THE DAWN OF MUSIC IN RUSSIA
HE early history of the development of the national music, like that of most popular movements in Russia, has its aspects of oppression and conflict with authority. On the one hand we see a strong natural impulse moving irresistibly towards fulfilment; on the other, a policy of repression amounting at moments to active persecution. That the close of the nineteenth century has witnessed the triumph of Russian music at home and abroad proves how strong was the innate capacity of this people, and how deep their love of this art, since otherwise they could never have finally overcome every hindrance to its development. That from primitive times the Slavs were easily inspired and moved by music, and that they practised it in very early phases of their civilisation, their early historians are all agreed. In the legend of “Sadko, the Rich Merchant” (one of the byline of the Novgorodian
Cycle) the hero, a kind of Russian Orpheus, who suffers the fate of Jonah, makes the Sea-king dance to the sound of his gusslee, and only stays his hand when the wild gyrations of the marine deity have created such a storm on earth that all the ships on the ocean above are in danger of being wrecked. In the “Epic of the Army of Igor,” when the minstrel Boyan sings, he draws “the grey wolf over the fields, and the blue-black eagle from the clouds.” In peace and war, music was the joy of the primitive Slavs. In the sixth century the Wends told the Emperor in Constantinople that music was their greatest pleasure, and that on their travels they never carried arms but musical instruments which they made themselves. Procopius, the Byzantine historian, describing a night attack made by the Greeks, A.D. 592, upon the camp of the Slavs, says that the latter were so completely absorbed in the delights of singing that they had forgotten to take any precautionary measures, and were oblivious of the enemy’s approach. Early in their history, the Russian Slavs used a considerable number of musical instruments: the gusslee, a kind of horizontal harp, furnished with seven or eight strings, and the svirel, a reed pipe (chalumet), being the most primitive. Soon, however, we read of the goudok, a species of fiddle with three strings, played with a bow; the dombra,
an instrument of the guitar family, the forerunner of the now fashionable balalaïka, the strings of which were vibrated with the fingers; and the bandoura, or kobza, of the Malo-Russians, which had from eight to twenty strings. Among the primitive wind instruments were the sourna, a shrill pipe of Eastern origin, and the doudka, the bagpipe, or cornemuse. The drum, the tambourine, and the cymbals were the instruments of percussion chiefly in use.
Berezovsky makes a convenient division of the history of Russian music into four great periods. The first, within its limits, was purely national. It included all the most ancient folksongs and byline, or metrical legends; it saw the rise and fall of the Skomorokhi, the minstrels who were both the composers and preservers of these old epics and songs. This period reached its highest development in the reign of Vladimir, “The Red Sun,” first Christian prince of Russia, about A.D. 988. The second period, which Berezovsky describes as already falling away from the purely national ideal, dates from the establishment of Christianity in Russia, at the close of the tenth century, when the folk music lost much of its independence and fell under Byzantine influence. Russian music entered upon its third period about the middle of the eighteenth century; national
songs now regained some of their former importance, but its progress was checked because the tastes of Western Europe were already paramount in the country. Italian music had reached the capital and long held the field. The first twenty years of the nineteenth century witnessed a passionate revival of interest in the national music, and when, in 1836, Glinka created A Life for the Tsar, he inaugurated a fourth period in the history of national art, the limits of which have yet to be ultimately defined.
