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Five Operas and a SymphonyWord and Music in Russian Culture$

Boris Gasparov

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780300106503

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300106503.001.0001

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Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

(p.132) 5 Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades
Five Operas and a Symphony

Boris Gasparov

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky's opera The Queen of Spades, which was based on Alexander Pushkin's short story. It identifies the symbolist and expressionist traits in the opera and suggests that it was a quintessentially Petersburgian tale that absorbed into itself and powerfully contributed to the peculiar spirit of a symbolist city. It also discusses how the sounds of Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades became an overture to the symbolist drama of an imperial city on the road to its collapse.

Keywords:   The Queen of Spades, Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Alexander Pushkin, Petersburgian tale, symbolist city, symbolist drama

A talented writer (unfortunately, as it turned out, afflicted by a mental disease) appeared in Germany who began preaching that compassion is a lowly feeling unworthy of a person with self-respect, and that morality is useful only for those who have a slavish nature.

—Vladimir Solovyov

When Brahms's First Symphony appeared in 1876, critics and the public dubbed it “Beethoven's Tenth.” Expectations of the advent of a new Beethoven were running as high in the German-speaking world, as were expectations of a new Gogol in Russia (nobody waited for a new Pushkin or a new Goethe: national cultural piety is fed by expectations of a new messiah but worships only one God). The music of the symphony itself provoked this catchy label: it was permeated by reminiscences of Beethoven's symphonies in general and his Ninth in particular. Especially poignant was the chorale that opened the last movement of Brahms's symphony: its theme transparently alluded to the chorale of the “Ode to Joy.” (“Any ass can see that,” Brahms replied irritably when the similarity was pointed out to him.) About twenty years later, Mahler opened the finale of his Third Symphony with another chorale that resembled with equal transparency those of Brahms and Beethoven. For the turn-of-the-century listener, Mahler's finale offered a vision of continual evolution of the (p.133) Viennese symphonic universe in the sense of a Bergsonian “duration.” Its sound opened a perspective into the depths of time—from modernity back to the mid-nineteenth century, to the advent of Romanticism, and perhaps further. For even Beethoven's Ninth did not hold as the terminal point of this allusional arcade: its theme was itself a product of a multitude of sources,1 perhaps the most spectacular being the duet of Pamina and Papageno from The Magic Flute, with its message of the universal peace and joy brought by the magic power of art.

Such regressions were quite typical of a fin-de-siècle culture captivated by the Nietzschean idea of “eternal returns.” These could be seen and heard in numerous works of literature, music, and visual arts belonging to various national strains of the rising culture of modernism.2 Perhaps nowhere was this reminiscent environment so keenly felt and richly expressed as in two imperial capitals: Vienna and St. Petersburg. One could name other cities whose historical and cultural past stretched farther back in time, yet it was these two that emanated a peculiar spiritual atmosphere in which virtually every culturally significant gesture came out surrounded, one could say overwhelmed, by pervasive reminiscences and multiple echoes. Entangled in a web of symbolically charged correspondences, fin-de-siècle Vienna and St. Petersburg emerged as symbolist cities par excellence. For Vienna, the principal material out of which this web had been woven was sound—Mozart's singspielen, Beethoven's symphonies, Schubert's lieder, and Johann Strauss's waltzes. For Petersburg, it was mostly images—monuments, buildings, streets, embankments—and their reflection in literature, from the odes of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries glorifying a neoclassic splendor that had risen miraculously over desolate swamps,3 to Pushkin's marriage of that vision with madness and hallucination in The Bronze Horseman, to Gogol's demonization of the phantomlike city in Nevsky Prospect, to Dostoevsky's Petersburg—“the most abstract and premeditated city on earth.”4

The allusive stock of the symbolist city had been growing in a self-perpetuating fashion until, by the turn of the twentieth century, it began to be felt as a crushing burden. Saddled with pervasive memories, every event, thought, and artifact came to be seen as something that had “always already” been there. The wall between inner vision prompted by memories and physical reality wore increasingly thin. One could not be certain whether what one saw was actually there in plain view or was merely a mental game, an echo of an echo. Consequently, one could not be certain about one's own self as well. The inner world of a person dissolved into mutually incompatible images, postures, actions, each provoked by ubiquitous precedents. The sum of those incoherent parts turned out to be a “man without qualities,” a disoriented (p.134) neurotic self incapable of comprehending how and for what purpose he ended up in the place in which he finds himself. Not only individual consciousness but even the imposing imperial façade showed signs of dissolution, its granite edifices and brass fanfares turning into semiotic phantoms. This was the atmosphere in which the antipositivist philosophical revolution and modernist aesthetic explosion thrived alongside personal neuroses and political dementia.5 Andrei Bely's Petersburg, written on the eve of and in anticipation of the crash of the Russian Empire, and Joseph Roth's Radetzky March and Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities, both written in the wake of the breakdown of the Hapsburg world, registered the workings of this semiotic vortex—an increasing sense of the fictitiousness of the world out of which personal and social collapse emerged with the imminence of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, conceived, written, and staged in 1890, stood chronologically at the beginning of that epoch; a few years remained before Nietzsche would become a universal presence in the European cultural world, the first wave of “decadents” would appear on the Russian, English, and German literary scenes (following the French lead), Mahler would write his “Resurrection” Symphony, and Scriabin his Poème d'extase. The author of the opera seemed to be firmly anchored in nineteenth-century aesthetics and worldviews; it would be hard to imagine him embracing Nietzsche, Freud, Bely, or Scriabin had he lived a few years more to witness their rise. Yet I agree with the critics who have pointed out the symbolist and expressionist traits in The Queen of Spades.6 Like Pushkin before him and Bely after, Chaikovsky, an outsider drawn into the capital's social and artistic milieu at a later stage of his career, produced a quintessentially Petersburgian tale that absorbed into itself and powerfully contributed to the peculiar spirit of a symbolist city.

Soon after the triumph of Eugene Onegin, Chaikovsky wrote another opera on a subject by Pushkin: Mazeppa, after the poem Poltava (1883). Like Pushkin's poem in its time, it did not have much success (undeservedly so, as its recent revival by Valery Gergiev can attest). For some time in the late 1880s, Chaikovsky considered another Pushkin subject: The Captain's Daughter.7 Finally, he rejected this project, in terms that once again revealed his antipathy to anything that might remotely resemble the Musorgskian “people's drama”: “But the most important impediment … is Pugachev, pugachevshchina, Berda, and all those Khlopushas, Chikas etc. [names of Pugachev's commanders]. I feel myself powerless to render them artistically by means of music. It may be a feasible task, but not for me.”8 (The word pugachevshchina, underlined in the letter, probably alludes to Musorgsky's Khovanshchina, first staged in 1886).

(p.135) When in 1886 Modest Chaikovsky suggested The Queen of Spades as a possible subject for an opera, his brother was not impressed. It is not difficult to see why Pushkin's whimsical tale, with its dry, anecdotal narrative tone, devoid of any expression of empathy for its characters, could alienate a composer whose appreciation of Eugene Onegin and Poltava was based primarily on the “reality” of their depiction of human passions.9 Nevertheless, Modest began work on a libretto at the request of a minor composer, Nikolai Klenovsky—“a certain [nekto] Klenovsky,” as Pyotr Chaikovsky referred to him in his later account of the affair.10 Meanwhile, inspired by fresh musical impressions received during his concert tour of Paris in 1889, Chaikovsky decided to write a “French opera,” La Courtisane, on a libretto by Louis Gallé. He never began work on it, however. What he did compose in the same year was a “French ballet”: The Sleeping Beauty, after Charles Perrault's fairy tale; the ballet's premiere took place in St. Petersburg in January 1890.

