About this Recording
8.573192 - KUZMIN, M.A.: Sacred Songs / The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers / Masquerade (Shkirtil, Karelia State Symphony, Serov)

Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin (1872–1936)
Music for the play The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers by Evgeny Zamyatin • Music for the drama Masquerade by Mikhail Lermontov • Sacred Songs for voice and orchestra • Music for the play Hinkemann the German by Ernst Toller


The name of Mikhail Alexeevich Kuzmin stands in the history of Russian culture primarily as that of a great poet of the twentieth century, and a man whose writings significantly shaped the paths of Russian modernism. Like many outstanding artists, his achievements were largely obscured during the Soviet epoch; but in more recent years, not only his poems, but his prose, translations and musical compositions have become widely appreciated as influential cultural models.

Mikhail Kuzmin was born in Yaroslavl, to the north east of Moscow, in 1872; soon after, his family moved to Saratov, on the banks of the Volga. Here Kuzmin spent his childhood in picturesque surroundings—reading avidly (including foreign-language volumes), listening to and making music with the family, and enjoying a peaceful and relatively rural existence. He was to enjoy the freedom and beauty of this life until he was twelve, when the family moved to St Petersburg. In later years, these early memories were to sustain and influence his creative works.

Even as a schoolboy, Kuzmin felt drawn to composition. Between 1890 (the date of his first known musical work) and 1906, when he adopted a predominantly literary career, he tried his hand at a range of compositional genres, including operas, oratorios, choral pieces, symphonic and chamber works, and songs. His creative talents were both encouraged and stimulated by discussions with friends; in particular, his musical initiatives were supported by his schoolmate and lifelong correspondent, Yusha Chicherin (later to become the Soviet Foreign Minister, Georgiy V. Chicherin). Chicherin recognised his friend’s talent and did his best to support Kuzmin financially, as well as offering advice and opportunities for musical conversation. They regularly discussed new musical works, and Chicherin was keen to offer thoughts and judgements—sometimes extremely complimentary—on Kuzmin’s musical achievements.

It is likely that Chicherin was partly responsible for encouraging Kuzmin to enrol at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1891. Here he studied with both Anatoly Lyadov (1855–1914) and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908). Two years later, he was forced to abandon his studies due to illness, although he did continue private composition lessons. Once again, Chicherin now provided much-needed support: as a member of an aristocratic family, he was able to introduce his friend to high society, and made further efforts to promote him in musical circles. In 1898, he sent some of Kuzmin’s compositions to the well-known St Petersburg music critic, Aleksandr Koptyaev. Whilst Koptyaev pointed to insufficiencies in Kuzmin’s compositional technique, ranking his instrumental pieces far less successful than his vocal works, he did note the ‘peculiar harmonies and expressive melodies’ of these early works. This disjunct between technical ability and creative content was noted again in Boris Asafyev’s article Music in the Works of M.A. Kuzmin in 1920, where Asafyev summarised Kuzmin’s music as bearing ‘The taste of a strict master, with the execution following the whims of a dilettante.’

In both music and literature, Kuzmin is a master of the miniature—and perhaps not surprisingly, his vocal miniatures are particularly skilled. The intimacy of small-scale vocal music suited his musical and literary approach, and in the fifteen years of his ‘pre-literary’ period (1890–1906), he composed roughly four hundred pieces in this genre. These include settings of many Russian poets—from early-nineteenth-century classics such as Konstantin Batyushkov, Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (Leo Tolstoy’s second cousin) to Kuzmin’s contemporaries, including Semyon Nadson, Konstantin Fofanov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Konstantin Balmont. In addition, Kuzmin also set poems by Petrarch, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hugo, Musset, Verlaine and other foreign writers. His musical influences include composers from his own country (Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky) as well Massenet, Debussy and Schubert. This intense preoccupation with the interaction of poetry and music also encouraged Kuzmin to write his own texts to set as songs, and this process was evidently of tremendous importance in developing his literary style.

