies invited from Italy and performing in their native tongue until the year 1755 (that is, until Francesco Araja’s staging of the ‘opera seria’ Cephalus and Prokris, libretto by Alexander Sumarokov).
Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742–1791) was a gifted Russian poet and one of the most important dramatists of his time. Between the 1770s and 1780s he conceived the idea of presenting the Orpheus myth to St Petersburg audiences in the form of a musical-poetic work with opera orchestra, male voice choir and ballet troupe. Undoubtedly he was aware that since the story had never before been staged as a Russian theatre performance it must surely attract the public and prove a profitable undertaking.
Being a writer with a European education and conversant with many different languages, ‘Knyazhnin the Borrower’ (as Alexander Pushkin dubbed him) had a wide range of Western interpretations at his disposal, both those cited here and others unbeknown to us. The poet was equally well aware that the Russian school of composition had not yet acquired the advanced skills necessary for a musical rendition of the tragic theme behind this ancient myth. Knyazhnin was acquainted with practically every author of texts and music in contemporary St Petersburg, had a thorough knowledge of theatre and theatre audiences and composed tragedies and comedies himself, as well as the libretti of the Russian comic operas that were popular in the Russian capitals in the 18th century and headed the opera repertoire in many provincial theatres from Archangelsk to Astrakhan, from Brest-Litovsk to Irkutsk. The dramatic and musical excellence of The Carriage Accident, The Miser and The Sbiten Vendor, all with libretti by Knyazhnin, meant that these comic operas were most frequently performed, but all his works were confined to uncomplicated sentiment and farcical humour.
Since it was patently not feasible to use the tragic theme for a Russian opera the poet turned to melodrama, then a comparably young genre. He understood this theatrical variant not in the ironic tradition of the ‘bourgeois sentimental drama’ (a much later definition of the 19th-century dramas favoured by the general public), but more in line with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of organic synthesis – a combination of acting and spoken declamation by dramatic actors and orchestral music which either alternated with short rejoinders from the artists, or continued without interruption accompanying their monologues and dialogues at climactic moments.
Throughout the 18th century it was common practice in the Russian Empire to refer to the authors of Russian operas and melodramas as writers and librettists rather than composers in public announcements and playbills. An example is provided by present-day posters for ‘V.A. Pashkevich’s opera The Carriage Accident with libretto by Y.B. Knyazhnin’, which would have been expressed in the time of Catherine the Great as ‘Y.B. Knyazhnin’s opera The Carriage Accident with music by V.A. Pashkevich’ (but in most instances there was no mention of the composer at all).
This enduring custom was partly due to the assumption that writing literature was honourable for any member of the gentry, from a humble landowner to the Empress Catherine II, who herself composed opera libretti and comedies in various forms. However, it was considered almost as shameful for noblemen to call themselves professional composers of music as it was for aristocrats to perform a role onstage (for this reason even Mikhail Glinka in the 19th century made only incidental reference to his vocation in his memoirs).
Moreover the priority afforded to authors of the literary text on playbills appeared completely justified – in Russian operas of that period comparatively short duets and arias, choruses and vocal ensembles alternated with long conversational dialogues without music, hence the composition of the musical entertainment as a whole was determined by the librettist, not the composer. This may have been the case with the melodrama Orpheus and Eurydice, but here history took an unexpected turn and the events that followed anticipated impending changes as regards who took authorial precedence.
The Italian composer Federico Torelli produced such lacklustre music to accompany Yakov Knyazhnin’s melodrama on the court stage and so inadequately reflected the tragic subject matter that the St Petersburg premiere (on 24th November, 1781) ended in disappointment and the play was almost forgotten. Ten years later the Russian composer Yevstigney Ipatyevich Fomin (1761–1800) set about composing a new score. Fomin had graduated from the St Petersburg Academy of Arts with honours in 1782 and set off for Italy to further his skills, where he studied at the famous Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna.
During the four years spent abroad Fomin almost certainly heard the music of Gluck’s acclaimed opera Orfeo ed Euridice. No documentary evidence has been found, but the wide-ranging popularity of this operatic masterpiece and the lengthy aesthetic discussion in many different countries between supporters of Gluck and those of his antagonist Niccolo Piccini corroborate the theory. Most important are the assumptions we can make from a dramatic analysis of the score to the Orpheus and Eurydice melodrama, where Fomin’s figurative resolution not only complements the poetic text by independence of thought and the scale of his artistic concept, but also lifts it to a qualitatively new level that is superbly consonant with the emotional tone of the ancient myth and defined by musical conventions.
The musical form of the Orpheus and Eurydice melodrama could be likened to a Greek temple, with its regular proportions and profoundly metaphorical symbols. In the nine dramatic sections that comprise Fomin’s score all the odd scenes (1–3–5–7–9) recount the harsh truth of divine judgments and the immutable laws of fate, while the even scenes (2–4–6–8) relate the destinies of our heroes and appeal to the compassion of the listener. Here is a list of the scenes with a brief description of their contents (with the keys indicated as a guide for musicians):
1. Ouverture – the tragic themes are concisely presented in the tradition of the Classical prologue – the hero’s lamentation, the rage of the Furies, the character of the heroine, bitter loss (exposition: D minor, F major; development section: B flat minor; reprise: D minor, D major).