By that time, it had become clear that Klenovsky was unable to produce music for The Queen of Spades. In December 1889 the Imperial Theater turned to Chaikovsky, and this time, he suddenly agreed. Unlike the stormy atmosphere that surrounded the inception of Eugene Onegin, his reasons for taking The Queen of Spades could not have been more dispassionate. The theater wanted the opera for the following season, which meant that it needed a score by the beginning of the summer. Instead of discouraging the composer, this unreasonably short notice turned out to be an incentive for him to take on the project. Chaikovsky always emphasized the professional, craftsmanlike side of his art; he liked to do commissioned works, to labor under the pressure of a deadline.11 Having found himself between large projects after the staging of The Sleeping Beauty, he felt the need for a new one that he could take with him for a prolonged stay abroad—one of the flights from everyday relationships and social obligations that he undertook periodically. The offer from the theater came just in time. The businesslike way in which Chaikovsky acknowledged his decision to write The Queen of Spades does not contain the remotest hint of the passionate spirit of his future creation. One cannot find a single expression indicating the composer's excitement about the plot and the characters—the mood with which he usually embarked on a new opera. He merely stated matter-of-factly: “I have a strong desire to work, and if I succeed in finding good accommodations somewhere in a cozy place abroad, I think that I will be able to fulfill my task, and submit to the Directorate a piano score by May; then during the summer I will do the orchestration.”12

In late January Chaikovsky settled in Florence, a city that he found totally uninspiring, provincial, and boring. He confessed that the visual arts did not mean for him nearly as much as literature; when he finally ventured into the (p.136) Uffizzi Gallery, he spent the entire time there in a deserted hall that featured portraits of various historical figures; he was amused to find among them a certain Prince Ivan Chemodanov, the ambassador from Muscovy to the court of the Medici.13 Yet the accommodations were convenient, and he would not have been able to get something as good on such short notice in a more attractive place such as Rome. Despite his continuing complaints about what he considered its total lack of amusements with which to distract oneself after a day's labor, Chaikovsky remained in Florence until his composition was completed. (Later, however, he commemorated the city by giving his next opus, the string sextet, the subtitle Souvenir de Florence.)

The way the composition proceeded contributed to this atmosphere of dispassionate professionalism. Modest's libretto needed considerable rewriting to meet the composer's and the theater's demands. All Chaikovsky took with him to Florence was the text of the first scene; the following scenes were to be sent one by one through the mail. Soon Chaikovsky found himself composing with such speed that it put pressure on his brother. Each time the composer neared the completion of another scene, he had to worry about the arrival of the next one; on some occasions, he had to produce pieces of the text on his own before help from Modest arrived. This manner of creation—piece by piece in a straightforward progression, in a feverish race against time—recalled the serial fashion in which Dostoevsky wrote his novels, submitting them to a magazine chapter by chapter, never having time to look beyond the next deadline.14

The theater wanted an interlude with singing and a pantomime in the ball scene, and Chaikovsky could not have been more easily persuaded; his stated policy was to keep the theater people happy so that they would be motivated to succeed when staging the opera.15 Because Modest needed more time to select the text for the interlude, he sent the next scene, set in the countess's chamber, first—the only instance in which the process of composition deviated from the linear progression of the plot.

While writing an opera, Chaikovsky usually developed personal feelings toward his characters, thinking intensely about them as human beings whom he would or would not like—proceeding by the Stanislavsky method, so to speak. This time, there was hardly time for that. However daring the initial plan had looked, Chaikovsky overfulfilled it: the draft of the piano score was finished by the beginning of March. He even had to answer the worries of some who suspected that a work completed in such a short time had to be lightweight.16 During the forty days he had spent composing, he could barely speak of anything but speeding up the arrival of the next portion of the text and discussing a few technical details with Modest. Under these circumstances, (p.137) the only outlet he could find for his need for empathy with the opera's characters was to identify his Hermann with the designated creator of the role, the famous St. Petersburg tenor Nikolai Figner. Chaikovsky's own account of this emotional transposition was tinged with mild irony:

Florence, 3 March 1890

I finished the opera three hours ago and immediately sent Zakhar out with a telegram to you. As to the very ending of the opera, I composed it yesterday, before dinner, and when I reached Hermann's death and the concluding chorus, I felt such pity for Hermann that suddenly I began weeping. The weeping continued and turned into a little hysterical fit of a very pleasant nature: i.e., it was terribly sweet to weep. Afterwards I realized why it happened (since I had never experienced such mourning for a character, and tried to understand why I wanted to cry so much). It turns out that Hermann was for me not merely a pretext for writing this or that music but a real, living person, and moreover, a person with whom I felt a strong sympathy. Since I felt sympathy for Figner, and since I always envisioned my Hermann as Figner—I took all his misfortunes to heart.17

The most immediate misfortune of poor Figner (besides his stormy relationship with his wife, the famous soprano Medea Mej Figner, who sang Liza at the first performance) consisted in his having fallen from a horse and broken his shoulder. When Chaikovsky brought the score to Russia later in the summer, he repeatedly visited Figner at his estate, where the singer remained confined—which did not, however, diminish the enthusiasm with which he studied the new score. It is notable that while composing Chaikovsky had expressed a very personal worry about Figner, who would have to sing arduously in every one of the seven scenes;18 he thought of alleviating his fate by abolishing the scene at the Winter Canal but found it impossible. (When, however, Figner pleaded with the composer to lower his last aria by a whole step, complaining that it would be impossible to sing so high at the end of such a strenuous part, Chaikovsky complied reluctantly but expressed his chagrin so many times afterwards that eventually the singer decided to perform the original version.)

On a more serious note, one can find some points at which Chaikovsky might feel a deep compassion toward his hero, if not identify with him. The operatic Hermann's words (from his duet with Eletsky in the first scene) about the grief he felt “in his afflicted soul” might have resonated with a composer who many years earlier had tried to convey to “his best friend” (von Meek) “everything, everything that occurs in my strange, afflicted soul.”19 If Chaikovsky was not as passionate a gambler as his hero (and Pushkin), he nevertheless used to spend time at the gaming tables, and he complained about it (p.138) bitterly. Hermann's love, so sublimely passionate when he did not dare to approach his beloved or even to learn her name, so disastrous after he broke the spell, might also have found a parallel in the composer's mind.

In this sense, the atmosphere of apparent estrangement from which The Queen of Spades emerged was as revealing for the character of the new opera as Chaikovsky's extraordinary personal involvement was for Eugene Onegin. With the latter, the composer sought, and found, a direct rapport with the life experience and ethical values of his contemporaries—the people of the 1860s. The incoherent passions, contradictory desires, and blinding preoccupations reigning in the former presaged the intoxicating dawn of the approaching century. The psychological atmosphere projected by The Queen of Spades turned out to be strikingly close to the overexalted world of early modernism—and as remote from the original spirit of the generation of the 1860s as from that of Pushkin's tale.

There is no need to follow in detail the differences between Pushkin's story and Modest Chaikovsky's libretto. Once again, Pushkin's dry, elliptic, evasive manner has vanished in the operatic transposition, giving way to a gasping eagerness. Pushkin's Liza, a poor orphan who seizes on Hermann's advances as a chance to escape her humiliating dependence on the countess, has in the opera turned into the countess's granddaughter, who throws away a brilliant engagement with Prince Eletsky because of her overwhelming passion for an enigmatic stranger; Pushkin's Hermann, obsessed with the idea of becoming rich and seeing in his intrigue with Liza nothing but a pathway to his goal, is transformed into an exalted lover who seeks money only as the means to “flee from people” together with the object of his adoration. In the few terse sentences that conclude his story, Pushkin relates his heroes' fates: Liza (or Lizaveta Ivanovna, as she is called in the tale) marries a decent and well-to-do young man and now in her turn has taken an orphan into her household; Hermann spends the rest of his days in the madhouse, repeating nonstop the names of the fateful three cards. In the opera, Liza succumbs to the inevitable fate of an operatic heroine by throwing herself into the Winter Canal, and Hermann reciprocates by stabbing himself with a dagger (or shooting himself, depending on the taste of the stage director).20 Although some of Pushkin's dialogue was used in recitatives and various other literary sources were rather ingeniously incorporated into the opera's narrative (mostly at the composer's suggestion), its backbone consisted of verses written by Modest Chaikovsky and in a few instances by Pyotr Chaikovsky himself, at whose occasional banalities (in lines such as “Forgive me, heavenly creature, for having disturbed your repose”) one cannot help wincing. All of this offers an easy invitation (p.139) either to smirk at the kitsch or to sigh over another desecration of another of Pushkin's venerable creations.

But it is essentially futile to judge a libretto as a purely literary text, without the meaning the music brings out in it. Had Modest Chaikovsky reworked Pushkin's story for the theater, the text he produced would have looked embarrassingly banal, maudlin, and overwrought in its narrative and stylistic incoherence. Yet together with the music, its overblown sentimentality turns into expressionist emotional hyperbole, its characters' thorough detachment from everyday logic indicates passions reaching the point of insanity, and its apparent inability to make narrative ends meet results in a broken, disoriented, profoundly disturbed picture of the world. In this sense, it is fair to say that the libretto serves its purpose quite effectively—the composer's repeated praise for his brother was not vain praise. This combined effect made an indelible imprint on the way Pushkin's story was coopted into the somber imagery of the “St. Petersburg myth.” Quite a few literary works of the early twentieth century—notably Bely's Petersburg—seem to have been invaded by the images and situations of Chaikovsky's—rather than Pushkin's—Queen of Spades.

