Friday, January 01, 2010

Turgenev's interest in Music

From Turgenev's works and letters it is quite easy to see who were the composers closest to his heart: Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert (whose music also makes an appearance in Fathers and Children). But still, one cannot help asking how Turgenev, who didn't play a single instrument and was hardly competent enough to read a musical score, acquired so fine a knowledge of the treasures of Western European music that allowed him to give such inspired descriptions of music in his novels and stories? Of course, given the subject we are dealing with, it is impossible not to mention Pauline Viardot and her fateful influence on Turgenev...

Pauline Viardot. 1840s.
Pauline Viardot 1840s, Drawing by P.F. Sokolov
Stay! As I now see you – stay forever like that in my memory!
The last inspired sound has escaped your lips – your eyes are not shining nor sparkling – they have faded, weighed down by happiness, by the blissful consciousness of that beauty to which you were able to give expression, of that beauty in whose name you now hold out your triumphant, exhausted hands! [...]
Stay! And let me partake of your immortality, let fall into my soul a reflection of your immortality!
Those are the opening and closing words of one of Turgenev's most famous Poems in Prose, which he wrote down in 1879 but which evokes that moment when the twenty-five-year-old poet first set eyes on Pauline Viardot, on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg. (This opera house, also known as the Kamennyi Theatre, was reconverted, at the end of the 19th century, into the present building of the St Petersburg Conservatory). In that moment she had perhaps just finished singing Rosina's brilliant aria in The Barber of Seville (Rosina was one of her most famous roles) or an equally beatiful one of Amina's in La Sonnambula. We do not know in which role Turgenev heard her first, but at any rate it is clear that he attended probably all of her subsequent performances during that unforgettable season of the Italian Opera in St Petersburg (1843/44), and that after finally having been introduced to her, he belonged to her for the rest of his life.

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