Monday, October 05, 2015

The Macclesfield Psalter: A Medieval Norwich Gem

Spike Bucklow's The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art (2014) is a scholarly, yet accessible analysis of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It includes a chapter on the recently discovered Macclesfield Psalter, a fascinating gem of medieval Norwich artistry.

The Macclesfield Psalter (Book of Psalms from the Old Testament) was produced around 1330. It contains 252 illustrated pages and is recognized as  an important discovery of a medieval manuscript in Britain. Amazingly, it was only discovered in 2004 after laying unidentified for centuries, when the library at Shirburn Castle was catalogued for sale. Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum tried to buy it, but the initial bid was won by the Getty Museum of Malibu, California, for £1.7 million. The American museum had to gain permission to export the Psalter.  A temporary export bar was placed on the Psalter until 2005. The Fitzwilliam Museum, assisted by an £860,000 contribution from the UK Government's National Heritage Memorial Fund raised the £1.7 million needed to keep the Psalter in the United Kingdom. The Macclesfield Psalter is now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, however it is not currently on display as it's being restored.

The Macclesfield Psalter is noted for its vivid images, grotesques and humour. Its illustrations include amongst other curiosities, three-headed monsters with hairy noses, a dog in a bishop's costume, an ape doctor giving a false diagnosis to a bear patient, rabbits jousting and riding hounds, an armed knight confronting a giant snail and a giant skate terrorising a man. The newly-coined adjective 'pythonesque', alluding to the surreal animations of Terry Gilliam, is sometimes used to describe the Psalter's bizarre and occasionally obscene images; indeed, there was concerned debate about which of the Psalter's pages would be appropriate for Queen Elizabeth II to view when she visited the Fitzwilliam in 2005.

The pages of the Macclesfield Psalter offer an intimate view of the medieval world and the beliefs, prejudices, follies and sentiments of its people. Doctors, priests, minstrels, mummers, farmers, dancers, tricksters and beggars mingle in the margins just as they would have done on the busy streets of medieval Norwich. The livelihoods of Norfolk’s farmers and Norwich’s weavers, seamstresses and dyers were closely connected to the Psalter through the flow of various materials, and as such it is testimony to the highly-developed crafts and skills which thrived in Norwich, a city of European stature in trade, commerce and artistic creativity during the Medieval era. If Norwich had not been a very wealthy city during the 14th century then materials such as gold and saffron would not have been obtainable in the illumination of the Psalter.

According to author Spike Bucklow, who is also a senior research scientist at Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, the Macclesfield Psalter was created by two equally gifted painters who worked and responded playfully to each other's ideas. Their patron was a member of a rich and powerful Norfolk family whose identity remains unknown. The painters’ workshop, Bucklow conjectures, was located in the parish of Saint George's at Tombland (from old Danish tomb empty and Land Space) in Norwich. The list of pigments found in the illuminations contained nothing that could not be obtained from in a Norwich workshop circa 1335. Indeed, the artist's studio in Tombland was located only a few minutes walk from the nearby church of Saint John Maddermarket, a quite specific allusion to the madder plant, once essential to the dyer's art.

Bucklow notes, 'the two anonymous artists who illuminated the Psalter purposefully left pigments off their palette to challenge and stretch themselves. They restricted their palette with supreme confidence knowing that lovers can see their beloved's beauty in even the most tarnished of mirrors.'

The two artists of the Macclesfield Psalter embedded several layers of meaning into their riddle-like art, some of which remain enigmatic and unsolvable to this day.

Bucklow notes - 'The most obvious part of the Psalter's visual form is its strange collection of everyday and hybrid creatures. Appreciating the form simply involves recognising that the painters wanted the reader to be able to revel in a riot of possibilities, whether apparently normal or abnormal. The sheer exuberant variety of animal, vegetable, mineral and monstrous decoration suggests a limitless imagination.'

However, he rejects the ideas of certain 1960's orientated counter-culture historians who claim that the many bizarre images in the Psalter were the product of painters who had ingested grain infected by ergot, a hallucinogen similar in effect to LSD.

What is certain is that from their everyday dealings in Norwich, the patron and painters of the Psalter were guided by Dominican Friars who eagerly integrated the ancient Classical world view with Christianity. They knew that everything in the material realm was limited and constantly changed either in time or space.

Crucially, throughout The Riddle of the Image Spike Bucklow displays a rare understanding of the alchemical imagination. He explains, for example, the spiritual significance of colour to the medieval artist, in the use of mosaic gold as opposed to 'true gold' thus-

'It is also appropriate that the 'likeness of gold', mosaic gold, was an alchemical pigment attributed to Moses, a legendary Old Testament father of alchemy. As a fabricated alchemical hybrid (of tin, sulphur, quicksilver and sal ammoniac) mosaic gold is also appropriate for the marginal creatures which are of course, also fabricated hybrids.'

Bucklow's understanding of the alchemical imagination, his ability to illuminate the seemingly long lost mind-set of medieval artists, in conjunction with his scientific background along with his ability to discourse in an erudite yet accessible style, makes his The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art a fascinating read. Further chapters on the Wilton diptych, the Westminster Retable and the Thornham Parva Retable simply confirm the importance of his ground-breaking research and study.
                              *    *   *   *   *  *  *  *

Neptune's  Creatures of the Deep: Sir Thomas Browne and Jorge Borges, North Sea Magical Realism and  the Macclesfield Psalter. 

An interest in the strange creatures which once existed in the medieval imagination was revived and catalogued in the 20th century by the influential Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). In his Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) Borges lists over 120 mythical creatures alluded to in classical antiquity, medieval folklore and world literature, finding it useful to consult the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) written by the Norwich physician and Hermetically-inclined philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) when discussing hybrid creatures such as the Amphisbaena (a two-headed serpent), Basilisks, Mandrakes, and the utterly weird so-called vegetable lamb of Tartary.

And in fact Sir Thomas Browne was one of Jorge Borges' favourite authors. He makes mention of Browne in almost every one of his books, from his earliest to the last publication in his long life.

There are, I believe, at present at least two local contemporary artists, both of whom possess rich and fertile imaginations, which in tandem with well-developed painting techniques, are equally adept at dredging bizarre creatures from the depths of their unconscious psyche as inventively as the two Medieval a illustrators of the Macclesfield Psalter, almost seven hundred years ago.

Currently located in coastal towns twenty miles east of Norwich, from where the pythonesque illustrations of the Macclesfield Psalter originated, North Sea Magical Realist artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell each draw inspiration from the moods, hues and hidden depths of the North Sea, the working life and social culture of their respective coastal town of residence (Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft) as well as marine life in general, amongst other varied sources of inspiration and influence they  each have.

Both artists also in their own inimitable way, occasionally conjure imaginary creatures equally bizarre as those in the Macclesfield Psalter, or alluded to in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica  or even collected by Jorge Borges ; as is evident in Mark Burrell's unsettling fish-man and the cuttle-fish character among the  crew of Peter Rodulfo's recent work, Waiting for the Captain.

'Waiting for the Captain' 120 x 100 cms. Peter Rodulfo (2015)

                       Mark Burrell's 'Fishman'(Unfinished)

Books consulted

* The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art
   Spike Bucklow Reaktion Books London 2014

* Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich.  Veronica Mary Rolf  pub. Orbis Books New York 2013
- includes a highly informative  chapter on Medieval Norwich.

