Ready, steady, Gogol
Born in Ukraine, the son of a playwright, Nikolay travelled aged 19 to the Imperial capital of St Petersburg in 1828 to make his living. There, after failed attempts to become an actor, a painter, a bureaucrat and finally a teacher, he found his vocation as a writer and in effect became a pioneer of magic realism. His first collection of stories Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka blend earthy Ukrainian peasants and their daily life, loves and machinations with such supernatural beings as devils and witches, often to comic effect. Similarly in his more acerbic tales set in the St Petersburg he knew, he combines the most incredible events into the lives of petty and unexceptional characters (for instance, see Shostakovich The Nose below).
His works, like Pushkin's, have inspired dozens of Russian composers including Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Shchedrin, but also such non-Russians as Janáček, Martinů; and even the English composer Humphrey Searle. Here are some of the most celebrated Gogol-inspired works:
St John’s Night on Bare Mountain
Based on an episode from Evenings on a Farm, Musorgsky composed at least three versions of this famous depiction of a Witches Sabbath (memorably visualised in Disney’s Fantasia): one for orchestra only, another for chorus, soloists and orchestra, and one to be included in his never completed opera Sorochintsy Fair. Most famous, though, is the orchestral version arranged after Musorgsky’s death by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov from the second chorus and soloist version.
Janáček’s orchestral rhapsody in three movements, composed during the First World War, reflects the violence and fierce pride of Gogol’s eponymous Cossack hero, who while at war with the Poles kills one son (for turning traitor in his love for a Polish woman), witnesses another being broken on the wheel, and himself dies a fiery death at the hands of the enemy.
The Tsarina’s Slippers (based on Christmas Eve)
A village blacksmith and part-time icon painter, Vakula, makes an unflattering portrayal of the devil. His infernal majesty takes offence and causes havoc by having an affair with the painter’s mother, the local witch, and by interfering both with Vakula’s love life. Eventually the hero hitches a ride on the devil to St Petersburg in order to obtain a pair of slippers from the Tsarina for his beloved. Tchaikovsky, who loved this story from childhood, jumped at the chance of writing an opera on it. He made two versions, the later one due to receive its first Royal Opera House staging this November as The Tsarina’s Slippers.
Tchaikovsky’s friendly rival, Rimsky-Korsakov, also longed to make Christmas Eve into an opera, but was so in awe of his colleague that he only had the courage to do so after Tchaikovsky’s death; the result predictably plays more on the magical and fantastical elements of the story.
This surreal and wildly virtuosic work, based on Gogol’s story about a St Petersburg official who loses his nose only to discover that part of his anatomy taking on its own social life and assuming a higher rank than himself, was Shostakovich’s debut as an opera composer. It was with this work that Valery Gergiev showcased the exceptional talents of his Mariinsky Opera and with which he launched the new Mariinsky record label (reviewed in the July issue).
Rodion Shchedrin composed an opera after this story about an ambitious nobleman who attempts to inflate his importance by fabricating his ownership of as many serfs as possible; this he does by purchasing the ownership of dead serfs which are still registered as living.
Audio clip: Musorgsky – Night on a Bare Mountain
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi