MIKHAIL ALEKSEEVICH KUZMIN (1872 - 1936)
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 smallscale 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 schoolfriend 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.