Of the first, the primitive period in Russian music, there are few records beyond the allusions to the love of minstrelsy which we find in the earliest known songs and legends of the Russian Slavs. When we reach the second period, at which the national music entered upon a struggle with the spiritual authorities, we begin to realise from the intolerance of the clerical attitude how deeply the art must have already laid hold upon the spirit of the people. Whether from a desire to be faithful to oriental asceticism, and to the austere spirit which animated the Church during the first centuries which followed the birth of Christ, or because of the need to keep a nation so recently converted, and still so deeply impregnated with paganism, fenced off from all contaminating influences, the Church soon waged relentless war upon every description of profane recreation. The Orthodox
clergy were not only opposed to music, but to every form of secular art. Moreover the folksongs were of pagan origin; therefore, just as the priests of to-day still look askance at the songs and legends of the Brittany peasants which perpetuate the memory of heathen customs, so the Byzantine monks of the eleventh century, and onwards, denounced the national songs of Russia as being hostile to the spirit of Christianity. Songs, dances, and spectacular amusements were all condemned. Even at the weddings of the Tsars, as late as the seventeenth century, dancing and singing were rigorously excluded, only fanfares of trumpets, with the music of flutes and drums, and fireworks, being permitted. Professor Milioukhov, in his “Sketch for a History of Russian Culture,” quotes one of the austere moralists of mediæval times who condemns mirth as a snare of the evil one; “laughter does not edify or save us; on the contrary it is the ruin of edification. Laughter displeases the Holy Spirit and drives out virtue, because it makes men forget death and eternal punishment. Lord, put mirth away from me; give me rather tears and lamentations.” So persistent and effectual was the repression of all secular enjoyments that one monkish chronicler was able to remark with evident satisfaction that, for the time being, “there was silence in all the land of Russia.”
Under these conditions the primitive music had little chance of development. Driven from the centres of dawning civilisation, it took refuge in forest settlements and remote villages. With it fled the bards and the mummers, the gleemen—those “merry lads” as the Russians called them—so dear to the hearts of the people. These musicians were originally of two classes: minstrels and gusslee players (harpists), such as the famous Skald, Bayan; and the Skomorokhi, or mummers, who sang and juggled for the diversion of the people. In course of time we find allusions to several subdivisions in the band of Skomorokhi, all of which may now be said to have their modern equivalents in Russia. There was the Skomorokh-pievets, or singer of the mythical or heroic songs, who afterwards became absorbed into the ranks of the poets with the rise of a school of poetry at the close of the sixteenth century; the Skomorokh-goudets, who played for dancing, and was afterwards transformed into the orchestral player, exchanging his gusslee or dombra for some more modern western instrument; the Skomorokh-plyassoun, the dancer, now incorporated in the corps-de-ballet; and the Skomorokh-gloumosslovets, the buffoon or entertainer, who eventually became merged in the actor.
Monkish persecution could not entirely stamp out the love of music in the land. To attain
that end it would have been necessary to uproot the very soul of the nation. Despite the fulminations of the clergy, the nobles still secretly cherished and patronised their singers, who beguiled the tedium of the long winters in their poteshni palati. These dependents of the aristocracy were the first actors known to the Russians. At the same time such fanatical teaching could not fail to alter in some degree the temper of a people wholly uneducated and prone to superstition. The status of the minstrels gradually declined. They ceased to be “welcome guests” in hut and hall, and the Skomorokhi degenerated into companies of roving thieves, numbering often from fifty to a hundred, who compelled the peasants to supply them with food, as they moved from place to place, driven onward by their clerical denunciators. By way of compromise, the gleemen now appear to have invented a curious class of song which they called “spiritual,” in which pagan and Christian sentiments were mingled in a strange and unedifying jumble. The pure delight of singing having been condemned as a sin, and practised more or less sub rosa, the standard of songs became very much corrupted. The degeneracy of music and kindred forms of recreation was most probably the outcome of this intolerant persecution. But though they had helped to bring about this state of affairs,
there was no doubt something to be said for the attitude of the clergy, if we may believe the testimony of western travellers in Russia in the sixteenth century. The minstrels in the service of the richer nobles deteriorated as a class, and claimed their right to give entertainments in towns and villages, which were often of scandalous coarseness and profanity. The same may be said of the puppet-shows (Koukolnaya teatr), of somewhat later date, the abominable performances of which shocked the traveller Adam Olearius when he accompanied the ambassador sent by Frederick Duke of Holstein to the Great Duke of Muscovy in 1634 and 1636. The long struggle between spiritual authority and the popular craving for secular recreation continued until the reign of Alexis Mikhaïlovich (1645-1676).
