The operas of the Russians, Poles, and Bohemians, in so far as they possess points of individual interest, do so by virtue of their natural characteristics. It is unnecessary, therefore, to trace back the history of opera in these countries to its foundation, as we should find that, in the main, it was a borrowed and foreign art, employing only methods that had derived their origin elsewhere, generally in Italy.
Although, therefore, we find that opera in Russia was produced as early as 1737 on the Italian model, and even in the vernacular with some attempt at national style in 1756, these early attempts soon gave way before the popular style of light Italian pieces, and the work of such composers as Volkov, Titov, and Cavos may be passed over as unimportant in the history of opera. Even the music of that much greatermusician, Anton Rubinstein, so far as his dramatic work goes, is a negligible quantity, in so far as it is Teuton in style and without distinction or national signification.
The acknowledged pioneer in this school was Glinka 1804-57), who wrote but one work of lasting worth, “A Life for the Czar.” This opera, however, laid such hold upon the Russian peoples as to have become the most popular opera in their repertoire, and we are told that it is played invariably for the opening night of the season both at Moscow and at St. Petersburg. It is intensely national in subject, and although the music shows many traces of Italian influence, which is not surprising considering its date of production (1836), there is still much that has its origin in national song and folk theme. Glinka afterward wrote and produced a still more national but less successful work entitled “Russian and Ludmilla.”
Glinka’s one popular opera is not only important in itself ; it is still more worthy of notice as the stimulating motive which enabled a large number of younger Russians to write works of a similar nature. It must be conceded that here the names of these men are hardly anything but names ; yet in their own country they mean much to the people. The extremely intimate nature of the music of the operas written by such men as Dargomijsky. Serov. Cesar Cui, Rimsky-horsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Arensky, while making for popularity in the country of their production, is a factor against their performance in countries where the folk songs and themes introduced would be unknown and unappreciated.
Dargomijsky (1813-69), who has been claimed as the founder of modern Russian opera, wrote two fairly well-known works, “The Water-Sprite” and “The Stone Guest,” the story of the latter being closely allied to that of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” In his operas Dargomijsky seems to have been more or less unconsciously working on the lines of Wagner in the construction of his intermediary recitative sections, and his whole method is one of greater advancement than that of Glinka. His chief follower was Mussorgsky (1839-81), a composer much influenced also by Wagner. He was also an able literary critic. His most famous work was entitled “Judith.”
Borodin ( 1834-87), a capable chemist as well as a skilled musician, has a name for the composition of clever examples of chamber music. To the operatic repertoire he contributed “Prince Igor,” a work following Italian methods to some extent, but still possessing much that stamps its Russian origin. It is one of the few members of its class that are bright and cheerful in tone, with an absence of that pessimism which is the prevalent feature of so much Russian music.
Cesar Cui (born 1835) has composed “Ratcliff,” “‘Angelo,” “Le Flibustier,” and other works, the last mentioned having been produced in Paris. Cui is well known for his able literary articles and contributions to the Russian journals and magazines. Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote several works, among them “Pskovitjanka” and “A May Night.”
The name of Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is well enough known in the concert-rooms of the world. Of all Russian composers his is the name to conjure with, and although one cannot pass unrestrictedly favorable criticism upon all that he composed, we undoubtedly owe to him a very great deal that is surpassingly rich, beautiful, and likely to endure. His genius, however, did not shine at its brightest in the theater, and al-though, like the Bohemian Dvorak, he was attracted again and again to the stage, his work for it has not met with such universal success as that done in other spheres.
Besides his “Eugen Onegin,” which we give, several more fine works proceeded from his fertile pen, some of them still very popular in their own country. The chief are “The Oprichnik,” “Joan of Arc,” “Mazeppa,” and “The Enchantress.” Tchaikovsky attempted many styles, but his individuality was always apparent, some-times with good results and sometimes not. When thesubject of the opera was in accordance with the general trend of his thought, the result was felicitous, but he holds a lower place as a writer of opera than as a creator of symphony, song, and tone-poem.
The sister country of Poland has at present made little claim to achievement in the opera house: the national dances, the polonaise, valse, mazurka. etc., have been utilized by Glinka very effectively, but the only record of Polish opera to hand is the work of the great pianist Paderewski, whose “Manru” is included in our selection. Its music is described as German rather than Polish, and it is not likely to found a new school of composition.
Of more interest is the national opera of Bohemia, with its headquarters at Prague. Among its composers we find the names of Tomaschek (1774-1850), Napravnik (born 1839), and Fibich (1850-1900). More important than these is Smetana (1824-84), who settled in Prague in 1866, at a time when national freedom of thought and language was gaining position in Bohemia. Smetana took advantage of the enthusiasm with which everything national was greeted, and by his incorporation of the folk-songs of the people into his operas, introduced to his country a new form of opera which at once took root and flourished there. The melodies he chose were dear to the hearts of the people ; moreover, they were simply and yet effectively treated, with due knowledge of and consideration for stage effect ; consequently Smetana’s operas are in Bohemia looked upon as the realization of a national ideal.
His pupil and follower, Dvorak (1841-1904), whose name as a composer of symphonies and chamber music is an exalted one, also wrote much for the stage ; in-deed, just before his death a new opera by him, “Armida,” was produced in Prague. But his success, al-though so great and well deserved in other fields, is not comparable with that of Smetana, nor has he ever in the same way touched the hearts of the people. Other works by him are “King and Collier,” “Wanda,” “Der Bauer ein Schelm,” “Demetrius,” and “Rusalka.” There is a promising young group of composers working at Prague, of whose doings we may some day hear more than at present.
Here we may glance at the conditions that govern opera in some of the other European countries, which give evidence of a certain amount of activity; this has, in the main, confined itself up to the present within its own borders. The Scandinavian composers, such as Gade, Grieg, Sinding, etc., whose names are world-known in other fields, have nothing to show us in respect of opera. The opera houses of Christiania and Copenhagen are active and busy, but they produce little indigenous opera, nor does the fame of that little travel very far. The Spaniards and Portuguese also have no claim to distinction as composers of opera, the name of Arrieta, we take it. being little known, al-though he is the most famous of Spanish musicians so far as dramatic writing is concerned. Interest in the opera of these countries is the work of the specialist, rather than of the general writer.