One deviation of the libretto from its literary original had consequences that proved crucial for the meaning of the opera: the shift of the implied time of the narrative. Pushkin's story was written in 1833–34 and evidently takes place at about that time. Each chapter is garnished with an epigraph taken from fleeting contemporary sources: a conversation, a letter, a private joke, a poetic impromptu. Real or fictitious, these references create an atmosphere of spontaneity;21 as far as Pushkin's implied audience was concerned, the story might have been told at a social gathering—perhaps over supper after card game—as a piece of “table-talk,” the mixture of gossip and anecdotes for which Pushkin developed a taste in his later years. In the vein of the numerical hints and implicit calculations typical of the mock-cabbalistic mode of his narrative, Pushkin offers a hidden chronological signpost in the story: a casual remark made near the beginning stating that the countess “strictly followed the fashions of the seventies, and proceeded with her toilette as laboriously and meticulously as sixty years ago” (Chapter 2).

The opera's setting is most obviously indicated by references to the reign of Catherine II. At the opening of scene 1, “the most wise Tsarina” is hailed by boys marching with toy guns, and in scene 3, her arrival is announced at the end of the ball. In fact, one can deduce to the day the hypothetical date on which that ball occurred. The excited guests greet the approaching empress with the famous polonaise “Glory to thee, Catherine, our tender mother,” with lyrics written by Derzhavin and music by Kozlowski, written on the (p.140) occasion of a feast given by Potyomkin in Catherine's honor. We have seen that Derzhavin's famous description of that feast left its imprint on both Pushkin's and Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila.22 Traces of the same source can be found in the ball scene in The Queen of Spades as well. For instance, the commotion caused by Catherine's late arrival, depicted by Derzhavin, closely resembles what happens in the opera. As in the opera, the original feast featured bonfires (uveselitelnye ogni) and, of course, a pantomime.23 The feast took place on April 28, 1791. Chaikovsky seems to have taken it for granted that the opera's actions occur in April; in a letter to Modest he raised doubts about Liza's phrase comparing the dark secret of her passion with the darkness of the night: “What do you think, is it all right that in April Liza, addressing the night, says ‘It is as dark as you’ [ona mrachna kak ty]? Do dark nights happen in Petersburg?”24 Even without this specific reference, it is safe to say that the opera is set in the early 1790s (Catherine died in 1796). Moreover, the time of the countess's youth is pushed back from the 1770s, the time of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, to the time of Louis XV and Madame Pompadour, that is, the 1740s and 1750s. It is Madame Pompadour, who presided over the court of Louis XV beginning in 1745, whom the countess mentions in her reminiscences in the scene in her chamber.

The making of the opera happened so quickly that it is hard to trace its creative history. An obvious if superficial reason for the time shift was the theater's desire to have an interlude with singing and a pantomime, for which an eighteenth-century ball would provide an appropriate stylistic frame. Introducing into scene 3 the pastorale “The Sincerity of a Shepherdess” by the minor eighteenth-century poet Pyotr Karabanov (which the composer selected from two possibilities proposed by the librettist), with its charmingly clumsy, archaic-sounding verses, gave Chaikovsky the opportunity to write a pastiche in the Mozartean style, akin to his fourth orchestral suite, the “Mozartiana” (1887)—with the introductory chorus of shepherds resembling Zerlina's and Masetto's duet with the chorus of peasants from the first act of Don Giovanni and the duet of Prilepa (“The Attractive One”) and Milovzor (“Tender Looks”) echoing the duet of Zerlina and Don Giovanni.25 By seizing this opportunity, however, the authors of the opera committed themselves to pushing the narrative time of Pushkin's tale back by about forty years.

There are some signs of vacillation over this temporal design in the libretto, which may indicate that the deviation from Pushkin's chronology was not decided on from the beginning. In the second scene, Liza and Polina sing two pieces in the genre of the sentimental romans with lyrics by Zhukovsky and Batyushkov—an allusional leap that places the action in the following century. Although the poems were written in the first decade of the nineteenth (p.141) century, one could easily picture a domestic gathering in the 1830s or later at which they would be performed as songs. When the countess reminisces about her youth in scene 4, her memories produce a glaring inconsistency: the song she ostensibly sang for Madame Pompadour (who died in 1764) is taken from a French opera of the following decade—Richard le coeur de lion by André Modeste Gretri (1773)—a reference that would have been exactly right for Pushkin's chronology but not the opera's.

At a later stage Chaikovsky made his own alterations in the libretto in order to reinforce and make more explicit the references to the 1790s. The ball scene originally ended with Hermann's fatal exclamation: “It is not me, it is fate that wishes it, and I'll learn the three cards!” The composer felt it necessary to add, by way of conclusion, the announcement of Catherine's arrival and the polonaise; he himself drafted the excited exclamations of the guests (later edited by the librettist) and incorporated Derzhavin's famous verses. Later, when working on scene 7, Chaikovsky again took the initiative in adding Derzhavin's song “If only lovely maidens could fly like birds,” to be sung by Tomsky. As he acknowledged in a letter to Grand Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, he disliked Derzhavin in general and found the frivolous jocosity of the stanzas disgustingly vulgar, but he wanted to include them precisely because their crudeness conveyed the spirit of their time.26 In fact, Derzhavin's verses could be considered close kin to E. Schikaneder's “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja”—the couplets Papageno sings at his entrance.

No matter how explicitly the opera deployed signs indicating the 1790s, its story as a whole could not be arbitrarily shifted back by almost half a century. Many of its situations, characters, and discourses resisted that shift. As a result, the story presented in the opera appeared clad in temporal implausibilities and anachronisms. In spite of the reference to “the most wise Tsarina” in the opening scene in the Summer Garden, its overall composition unmistakably indicated realities of the nineteenth century and their literary reflections. The way in which different waves of promenading people proceed one after another in scene 1—first children with their nurses and governesses, than a masculine company, to be eventually joined by the ladies—corresponded to and probably was inspired by the opening pages of Gogol's Nevsky Prospect (written the same year as Pushkin's tale, in 1834). As I have already mentioned, scene 2, at Liza's, refers to the nineteenth century by virtue of the romances sung there. Even more displaced is scene 6, in which Liza awaits Hermann at the Winter Canal at midnight (another idea proposed by the theater's director, Vsevolozhsky, alongside the eighteen-century pastorale).27 In the Petersburg of Bely's novel, that is, at the turn of the twentieth century, Sofia Petrovna Likhutina lingers at this spot late at night, imagining herself as (p.142) the operatic Liza and Nikolai Apollonovich as Hermann; but it is hard to picture a young woman from the upper crust of the nobility (as Liza is in the opera) walking alone to the Winter Canal at that hour, even for the express purpose of throwing herself into it, in the Petersburg of Pushkin's time, let alone of the eighteenth century. The circumstances of Liza's death could hardly look more anachronistic had she thrown herself under a train.28

More important time shifts become apparent if we consider the opera's characters, their actions, and their manner of speaking. They bear the definite imprint of the nineteenth century—indeed, more of the latter part of it than of Pushkin's time. Let us consider only one example. Prince Eletsky, Liza's fiancé, approaches her at the ball in order to profess to her the noble selflessness of his love. He loves her beyond measure but does not want to limit the freedom of her heart; if need be, he is prepared to disappear from her life, to suppress his jealousy; his dream is to become not merely a loving husband, “a servant occasionally used,” but her friend and support. Chaikovsky wrote the text of Eletsky's aria himself, having sent it to Modest for approval after the music was already composed. We hear in it the voice of a progressive intellectual of the 1860s and 1870s, a relative of Chernyshevsky's “new people,” Stolz from Goncharov's Oblomov, or Bersenev from Turgenev's On the Eve—someone who is a little plain, perhaps, but impeccably decent. This Eletsky has obviously read Chatsky's contemptuous line decrying “a boyish husband, his wife's servant, one of her pages.” Meanwhile, the scene is presumably taking place at the feast in 1791; in a few minutes, Eletsky, Liza, and other guests will be treated to “The Sincerity of a Shepherdess.”