In a measure the Church was successful in turning the thoughts of the people from worldly amusements to the spiritual drama enacted within her doors. During these long dark centuries, when Russia had neither universities nor schools, nor any legitimate means of recreation, the people found a dramatic sensation in the elaborate and impressive ritual of the Orthodox Church. Patouillet, in his book “Le Théâtre de Mœurs Russes,” says: “the iconostasis, decorated with paintings, erected between the altar and the faithful, resembles, with its
three doors, an antique proscenium. The ‘imperial’ door, reserved for the officiating priest, and formerly for the Emperor, recalls by its name, if not by its destination, the ‘royal’ entrance of the Greek theatre. Thus there is, as it were, a double scene being enacted, one which takes place before the eyes of the congregation, the other hidden from them during certain portions of the ritual, particularly at the moment of the ‘Holy Mysteries’ (the Consecration of the elements). These alternations of publicity and mystery; the celebrant reappearing and disappearing; the deacon, who goes in and out at the side doors and stands upon the Ambon, like a kind of λογεἱον, to declare the divine word to the assembled Christians, dialoguing sometimes with them, sometimes with the officiating priest; the double choir of singers, arranged even in this day on each side of the iconostasis, and finally the attitude of the faithful themselves—rather that of a crowd of spectators than of participants—all these details formed a spectacle full of dramatic interest in times of simple faith.”
On certain religious festivals, allegorical representations, such as the Washing of the Feet and the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem, were enacted in public places. The early marriage service of the Orthodox Church, with its pompous religious ceremonial and social
customs, such as the pretended lamentations of the bride, and the choruses of the young girls, held distinctly dramatic elements. In these ecclesiastical ceremonies and social usages may be traced the first germs of the Russian drama.
In Western Russia we find the school drama (Shkolnaya-drama) established in the ecclesiastical Academy of Kiev as early as the close of the fifteenth century. The students used to recite the events of the Nativity in public places and illustrate their words by the help of the Vertep, a kind of portable retable on which were arranged figures representing the Birth of Christ. The Passion of Our Lord was represented in the same way, and the recital was interspersed with choral singing, and not infrequently with interludes of a secular or comic nature. This form of drama had found its way into Russia from Poland. In 1588 Giles Fletcher, Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador to Russia, gives an account of a representation in Moscow, which reminds us of the Scoppio del Carro, the Easter ceremony at Florence, when a mechanical dove carrying the “Pazzi fire,” lit from the sacred flint brought back from the Holy Sepulchre, is set rushing along a wire from the altar to the car, hung about with fireworks, which stands outside the great West Door of the Duomo. When the bird comes in
contact with the car the pyrotechnical display is ignited, and if all goes without a hitch the vintage and harvest will prosper.
Says Fletcher: “The weeke before the Nativitie of Christ every bishop in his cathedral church setteth forth a shew of the three children in the oven. Where the Angell is made to come flying from the roof of the church, with great admiration of the lookers-on, and many terrible flashes of fire are made with rosen and gun-powder by the Chaldeans (as they call them), that run about the town all the twelve days, disguised in their plaiers coats, and make much good sport for the honour of the bishop’s pageant. At the Mosko, the emperour himselfe and the empress never faile to be at it, though it be but the same matter plaid every yeere, without any new invention at all.”
Dr. Giles Fletcher was a member of the family so well-known in the history of English literature; he was the uncle of John Fletcher, the dramatist, and the father of Phineas Fletcher, the author of the poem “The Purple Island.” How naïve and almost barbarous must this Russian mystery play have seemed to the Englishman who had probably witnessed some of the innumerable comedies, tragi-comedies, farces, and tragedies which were then enacted
at home in the universities, the Inns of Court, and elsewhere; and who may very likely already have frequented the theatre in Blackfriars or Shoreditch, and seen the plays of Marlowe and Greene, although as yet hardly anything of Shakespeare!
Ivan the Terrible (1533-1584), who first sent for printers from Germany and published the earliest Russian book (containing the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles) in 1564, did nothing towards the secular education of his Court or of the people. Nor was there much progress in this respect in the reign of Boris Godounov (1598-1605). Secular dramatic art continued to be discouraged by the Church, without any patronage being accorded to it in high places until the reign of Alexis Mikhaïlovich. This prince, who may justly be called the founder of a national theatre in Russia, showed a real interest in the fine arts. He summoned a few musicians to Moscow, who taught the Russians the use of instruments hitherto unused by them. This encouragement of music at his Court provoked a final outburst of clerical intolerance. In 1649, by order of the Patriarch Joseph, all the musical instruments in the city of Moscow were confiscated and burnt in the open market place. Those belonging to the Tsar’s private band were spared, perhaps from a fear of offending their
royal patron, but more probably because their owners, being Germans, were welcome to go to perdition in their own way.