* The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1957 revised and expanded 1968) pub. Penguin 1974

This post for Tchenka, for kindly lending me not only her copy, but also her wisdom; for both of which I'm indebted in gratitude. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mark Burrell: North Sea Magical Realist artist extraordinaire

Lowestoft Floods 1953

The absurdly slow and long bus-journey from Norwich to the coastal town of Southwold through the darkest interior of Suffolk was well worth enduring for an early viewing of Mark Burrell’s latest work which is currently being exhibited at CraftCo, until the 28th September.  

Mark Burrell (b. 1957 Lowestoft) is an established artist who has developed his distinctive style and unique vision from decades of industrious creativity. Nationally, Burrell’s work has featured frequently on British TV. He was awarded first prize on the programme Moving Art and won the Lucy Memorial Prize at the Royal Overseas League. Internationally, he has exhibited at the Interart Gallery and the Williamsburg historical Art Centre at New York. 

Choosing to work in alkyd resins, giving his canvases a stained-glass luminescence and sometimes restricting his tonal palette in order to create a highly-charged emotional atmosphere, Burrell’s art is strongly feeling orientated. His often dark, near Gothic and sometimes disturbing art is however, not without great beauty and charm also, as is evident in his Memories of a Merry-Go-Round (below).

Burrell’s resourcefulness is such that the closely-knit community of his home-town of Lowestoft has supplied him with an abundance of artistic inspiration. His imagination vividly delineates childhood fears of a ghosts-on-the-washing-line-in-the--moonlight variety. (The Freudian terror of hearing one's mother is, 'going to visit the Fish-man' (fishmongers) to a child's imagination, another example). His personal memories of growing up at the now long-gone Beach village, Lowestoft, in particular, have provided him with fertile subject-matter.

In his Lowestoft Floods 1953, (top) Burrell conjures the  events of the North Sea Flood. Taking a bird-eye perspective of the cataclysmic surge tide, local landmarks are featured, along with a sense of the chaos of the event. There's perhaps a nod in style in Burrell's canvas to the primitive simplicity of English art as exemplified by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) (it was while alone in the winter of 1937, when resident in Southwold, Suffolk, that Stanley Spencer begin a series of paintings entitled The Beatitudes of Love). What's certain is that it's a work of considerable artistic imagination for Burrell was not actually born until several years after the event; however, local folk-lore recollection of the disaster in conjunction with Burrell's fertile artistic imagination and draughtsmanship, contribute to a highly-imaginative reconstruction of the effects of the 1953 North Sea storm tide upon Lowestoft.

Far from viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, Burrell considers the world today to be a sometimes dark place. Sharing this view-point with the German artist Otto Dix (1891-1961) who he admires, the influence of the Neue Sachlicheit (New Objectivity) artist can be discerned in his Midnight Circus (below). 


Mark Burrell, along with fellow North Sea Magical Realist artist, Peter Rodulfo, is also receptive to the ideas of C.G.Jung (1875-1961).  In particular the Swiss psychologist's essays The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, in which the psychic processes and archetypal structures involved in artistic creativity are discussed. Jung's essays, especially On Picasso (1932)Burrell considers to contain the most perceptive of all psychological observations upon artistic creativity he's ever read. 

With words applicable to both Burrell's and Rodulfo's art, C.G. Jung declares in The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, -

'Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring'.

and 'All art intuitively apprehends coming changes in the collective unconsciousness'.

Its no sweeping hyperbole to state that Mark Burrell is quite simply the greatest creative artist to flourish from the coastal-town of Lowestoft since the days of the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76). He's also of a calm, thoughtful and affable disposition in his personality. We therefore cordially wish him along with fellow North Sea Magical Realist artist Peter Rodulfo, many more years of good health and inspiration.

The White Violin

There's a distinctly Mark Chagall-like quality to the two beautiful paintings above; however the photos taken by myself at the CraftCo. Southwold exhibition barely do justice to the glowing splendour of Burrell's work. Nevertheless they're worth posting, if only to inspire the reader to visit the current exhibition and view the far greater originals for themselves ! 


Many more of Mark Burrell's paintings at Mark Burrell Art
See also - 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Taraf de Haïdouks

Taraf de Haidouks (Band of Outlaws) are a collective of Romanian musicians who are now celebrating their 25th year with a world tour. They will be performing in Wales in August, Stockholm, Sweden Friday 18th September, Lille in France, Friday 16 October and Mexico City, Mexico,Sunday 25th October this year. Given their scheduled world tour it was a lucky event  for fans  to catch them at the Theatre Royale, Norwich, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Although now three months ago, the memory of hearing these Romany musicians perform with astounding virtuosity remains fresh, helped by re-hearing their CD back catalogue on ipod.

The Norfolk and Norwich Music Festival itself has an illustrious history. British composers such as Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss and Benjamin Britten all had world first premières of their music performed at the Festival. In more recent times composer/performers such as Philip Glass, Ute Lemper, Michael Nyman, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, Ray Davies and David Bedford have all performed at the Festival.

Taraf de Haidouks hail from Clejani, a village which is noted for its traditional Romany musicians who have passed their skills down from generation to generation for decades and even centuries. Taraf de Haïdouks began their music career when Belgian promoter Stephane Karo travelled to Romania in the late 1980s in search of a group of musicians he had discovered on an obscure recording. However it was not until the downfall of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989) that travel restrictions for Romanians were lifted and the current interest in Romany music with bands such as Taraf de Haidouk began. The lyrics of their Song of the Dictator describes the events leading up to the overthrow of the Romanian dictator.

Song of the Dictator

Green leaf, flower of the fields
What are the students doing ?
Into the cars they step
Towards Bucharest they head
Into the streets. They shout
'Come out Romanian brothers,
Let's wipe out the dictatorship'.

Ceasescu hears them
His ministers call for
a helicopter which takes him away
What do the police do ?
In his steps they follow,
In a tank they bring him back,
In a room they lock him up,
and so his trial begins.
His blood pressure we take,
And the judge condemns him:
'Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania'.

Romany culture has an interesting, if slight association with Norwich for the author George Borrow resided there in his youth. Over the course of his travels, Borrow developed a close affinity with the Romany people of Europe. Descriptions of Romany folk and their culture feature in each of his books including the autobiographical Lavengro, and The Romany Rye, in which Borrow  recollects his time with English Romany gypsies.

Borrow's travels included Russia, Portugal, Spain and Morocco. Wherever he travelled he acquainted himself with the people and languages of the various countries he visited. Fascinated by gypsy music, dance and customs he even became familiar enough with the Romany language as to publish a dictionary of it. When in Moscow Borrow visited Russian gypsies camped outside the city. His impressions formed part of the opening chapter of  The Zincali: or an account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841). But it was while walking on Mousehold Heath, a large area of heath and woodland on the north-eastern outskirts of Norwich, adjacent to Lavengro and Gertrude Road, that George Borrow first encountered gypsy culture. His friend Jasper Petulengro  (meaning blacksmith) revealing his gypsy soul to him - 

"There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"

Petulenegro also says in Lavengro perhaps even while standing on the steep chalk hill which leads up to Mousehold heath, with its fantastic view of Norwich, as imaginatively depicted here by Alfred Munnings (above ) -

There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever.

There can be little doubt that George Borrow with his fascination with gypsy culture would have enjoyed Romany-styled music by bands such as Taraf de Haidouks and the brass ensemble Fanfare Ciocărlia

There's a strong vein of Romany stereotype, as if in the foot-hills of the Carpathian mountains, with the castle of Count Vlad Dracula in the distance, in the slightly spooky, near shamanistic invocation, Hora Din Caval.