The natural environment for these vocal miniatures was a domestic, or salon setting, and Kuzmin often sang his songs to his own accompaniment in intimate gatherings at home. In addition, he included them in a series of concerts entitled ‘Evenings of Modern Music’, held in St Petersburg from 1901–12 in an attempt to popularize contemporary Russian and European music. (These concerts were closely associated with the Mir iskusstva movement—the ‘World of Art’, an artistic movement promoting artistic individualism, led by Alexandre Benois and his circle.) Kuzmin later recalled that it was through the families of his school-friend Chicherin and others that he became involved in this concert series, and subsequently met leading Russian artists such as Walter Nouvel, Alfred Nurok, the poet Konstantin Somov, and Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes. It was at the ‘Evenings of Modern Music’ that the first public performance of several of Kuzmin’s Alexandrian Songs took place in April 1906. These received warm praise from one contemporary critic: ‘Today’s pieces by Kuzmin are “incommensurable” to any other pieces by any other author. One thing I am sure of, though: that those who find glimpses of genius in his music… exaggerate less than those who deny the presence of any central “principles” in his technique.’ It seems ironic that Karatygin’s advocacy for Kuzmin’s compositions appeared just as the composer began to turn away from music and towards literature. When Kuzmin began writing his own song texts, he did not credit the poems with much significance, viewing them only as a source for composition. It was his friends who first pointed to their worth as independent literary pieces; and it was only in 1906 that he seems to have realized the potential of his poetic works. It was also in this year that he was first publicly acknowledged as a man of letters in both St Petersburg and Moscow, feted by members of the intellectual elite such as the Symbolist poets Valery Bryusov and Vyachesav Ivanov.

In our own time, Kuzmin’s importance as a Russian literary figure is now well-established. But his musical heritage—both in terms of his vocal compositions and his incidental music (much of which has survived to the present day)—is still little-acknowledged. It is hoped that the music featured here will serve to raise the profile of an important cultural figure working across the arts.

A contemporary of Mikhail Bulgakov, the writer Evgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937) was one of the most prominent literary figures of his generation. Based on an early story entitled The Islanders, Zamyatin’s play The Society of Honoured Bell Ringers was first staged in October 1925 at the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg, with music by Kuzmin. The action of this tragic comedy takes place in a small English village, in which the fun-loving Irishman O’Kelly comes into conflict with the upright, middle-class Campbell, a member of the virtuous, church-centric, traditional group known as the Society of Honoured Bell Ringers (who do not, in fact, ring bells!). Zamyatin uses the metaphor of stuffy English rural life (he had worked in England from 1916 to 1917) to emphasise the dangers of a fully controlled, authoritarian society such as that of the ‘Bell Ringers’. Kuzmin takes his cue from the location of the drama, and uses an organ within his ensemble; he also seeks to imitate a street orchestra. There is a clear attempt at deliberate musical simplicity in this score, to match the uncomplicated protagonists of the play, and both Mahlerian and Mozartian influences are brought to bear (the two composers Kuzmin admired the most). It is interesting to note Kuzmin’s use of bass trumpet in this work, and indeed all of his theatrical scores: this was also a favourite instrument of the composer’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.

Written some ninety years earlier, Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814–41) Masquerade is a verse-play bearing heavy echoes of Shakespeare’s Othello. The plot revolves around the aristocratic Arbenin and his wife Nina—Arbenin is convinced that Nina is engaged in an adulterous affair with Prince Zvezdich and murders her, only later realising that she was innocent, and descending into madness as a result. Kuzmin had long been an admirer of Lermontov’s work, setting seventeen of his poems to music as a young man. His incidental music for Masquerade was intended for a performance of the play in 1911 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre; but this was cancelled, and when the play was finally staged in 1917, the director chose to use music by Aleksandr Glazunov (1865–1936) instead. Kuzmin’s score consisted of ten numbers: Polonaise, Waltz, Reverie, Redowa (a Czech dance form), Polka, Nina’s Romance, Galop, Entr’acte, Entr’acte to the final scene, and a closing male chorus a cappella. Since the major action of the play takes place at two society balls in the 1830s, Kuzmin sought to include appropriate dance numbers in a style reminiscent of the time (an age in which the polka and waltz were only just becoming fashionable in St Petersburg). By contrast, Nina’s heartfelt Romance incorporates more modern harmonic shifts as she speaks of her sadness and love for Arbenin. The closing chorus allowed Kuzmin to draw upon his extensive knowledge of traditional Russian church music, once again enriching the harmonic language to add a further level of pathos at the close of the play.