When we come to the middle of the seventeenth century and the advent of the enlightened Alexis Mikhaïlovich, the history of Russian drama, so closely associated with that of its opera, assumes a more definite outline. This prince married Natalia Naryshkin, the adopted daughter of the Boyard Artamon Matveiev. Matveiev’s wife was of Scottish origin—her maiden name was Hamilton—so that the outlook of this household was probably somewhat cosmopolitan. The Tsaritsa Natalia was early interested in the theatre; partly perhaps because she had heard of it from her adopted parents, but most probably her taste was stimulated by witnessing one of the performances which were given from time to time among the foreigners in the German quarter of Moscow. Lord Carlisle, in his “Relation of Three Embassies from His Majesty Charles II. to the Great Duke of Moscovy,” makes mention of one of these performances in 1664. He says: “Our Musique-master composed a Handsome Comedie in Prose, which was acted in our house.”
Travelled nobles and ambassadors also told of the great enjoyment derived from the theatre in Western Europe. Likhatchev, who was sent
to Florence in 1658, wrote with naïve enthusiasm of an opera which he had seen there; but he seems to have been more impressed by the scenic effects, which included a moving sea filled with fish, and a vanishing palace, than by the music which accompanied these wonders. Potemkin, who represented the Tsar at the Court of the Grand Monarque, saw Molière’s company in “Amphitryon” in 1668, and doubtless communicated his impressions to his sovereign. But before this date, as early as 1660, Alexis Mikhaïlovich had given orders to an Englishman in his service to engage for him “Master Glassblowers, Master Engravers and Master Makers of comedies.” It was long, however, before Russia actually attained to the possession of this last class of workers. Finally, incited by his wife’s tastes, by the representations of his more polished nobles, and not a little by personal inclinations, Alexis issued an Oukaz, on May 15th, 1672, ordering Count Von-Staden to recruit in Courland all kinds “of good master workmen, together with very excellent skilled trumpeters, and masters who would know how to organise plays.” Unfortunately the reputation of Russia as a dwelling-place was not attractive. Doubtless the inhabitants of Eastern Europe still spoke with bated breath of the insane cruelties of Ivan the Terrible which had taken place a hundred years earlier. At
any rate the Courlanders showed no great anxiety to take service under the Tsar, and Staden returned from his mission to Riga and other towns, in December, 1672, with only “one trumpeter” and “four musicians.” Nevertheless the Oukaz itself is an important landmark in the cultural evolution of Russia, marking, according to Tikhonraviev, the end of her long term of secular isolation as regards the drama. These five imported musicians formed the nucleus of what was to expand one day into the orchestra of the Imperial Opera.
Alexis Mikhaïlovich was evidently impatient to see some kind of drama enacted at his Court; for in June of the same year, without waiting for “the masters who would know how to organise plays,” he determined to celebrate the birthday of his son Peter—later to be known as Peter the Great—with a theatrical performance. The Tsar therefore commissioned Yagan (otherwise Johann) Gottfried Gregory, one of the protestant pastors residing in the German quarter of Moscow, to write a play, or “act” as it is described in the Tsar’s edict, dealing with the Biblical subject of Esther. As a temporary theatre, a room was specially arranged at Preobrajensky, a village on the outskirts of Moscow which now forms part of the city. Red and green hangings, carpets and tapestries of various sorts were lent from the Tsar’s
household to decorate the walls and the seats of honour; the bulk of the audience, however, had to content themselves with bare wooden benches. The scenery was painted by a Dutchman named Peter Inglis, who received the pompous title of “Master-Perspective-Maker.” The Boyard Matveiev, the Tsaritsa’s adoptive father, took an active interest in the organisation of this primitive theatre, and was appointed about this time, “Director of the Tsar’s Entertainments,” being in fact the forerunner of the later “Intendant” or Director of the Imperial Opera. Pastor Gregory, aided by one or two teachers in the German school, wrote the text of a “tragi-comedy” entitled The Acts of Artaxerxes. Gregory, who had been educated at the University of Jena, probably selected just such a subject as he had been accustomed to see presented in German theatres in his early youth. Although he had long resided in Moscow he does not seem to have acquired complete command of the Russian language, which was then far from being the subtle and beautiful medium of expression which it has since become. The tragi-comedy was written in a strange mixture of Russian and German, and we read that he had the assistance of two translators from the Chancellery of Ambassadors. A company numbering sixty-four untrained actors was placed at his service; they were drawn
from among the children of foreign residents and from the better class of tradesfolk. Music evidently played an important part in the performance; the orchestra consisting of Germans, and of servants from Matveiev’s household who played on “organs, viols and other instruments.” The organist of the German church, Simon Gutovsky, was among the musicians. A chorus also took part in the play, consisting of the choir of the Court Chapel, described as “the Imperial Singing-Deacons.”