To a highly-modernized western society, one appeal of Taraf's music is that it speaks of a long-lost nomadic, wandering life, living close to nature, aware of changing fortune, communally sharing life's joys and sorrows, as well as experiencing injustice and persecution for one's beliefs, non-conformity and misunderstood life-style. 

Taraf  perform music which is constructed upon unusual Balkan folk rhythms, tonality and instrumentation;  each and ever musician in Taraf is  a consummate master of his respective instrument, which includes the highly-characteristic sound of the Cimbalon, as well as violinists, flautist, accordion-players and bassist. Together they share jokes and banter on-stage, encouraging each other to produce some remarkable solo performances as well as ensemble, often playing poignant melodies with syncopated rhythms at incredibly fast tempo. 

The evening's music-making was further enhanced by the appearance of the glamorous Viorica Rudareasa who first recorded with Taraf  on Dumbala in 1998. Dancing in her high heels (no mean feat)  on the evening Viorica sang numbers from the band's latest album Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts (2015) including - 

The evening was memorable personally on another account. While sitting in the rear row of the stalls of the theatre I could not but help notice a group of young men energetically bobbing their heads up and down in time to the highly infectious rhythms of Taraf de Haidouks. On closer examination with my opera glasses I was pleased to realise I share a similar taste in music with my son and his friends. The very best music unites and transcends the generations.


* Musiques de Tziganes de Roumanie (1991)
* Honourable Brigands, Magic Horses and Evil Eye (1994)
* Dumbala Dumba (1998)
* Band of Gypsies (2001)
* Maškaradǎ (2007)
* Band of Gypsies 2, with Kočani Orkestar ( 2011)
* Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts ( 2015)

Wikilink - Taraf de Haidouks

George Borrow and his novels

This one for Carl and John.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Aelita & The Heart of a Dog

"Touch my lips with your lips, the same way they do on Earth" commands Aelita,  Queen of Mars.

The early years of Soviet Russia witnessed bold experimentation in the arts. In particular, Science-fiction was hugely popular during the 1920's in Russia,  especially the novels of H.G.Wells, whose short stories often describe an advanced society shaped by scientific progress. Speculation upon scientific discovery and themes found in H.G Well's novels, inspired Russian novelists such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Aleksei Tolstoy and Alexander Belyaev to discuss the moral implications of scientific discoveries, both real and imaginary to a fast changing Russian society. Science-fiction also found expression in Russia in the newly emerging art form of mass entertainment, the cinema. 


First screened in 1924, Aelita was one of the earliest of all science-fiction films. It tells of Los, a engineer living in Moscow who dreams of Aelita, the Queen of Mars. He builds a spaceship to take him to her, and they fall in love. However, Los soon finds himself involved in a proletarian uprising to establish a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Los's imaginary trip to Mars concludes with the engineer consigning the manuscript of his literary fantasy to the fire, solemnly uttering the Communist Party sentiment, 'We have more serious work to do'.

Intended as ideologically correct mass entertainment which could compete both in Russia and abroad with Hollywood, while also being art-house cinema of a quality equal to German Expressionist films such as Fritz Lang's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film critic Ben Sonnenberg wrote of Aelita-

"It has interplanetary travel, romance, murder, theft and fraud, a comic detective, thoughts about mankind's future in space (also comic) and political comment. Its scenes here on Earth are, well, earthbound: the acting is naturalistic. Its Mars, by contrast, is out of this world". 

The strength of Aelita as a film rests upon three solid foundations, a well-written script, its overall direction, and the originality of its set, decor and costumes.

Directed by Yakov Protaznov (1881-1945) the ‘King of Russian silent film’ Protaznov had already directed over 80 feature films between 1911 to 1918 when he was persuaded to return to Russia from France and Germany where he was developing a new career. Protaznov's skills as a film director successfully linked Russia's hitherto isolated film-industry with important trends in contemporary world cinema. Aelita's influence can be seen in films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and later in the American Flash Gordon serial (1936).

The most original feature to modern viewers of Aelita are its Martian-style sets and costumes which were coordinated in the distinctive avant-garde style of Russian Constructivism by the Franco-Russian designer, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949).

The producers of Aelita struggled to acquire scarce resources such as 70,000 feet of negative film, aluminium and celluloid to build Mars and one of the most impressive cast and crew ever assembled in the 1920's for a film. The opening night of Aelita was unprecedented in Russian film. The theatre facade was decorated with 'giant figures of Aelita and Tuskub,the princess and King of Mars, surrounded by illuminated columns and geometric shapes approximating to the films 'Martian' decor and illuminated with flashing lights'.

The huge success of Aelita was propelled by factors such as the re-publication of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations which proposed that spaceflight was a real possibility. Tsiolkovsky's speculations sparked newspaper stories in 1924, the year of Aelita's release, about rockets and spaceships that would be carrying people into space. 

There was inevitably an ideological backlash to the success of Aelita. Criticized for its excessive budget and attacked for its Western-style escapism, commercialism and ideological compromise; with the emergence of another style and direction to Soviet cinema, notable from Sergei Eisenstein (1989-1948) Aelita was swiftly dropped from distribution and circulation. 

Today Aelita is regarded as a film of international significance. Its not rocket science to realize that its contribution to popular interest in space travel helped to plant the seeds of Russia's early dominance in the space race. The first generation of Soviet space engineers, Sergei Korolev (1907-66) and Valentin Glushko (1908-89) for example, were inspired not only by Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations, but also by science-fiction such as Aelita. The rocket engineer Vladimir Chelomei (1914-84) even named his proposed mission to send people to Mars Aelita, after watching the film as a 10 year old boy.

The script of Aelita was based upon a story written by Aleksei Tolstoy (1883-1945) upon his feted return to Russia in 1923. Tolstoy, like several other Russian authors, was inspired in his writing Aelita from reading the science-fiction of H.G.Wells.


The English author H.G.Wells (1866-1946) is often credited as being 'the father of science-fiction'. Because his novels are written in a clear, unsophisticated style, with few unproblematic nuances of meaning in translation, (unlike authors contemporary to him, the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, for example),  Wells's short stories and the novels The Time Machine (1895)  The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898), were hugely popular with Russian readers as exciting adventure stories which involve discussion upon future scientific and technological progress. They subsequently influenced several early Soviet Russian science-fiction writers.  

H.G. Wells's novels became first available in  Russian translation as early as the 1890's and became even more popular after the 1917 Revolution. He visited Russia several times, both before and after the 1917 Revolution and during the era of Stalin. A great admirer of Russian culture, upon his first visit to Moscow in 1914, he attended a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull with Olga Knipper and Stanislavsky in leading roles, declaring the play to be a revelation to him and that even if he had not known the drama he would have understood everything just by watching the wonderful acting.

Through his friendship with Maxim Gorky, H.G.Wells was introduced to, and discussed political matters with some of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Well's high reputation among some Party members was such that Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People's Commissar of Education, responsible for culture and education, in an introduction to a new six volume edition of H.G. Wells's writings in 1930, declared him to be, 'one of the best psychologists in contemporary literature'. And to this day H.G.Wells novels are listed on the Russian State education reading list.