The Sacred Songs for voice and orchestra, dating from earlier in Kuzmin’s musical career, bear the strong influences of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. In the first few years of the new century, when he wrote these pieces (1901–03), Kuzmin was actively engaged in the study of ancient Russian music—particularly that of the ‘Old Believers’ (staroobryadtsev). The result of this study was a collection of religious verses, long monologues which resemble free folk narrations of biblical texts. The orchestra is primarily intended as a harmonic support to the vocal part, and only rarely takes centre stage. Instead, it is the singer who leads the musical action, and here Kuzmin has followed the model of the Russian folk-song protyazhnaya (a drawn-out, lyrical song), in which the vocal line is presented almost without a break in the melody, and the metre is free and based primarily on chant rhythms. Only certain important words within the text are given an expressive musical emphasis within the endless cantilena.

The Sacred Songs were published in 1912—the same year as the poems appeared in print in Kuzmin’s second poetic anthology, The Autumn Lakes. Unlike other collections by Kuzmin, the Sacred Songs were not initially conceived by the author as a cycle; they were composed separately within a three year period, and are linked first and foremost by their stylistic model. Writing in Church Slavonic, Kuzmin dated each song separately, also providing the name of the saint, in each case, to whom the day is dedicated in the Orthodox church calendar.

The final collection of pieces on this disc, Kuzmin’s music for the German anti-war play Der deutsche Hinkemann reveals a more harmonically complex, dynamic approach to writing than his scores for Zamyatin and Lermontov. Ernst Toller (1893–1939) was a left-wing playwright, who served for seven days as the President of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919, a communist uprising that was rapidly quashed, and Toller was forced to spend four years in prison as a result. It was during these years that he wrote the tragedy Der deutsche Hinkemann, in which the soldier Hinkemann returns wounded from the First World War—his genitalia have been blown off. His wife begins an affair with Hinkemann’s friend, and becomes pregnant by him, whilst Hinkemann becomes a fairground attraction and is mocked for his injury. Although his wife becomes sorry for Hinkemann, when she tries to return to him, he rejects her; and in her despair she kills herself. Hinkemann is left alone.

Toller’s plays were popular in the Soviet Union, and a Russian translation was performed in the Maly Theatre in December 1923. This would have been of particular interest to Kuzmin, quite aside from the opportunity it provided for composition—he was particularly interested in the work of the German Expressionists, and Toller’s proletarian sympathies also made him an attractive political figure. Kuzmin’s music was used for the first 10 performances of the play, after which the overture was replaced with a work by Yury Shaporin (1887–1966).

Although the same theatrical motifs recur here as in earlier plays for which Kuzmin had provided music—marches, pastorals, tango, waltzes—his musical language is edgier and more adventurous, particularly in the Introduction. Beginning with a brisk fanfare, this evolves into an energetic fugue, peppered with fragments of a march and patriotic military songs (the implication that dying for one’s country might be better than a maimed life such as the one Hinkemann is forced to live). Once again, the spirit of Mahler is never far away. In the subsequent numbers, Kuzmin recasts his melodies in a variety of guises, varying instrumentation, dynamic and rhythm to match the changing fortunes of the protagonists. His manipulation of orchestral colour is particularly impressive given the limited resources at his disposal within a theatre orchestra, and point to the bright future that Kuzmin might have had as a film composer, had he not perished in 1936 under the Soviet regime.

P.V. Dmitriev and Yuri Serov
Edited by Katy Hamilton

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