The actual performance of The Acts of Artaxerxes took place on October 17th, 1672 (O.S.), and is said to have lasted ten hours, making demands upon the endurance of the audience which puts Wagnerian enthusiasts completely to shame. The Tsar watched the spectacle with unflagging attention and afterwards generously rewarded those who had taken part in the performance. The attitude of the clergy had so far changed that the Tsar’s chaplain, the Protopope Savinov, undertook to set at rest his master’s last scruples of conscience by pointing to the example of the Greek emperors and other potentates.
Gaining courage, and also a growing taste for this somewhat severe form of recreation, Alexis went on to establish a more permanent theatrical company. In the following year (1673) Pastor Gregory was commanded to
instruct twenty-six young men, some drawn from the clerks of the Chancellery of State, others from the lower orders of the merchants or tradespeople, who were henceforth to be known as “the Comedians of His Majesty the Tsar.” At first the audience consisted only of the favoured intimate circle of the Tsar, and apparently no ladies were present; but after a time the Tsaritsa and the Tsarevnas were permitted to witness the performance from the seclusion of a Royal Box protected by a substantial grille. The theatre was soon transferred from Preobrajensky to the Poteshny Dvorets in the Kremlin.
The Acts of Artaxerxes was followed by a series of pieces, nearly all of a highly edifying nature, written or arranged by Gregory and others: Tobias, The Chaste Joseph, Adam and Eve, Orpheus and Eurydice (with couplets and choruses) and How Judith cut off the head of Holofernes. The libretto of the last-named play is still in existence, and gives us some idea of the patient endurance of primitive theatre-goers in Russia. It is in seven acts, subdivided into twenty-nine scenes, with a prologue and an interlude between the third and fourth acts; the characters number sixty-three; all the female parts were acted by youths. The libretto is constructed more or less on the plan of the German comedies of the period, but what gives
the piece a special importance in the history of Russian opera is the fact that it contains arias and choruses linked with the action of the piece, such as the Song of the Kings, in which they bewail their sad fate when taken captive by Holofernes, a soldier’s Drinking Song, a Love-Song sung by Vagav at Judith’s feast, and a Jewish Song of Victory, the words of which are paraphrased from Biblical sources. The author is supposed, without much foundation in fact, to have been Simeon Polotsky, of whom we shall hear later. The piece was probably translated from German sources. A custom was then started, which prevailed for a considerable time in Russia, of confiding the translation of plays to the clerks in the Chancellery of the Ambassadors, which department answered in some measure to our Foreign Office. The composer of the music is unknown, but Cheshikin, in his “History of Russian Opera,” considers himself fully justified in describing it as the first Russian opera. Two hundred years later Serov composed a popular opera on the subject of Judith, an account of which will be found on page 150.
