10 works that are part of Alexander Pushkin's musical legacy
June 6 is the 222nd birthday of Russian poet, novelist and composer Alexander Pushkin. He was the first Russian writer to achieve international success and is the founder of modern Russian literature. His cultural influence on his homeland and the world is still felt today. While a precise total has not been calculated, the number of art songs and choral works influenced by Pushkin’s poetry are in the several thousands.
His work often is placed into two categories, large-scale operatic works and popular or art songs. While the displacement of his writing into the realm of music doesn’t always do justice to Pushkin’s poetic pose, the musical reincarnations are long lasting and significant.
Here are 10 classical pieces influenced by Pushkin, plus one Soviet rock opera.
Most of the operas influenced by Pushkin take their inspiration from his larger works of prose, with the exception of Little Tragedies. With more than 25 operas that have been staged, excluding ones that are autobiographical, these five excerpts represent only a small amount of his writing transmuted into staged works.
Mikhail Glinka — Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla
Peter Tchaikovsky — Excerpt from ‘Tatiana's Letter Scene’ from Act I of Eugene Onegin
Alexander Borodin — ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Prince Igor
César Cui — A Feast in the Time of Plague
Sergei Rachmaninov — Prelude from The Miserly Knight
Although Pushkin's poetry being set to music was controversial with some music critics and Russian historians of the time, it did not stop composers such as Benjamin Britten, Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov from contributing to the thousands of songs written with the poet in mind. This Russian song tradition is similar to German lieder and fell out of popularity in the mid-20th century. There is a lot of crossover of popular song into staged works. The song “The Fountain of Bakhchysarai,” by Vladimir Vlasov, which is on this list, also is a successful ballet.
Mikhail Glinka — ‘Nochnoy Zefir’ (‘The Night Zephyr’)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov — ‘The Prophet’
Benjamin Britten — The Poet’s Echo: ‘Angel’
Vladimir Vlasov — ‘The Fountain of Bakhchysarai’
Dmitry Shostakovich — Four Romances on Poems by Pushkin: ‘Stanzas’
Bonus: Soviet Rock Opera
The Captain’s Daughter was a historical novel by Pushkin that was adapted into an opera by César Cui. It also has had a few film versions. It is not certain if this version is inspired by the films, opera or the novel, but the excessive synthesizer with strong Russian vocals makes for an interesting rendition nevertheless.
St. Petersburg Rock Opera Theatre — ‘Shvabrin’ from The Captain’s Daughter