Most displaced of all, of course, is the main character of the opera. As Liza envisions Hermann before she actually meets him—a demonic nocturnal figure, menacing and irresistibly attractive at the same time—he exudes the typical aura of a romantic hero. Later, however, as we become more and more acquainted with the actual Hermann, his Tristanesque features become fused with those of Raskolnikov in a self-annihilating symbiosis that betrays the decadent world of incoherent obsessions and perpetual disturbances—the world of the heroes of Ivanov, The Black Monk, or The Duel (Chaikovsky became an admirer of Chekhov in the late 1880s). Not only are his passions blown out of proportion and beyond his control, but they seem to be purely reactive. He thrusts himself headlong in all possible directions at the first provocation, so that his endeavors eventually negate each other. A glance from afar at a “heavenly creature” plunges Hermann into a trance of amorous veneration so sublime that he does not want to learn her name—no earthly name exists by which one could call her. On hearing that the creature is engaged to Prince Eletsky, he vows to “wrest” her from the prince by any (p.143) means. The possibility of becoming rich by employing the demonic three cards plunges him into the pursuit of their secret, first with a view to attaining the object of his adoration but eventually to the exclusion of anything but the secret itself. Once he is certain that the secret is his he can think of nothing but the shine of “the piles of gold” that now all belong to him. When he reaches the green table and tastes his first winnings, however, the enormous sum is all but forgotten: it is the game itself, the gambling with one's fate and life that he idolizes in his last aria. Increasingly cut off from reality by this maddening chase after clashing phantoms, Hermann eventually collapses, destroying everybody around him in the process.

It is striking to see how vividly the operatic Hermann reflects the perceived malaise of the fin de siècle. When in the last scene he places himself, in his “goblet aria,” on the yonder side of good and evil, proclaiming them to be nothing but dreams, declaring labor and honesty merely fairy tales for females, he defies, in the fog of his madness, everything held sacrosanct by Chaikovsky's generation. At the same time, and by the same token, he offers a striking preview of the Nietzschean characters soon to mushroom in works of literature in Russia and elsewhere. Chaikovsky had a good reason to weep over “poor Hermann” and his misfortune.

A small detail betrays the futility of the operatic Hermann's pretense of being a man of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. In Pushkin's tale the hero is called “Ghermann,” with a double “n”; in the opera, he has become “Gherman” (the difference lost in English translation). “Ghermann” is a direct transliteration of the authentic German name Hermann. Indeed, it is said of the literary Hermann that he was the son of a russified German immigrant; when he needs to produce a love letter for Lizaveta Ivanovna, he takes it “word for word” from “a German novel”—Werther, perhaps? (Pushkin adds slyly that because Lizaveta Ivanovna did not know German she remained quite satisfied with the epistle.) Such a partly russified German was a common presence in Pushkin's time. In the second half of the century, however, the process of adaptation had come further, affecting names, among other matters. The original Hermann or Ghermann has lost the second “n” (as all German names ending in “-mann” turned out in Russian: Shuman, Gofman, and so on) and become a conventional Russian first name. One of Chaikovsky's closest friends, the composer and critic known in the West as Hermann Laroche, was in fact called Gherman Aleksandrovich Larosh. If only by virtue of his name, the operatic Gherman had to be his and Chaikovsky's contemporary at the very least.

Chaikovsky's music matches these temporal swings. As early as 1878 he had expressed his delight with “Shakespearean anachronisms” in Alfed de Musset's (p.144) dramas.29 The music of The Queen of Spades embodies the same principle. When scene 2 climaxes in the love duet, its music reaches expressionist heights comparable with those of the love duet in the second act of Tristan und Isolde. The next scene starts with the Mozartean sounds of the introductory chorus celebrating the ball. The break between the two scenes notwithstanding, the effect of this sharp and unexpected shift of the musical chronotope is dizzying. The same can be said about the juxtaposition, throughout the ball scene, of the sounds of the pastorale, Eletsky's aria—written, true to his character, in a bona fide mid-nineteenth-century operatic style (for which Germont's aria from act 2 of La Traviata may serve as a close analogy)—and episodes of Hermann's ravings, whose chopped phrasing, shifting tonalities, and lugubrious orchestration keep pace with the musical discourse of Götterdämmerung. In this context, Chaikovsky's musical retrogression into the eighteenth century seems to be pointing, paradoxically, ahead in time; it presages the avant-garde fascination with classicist imitations spiced with stylistic shifts and twists—the world of Richard Strauss and Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky.

In the libretto, the shifting temporal layers might at first seem to be inadvertent. The music, however, bestowed symbolic meaning on its narrative anachronisms. Its obvious stylistic diversity constituted something more significant than merely a response to different narrative chronotopes showing up at different moments in the opera. By using motifs that recur through all the layers of time, Chaikovsky made them reverberate with and echo each other. The musical discourse never jumps into a new temporal environment without retaining traces of others from earlier in the story or anticipating those that are to emerge later. Translated into this heterogeneous and yet continuous musical discourse, the story acquires stereoscopic temporality, as if it were happening in different historical epochs and stylistic environments simultaneously.30 The various incarnations mirror one another, leaving the listener—rather like the characters—transfixed by all the elusive correspondences. When Hermann, as a “man of the nineties,” like Wozzeck or a Chekhov hero shrouded in his obsessions and oppressed by taunting voices, lingers at a late eighteenth-century feast, or when he offers his Nietzschean goblet aria a few minutes after Tomsky delivers his quintessentially eighteenth-century double entendre about lovely maidens flying like birds, one can be reminded of the prince from The Sleeping Beauty as he crosses the halls of an enchanted castle plunged to a century-long sleep, seeing its glorious inhabitants dressed in the latest fashions of a hundred years ago.

The operatic Hermann appears to be lost in time amid the incongruous landscapes of a city that seems to share his predicament. In fact, all the principal characters in the opera—Hermann, Liza, and the countess—behave as if they were trapped in this maze of temporal mirrors. It is their implied ability to (p.145) remember and recognize, or rather, their inability to escape from the prison of contradictory images and voices invading their memories, that makes what happens on stage happen. The very irrationality of the drama's proceedings, the bizarre inconsequentiality of the heroes' actions and reactions, seems due to the fact that everything occurs in a world projected by their confused consciousness. Let us trace some pathways in this temporal house of mirrors.

The Fate of a Shepherdess

In scene 2, Polina, at the request of her and Liza's friends, performs what she calls Liza's “favorite romance.” It is based on a short poem of Batiushkov's from 1810. Although Batiushkov's works were not set to music as frequently as Pushkin's or Zhukovsky's, stylistically it represents the same strain of early nineteenth-century Russian poetry, easily adaptable for domestic music-making. The dramatic situation can be seen as typical for a private gathering sometime in the second quarter of that century. The music Chaikovsky wrote for this piece also does not deviate from the refined but relatively simple style of an art song of Glinka's time—an extension of the romans.

One feature of this seemingly undisturbed scene offers a clue to the characters' future development: the choice of the poem. Its title (not mentioned in the opera) is “An Inscription on the Grave of a Shepherdess.” The poem artfully translates the imagery of the mid-eighteenth-century pastorale into the mood of the early nineteenth-century elegy. Its heroine's lot was to be an early grave instead of the timeless joy of the pastoral Arcadia that she had expected to be her destiny:

  • Podrugi milye! s bespechnostyu igrivoi
  • Pod plyasovoi napev vy rezvites v lugakh.
  • I ya kak vy zhila v Arkadii schastlivoi;
  • I ya na utre dnei v sikh roshchakh i polyakh
  •     Minutny radosti vkusila.
  • Lyubov v mechtakh zlatykh mne schastie sulila;
  • No chto zh dostalos mne v six radostnykh mestakh?—
  •         Mogila!
  • Lovely companions, with a careless playfulness
  • You frolic in the meadows, to a dancing tune.
  • Like you, I also lived in happy Arcadia,
  • Also in the morn of my days, amidst those woodlands and fields,
  •     Tasted fleeting joys.
  • Love, in my golden dreams, offered me happiness;
  • Yet what has befallen me in those joyful sites?—
  •         The grave!31
Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.1a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 1, scene 2, Polina's romance

Perhaps this sad fate befell the shepherdess because she was born into the wrong age. The time of Boucher is gone; one glanced at a tableau from the rococo age only to become more keenly aware of one's own elegiac melancholy.32 In the opera's world of polytemporality, however, the age of rococo and the age of the elegy occur side by side.