All the Russian operas of the eighteenth century follow this style of drama, or comedy, with some musical numbers interpolated; it is the type of opera which is known in Germany as the Singspiel. As Judith represents the
prototype of many succeeding Russian operas, a few details concerning it will not be out of place here. The work is preserved in manuscript in the Imperial Public Library. It is evident that the dramatic action was strongly supported by the music; for instance, to quote only one scenic direction in the piece, “Seloum beats the drum and cries aloud,” alarm is here expressed by the aid of trumpets and drums. The action develops very slowly, and the heroine does not appear until the fourth act. In Act I. Nebuchadnezzar and his great men take counsel about the invasion of Judea; the king summons Holofernes and appoints him leader of his army. In Act II. the sufferings of the Jews are depicted; and the embassy to Holofernes from the Asiatic kings. Act III. is concerned with the speech which the God-fearing man Achior delivers in honour of Israel, in the presence of Holofernes; and with the wrath of the leader who orders the punishment of Achior. Act IV. contains a conversation between Judith and her handmaiden Arboya about the miserable plight of Judea. In Act V. occurs the Lament of Israel: Judith persuades the people not to capitulate to Holofernes and prays God to come to their rescue. Act VI., Judith’s Farewell to the Jewish Elders, and her departure for the camp of Holofernes; she slays Holofernes and the Jews return to
Bethulia. The whole work concludes with Israel’s Song of Victory. Side by side with these dramatic scenes are interpolated comic interludes in the characteristic German style of the seventeenth century. The language contains many Germanisms and South Russian locutions, as though the translator had been a Malo-Russian. The piece is certainly tedious and contains much sententious moralising, with a reflection of sentiment which seems to belong peculiarly to the Orthodox Church. The pious tone of the work was indispensable at that period, and it was not until the Tsar’s patronage of the drama became more assured that Pastor Gregory ventured on the production of a secular play founded on a distant echo of Marlowe’s “Tamerlane the Great” (1586), written on the same lines as Judith, and containing also musical numbers.
Besides pieces of the nature of the Singspiel, Patouillet tells us that there were ballets at the Court of Alexis Mikhaïlovich. School dramas were in vogue at the Ecclesiastical Academy (of Zaikonospasskaya), for which Simeon Polotsky, and later on Daniel Touptalo (afterwards canonised as Saint Dimitri of Rostov), wrote sacred plays. Polotsky, educated at the Academy of Kiev, joined the Ecclesiastical School of Moscow, in 1660, as professor of Latin. He adapted, or wrote, St. Alexis, Nebuchadnezzar,
The Golden Calf, and the Three Children who were not consumed in the Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son. The last-named play was undoubtedly performed before the Court, and was reprinted in 1685 with a number of plates showing the costumes of the actors and spectators.
Dimitri of Rostov, who was also a student at Kiev, composed a series of Mystery Plays with rhymed verse. The Prodigal Son, by Simeon Polotsky, says Patouillet, “had interludes which have not been preserved, and in Dimitri of Rostov’s Nativity, the scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds was long in favour on account of a certain naïve folk-style of diction” None of these plays can be claimed as literature, but they are interesting as marking the transition from sacred to secular drama, and in some of them there was a faint reflection of contemporary manners. But this was not a spontaneous or popular movement; it was merely a Court ordinance. The clerks and artisans who were trained as actors often took part in these spectacles against the wish of their parents, who were only partly reconciled by the Tsar’s example to seeing their sons adopt what they had long been taught to regard as a disorderly and irreligious career. Because the movement had no roots in the life of the people it could not flourish healthily. When Alexis
died in 1670, the “Chamber of Comedians” was closed, Matveiev was exiled, and there was a reaction in favour of asceticism.
But the impetus had been given, and henceforth the drama was never to be entirely banished from Russian life. Some of the westernised Boyards now maintained private theatres—just as their ancestors had maintained the bards and the companies of Skomorokhi—in which were played pieces based upon current events or upon folk legends; while the School Drama long continued to be given within the walls of the Ecclesiastical Academy of Zaikonospasskaya. Thus the foundations of Russian dramatic art, including also the first steps towards the opera and the ballet, were laid before the last decade of the seventeenth century.
