Vail on Rimsky-Korsakov

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December 28, 2004 by AK

Peter Vail, a distinguished Russian émigré writer, speaks of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kitezh:

Fortunately, this historical injustice is being removed now. Rimsky-Korsakov created The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh as a national idea. No doubt Wagner was an influence on him. Wagner influenced everybody, even the mighty Verdi, his irreconcilable rival, to say nothing of other composers. One can just hear Wagner in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music but we aren’t even talking about music here. Wagner managed to create in his operas, first of all in The Ring and Parsifal, a German national idea. Rimsky-Korsakov, who called Kitezh “the Russian Parsifal,” created a Russian national idea.

A historical injustice, a historic misfortune ocrrured: the opera was written in 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908, and a few years later, you know what happened; the opera’s religious content was declared obscurantist.

I know little of Rimsky-Korsakov but I’m sure the bit on Wagnerian influence is right. I have a problem with The Ring as an embodiment of a national idea. Simply put, how can an epic where all the heroes die, all lovers part or betray, and even the gods perish, where forebodings of woe embitter the sweetest joys, where

Nothing begins, and nothing ends

That is not paid with moan —

how can this saga serve as a political nation’s guiding light I can’t imagine. (To say nothing of the cathartic self-sacrifice.) We might as well attribute to Sophocles the creation of the Hellenic Politic Idea. The Ring could become the kind of shared cultural legacy that The Iliad and The Odyssey once were, but it’s a different matter altogether.

Sure enough, one can drag Siegfried out of the tale, make him into a big fearless guy with a cudgel (the sword that is) and send him to kill the dragon and wake the sleeping beauty. No tragic stuff at all, just strife and victory: the sort of vulgarization that is the root of most evil.

This said, Vail is normally smart, witty and ingenious — if a bit shallow — and his writings, including those co-authored with Alexander Genis, are highly recommended.


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