Like a heroine from the age of melancholy, Liza is inclined to see her destiny through the prism of the elegy. Like Tatiana in an early part of Eugene Onegin, she is ready to perish for the sake of her passion for a virtual stranger whom she cloaks in a romantic mantle of her own making. When, later in the scene, Hermann appears, we listen to his passionate plea—which to an unengaged listener might sound like relentless emotional blackmail—through the screen of Liza's perception. Hermann's aria “Forgive me, heavenly creature” destroys Liza's last attempts to resist his appeal—she cannot hold back tears of compassion because his singing echoes the tune of the romance sung by Polina just minutes earlier. Hermann's plea seems to be the reflection of the thoughts evoked in Liza by Polina's singing; his voice sounds to her like the voice of her elegiac destiny as prophesied by her favorite romance (examples 5.1a and 5.1b).

In the next scene, at the ball, Polina will sing and Liza will listen to an eighteenth-century pastorale whose heroine, another shepherdess, is totally oblivious of the elegiac future. Before this performance starts, Liza silently (p.147)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.1b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 1, scene 2, Hermann's aria

conveys to her suitor, Prince Eletsky, the message of the futility of his entreaties. By rejecting a glamorous suitor and showing her readiness to give herself to the one she has chosen, Liza casts herself in the role of the pastorale's Prilepa, who unhesitantly rejects Zlatogor (“Mountain of gold”), with all his promises of luxury, and embraces an idyll in a hut with her beloved Milovzor (“Tender looks”). Some turns in Zlatogor's failed seduction of Prilepa echo Eletsky's aria. Once again, we listen to the suitors' voices from Liza's point of view; her memory of her recent encounter with Eletsky echoes in her mind as she listen to the scene between Zlatogor and Prileoa (examples 5.2a and 5.2b).

This happy change of mood, caused by the shift in the chronotope, does not, however, push the elegiac shepherdess and her destiny completely into oblivion. A trace of her voice reappears for a moment, like a faint cloud amid the scenes of rococo happiness. A characteristic melodic turn occurs in Polina's romance just before its conclusion on the word “grave”—a long, gradual descent spanning a tenth. A similar descent (this time, a ninth) can be heard in the part of Milovzor (sung by Polina; examples 5.3a and 5.3b). (Pyotr Chaikovsky made it clear to Modest that Milovzor is to be sung by Polina but that Prilepa by no means could be performed by Liza—for good reason: Liza is supposed to be among the listeners.33

Liza and Polina are both remembering the previous evening; its romantic melancholy, restlessness, and passions reverberate in the air amid the naïvely (p.148)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.2a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, Eletsky's aria

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.2b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, pastorale (Zlatogor's entrance)

cloudless world of “The Sincerity of a Shepherdess.” By virtue of conflicting associations, Liza's mind is transported simultaneously into idyll and elegy—the world of the happy Prilepa joining her beloved after rejecting “Mountain of gold” and of the sad shepherdess destined for an early grave instead of the joy of love. At this point, Liza is not sure what is going to befall her, or rather, whose lot she is to choose. She is heading in both directions simultaneously—the best recipe for self-destruction.

The dilemma returns, in yet another temporal incarnation, in scene 6, when Liza, waiting for Hermann, sings out her woes. The words of her lament (written by the composer), as well as the music, are typical of the nineteenth-century popular urban song in a quasi-folkloric style. In fact, the tune reflects that of her favorite romance, albeit in a simplified fashion. The refined melancholy of Batiushkov's shepherdess gives way to a populist musical expression of the woes of love. Innumerable songs of different levels of sophistication, from Glinka's “Don't disturb me vainly with the return of your tenderness” to Aleksandr Varlamov's “A little gray dove is moaning,” paraded their naïve poetic images of nature and abundant minor subdominant harmonies in every household. Alexander Blok listened avidly as they were performed by gypsy choruses; Smerdyakov delighted the chambermaids in his neighborhood by (p.149)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.3a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 1, scene 2, Polina's romance (ending)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.3b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, pastorale (Polina as Milovzor)

singing, a guitar in hand, “I am attached to my beloved by an invincible force.”34 Liza's deportment at this point is that of a contemporary of the opera's original audience—a young woman expressing her real worries and woes in a simple but touching song.

Hermann appears after all, dispelling Liza's forebodings, if only for a moment. A short love duet follows. Through all its chromatic transient notes, polyphonic clashes of voices, and feverish waltz rhythms, one can discern a simple melodic backbone that comes straight from the duet of Prilepa and Milovzor. Both duets end with a ritornello played by the oboe; this time, however, the somber low register of the instrument and the rushing tempo make it a mocking echo of the pastorale (examples 5.4a and 5.4b).

Before the final catastrophe becomes imminent, one can catch once more, in Liza's lament, the characteristic descending melodic figure—a simultaneous echo of the pastorale and the elegy (example 5.5).

Now in full possession of her late-nineteenth-century self, a strong-willed woman who has called the man she loves to a decisive rendezvous on a deserted embankment (not the “obedient slave” she had declared herself to be (p.150)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.4a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, pastorale (Prilepa and Milovzor)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.4b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 3, scene 6, Liza and Hermann

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.5. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 3, scene 6, Liza's song

within another chronotope, after listening to the pastorale), Liza still cannot determine which kind of shepherdess she is destined or chooses to be.

The Lover

It is not for nothing that Hermann proves to be such a good match to Liza in their frenzied echo of Prilepa's and Milovzor's duet in scene 6: he, too, has been listening to the pastorale. The announcement of the spectacle by the majordomo, followed by the radiant sounds of its orchestral introduction, catches him in the midst of his troubled thoughts, a situation similar to that of Wozzeck listening to cheery tunes in the beer hall. When the duet comes, one may notice that this pastiche of “Là ci darem' la mano” is not as perfect as one might expect. Underneath the shining Mozartean surface of the vocal line (p.151) followed by the idyllic invocations of the flute and the oboe, one can occasionally discern the discordant voices of the bassoon and the clarinet in a low register, whose clumsy darkness weighs down the simulated lightness of the piece. These troubling voices, coming as if from the piece's underside, can easily be overlooked—the more easily in that conductors tend to play them down, sweeping under the rug, so to speak, these awkward deviations from “good” Mozartean stylization. Their presence is crucial, however, for our understanding of the significance of the duet, and of the pastorale as a whole, in the development of the drama; for their voices echo the lugubrious sound of the winds that accompanied the monologues sung by Hermann at the ball. When, following his disparate daydreaming about Liza and the three cards, he exclaims in despair, “I am a madman, a madman!” his words are accompanied by a prolonged bassoon-clarinet duet in the low register. It is this voice—the voice of Hermann's thoughts—whose traces bestow an uncharacteristic somberness on the pastorale.

The listener is invited to view “The Sincerity of a Shepherdess” in a way that is reminiscent of the play-within-a-play in Hamlet: in both cases, a comically old-fashioned performance makes only more striking the hidden thoughts with which the drama's characters burden it. The presence of such hidden thoughts in the pastorale is reflected in the music: Liza hears an echo of the elegiac shepherdess creeping into Polina's singing of Milovzor's part; Hermann perceives the idyll through the dark glass of his longings and worries. Both find in the story of the sincere shepherdess something that echoes their own thoughts. Indeed, Hermann's mind at this point is preoccupied with a shepherdess of his own whom he has to convince of the purity of his motives and of whom he eagerly expects sincerity. This woman—the Venus moscovite of Madame Pompadour's court with her secret of the three cards—indeed has impeccable credentials of the rococo age.

Who is Hermann in love with? In scene 1 of the opera, singing to a tune that is to become the leitmotif of his love, he proclaims to Tomsky that he does not know the name of his beloved because he does not want to call her by any earthly name. A little later, when Prince Tomsky tells his companions the anecdote about how the old countess obtained the secret of the three cards and received the prophecy about her death at the hand of an ardent lover who will try to wring it from her, on the words “three cards, three cards, three cards” he slips into a tune whose melodic line replicates exactly—albeit under the disguise of a drastically different rhythm—Hermann's earlier profession of love (examples 5.6a and 5.6b).

Again, the reason for this coincidence may be that we are listening to (p.152)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.6a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 1, scene 1, Hermann's arioso.

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.6b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 1, scene 1, Tomsky's ballade

Tomsky's ballade through Hermann's ears. His hidden thoughts—the instant connection he has made between the story he is listening to and his passion—affect the music of Tomsky's tale, resulting in an uncanny resemblance between the theme of the three cards and the love leitmotif. When we reach the scene at the ball, we witness the same motif running on a parallel course in Hermann's increasingly incoherent monologues and in the taunting remarks of the gamblers. In the next scene, in the countess's chamber, the convergence of the two versions of the motif—Hermann's and Tomsky's—reaches its completion. It is impossible to tell which one is actually being sounded when Hermann, in the role of the morbid ardent lover prophesied in Tomsky's anecdote, confronts the countess; at this point nobody, least of all Hermann, can tell unambiguously who the object of his passion is.