The advent of Peter the Great to the throne was not on the whole favourable to music. The fine arts made no special appeal to the utilitarian mind of this monarch. Music had now ceased to be regarded as one of the seven deadly sins, but suffered almost a worse fate, since in the inrush of novel cosmopolitan ideas and customs the national songs seem for a time to have been completely forgotten. With the drama things advanced more quickly. Peter the Great, who conceived his mission in life to be the more or less forcible union of Russia with Western Europe, realised the importance of the theatre
as a subordinate means to this end. During his travels abroad he had observed the influence exercised by the drama upon the social life of other countries. In 1697 he was present at a performance of the ballet “Cupidon,” at Amsterdam, and in Vienna and London he heard Italian opera, which was just coming into vogue in this country, and waxed enthusiastic over the singing of our prima donna Cross. During his sojourn in Vienna he took part himself, attired in the costume of a Friesland peasant, in a pastoral pageant (Wirthschaft) given at the Court. Thus the idea of reorganising the “Comedians’ Chamber” founded by his father was suggested to him. As Alexis had formerly sent Von-Staden to find foreign actors for Russia, so Peter now employed a Slovak, named Splavsky, a captain in the Russian army, on a similar mission. The Boyard Golovin was also charged with the erection of a suitable building near to the Kremlin. After two journeys, Splavsky succeeded in bringing back to Russia a German troupe collected by an entrepreneur in Dantzig, Johann Christian Kunst. At first the actors were as unwilling to come as were those of a previous generation, having heard bad accounts of the country from a certain Scottish adventurer, Gordon, who had been connected with a puppet-show, and who seems to have been a bad character and to have
been punished with the knout for murder. Finally, in April, 1702, Kunst signed a contract by which his principal comedians undertook for the yearly sum of about 4,200 roubles in the present currency “to make it their duty like faithful servants to entertain and cheer His Majesty the Tsar by all sorts of inventions and diversions, and to this end to keep always sober, vigilant and in readiness.” Kunst’s company consisted of himself, designated “Director of the Comedians of His Majesty the Tsar,” his wife Anna, and seven actors. Hardly had he settled in Moscow before he complained that Splavsky had hastened his departure from Germany before he had had time or opportunity to engage good comedians skilled in “singing-plays.” The actors played in German, but a certain number of clerks in the Chancellery of the Embassies were sent to Kunst to be taught the repertory in Russian. It was not until 1703 that the first public theatre in Russia, a wooden building, was erected near the Kremlin in Moscow. Meanwhile the plays were given at the residence of General Franz Lefort, in the German quarter of the city. Here, on the occasion of the state entry of Peter into Moscow, Kunst performed Alexander and Darius, followed by The Cruelty of Nero, a comedy in seven acts, Le Médecin malgré lui, and Mahomet and
Zulima, a comedy interspersed with songs and dances. The new theatre was a genuine attempt on the part of the Tsar Peter to bring this form of entertainment within reach of a larger public than the privileged circle invited to witness the plays given at the Court of Alexis. For the country and period, the installation was on quite a sumptuous scale. There were seats at four prices: ten, six, five and three kopecks. In 1704 there were two performances in the week which usually lasted about five hours, from five to ten p.m. Peter the Great gave orders in 1705 that the pieces should be given alternately in Russian and German, and that at the performance of the plays “the musicians were to play on divers instruments.” Russians of all ranks, and foreigners, were bidden to attend “as they pleased, quite freely, having nothing to fear.” On the days of performance the gates leading into the Kremlin, the Kitaï-gorod and the Bieli-gorod were left open till a later hour in order to facilitate the passage of theatre-goers. From the outset Kunst demanded facilities for the mounting of opera, and also an orchestra. Seven musicians were engaged by special contract in Hamburg and an agent was commissioned “to purchase little boys in Berlin with oboes and pipes.” By this time a few Russian magnates had started private bands in imitation of those maintained by some
of the nobility in Germany. Prince Gregory Oginsky contributed four musicians from his private band for the royal service in Moscow. To the director of the musicians from Hamburg, Sienkhext, twelve Russian singers were handed over to be taught the oboe. We learn nothing as to the organisation of a company of singers, because in all probability, in accordance with the custom of those days, the actors were also expected to be singers.
