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Schämen Sie sich nicht, russisch zu tanzen? - Deutsche Oper Berlin

What moves me

Aren’t you ashamed of dancing a Russian jig?

They say you can hear the Russian soul in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music, yet in his homeland Tchaikovsky was ridiculed as a European by his contemporaries. Dramaturg Lars Gebhardt on Russian stereotypes

Clichés associated with Russia are as many and varied as the country is vast: folklore, traditional costume, pessimism, rivers of vodka, freezing winters. And as hoary as they may seem, these stereotypes are actually quite new, having taken proper root only in the 19th century, when the kingdoms of Europe were transforming into nation states. The solidification of state borders went hand-in-hand with a quest for sovereignty and a single language and culture. Across the huge Russian empire with its multifarious peoples, religions and traditions the focus was on establishing a unifying culture. This was achieved largely by the country turning inwards: where the imperial court language in the early 18th century was French, with the elites favouring European fashion and polyglot works of music, Catherine the Great was instrumental in ending this and was a strong promoter of Russian culture.

Although a European-style conservatory was founded in St Petersburg as late as 1862, the »Mighty Five« group of composers had already formed a contrarian movement under the mentorship of the art critic Vladimir Stasov. Up and coming composers of the likes of Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky­-Korsakov were espousers and exponents of an »authentically Russian« musical school. They agitated against the orientation towards central European standards and set about developing a specifically Russian-Slavic essence informed by folk and Old Russian church genres and devoid of traces of academic training.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, with his European outlook, was an irritation to these nationally-minded progressives. As part of the first intake of students at the new St Petersburg Conservatory he was schooled in how to compose »correctly«. Nonetheless, his works took time to endear themselves in Europe. The emotionality of his themes, the musical pathos, his dispensing with motific strands in the symphonic pieces and his dips into folkloric inflection, too, all went unappreciated until the 20th century.

Tchaikovsky was in the unenviable position of being denigrated as a Westerner at home but considered too Russian in Europe. Which was more accurate? As is so often the case, there was no black and white answer. His opera PIKOVAYA DAMA contains a scene that can be seen as an ironic response to the ongoing conversation regarding a specifically Russian music: Act 1 Scene 2: the newly engaged Lisa realises sadly that she harbours serious feelings for the mysterious Herman. Her best friend, Polina, tries to cheer her up – first with a lugubrious love song to the accompaniment of a lone piano, then with a more up-beat number: »Come on! Something happy, something Russian!« and the entourage joins in, clap-clapping to cries of »Aye Lyuli, Lyuli!« before the governess puts an end to it with »Ladies, what a racket. Aren’t you ashamed of dancing a Russian jig?« Librettist Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of Pyotr Ilyich, had consciously set the opera, inspired by Pushkin’s novella, in the Francophile high society of late 18th-century St Petersburg. Singing, dancing and conversing was in French. Letting one’s hair down with country dancing was simply not done.


Cliché dolls: Images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump on »typically Russian« matryoshkas © Jorgen Haland | unsplash

Hence a lot of this opera can be interpreted as a comment on the burgeoning nationalism. Lisa’s grandmother, too, the eponymous Pique Dame, represents a nostalgic, Europe-oriented mindset and romanticises the good old days of pre-Revolution French absolutism. It’s an obsession that culminates in her fragile, somewhat chilling midnight solo - borrowed word-for-word from an André Grétry opera. Tchaikovsky is making no bones of the fact that his quoting from existing central European works is designed not as a homage but as a device to convey character, in this case the Countess’s focus on a past life - just as the folkloric details are there as local colour rather than as a nod to the »Mighty Five«.

On the other hand, if we focus on the music associated with the two lovers, Lisa and Herman, we find little Russian idiom. Their duets and arias reflect Tchaikovsky’s emotionality: Lisa’s unbounded love and Herman’s unbounded madness are conveyed musically without recourse to chauvinistic clichés.

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