This double musical perspective gives peculiar meaning to Herrmann's refusal to name his beloved—was it indeed due to the unearthly nature of his feelings, or was it due to uncertainty as to her identity? A fine detail in scene 1 reveals this ambiguity. After Eletsky accepts his friends' congratulations on his engagement, he is asked: “Who is your bride?” At this very moment the countess and Liza appear together in the park, so Eletsky replies by simply pointing out: “Here she is!” He is obviously referring to Liza, yet the orchestra seconds his remark with the lugubrious leitmotif of the countess played by the clarinet. Apparently, even at this moment Hermann's attention is attracted to the (p.153) countess, who reciprocates by asking Tomsky about Hermann and expressing her fear of him.35 No wonder, then, that Tomsky's ballade later draws a fatal connection in Hermann's consciousness between his love and the demonic secret.

As I have mentioned, of all the characters in the opera it is Hermann who most definitely belongs to the “twilight age” of the late 1880s or early 1890s. At the same time, however, he retains intense relations with the world of the eighteenth century. Desperately he tries to enter the circle of lovely shades from Arcadia, to bare his ardent heart to his shepherdess and to plead with her to be once again as naïvely sincere, as artlessly obliging as she was to the happy lovers of her rococo past.

Prilepa, the shepherdess from the pastorale, does have her own secret, although it amounts to nothing more than her longing for Milovzor. At the opening of the idyll she sings, “My dear little friend, the beloved little shepherd who makes me sigh and to whom I want to reveal my passion, alas! did not come to the dancing place.” From the beginning she presents herself as most-willing to reveal her secret—it is only Milovzor's failure to come see her that prevents her for a time from making her confession. When he does appear and in turn bares his heart, Prilepa happily reciprocates. Liza feels inspired by the trusting sincerity of Prilepa; she gives Hermann the key from the countess's chamber and succumbs to his bizarre wish to come there that evening: she is his slave; whatever he wants will happen. But Hermann falls under the spell of the pastorale as well. His vision of his chosen shepherdess becomes blurred amid suggestive images from the age of Arcadia interspersed with demonic, taunting voices.

In the following scene, while Hermann waits behind a curtain in the countess's chamber, he hears her singing a French aria from the age of her youth. The words of the song seem to be directed to him: “Je crains de lui parler la nuit, j'écoute trop tout ce qu'il dit. Il me dit ‘Je vous aime,’ et je sens malgré moi. Je sens mon coeur, qui bat, qui bat, je ne sais pas pourquoi!” They echo the words with which Prilepa and Milovzor expressed the tumult of their feelings: “I don't know, don't know, don't know why.” Prompted by these secret messages that spring from his own confused memories, Hermann-Milovzor rushes forward, bares his heart in a passionate plea (“If only you have ever known the feeling of love”), and demands from the countess the thing Prilepa was so artlessly willing to grant to her lover: “Reveal [your secret] to me!”

In the end, the old shepherdess seems to fulfill the promise of sincerity implied by her image. When, having obtained the confession of her ghost, Hermann reaches Liza at the Winter Canal, his romantic love is completely (p.154) superseded by the rococo image now firmly imprinted in his mind. Ironically, his last words to Liza—“Leave me alone! Who are you? I don't know you!”—echo his first ones: “I don't know her name, and don't want to learn it.”

The Three Cards

The overture to the opera begins with a musical phrase, played by the winds in unison, that later resurfaces in scene 1 in Tomsky's ballade on the words “Once in Versailles au jeu de la reine.” It is followed by a sequence of chords in the strings, proceeding along a descending melodic line. The sequence comprises three consecutive segments, each consisting of three chords—a musical pattern wrought in “magic” numerical symbolism (example 5.7a).

The message implied by this opening is clear. It refers to the story's earliest point, from which everything follows—the countess's gambling at the court of Madame Pompadour and the emergence of the secret of the three cards. The ternary pattern also reemerges in Tomsky's ballade, on the key words “Three cards, three cards, three cards.” Its melody, however, is different from that of the ternary figure in the overture: it repeats, albeit with different accentuation, the melodic line of Hermann's profession of love. The theme will recur each time Hermann thinks of Liza or of the three cards—or both simultaneously. We understand that this is not the theme of the three cards proper—rather, it is Hermann's thought about them. The secret of the cards remains locked up—it is only the listeners, and not yet the hero, who heard its “magic” ternary theme in the overture. Hermann's turn to be exposed to this theme comes later, in scene 5, when the ghost of the countess names the cards to him. At this point, the triple descending figure, which in the overture proceeded along a plain minor scale, appears transformed into a whole-tone scale—a patent harmonic means for expressing the supernatural and sinister (example 5.7b).

Unlike the actions that comprise the body of the opera, in which the characters speak for themselves, the overture is addressed directly to the opera's listeners, over the heads of its protagonists; it poses as a meta-message about the meaning of the drama that is inaccessible to its participants. When in scene 5 Hermann receives the countess's revelation, he is not aware of the melancholy incarnation in which the theme of the three cards appeared in the overture. What, then, does he hear in her message?

It the ball scene, as we have noted, the tumult in Hermann's mind does not cause him to turn a deaf ear to the boisterous sounds of the festivity; rather, what he hears is distorted by his obsessions. In the grip of his idée fixe, he finds plenty of material with which to feed it in the flamboyant chaos of sounds at the ball. It is not only his fellow gamblers who taunt him; in a way, he perceives (p.155)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.7a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, Overture

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.7b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 3, scene 5, the ghost of the countess

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.8. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, chorus of guests

everything that happens as a secret message—suggestive, challenging—addressed to him personally. When the chorus of guests proclaims exuberantly, “Cast aside, cast aside your occupations!” a typically Mozartean ternary harmonic pattern may have registered in Hermann's memory (example 5.8). Another typically Mozartean turn of a phrase that may have fueled Hermann's imagination appears in the duet of Prilepa and Milovzor. It consists of a simple ascending figure: three tones in a major scale moving up from the second step (p.156)
Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.9a. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 2, scene 3, pastorale (Prilepa's entrance)

Lost in a Symbolist City: Multiple Chronotopes in Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

5.9b. Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades, act 3, scene 5, Hermann

to the second step raised a half-step, to the third; the motif appears on Prilepa's key words “and [to whom I] want to reveal my passion” (example 5.9a).

As a result, when Hermann confronts the ghost of the countess, her message comes to him in recognizable form. Her singing, with its ternary sequential pattern, sounds to his ears like an echo of the exuberant exhortation to cast aside one's cares and to give oneself to the feeling of joy that he heard at the feast. As Hermann is repeating in a trance the names of the three cards, the orchestra seconds him with an insistent repetition of the ascending melodic figure echoing Prilepa's pledge of sincerity (example 5.9b).

The paranoid connection between the sounds of the feast and the idea of the (p.157) three cards that emerges in Hermann's mind offers a subliminal musical plot that underlies the seemingly static and superfluous scene of the pastorale. What emerges from beneath the surface of the pastiche strikingly resembles modernist narrative techniques; one may recall the scene in Bely's Petersburg in which Dudkin assembles the splinters of overheard trivial remarks to form a secret message about what preoccupies him at the moment—the planned terrorist act against Senator Ableukhov. Likewise, the musical narrative in which pervasive echoes of ternary motifs pop up under various circumstances, however irrelevant, creates a rendition of Hermann's obsession.

This musical-psychological insight strikingly resembles the way Hermann's state of mind is described in Pushkin's tale. Pushkin's Hermann, preoccupied with the three cards, discerns them in any object on which his glance happens to fall, just as Chaikovsky's Hermann catches them in every sound he hears: “Trey, seven, ace—the threesome haunted him and was perpetually on his lips. Seeing a young girl, he would say: ‘How shapely! Just like a trey of hearts.’ If anybody asked him what time it was, he would answer, ‘Five to the seven.’ Every portly man reminded him of an ace. The trey, the seven, and the ace hounded him even in his dreams, taking on every imaginable form: the trey blossomed before him like a great luxuriant flower; the seven appeared as a Gothic gate, and the ace assumed the shape of an enormous spider.”36

When the secret of the cards is finally revealed to Hermann, in both the book and the opera, it appears clothed in the aura of its foreshadowings, which now look to the hero like fulfilled prophecies. Armed with a battery of signs reiterating the sincerity of the shepherdess, he can now follow the invitation of the chorus in the ball to cast aside all his cares. Full of the boisterous sounds of the feast, transformed in his head into a dreadful cacophony, he rushes to the Winter Canal to perform his own duet with Liza, a frenzied echo of Prilepa and Milovzor—only to realize in the end that he is simply wasting his time: this is not his shepherdess.