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of H.G. Wells admirers was Mikhail Bulgakov (1888-1940) who published his novella The Fatal Eggs (Роковые яйца) in 1924. Also known as The Red Ray (Луч жизни) Bulgakov's story tells of an eccentric zoologist who accidentally discovers a ray which accelerates the growth. One influential source behind Bulgakov's short story was H. G. Wells's The Food of the Gods (1904) in which two scientists also discover a way to accelerate growth. Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs even references The Food of the Gods in a conversation held between the zoologist Persikov and his assistant Ivanov who declares-

Do you understand, Vladir Ipatych,” he continued excitedly, “H.G.Wells’s heroes are nothing compared to you... and I thought that was all make-believe.. Remember his Food for the Gods !”
"Ah, that’s a novel, " Perisov replied.
"Yes, of course, but it’s famous!"
"I've forgotten it, "Persikov said. "I remember reading it, but I've forgotten it".

Bulgakov's short story The Fatal Eggs concludes in the death of a horde of giant snakes from cold weather, not dissimilar to the death of the aliens in Well's The War of the Worlds. One interpretation of Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs is that, like the 1917 revolution, scientific experiments can set into motion events which become increasingly uncontrollable. In late 1924, Bulgakov wrote in his diary of his short story - 'Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? ... I'm afraid that I might be hauled off ... for all these heroic feats.' Bulgakov's fear of being admonished by Soviet officialdom were realized following the ban upon his subsequent novella, The Heart of a Dog (1925).

Inspired from a reading of H.G.Well's, The Island of Doctor Moreau in which Doctor Moreau, an eminent, but discredited scientist, creates human-like beings from animals through vivisection; the novel debates a number of philosophical themes, including pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature. In a new Russian translation of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1930, Mikhail Zavadovsky, a biologist and specialist in mental processes enthusiastically exclaimed of H.G. Well's portrayal of the human mind and its capacities-

'The central idea of this novel is that human will and knowledge will achieve this goal when, with a scalpel in his hand, man will be able to change and reorganize living organisms'.

H.G.Wells himself in an essay entitled The Limits of Individual Plasticity (1895), expressed a firm belief that the events depicted in The Island of Doctor Moreau are entirely possible if vivisection experiments were ever tested outside the confines of science fiction.

Heart of a Dog

Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) Science fiction has been closely linked to tales of medical horror. Mikhail Bulgakov, a qualified doctor, in his novella The Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце,1925) tells of the genius Professor Preobrazhensky (preobraz being a word-play upon the Slavic word for transformation) who, one winter's day, entices a stray dog to his home in order to conduct a hideous experiment. Operating upon the dog, Preobrazhensky implants the pituitary gland and testes of an unknown person into the dog Sharik.

Although Professor Preobrazhensky warns his devoted assistant Bormethal against trying to create a genius artificially  .. 'what if the the dog had been given the pituitary gland of a great man, a Spinoza, instead of a criminal, alcoholic itinerant balalaika player?' he asks, nevertheless he proceeds with his experiment, with both grotesque and comic consequences.

There is a claustrophobic feel to Bulgakov's novella. The action rarely leaves the confines of his seven room apartment. His servants obey him without hesitation and he himself represents the old order of Russia, authoritarian and respectful of foreign culture, attending the Bolshoi theatre and forever humming to himself an aria from Verdi's Aida ' On the Banks of the Nile' while conducting his surgical experiments. 

Bulgakov's novella has similarities in its thematic concerns with the European legend of Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as well as H.G.Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau in its discussion upon the moral integrity of scientific experiments. According to one literary critic the message of The Heart of a Dog is that man must recognize the existence of limits to his powers; that there are realms, divine and natural, where he cannot tread without the danger of creating something blasphemous and unnatural- without carrying out a Satanic act. This idea was antithetical  to Communists, whose entire agenda was based on the notion that God does not exist, that nature was infinitely plastic, and that they could create a new, better man.

Bulgakov's novella displays Gogolian-Chekhovian buffoonery, ridiculing attempts to create a new Soviet superman and Communist party rhetoric such as- 

"Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman."

Because of his sharp, thinly-veiled criticism of Russian communism, Bulgakov's novella was immediately banned by Soviet officials and not officially published until 1987, almost 60 years since it was first penned.

The literary critic James Meek detected in The Heart of a Dog the influence of H.G. Wells, Gogol and Bulgakov's friend and contemporary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) the author of We (1924). Zamyatin's highly-influential science-fiction novella depicts a future dystopia in which those rebelling against totalitarianism are surgically operated upon in order to make them obedient to the State. Zamyatin's novel predates and in all probability influenced the dystopian themed novels of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931) and later in 1949 in George Orwell's 1984. 

Alexander Belyaev

The cross-referencing and shared influences between Russian and British science-fiction writers reached a new zenith in the author Alexander Belyaev (1884-1942). Belyaev also catered to Russian hopes and fears for scientific discovery to dramatically transform lives. His first story, Professor Dowell's Head ((Голова Профессора Доуэля, 1925) concerns itself with a head transplant. Subsequent stories feature a man with transplanted shark-gills, Amphibian Man ( (Человек-Амфибия, 1928) The Air Seller (Продавец воздуха, 1929) in which a gigantic air-machine literally hoovers up all military opposition, and KETs Star (Звезда КЭЦ, 1936) a tribute to the recently deceased Russian scientist,  Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935).

Alexander Belyaev first read H.G. Wells when convalescing from tuberculosis as a young man and eventually met his literary hero in Leningrad in 1934. Like many Russian writers Belyaev lived a short, tragic life, dying from starvation in the Soviet town of Pushkin while it was occupied by the Nazis. (Yevgeny Zamyatin died in poverty of a heart attack in 1937 aged 53, Bulgakov died from an inherited kidney disorder aged 48).

In Belyaev's death one of the greatest examples of a love of literature transcending narrow Nationalist interests occurred. A Nazi officer and four soldiers carried Belyaev's starved body from his home and conducted a burial. The officer spoke a short eulogy at his grave, saying that when he was a boy, he had loved reading the writer's books translated into German.

Today, in a continuing reciprocation between Russian and English science-fiction writers, English readers are indebted to the translator Maria K. the pen name of Maria Igorevna Kuroschepova (b. 1975) for introducing Belyaev's works to a wider audience. 


Wikipedia (Aelita, H.G. Wells, Alexander Belyaev and The Heart of a Dog)

'The Reception of H.G..Wells in Europe', edited by Patrick Parringer and John S. Partington published by Bloomsbury Academic 2013
Chapters 'H.G.Wells in Russian literary Criticism 1890s-1940s' and 'Future Perfect: H.G.Wells and Bolshevik Russia, 1917-32'.

DVD sleeve notes to 1991 Kino International release of Aelita by David Shepard


Top- A still from Aelita
Next - Photograph of H.G. Wells
Next -Photograph of Mikhail Bulgakov circa 1910
Next - A  1988 production in sepia of The Heart of a Dog
Last - A Photograph of Alexander Belyaev

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Bolt

Dmitri Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt (1931) is a riveting example of experimentation in music in the Soviet Union before the Stalinist doctrine of socialist realism restricted artistic freedom of expression. According to the musicologist Francis Maes -

The most important creative work of this period was that of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975). Together with Myaskovsky he wrote music of lasting significance during the first Soviet period, that is, the period between 1926 - the year of his first symphony - and 1936, when the Party leadership shackled his creativity.....Shostakovich was a passionate  champion of Soviet modernism. In Shostakovich’s early work, Soviet culture received its clearest musical expression, as witness the astonishing First Symphony, the daring symphonic experiments from the Second to the Fourth Symphonies, the ballets The Golden Age, The Bolt, and The Limpid Stream, the operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. [1]

The one and only performance of The Bolt was on April 8th 1931. Immediately after its first performance it was banned and not performed again until 74 years later in 2005. Following its ban Shostakovich rescued material from the music score of 2 hours duration to create a condensed thirty minute concert suite. Its through the orchestral suite that the music of The Bolt (opus 27a) is known today.

