Notes 60.1 (2003) 169-171
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Tchaikovsky's Complete Songs: A Companion with Texts and Translations. By Richard Sylvester. (Russian Music Studies.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. [xvi, 349 p. ISBN 0-253-34041-1. $59.95.] Discography, bibliography, indexes, compact disc.
When one considers Tchaikovsky, the immediate association is with ballet and symphonic music; in truth, the composer wrote 103 songs with lyrics by both well-known and unfamiliar poets. Author Richard Sylvester has collected these songs, translated the lyrics from the original Russian, transliterated the Cyrillic characters into letters of the Latin alphabet, and provided fascinating historical background for each. A compact disc containing twenty-two songs performed by notable singers is an added bonus. The result is an unexpected, long-overdue, and welcome labor of love, imbued with intelligent scholarship. [End Page 169]
The book is as meticulously organized as Sylvester's scholarship. A preface delineates the book's purpose and text presentation, and "Transcription from Cyrillic" offers an intriguing and detailed perspective of the challenge inherent in the task of translation and transliteration. The remainder of the book is a chronological song-by-song catalog of the poetry, enlivened by musicological and historical background (names, dates, citation of other treatments of the text, brief musical summaries); a list of recordings rounds out the commentary for each song. An appendix presents a thorough list of singers and recordings, a treasury of biographical and discographical information in itself. The book concludes with an exhaustive bibliography and three indexes: "Song Titles in Russian," "Song Titles in English," and "Index of Names."
The reader can enjoy Tchaikovsky's Complete Songs either as a "read-through" chronology of the composer's life or as a tome of poetry to be consulted when required.
Light verses such as "My genius, my angel, my friend" by Afanasy Fet (p. 2):
You're here, aren't you, light spirit,
My genius, my angel, my friend,
Whispering to me in conversation
As you quietly circle in flight?
contrast dramatically with weightier, more frequently set poetry such as Goethe's "Kennst du das Land?" from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (p. 65):
Know you the land where bay and myrtle grow,
Where heaven's azure vault is deep and pure,
Where lemon and the golden orange bloom
Like fire burning under dense green leaves?
Know you that land? Know you that land?
Though not a musician by training, Sylvester reveals a sensibility, sensitivity, passion, and perception for his material worthy of a qualified musicologist. As a result, Tchaikovsky's Complete Songs is much more than a song anthology or pedantic study. The author couples a sense of humanity with historical perspective, as in the following excerpt:
When the leaders of the revolt of December 1825 were hanged by order of Nicholas I the following summer, two boys, still in their early teens but already fast friends and destined to remain closest comrades the rest of their lives, stood on the Sparrow Hills overlooking Moscow and made a solemn vow. They swore to avenge the "Decembrists"—who had fallen in their attempt to wrest from the Romanovs a constitution for Russia—and to devote their lives to the struggle for "the rights of man." One of the boys was Alexander Herzen, who would become one of Russia's most important writers and thinkers; the other was his friend and ally, the poet NikolayOgaryov, author of the "prayer" that serves as text to the present song ("Prayer At Bedtime"). When in their late teens they entered Moscow University, it was, in Herzen's words, with "the thought that here our dreams would be accomplished, that here we should sow the seeds and lay the foundation of a league ... which would follow in the Decembrists' footsteps, and that we should be in it." (Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen, trans. Constance Garnett [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982], 90).
But, under the eye of Nicholas's secret police, their dreams were not to be accomplished, and after attending the university, first Ogaryov and then Herzen...