The audience, but not Hermann, heard the simple sounds of the opening of the overture in which the seed of the whole drama was laid bare. When one juxtaposes the minor triads of the overture with their transformations, first into the shining Mozartean major of the guests' chorus and afterwards into a string of “magic” modulations along the whole-tone scale, one realizes why at its first appearance the theme sounded so sad, almost weeping: it was conveying the sense of mourning for poor Hermann and his delusions.

A few years ago, I heard an interview with Luigi Menotti in which he expressed his delight with The Queen of Spades, noting perceptively its closeness to modernity. He did not like the pastorale, however: he found it disruptive to (p.158) the development of the drama and artificial as a stylization. He advises cutting this “superfluous” segment in order to make the whole more appealing to a modern audience. Half a century earlier, Meyerhold had also found the pastorale, or, rather, the explicit reference to the eighteenth century it contained, troubling. In his famous and controversial setting of Chaikovsky's opera (1935), he shifted its action to the early nineteenth century, restoring it to the time of Pushkin's story. For this purpose he needed to rewrite parts of the libretto—a common practice in Soviet productions of classical operas in the 1930s, by no means limited to Gorodetsky's Ivan Susanin.37

I do not want to judge productions I have never seen. But as must be evident from the analysis above, to my mind the pastorale stands at the epicenter of the opera's musical-dramatic conception. It constitutes a cross-point for all the veins of psychological development reflected in the leitmotifs. (Imagine a production of Hamlet in which the play The Murder of Gonzago was omitted for the sake of concision and stylistic coherence.) The problem with the pastorale is that unless one perceives all the hidden psychological tremors it both absorbs into itself and spreads throughout the opera, it does look like a superfluous ornament, a routine operatic interlude. Its innocent appearance does not invite the listener to examine it carefully.

It is easy to understand what a neoclassical pastiche might mean in, say, Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos—but in Chaikovsky … in 1890 … in a work whose musical language, although by no means simplistic or retrograde, hardly qualifies as Zukunftmusik? So early is the date of this daring artistic achievement, from such an unexpected quarter (given Chaikovsky's reputation for conventionality verging on banality) does it come, that it takes no small effort to begin to notice what is there in plain view: namely, that the operatic Queen of Spades in effect presages the montage technique of avantgarde literature, music, and cinema and that its use of this technique results in a portrayal of its hero's fragmented consciousness and of the world falling apart along with the hero's mind—a psychological and aesthetic phenomenon that was soon to become the central trope of the modernist world.

The opera's Hermann represented a new type of hero typical of the early twentieth century—a “man without qualities” whose mind is attuned to different, mutually incompatible wavelengths and falls apart as a result. He himself cannot give an account of who he is: an eighteenth-century seducer, an early nineteenth-century Byronic figure, a Tristanesque character for whom love means death (his own as well as his beloved's, of course), a Dostoevskian killer with an obsessive idea, or a Chekhovian man of the age of twilight afflicted by a deep spiritual malaise. The hero's obsessions and eventual madness correspond to the maddeningly elusive suggestiveness of the world that (p.159) surrounds him. One cannot say whether the world looks this way because it is seen through Hermann's eyes or whether the ambiguity of its allusive appearances caused the collapse of Hermann's (and Liza's) consciousness.

Once again, I want to return to Andrei Bely's Petersburg. Written a quarter of a century later, it strikingly resembles Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades in its portrayal of the characters' actions and the city's scenery as if projected against a confused assortment of backdrops of various periods among which its heroes lose their way and eventually their minds. Moreover, it does so by consciously employing the imagery of Chaikovsky's opera.

Sofia Petrovna Likhutina, the heroine of Petersburg, has a remarkable ability to mix up names, images, and sites. She casts her lover, Nikolai Apollonovich, in an incongruous theatrical image of Hermann composed of a patchwork of moments from the opera. She awaits her Hermann at the Winter Canal with Chaikovsky's “ta-tam-tam-tam, ta-ta-tam-tam-tam” (a rendition of the rhythm of the orchestral introduction to this scene) pounding in her ears. Nikolai Apollonovich does appear clad in theatrical attire, but it turns out to be far from the Byronic image created by Sofia Petrovna's confused imagination: he is cloaked in the mantle and mask of a commedia dell'arte pagliaccio. To make the displacement of the chronotope even worse, he slips on the bridge and falls, exposing his very modern striped trousers. This mixture of overblown romantic postures, neoclassical theatricality, and unpicturesque modernity stood at the core of the dramatic tension in the opera; now, Bely turns it into a hilarious parody: “Sofia Petrovna Likhutina did not regard the Winter Canal as any prosaic spot where one could permit oneself to do what he had permitted himself. Not for nothing had she sighed, again and again, at the strains of The Queen of Spades. Yes, yes: her situation had something in common with Liza's (what it had in common, she could not have said). And it went without saying that she had dreamed of seeing Nikolai Apollonovich here as Hermann. Hermann? Hermann had acted like, like…. He had not torn the mask from his face in a heroic, tragic gesture. He had not said, in a hollow, sinking voice: ‘I love you.’ And he had not shot himself.”38

The novel explicitly adopts the symbolic landscapes of the opera, which by that time had been firmly imprinted in readers' memory. Flashbacks to the characters, images, and situations of Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades became an integral part of the city's polytemporal symbolism. The opera's expressionist ravings found their place in the gallery of reverberating images from which the symbolic attire of turn-of-the century Petersburg was made—alongside the fog of the primordial swamps, the image of Peter the founder with his carpenter's hammer, his petrified equestrian monument, the odes and (p.160) polonaises of the age of Catherine, Pushkin's “Petersburgian tale” with its apocalyptic symbolism clad in neoclassical dress, Gogol's, Odoevsky's, the early Dostoevsky's nocturnal visions of the city and its people, and finally, the murky alleys and dark attics of the late nineteenth-century industrial city of the mature Dostoevsky's novels. The operatic reincarnation of the city proved to be a crucial step in shaping what Vladimir Toporov called the “Petersburgian text”39 within the culture of Russian modernism.40

By the beginning of the modernist period, the feeling of symbolic density of the city had become pervasive. The protagonists of Blok's and Mikhail Kuzmin's poems, Zinaida Gippius's tales, and of course, Bely's novel found themselves haunted by shades and echoes from the past posing as their doubles and threatening to take over their thoughts and lives. The Muscovite Boris Pasternak might ask, by way of a nonchalant poetic aside, “Exactly what millennium is it out there, my dear?” For someone surrounded by Petersburg's temporal mirrors, the time period in question was a century or two rather than a millennium, but the consequences of that uncertainty were ominously tangible. A street or a square with a monument in it, a white night or a sunset over the river, a dark staircase or a mis-en-scène in a living room refused to be just what it was; one could hear voices or glimpse ghostly images lurking in the background. The atmosphere was intoxicating and paranoid, revelatory and saturated with self-fulfilling prophecies of imminent calamity. The sounds of Chaikovsky's The Queen of Spades had become an overture to the symbolist drama of an imperial city on the road to its collapse.


(1) . Esteban Buch, La neuvième de Beethoven: Une histoire politique (Paris: Gallimard, 1999).

(2) . Boris Gasparov, introduction to Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 1–18.

(3) . The new Russian capital rose not exactly on swamps but, rather, on the ruins of an older Swedish city largely destroyed by military action in 1702. See Bengt Jangfeldt, Svenska vägar till S:t Petersburg (Stockholm, 1998), pt. 1.

(4) . F. M. Doestevskii, Zapiski iz podpol'ia, in Dostoevskii, Sobranie sochinenii v piatnadtsati tomakh (Leningrad, 1989), 4:455. The “Petersburg myth” has become one of the favorite topics in Russian cultural studies of the past two decades. Particularly representative of this trend are several collective scholarly enterprises such as Trudy po znakovym sistemam 18: Semiotika goroda i gorodskoi kul'tury: Peterburg (Tartu, 1984) (Acta et commentationes universitatis Tartuensis 664); Metafizika Peterburga (Petersburg: Morev, 1995); and Muzykal'naia akademiia nos. 4–5 (1995).