The ballet's thin plot, by Viktor Smirnov, reveals why The Bolt failed to impress the critics and why it was banned. The protagonist, Lazy Idler, is a drunken lout, who upon being sacked from his factory post, seeks revenge on his employers by convincing a hapless sidekick, Goshka, to throw an enormous-sized bolt into one of the working lathes. The scheme succeeds and the lathe short-circuits. Lazy Idler points the finger of blame at an upstanding member of a team of Shock workers, Boris, but the guilt-ridden Goshka confesses to his role in the crime. Lazy Idler is detained by the factory guards, inspiring a celebration among the foreman and laborers, who cheerfully return to the production line. [2]

The musicologist Gerard McBurney stated of The Bolt - "The waspish and delightfully colourful score bowls along like a children’s cartoon-film, every number full of drama and parody and fine take-offs of serious and popular music of every kind." McBurney succinctly identifies two strong characteristics of Shostakovich's music, namely, the cinematic and the art of parody.

It was through the economic necessity of having to provide piano accompaniment to silent-films as a teenager at Leningrad cinemas that Shostakovich acquired his driving, dramatic style, so readily adaptive to the rapid action of cinema. Works such as the programmatic 11th and 12th symphonies which aurally depict the historical events leading up to the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and the Piano Concerto no. 1 for trumpet and strings (1933) which includes rapid passages of cartoon-like humour are characteristic of Shostakovich's 'soundtrack narrative' style. But above all, it's Shostakovich's ability to mimic and parody musical styles which The Bolt is an early example of. Sarcasms, quotes and quips follow in swift succession, while the musical styles associated with jazz, folk-song, military marches and the tango, as well as the parodying of western sentimentality, are included in The Bolt.

The first and last movements of The Bolt suite reveal the full extent to which Shostakovich's mastery of orchestral technique had already developed. In the opening movement of the  suite, Beethoven's well-known 'Fate or 'Destiny' motif is quoted, only to be swiftly answered by the factory whistle. The Bolt also includes some fine examples of Shostakovich's witticisms, notably in the hilarious Drayman's Dance which celebrates the joy of alcohol and drunkenness. It is occasionally performed as an encore, including by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra following a performance of Shostakovich's 5th symphony at St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich in 2003.

Besides highlighting the taboo subject of industrial sabotage, The Bolt asks the difficult question of what's to be done with the non-conforming individual who doesn't meet official productivity quotas and fails to conform to State ideology, refusing to march to a dictated beat. There are three possible options open to Governments in the face of non-conformity, namely, ignore, integrate, or eliminate; the hallmark of a totalitarian state such as Stalin's being to eliminate.

The set designer of The Bolt, Tatiana Bruni (1902-2001) gives a valuable first-hand account of the only performance of the ballet.

At the time the dress rehearsals were open to the public at large. the theatre seemed overcrowded. As soon as the curtain opened, applause rang out, when the factory started to move, the applause transformed into an ovation that did not let up until the end of the spectacle. the dancing chapel and the individual costumes delighted the public. I swear by all that is sacred that this took place. The catcalling of the opposition (manifest philistinism!) was drowned out by the applause. But the spectacle was withdrawn. It was performed just once. We somehow became responsible for a "failure". They rebuked us in the press. I've remembered the title  of  one article. 'Bolt and chattering formalists'. Not one sketch was left to me,  some of them were destroyed in the theatre by particularly zealous "socialist realists".....We were unaware at this time art had veered sharply to the side of realism. The 'terrible'  words 'socialist realism' had appeared. [3]

Socialist realism was made the official doctrine of the Soviet Union in 1932. It was a doctrine which demanded traditional forms of representation. The Bolt, with its Constructivist leanings and bold choreography was consequently branded a failure and the director of the Mariinsky Ballet at the time, Fedor Lupukhov was forced to resign from his position.

Following the ban on The Bolt Shostakovich used subject-matter less controversial in his music, in the hope of not drawing attention to himself. He wrote a number of film scores, a genre in which he was active throughout his life. However, when in 1936 Stalin visited the theatre to hear the phenomenally popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Region Shostakovich was denounced personally by Stalin. The cat-and-mouse game played between Shostakovich and Stalin is well-documented. Some of the casualties of Great Terror of Stalin's era in which many of Shostakovich's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed include -  his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky (shot months after his arrest); his brother-in-law Vsevolod Frederiks (who was eventually released but died before he got home); his close friend Nikolai Zhilyayev (a musicologist who had taught Tukhachevsky; shot shortly after his arrest); his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar (sent to a camp in Karaganda); his friend the Marxist writer Galina Serebryakova who served 20 years in camps; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin (died); and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky, both of whom were executed.

Shostakovich's response to his denunciation resulted in his profound and monumental 5th symphony in D minor  op.47 (1937) which carries the title A Soviet artist's response to just criticism.  According to Wikipedia -

During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. For an audience that had lost friends and family on a massive scale, these references were apt to evoke intense emotions. This was why the Fifth Symphony was received and cherished by the Soviet public unlike any other work as an expression of the immeasurable grief they endured during Stalin's regime.

Shostakovich wrote music for one more ballet, The Limpid Stream in 1936. The genre was left open to development by  the home-sick and somewhat politically naive Sergei Prokofiev upon his return to Russia to create what remains the most well-known and loved of Soviet ballets, the traditional in style, Romeo and Juliet (1940). But it is Shostakovich's The Bolt which epitomizes the hope and optimism experienced by many Russians in creating a new, fairer society in the early years of the Soviet Union's history.

Coincidentally there is, until the end of February, an exhibition of costumes, designs and photographs of the first production of The Bolt at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design ( GRAD ) based in London.

The 2006 DVD of the World premiere production of The Bolt with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra of the State Theatre Bolshoi, Moscow is a joy to watch.


[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[2] Simon Morrison's notes to the Bel Air 2006 DVD production of The Bolt
[3] Ibid.
[4]  New York Times review of 'The Bolt' and GRAD exhibition

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Golden Cockerel

Discoursing once more on avian symbolism in Russian music, as if a phoenix revivified, this time focusing on Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel  (previously Swan Lake and The Firebird) and Russian classical music in general.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) the composer of The Golden Cockerel (1907) was one of the 'Mighty Five', also known as 'The Mighty Handful' (Russian: Могучая кучка, Moguchaya kuchka) a group of amateur composers who aspired to create a music which was distinctly Russian. Utilizing folk-song and emphasising the 'asiatic' and oriental aspects of Russia's vast Empire, along with developing a highly original orchestral style and coloration, the 'Mighty Five' endeavoured to create music equal and antithetical to the Western Viennese tradition of music-making. However, in reality the 'Mighty Five' were only four of any significance, for music critic Cesar Cui never wrote any music which was Russian in either style or melody.

Although only amateurs, the four remaining composers of the 'Mighty Five' together created characteristic Russian music in subject-matter, melody, rhythm and orchestral colour. One fanciful way to contrast the styles and artistic temperament of these four Russian composers is to loosely juxtapose them to another group of equally ground-breaking composers, the British 'Fab Four' of 1960's pop music, the Beatles.

The highly-original genius of 'rebel' group member Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the composer of the epic national opera Boris Godunov with its sharp observations upon the relationship between church and State in Russia, and the hallucinatory nightmare tone-poem Night on a Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky also had a hedonistic streak of self-destructive bravado in him, resulting in his premature death from alcoholism aged just 42.  He's not unlike a kind of 'John Lennon' figure in his revolutionary ideals and love of the people to the Russian Nationalist composers.