In the comedy of Scipio Africanus, and The Fall of Sophonisba, The Numidian Queen, an adaptation from Loenstein’s tragedy Sophonisba (1666), short airs and other incidental music formed part of the play. Music also played a subordinate part in an adaptation of Cicconini’s tragic opera Il tradimento per l’honore, overo il vendicatore pentito (Bologna, 1664), and in an adaptation of Molière’s Don Juan. These and other pieces from the repertory of the day were culled from various European sources, but almost invariably passed into the Russian through the intermediary of the German language. The work continued to be carried on in the Chancellery of the Embassies, where alone could be found men with some knowledge of foreign tongues. The translations were perfunctory and inaccurate, and there is no literary vitality whatever in the productions of this period, unless it is found in the interludes of a
somewhat coarse humour which found more favour with the uncultivated public than did the pieces themselves. Simeon Smirnov was the first Russian who wrote farcical interludes of this kind, which were almost as rough and scandalous as the plays of the Skomorokhi of earlier centuries. It cannot be proved that in the time of Peter the Great an opera in the sense of a drama in which music preponderated was ever put upon the stage, but it is an undoubted fact, according to Cheshikin, that there exists the manuscript of a libretto for an opera on the subject of Daphne. It seems to be the echo of what had taken place in Florence at least a hundred years previously, when translations of the book of “Daphne,” composed by Caccini and Peri in 1594, gradually made their way into various parts of Europe. In 1635 we hear of its being given in Warsaw in the original Italian, and two or three years later it was translated into Polish, running through three editions; from one of these it was put into Russian early in the eighteenth century by an anonymous author. The manuscript of the translation exists in the Imperial Public Library, under one of the usual voluminous titles of the period, Daphnis pursued by the love of Apollo is changed into a laurel bush, or the Act of Apollo and the fair Daphne; how Apollo conquered the evil snake Python and was himself overcome by little Cupid.
It bears the signature of one Dimitri Ilyinski, graduate of the Slaviano-Latin Academy of Moscow, who appears to have been merely the copyist, not the author, and the date “St. Petersburg, 1715.” The pupils of this Academy kept alive for some time the traditions of the “School Drama” side by side with the official theatre subsidised by the state. The plays continued to consist chiefly of Biblical episodes, and were usually so framed as to be a defence of the Orthodox Church. They were given periodically and were bare of all reference to contemporary life. Side by side with these we may place the allegorical and panegyrical plays performed by the medical students of the great hospital in Moscow. Crude as were the productions of these two institutions they represent, however, the more spontaneous movement of the national life rather than the purely imported literary wares of the official theatre.
Kunst died in 1703, and was succeeded by Otto Fürst, whose Russian name was Artemiem. He was a fair Russian scholar, and in a short time the company became accustomed to playing in the vernacular. But it cannot be said that this tentative national theatre was truly a success. It was a hothouse plant, tended and kept alive by royal favour, and when the Tsar removed his Court to St. Petersburg it gradually failed more and more to hold the
attention of the public. The theatre in the Red Square was demolished before 1707. Fürst’s company, however, continued to give performances at Preobrajensky, the residence of the Tsarevna Natalia Alexseievna, youngest sister of Peter the Great, and later on at the palace of the Tsaritsa Prascovya Feodorovna at Ismailov. The private theatre of this palace was never closed during the life of the widowed Tsaritsa, who died in 1723. Her eldest daughter, the Duchess of Mecklenburg, was fond of all sorts of gaiety; while her second daughter, the Duchess of Courland, afterwards the Empress Anne of Russia, who often visited her mother at Ismailov, was also a lover of the theatre. The ladies in waiting joined Fürst’s pupils in the performance of plays, while the Duchess of Mecklenburg frequently acted as stage manager. The entrance was free, and although the places were chiefly reserved for the courtiers, the public seems to have been admitted somewhat indiscriminately, if we can believe the account of the page in waiting, Bergholds, who says that once his tobacco was stolen from his pocket and that two of his companions complained of losing their silk handkerchiefs.
About 1770 a theatrical company, consisting entirely of native actors and actresses, was established in St. Petersburg under the patronage of the Tsarevna Natalia Alexseievna, who
herself wrote two plays for them to perform. This princess did all in her power to second the efforts of Peter the Great to popularise the drama. In 1720 the Tsar sent Yagoujinsky to Vienna to raise a company of actors who could speak Czech, thinking that they would learn Russian more quickly than the Germans, but the mission was not successful. In 1723 a German company, under the direction of Mann, visited the new capital and gave performances in their own tongue. They were patronised by the Empress Catherine I. At that time the Duke of Holstein, who afterwards married the Tsarevna Anne, was visiting St. Petersburg, and the Court seem to have frequently attended the theatre; but there is no definite record of Mann’s company giving performances of opera. A new theatre was inaugurated in St. Petersburg in 1725, the year of Peter the Great’s death.