2. Orpheus recalls the death of Eurydice and expresses his firm resolve to descend into Hades (G minor, C minor).
3. Coro primo – the voices of the divine messengers tell him ‘Let hope strengthen your resolve!’ (D minor).
4. Orpheus plays his lyre (string pizzicato: A major / A minor); sings (solo clarinet: E flat major); his mournful entreaty (B flat minor).
5. Coro secondo – the voices of the divine messengers: ‘Pluto breaks the chains of death and returns your wife.’ (A flat major).
6. Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited but the condition is broken – one glance back at his beloved and they are separated for evermore (A major, D major).
7. Coro terzo – the voices of the divine messengers singing ‘Your time has not yet come. Your torment will accompany you throughout your bitter life.’ (F minor).
8. Orpheus’ monologue – his only desire is to end his life, but he is condemned by the gods to live in eternal torment (F minor, D major).
9. Danza delle furie – Dance of the Furies (D minor).
A desire to replicate the style of Classical art prompted Fomin to avoid composing individualised melodies and in many instances he had recourse to archaic methods of composition, using techniques of musical rhetoric, acoustic associations with the restrained yet tragic genres of passacaglia and sarabande, as well as the introduction of a Russian horn band whose gentle yet powerful sound accompanies the tirades of divine messengers and the dance of the Furies.
The change in public attitudes towards Greek mythology was a decisive factor in the success of any entertainment in that period. Motifs of Classical tragedy were in demand everywhere during the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror. This was even reflected in various reinterpretations of the Orpheus myth, either through intensification of the tragic theme, or as a philosophical farewell to the art of the past epoch and the ideals of the opera seria. An example is provided by Joseph Haydn’s 1791 composition with the dual title ‘A Musical Drama in Four Acts: The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Eurydice’, where the hero swallows a chalice of poison in the finale (the opera was never staged in his lifetime).
Yevstigney Fomin’s endeavours were aimed in the opposite direction, uniting in the score the enduring attainments of several genres and rethinking them in the light of a new artistic movement, Sturm und Drang. From the opera seria he transferred to the melodrama methods of organising form based on affective expression, as well as the art of recreating vocal melodies of bel canto (imitation of human song by a solo clarinet). From oratorios he took the principles of monumental architectonics in relation to choral and solo scenes. In reflecting dance genres, from the courtly minuet at the appearance of Eurydice to the final dance of the Furies, he faultlessly followed the specifications of both musical and choreographic art. Finally, he brilliantly applied to the melodramatic genre an entire arsenal of operatic devices for the accompanied recitative, and achieved coordination between instrumental parts and the declamations of artists from the drama theatre.
Fomin’s creative path in pursuit of his masterpiece cannot be described as auspicious or easy. His first opera, The Novgorod Hero Boyeslayevich (1786), might seem at first sight one of his most prestigious commissions, since the libretto was written by the Russian Empress herself. However, the literary qualities of this ‘Imperial poetry’ failed to inspire the young musician and the result was almost lamentable. A second opera entitled The Coachmen at the Relay Station (1787) was commissioned by the head of the Ministry of Postal Services: eminent architect, renowned collector of Russian folksongs and librettist Nikolay Lvov. The music to the overture was impressive: the earliest Russian example of a programmatic piece for orchestra, it set the scene as the horse-drawn convoy departs on their journey. Nonetheless the plot relating exclusively to Catherine II’s visit to the Crimea presented no interest in theatres frequented by the general public. For various reasons Fomin’s subsequent operatic compositions, The Soirees or Tell My Fortune, Tell My Fortune, Lass (1788), The Americans (1788) and The Magician, Fortune Teller and Matchmaker (1791) also met with little success.
Given that Russian composers were wholly dependent on their librettists, the tragic mode of Knyazhnin’s melodrama combined with Fomin’s outstanding musical talent can be judged an unconditional triumph. Moreover the role of Orpheus was performed in the premieres by outstanding dramatic actors Ivan Dmitrievsky (at the St Petersburg premiere in 1792) and Pyotr Plavilshchikov (in the Moscow premiere of 1795). The triumphant acclaim that followed was shared by composer and artists.
Sadly, Yakov Knyazhnin never lived to witness his success. The horror felt by Catherine II at the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution and the threat of a popular uprising in Russia completely changed her attitude to the poet. He was suspected of freethinking and summoned for questioning. According to a cursory note by Alexander Pushkin the nobleman Yakov Borisovich was ‘flogged to death’, but historians have discounted this as a figure of speech. In fact the dramatist passed away in his own home on 14th January 1791, unable to bear the moral and physical humiliation inflicted on him.
Yevgeny Levashov, translation by Patricia Donegan
Text of the booklet "ORFEO ED EURIDICE"