Like Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was also self-taught. Over decades of industrious study he created his own unique sound and orchestral palette, which, combined with his ability to integrate folk-song from Russia's many regions into his music, resulted in his appointment as a professor at the prestigious Russian Conservatoire and becoming a leading figure of Russian music, particularly after Tchaikovsky's death in 1893. As a mainstream composer, especially in the popularity of his operas, many of which were regularly performed from the 1890's onwards, and long outliving Mussorgsky and Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov roughly equates as the 'Paul' of the Russian 'Fab Four'.

The quieter, often overlooked, but no less talented, if not the most productive member of the Russian 'Fab Four', was the chemistry professor, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). Borodin's tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia aurally depicts the geographical vastness of Russia's Imperial Empire, while his opera Prince Igor with its famous Polovtsian Dances, harks back to the splendour of Russia's early history. Borodin may be considered as the 'George' of the Russian Fab Four.

The group's mentor Balakirev, himself an original composer as his oriental tone-poems Islamey and Tamara demonstrate, performed the role of impresario not unlike Brian Epstein in his influence upon the group's image and ambitions. Cesar Cui (1835-1918 )  fulfills the role of  'Ringo' in this analogy.

Although he wrote over 15 operas, Rimsky-Korsakov is nowadays only known by many today for the miniaturist tone-poem, The Flight of the Bumble-Bee, however, a closer familiarity with his music reveals that during  a white-heat of creativity, he composed three great orchestral masterpieces - the suite Capriccio Espagnol, a dazzling pastiche of Spanish melodies, the gorgeous in 'Neo-oriental' orchestral colour, Scheherazade, an orchestral showcase and one of the most frequently recorded works in the classical music repertoire, and the stirring Russian Festival Easter Overture based upon the Slavic liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Miraculously, all three of these works for large-scale orchestra date from the single year span of 1887-1888.

Because Rimsky-Korsakov out-lived the tragically short lives of Mussorgsky and Borodin, he often took it upon himself to edit and complete his compatriot composers' unfinished works. It was not until an original manuscript of Mussorgsky's  tone-poem Night on a bare Mountain was discovered in the 1970's that the full extent of Rimsky-Korsakov's academic styled 'tidying-up' became known. Such are the differences between Mussorgsky's original, rough and vigorous aural depiction of a Witches Sabbath, to those of Rimsky-Korsakov's much better-known 'tidied' version, that the Dutch musicologist Francis Maes declared -

'Rimsky-Korsakov considered the work impossible in the form which Mussorgsky had written it. Rimsky-Korsakov's own version, therefore, cannot be fitted into the category of redactions and orchestrations; it is. rather, a radical composition, loosely based on the same thematic material but wholly different in structure, orchestral colouring, and expression, so much so, in fact, that Mussorgsky can no longer be considered its author.' [1]

Rimsky-Korsakov was paradoxically both a progressive and a conservative composer. His early style was based upon his mentor Balakirev, as well as Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt while in his latter development he was heavily influenced by Wagner and Debussy. Considered as directly influencing two generations of Russian composers, in particular Stravinsky, as well as non-Russian composers, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas and Ottorino Respighi, among others.

In The Golden Cockerel Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov returned to a political theme. Transforming a poem by Pushkin, which in turn was based upon a tale by the American author Washington Irving, Rimsky-Korsakov's fairy-tale opera is in fact a thinly-disguised political statement which is highly critical of Russia's recent defeat military in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, its also a scathing attack upon Russian Imperialism in general, and even ridicules on a personal level, the last of the Romanov's Tsar Nicholas II. Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera performed. The stress caused from its being banned most probably exasperated his medical condition of angina.

Musically, Le Coq d'Or ( as it's frequently known  from its first production in Paris 1914) features some of Rimsky's most developed and radical tonal language. The combination of full orchestra, chorus and soloists including a colorata soprano, results in a musical palette awash with oriental-coloured scales and melodies, often to gorgeous effect and exemplary of Rimsky-Korsakov's so-called Neo-Oriental style, which he first conjured in his Antar symphony, and famously in his large-scale, Arabian-themed orchestral suite, Scheherazade (1888).

In the prologue to the first of three acts of Le Coq d'Or, an astrologer appears announcing a disclaimer-  although the following fairy-tale happened far away, a long time ago, such tales can be instructive, he informs the audience. Whether with this disclaimer Rimsky-Korsakov hoped to outwit the Imperial Censors isn't known. A few years earlier his support for students during the 1905 revolution, had resulted in a temporary suspension of his professorship from the conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. However the very name of the fairy-tale's Tsar Dodon is a deliberate word-play upon the name of the extinct dodo bird and throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.  

In the Introduction and Bridal Procession to the orchestral suite of  Le coq d'Or Rimsky-Korsakov employs the startling compositional device of a rapid change of key and mood; the opening alarm-call of the cockerel, announced by trumpet is swiftly followed by a brooding theme upon cellos, to depict the lugubrious mood of King Dodon in his palace. The Introduction quotes all the major themes and motifs of the opera, much of which is in Rimsky-Korsakov's highly-evocative 'neo-oriental' style, it also includes musical passages conjuring a dreamy fairy-tale world along with some exciting syncopated rhythms.

The decorative arts in Russia were well-developed by the early 20th century, including in design and art-work for stage-sets and theatrical costume. An amazing array of artwork by the designer, Natalya Goncharova of decor based upon woodcuts, homespun fabrics, folk ornaments and icons for the 1914 Paris production of Le Coq D'Or  is featured during the 6 minute video clip here -

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's support for students during the 1905 Russian revolution resulted in his being suspended from his teaching position at the Conservatoire and a ban on the performance of his works. How exactly he hoped to outwit the Imperial Censor's scrutiny is unclear, the very name of the fairy-tale's central character, Tsar Dodon, is a deliberate word-play which strongly hints of the Tsar's likeness to the extinct dodo bird; and in fact throughout the opera Rimsky-Korsakov ridicules Tsar Nicholas II personally through the character of Tsar Dodon.

In the first act of the opera, King Dodon in his Palace, the grotesque and blundering Tsar Dodon, irritable, brooding and bored since youth, is presented by the astrologer with the gift of a golden cockerel which crows whenever a threat of danger to Dodon's kingdom occurs -

Watch out ! 
Be on guard !

However, Tsar Dodon prefers it when the golden cockerel crows the advice -    Go ahead and rule from your bed !

In essence, Rimsky-Korsakov portrays a Tsar who is suffering from the Russian psychological trait of Oblomovitis.

In Ivan Goncharov's hugely popular novel Oblomov (1859) the young nobleman Oblomov rarely leaves his room or bed and only moves from his bed to a chair in the first 50 pages of the novel. Incapable of making important decisions or of undertaking any significant action, the novel satirizes Russian nobility, whose social and economic function became increasingly questioned in mid-nineteenth century Russia. Allusion to Oblomov became well-known throughout Russia, as late as the 1920's, during the early years of the Soviet Republic, Vladimir Lenin declared, -  "the old Oblomov is still around, and we will need to wash, clean, rub and scrub him, before he can be of any real use."

