Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is of all poets Russia’s most beloved, widely quoted and extensively set to music. Hot tempered and apparently conceited in person, in his writing he displayed a deft if often sardonic wit, keen and often compassionate observation and a worldliness which recalled the English poet he most admired, Lord Byron.
What makes his achievement extraordinary, though, is that he managed to express all this in Russian, a language that had been previously despised by all educated Russians as belonging to peasants and much inferior to French. While Pushkin shared their admiration of French literature, he was able to match its qualities – and more – while writing in his native tongue. Besides poetry, Pushkin pioneered almost every significant genre in Russian literature including historic drama (Boris Godunov), historical romance (Poltava: the basis of Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa), the novel (Eugene Onegin), and the supernatural tale (Queen of Spades).
Perhaps ironically, Pushkin was never a connoisseur of music. He regularly tripped over people’s feet as he arrived late for the ballet, which he attended entirely to ogle the ladies. Yet he was fascinated by Mozart: the opera Don Giovanni inspired his own drama The Stone Guest (itself turned into an opera by Dargomyzhsky), and he wrote a dramatic scene concerning the relationship between Mozart and Salieri (which Rimsky-Korsakov made into an opera). He was also acquainted with Glinka, who hoped the poet would adapt his folklore-style epic Ruslan and Ludmila into a libretto for operatic setting: alas, only months after the historic premiere of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, Pushkin was shot in a duel which he himself had called to defend his wife’s honour.