The entrance of Queen Shemakha which is sung by a colorata soprano in the fairy-tale opera, includes extensive and intricate octatonic scales which are as experimental and radical as those of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

Queen Shemakha introduces an explicitly erotic element to the opera when teasingly she declares to King Dodon -

Thou art to be pitied knowing
The Queen only in her garments.
I am not so bad without them.
When I go to sleep, I look a long time in the mirror,
I throw off all my garments...
I look and see if anywhere
There is a mole or any blemish on my body..
Over my marble thighs

On my breasts fall drops of liquid fire
And I have breasts indeed !
They vie with the glory of the southern roses
Magnificent and firm - and they are
As white, light, and translucent as a dream.....

Tsar Dodon's  response to Queen Shemakha's erotic invitation is to announce he has a stomach-ache. His downfall occurs when, after his ill-matched marriage to Queen Shemakha, the golden cockerel pecks him to death, perhaps an allusion by Rimsky-Korsakov to the rumour that Tsar Nicholas himself was henpecked by his wife, and that it was the Tsarina who ruled the roost of the Imperial Household. Its also worth remembering that the very symbol of the Romanov, that of the double-headed Imperial eagle, the true subject of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'fairy-tale'  bears an avian similarity to the cockerel.

Its little wonder that the opera The Golden Cockerel was immediately banned from theatrical performance by the Imperial Censors. Rimsky-Korsakov's harshest words were reserved for Tsar Nicholas II personally, the operatic chorus singing these words-

He is a tsar in rank and appearance
but a slave in body and soul.
In behaviour and attitude he is a real ape.
His head is devoid of true emotion
his spirit is terribly lethargic.
Among the beauties with their shining eyes
he looks like a ghost.

Ominously, as if alluding to the methods by which autocratic governments remain in power, Tsarina Shemakha warns - Whoever we don't like is done for.

while the chorus, representing the common people, anxiously ask of their future - What will we do without a Tsar ?

When an essentially conservative member of Russian society such as Rimsky-Korsakov feels it necessary to use music as a vehicle to denounce political and social wrongs of his age, the warning signals of a society about to radically transform itself may be imminent. The catalyst for such a transformation occurred shortly after Rimsky's death, through the great loss of life experienced by the Russian people during the first World War, which triggered the 1917 revolution, the abolishment of Imperial Romanov rule and the establishment of the Soviet Republic (1917-1989).

The impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s 1914 Parisian production in ballet form of The Golden Cockerel, (known as Le Coq d'Or from its French production)  in which the singers performed offstage, while mimers and dancers portrayed the characters onstage, became the model for Rimsky-Korsakov's one-time pupil, Igor Stravinsky’s own stage works. A close study of the score of Stravinsky's innovative puppet-drama Petroushka (1910-11) reveals that its radical harmonies derive ultimately from the experimental octatonicism of his teacher, Rimsky's opera. Such was the high regard in which  The Golden Cockerel was held that, when in December 1917, the composer Sergei Rachmaninov hastily left Russia for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sledge, among his few possessions he carried with him were a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions including his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and two orchestral scores, one of which was The Golden Cockerel.

Sadly, Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to hear his opera The Golden Cockerel performed. The stress caused from its being banned by the Censors probably worsened his medical condition of angina and he died before its first performance. However his introduction of overt political statement in music paved the way for a younger generation of composers to either integrate or denounce political ideology in their music. The musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker proposed his opera The Golden Cockerel to be the forerunner of the anti-psychologistic and absurdist ideas which  culminate in 20th century 'anti-operas' such as Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Dmitri Shostakovich's The Nose (1930) and that it laid, "the foundation for modernist opera in Russia and beyond." [2] . Rimsky's name today is now celebrated as one of Russia's greatest composers, with the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire honouring him in its name.

Andrei Bely's Symbolist novel Petersburg (1913) also reflects the fevered atmosphere of the dying years of the Romanov dynasty. Set in the 'window on the west' city of Petersburg, and greatly admired by James Joyce for its fragmentary narrative, Bely's novel features a psychological cat-and-mouse game between a high ranking bureaucratic official and his decadent 'asiatic' would-be anarchist son. Sometimes hilarious, at other times sinister,  the backdrop of an often crepuscular city, whose citizens, not unlike the Dubliners  of Joyce's Ulysses (1922) become a central character of the novel. Bely's Petersburg  not only depicts the social tension of  Russia before the 1905 Revolution, but is a landmark work of 20th century literature.

There can't surely be any connection between Sir Thomas Browne and Norwich with early 20th century Russian history and music, can there ? Well, there's these two tenuous connections - Firstly, in 1922 the English author Virginia Woolf wrote an introduction to a selection of Sir Thomas Browne's writings for the prestigious Golden Cockerel publishing house. Secondly, Browne's Norwich associate, Arthur Dee (1579-1651) was the eldest son of  John Dee (1527-1609) who secured for him the post of court physician to Tsar Mikhail I.  After enduring 14 Moscow winters, sometime in the early 1630's, Arthur Dee left Moscow to retire at Norwich. He abandoned his alchemical writings to the care of the Imperial Library. Centuries later,  the charismatic, shaman-like figure of Rasputin gained access to the Imperial Library through his influence at the court of the last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II. Rasputin is alleged to have stolen Arthur Dee's alchemical writings. They were later subsequently returned to the Imperial library.

I once imagined the possibility that a fairy-tale about a prophesying bird's introduction into a Royal household, which a whole Kingdom fatalistically begins to rely upon, may have symbolically alluded to what was a commonly-held concern of the time - the unhealthy influence of Rasputin upon Tsar Nicholas II and his family in matters of Russian politics. But no, the dates don't quite match up !

Although Milica of Montenegro and her sister Anastasia, both of whom were interested in Persian mysticism, spiritualism and occultism, are credited as introducing Rasputin to Tsar Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra in November 1905, Rasputin did not gain any real influence upon the Russian Royal family until 1908, long after Rimsky-Korsakov had completed The Golden Cockerel.


* Scheherazade - Berlin Philharmonic-Karajan 1967

* The Snow Maiden - Sadko -Mlada - Le coq d'or Suite
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz - Naxos 2011

* Capriccio Espagnol- Russian Easter Overture etc.
   Seattle Symphony - Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

* Borodin Symphonies 1 - 3 Gerard Schwarz -Naxos 2011

 * Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) 
    Night on a Bare Mountain -original and Rimsky's version
    Ukrainian  National Symphony Orchestra  Naxos 2003

[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) [1996].  A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

[2] Frolova-Walker, Marina (2005). "11. Russian opera; The first stirrings of modernism". In Mervyn Cooke. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Opera. London: Cambridge University Press.

* Natasha's Dance : A Cultural History of Russia.
   Orlando Figes Penguin 2003
*  From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 
    1870-1925  from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. 
    Royal Academy of Arts 2008


The Golden Cockerel 
soloists Albert Schagidullin  and Olga Tritonova
with the Chorus of the Mariinsky theatre, Orchestre de Paris 
conducted by Kent Nagano  directed by Thomas Grimm 2003.
Youtube clip of this DVD production, 'Hymn to the Sun' 


Top - Ivan Bilibin: Court Astrologer and King Dodon

Video of Natalie Goncharov's art

Ivan Bilibin: King Dodon and the Queen of Shemakha

Below - Rimsky-Korsakov by Igor Repin

By a remarkable coincidence The Golden Cockerel  is currently being staged in a new production at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia. 

The World premiere of The Golden Cockerel was on 24 September 1909, at the Sergei Zimin Private Russian Opera, Moscow. It was  premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 14 February 1919  and the premiere of its latest production was on 25 December 2014, at Mariinsky-II, St Petersburg. Next performance, Sunday 1st February 2015.  Here's a trailer of the production.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Firebird

First performed in Paris in 1910 by the Ballet Russe company, 
The Firebird is as Russian as a Faberge egg or a Matryoshka doll. 

The theatrical director of the Ballet Russe, the aristocrat and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, exploited a craze for all things oriental during the French era of the Belle EpochDiaghilev’s vision was to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences, and to produce new works in a distinctly 20th century style, in which costume and decor, dance and music all combine into one harmonious whole (Gesamtkunstwerk - total artwork). In order to achieve this total effect Diaghilev recruited talents such as the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to his Ballet Russe company. After hearing Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral work Fireworks in 1909 he took the bold step of commissioning the then unknown composer to write a ballet score based upon a combination of Russian fairy tales

With its mysterious opening bars of  double-basses conjuring up a magical fairytale world, and its extensive usage of chromatic scales borrowed from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, The Firebird is the only example in Stravinsky’s entire oeuvre of the colourful, neo-oriental school of Rimsky-Korsakov, one of  the 'mighty five' Russian Nationalist composers.  Following a brooding introduction, the music of the ballet follows in strict line by line to the action of the plot. Some of the most dazzling moments in the score describe the tussle, struggle and eventual peace between hero and Firebird. A lush, romantic apparition of the twelve princesses ensues, before the Infernal Dance in which Stravinsky provokes his audience's attention to sit up and pay attention to his genius. There follows a Lullaby with a jazz lilt to it. The ballet concludes with an apotheosis in which a stirring brass finale for a wedding occurs. Several versions of the orchestral score exist. In addition to the full 50 minute ballet score Stravinsky re-wrote a conciser, concert-hall orchestral suite of  The Firebird  in 1911 and 1919 and once again in 1945. 

Loosely-based upon several plots and characters from Russian folk tales the curtain rises on the enchanted garden where the magician Kostchei holds a dozen princesses captive. The princesses and a tree of golden apples are protected by a high fence. The firebird enters, intent on stealing one of the golden apples, but she is seized by Ivan Tsarevich, who has been following her. Their struggle, and her eventual subduing, is expressed as a pas de deux, and Ivan refuses to release her until she gives him one of her feathers. Armed with this talisman he is assured of her help should he ever need it. In the gathering dark one of the princesses, the beautiful Tsarevna, tells Ivan of her plight. They dance, and part at dawn. Ivan, however, fails to heed her warning not to follow her, and enters Kostchei's castle. A crowd of grotesque creatures rush out,, followed by Kostchei himself. the grotesques grovel before Kostchei, who approaches Ivan, intending to turn him into stone. Remembering the feather, Ivan waves it in Kostchei's face. The firebird appears, and forces the grotesques to dance until they are exhausted. She then reveals to Ivan that Kostchei's soul is contained in a great egg. Ivan takes the egg and dashes it to the ground. The magician dies, and Ivan marries the Tsarevna. [1]

The complex nature of evil and the difficulties which the hero must face in order to defeat evil are expressed well in the original Russian fairytale about the magician Kostchei. The soul of Kostchei is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest which is buried under a green oak tree, which is on an island  in the ocean. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die. If the chest is dug up and opened, the hare will run away; if it is killed, the duck will emerge and try to fly off. Anyone possessing the egg has Kostchei in their power. He begins to weaken, becomes sick, and immediately loses the use of his magic. If the egg is tossed about, he likewise is flung around against his will. Only if the egg or needle is broken, will Kostchei die.

Ever since the success of its first performance in 1910 with the ballerina Tamara Karsavina dancing in the physically demanding role of the Firebird, Stravinsky’s ballet has been a perennial favourite with audiences around the world. Such was its success that it initiated a twenty year collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky. Two more ballets, equally brilliant, swiftly followed; the puppet drama Petrushka (1911) and the seismic anticipation of the World War, set in pagan Russia, The Rite of Spring (1913) a revolutionary work in 20th century music.

Like Tchaikovsky’s innovative ballet Swan Lake (1877 revised 1895) Stravinsky’s ballet also has an avian theme. However, in many ways it is also a mirror opposite of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in which the hero Siegfried resists an arranged marriage in favour of a passionate union with an enchanted swan. Both ballets feature the metaphor of young women imprisoned by an enchanter but are allowed a measure of freedom at night. There’s an erotic element in much ballet, not least in both Swan Lake and The Firebird. Wherever the erotic is encountered, in art as in life, invariably there is also a strong psychological element. 

In essence the enduring appeal of The Firebird lies almost as much in its archetypal nature as a magical fairytale as its music and dance. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung noted that fairytales -  'tell us how to proceed if we want to overcome the power of darkness: we must turn his own weapons against him, which naturally cannot be done if the magical underworld of the hunter remains unconscious'. [2] 

Jung argued that- 'If we wanted to explain the fairytale personalistically, the attempt would founder on the fact that archetypes are not whimsical inventions but autonomous elements of the unconscious psyche which were there before any invention was thought of. They represent the unalterable structure of a psychic world whose "reality" is attested by the determining effects it has on the conscious mind'. [3] 

In Jung’s view - 'Fairytales seem to be the myths of childhood and they therefore contain among other things the mythology which children weave for themselves concerning sexual processes. The poetry of fairytale, whose magic is felt even by the adult, rests not least upon the fact that some of the old theories are still alive in our unconscious. We experience a strange and mysterious feeling whenever a fragment of our remotest youth stirs into life again, not actually reaching consciousness, but merely shedding a reflection of its emotional intensity on the conscious mind'.  [4] 

'As in alchemy, the fairytale describes the unconscious processes that compensate the conscious, Christian situation. ..the fairytale makes it clear that it is possible for a man to attain totality, to become whole, only with the spirit of darkness, indeed that the latter is actually a causa instrumentalis of redemption and individuation'. [5] 

'Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious'.  [6] 

Finally, Jung believed that - 'It is extremely important to tell children fairytales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness, interpreted and integrated'. [7] 

Stravinsky's Firebird is one of several works of classical music including Berlioz’s Symphonie FantastiqueDebussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela, Brahms Piano concerto no. 2, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Shostakovich's 5th symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D minor, which I ‘discovered’ when a teenager through 12" vinyl discs during the 1970's. 

'A mass of riotous colour and swirling bodies, the Infernal Dance (Youtube clip above) which brings the entire company into Firebird could feel, occasionally like being caught up in the spin cycle of a washing machine. Garments everywhere, whirling fabric, blurred colours...' [8] 


[1] The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet - Deborah Bull and Luke Jennings - Faber 2004
[2] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[3] CW 9 i: 451 Ibid.
[4] CW 17: 43
[5] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales (1945/48)
[6] CW 9 ii: 280
[7] CW 9 ii: 259
[8] The Faber Pocket Guide to Ballet - Deborah Bull and Luke Jennings - Faber 2004


The World of Diaghilev- Charles Spencer - Philip Dyer 1974
Stravinsky -Roman Vlad - OUP 1960

The essential book covering 19th and 20th century Russian culture -Natasha's Dance - Orlando Figes - Penguin 2002


Return of the Firebird - Ballet Russe Recreation - Decca 2002
The Royal Ballet - Margot Fonteyn 1960
Royal Ballet - Leanne Benjamin/ Jonathan Cope - BBC 2010

Royal Danish Ballet Company - Glen Tetley - Virgin 1982
Glen Tetley's choreography adds a new dimension to a perennial favourite. 

for Shimon, with thanks for inspiration.