(5) . Carl Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Knopf, 1980).

(6) . Arkadii Klimovitsky, “Tchaikovsky and the Russian ‘Silver Age,’” in Tchaikovsky and His World, ed. Leslie Kearney (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 319–32.

(7) . He wrote to von Meck on April 24, 1888: “I have been thinking occasionally, and (p.243) still do, about an opera on the subject of The Captain's Daughter.” P. I. Chaikovskii, Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk (Moscow: Academia, 1936), 3:529.

(8) . P. I. Chaikovsky to Grand Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, 30 May 1888, in P. I. Chaikovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii: Literaturnye proizvedeniia i perepiska (Moscow, 1974), 14:442.

(9) . M. Chaikovsky apparently shared his brother's attitude when he claimed afterwards that he “gave an opportunity to Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky to do what he has done with this work, charming but lightweight, compared with The Captain's Daughter, Eugene Onegin, and Boris Godunov” (M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:347).

(10) . P. I. Chaikovsky to N. von Meck, 17 December 1889, in P. I. Chaikovskii, Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk, 3: 589.

(11) . To his publisher, Pyotr Iurgenson, Chaikovsky wrote almost apologetically, at the beginning of his work on the opera: “I want to perform an incredible trick: to write an opera for the next season…. To tell the truth, I like working in haste, when people are waiting and hurry me up.” P. I. Chaikovsky to P. Iurgenson, 22 January 1880, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:305.

(12) . P. I. Chaikovsky to N. von Meck, 17 December 1889, in P. I. Chaikovskii, Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk, 3:590.

(13) . “Ivan, princhipe Chemodanov, ambashiatore Moskovita.” P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 26 March 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:323.

(14) . Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

(15) . He wrote to his brother, “Do your best to regale him [the director, Vsevolozhsky]. One needs, as far as possible, to regale everyone there, so that they would do their best afterwards.” P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 12 February 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:312.

(16) . “Laroche wrote to me that he and Nápravník [the musical director of the Mariinsky Theater] are grumbling that I have done it so fast. How can they fail to comprehend that working fast is my fundamental trait?! I cannot work otherwise than speedily. But the speed does not mean at all that the opera has been written haphazardly.” P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 3 March 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:319.

(17) . Ibid.

(18) . “What can one think up so that poor Figner will not get a role beyond his endurance? … I am afraid the poor soul [bednyaga, the word with which Tomsky calls Hermann in the opera] simply does not have enough strength to endure it.” P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 6 February 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:311.

(19) . P. I. Chaikovsky to N. von Meck, 20 December 1877, in P. I. Chaikovskii, Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk, 1:130.

(20) . For a witty account of the generic fate of the operatic heroine, see Catherine Clément, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

(21) . Denis Davydov recognized with delight an anecdote he had told Pushkin many (p.244) years earlier in the epigraph to Chapter 2 of the tale. He wrote to Pushkin, “Jesus! What a devilish memory! God only knows when I told you in passing about my riposte to M. A. Naryshkina concerning les suivantes qui sont plus fraîches, and you made it the epigraph, word for word, for one of the sections of the Queen of Spades. Can you imagine my surprise, nay delight to live in your memory, Pushkin's memory! … My heart has been filled with joy, as happens when one receives a note from the woman one loves.” D. Davydov to A. Pushkin, 4 April 1834, in A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 2d ed. (Moscow: Voskresen'e, 1996), 15:123.

(22) . For more details related to that feast and Derzhavin's account of it see Chapter 1.

(23) . “This was the signal for the theatrical performance. The host most humbly invited to it his distinguished visitors and also invited other guests. The curtain was raised. Dancers including male and female villagers stepped forward…. In the outside garden, very spacious and beautiful, bonfires [uveselitelnye ogni] were set up.” “Opisanie torzhestva, byvshego po sluchaiu vziatiia goroda Izmaila v dome General-Feldmarshala Kniazia Potemkina-Tavricheskogo, bliz Konnoi Gvardii, v prisutstvii Imperatritsy Ekateriny II, 1791 Aprelia 28,” in G. R. Derzhavin, Sochineniia (St. Petersburg: A. Smirdin, 1831), 4:44, 52.

(24) . P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 20 February 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:316.

(25) . Chaikovsky was aware that Karabanov's pastorale was written on occasion of yet another festivity, at the house of Prince Naryshkin (in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:343); it was published in 1786. This reference potentially pushes the opera's time even further back, to the late 1780s, but its general temporal design remains the same.

(26) . “Tomsky's song is written after Derzhavin's lyrics; this song was fashionable in the end of the last century. Like everything else that emanated from the pen of the notorious Gavriil Romanovich, it is devoid of any attractiveness … one cannot help wondering at the anodyne stupidity of the principal thought and clumsiness of the form. I took this song as a characteristic episode in the scene depicting the mores of the end of the century.” P. I. Chaikovsky to Grand Prince Konstantin Konstantinovich, 3 August 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:344.

(27) . Aleksei Parin, Khozhdenie v nevidimyi grad. Paradigmy russkoi klassicheskoi opery (Moscow: Agraf, 1999), 349.

(28) . Andrei Bely indicates this difference between the time of the operatic Liza and that of his heroine: “Is it a shadow of Liza? No, this is not Liza, this is—nothing remarkable, just a Petersburg lady.” Bely, Petersburg, trans. Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 34.

(29) . P. I. Chaikovsky to N. von Meck, 16–17 August 1878, in P. I. Chaikovskii, Perepiska s N. F. fon Mekk, 1:411.

(30) . See the perceptive observations regarding the opera's polytemporality in Parin, Khozhdenie v nevidimyi grad, 339–41; I. D. Glikman, Meierkhol'd i muzykal'nyi teatr (Leningrad, 1987), 287–91.

(31) . I quote from the opera's libretto, which deviates slightly from Batiushkov's poem. The differences (v lugakh, “'in the meadows,” instead of the original v poliakh, “in the fields,” radostnykh, “joyful,” instead of prekrasnykh, “beautiful”) are essentially without consequence for the general meaning of the poem. In fact, such small inaccuracies in quotatio (p.245) were typical of the nineteenth century. This widespread cultural habit is artfully parodied in Bely's Petersburg, whose every chapter begins with an epigraph from Pushkin—virtually all of them cited imprecisely, sometimes with a comic shift in tone and meaning.

(32) . When I presented this chapter as a paper at Harvard University, my colleagues justly pointed out to me that the image of a grave can be present in a neoclassical pastorale as well. The crucial difference signifying the transition to the world of the Romantic elegy in Batiushkov consists in the fact that the situation is presented from the point of view of the dead shepherdess, not her joyful companions surrounding her grave, as happens in neoclassical tableaux. Hence the shift of the tense into the elegiac past: “I lived in happy Arcadia” instead of present tense of the classical “Et in Arcadia ego.”

(33) . P. I. Chaikovsky to M. Chaikovsky, 12 February 1890, in M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskogo, 3:313.

(34) . A. Finagin, “O vzaimootnoshenii khudozhestvennoi i bytovoi pesni,” De musica: Institut istorii iskusstv; Vremennik otdela muzyki (1927), 3:54–61, shows how the urban popular song spread across all the classes of Russian society, gradually pushing the peasant folk song into the background.

(35) . Parin (Khozhdenie v nevidimyi grad, 328) notes that Hermann's subsequent declaration, “She will be mine!” (Ona moeyu budet!) sounds ambiguous: “‘She’ means here—the mystery of the three cards [the Russian taina, “mystery,” is of the feminine grammatical gender], and the flourishing beauty of Liza, and the horrible old Countess who is awaiting all her life her third lover.”

(36) . Alexander Pushkin, Complete Prose Fiction, ed. and trans. Paul Debreczeny (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), 230.

(37) . V. E. Meierkhol'd, Pikovaia dama: Zamysel, Voploshchenie, Sud'ba; Materialy i dokumenty (St. Petersburg: Kompozitor, 1994).

(38) . Bely, Petersburg, 86.

(39) . The term was coined by V. N. Toporov: “Peterburg i peterburgskii tekst russkoi literatury,” in his Mif. Ritual. Simvol. Obraz: Issledovaniia v oblasti mifopoetiki (Moscow: Progress, 1995): 259–367.

(40) . Parin (Khozhdenie v nevidimyi grad, 317–18) cites evidence of the overwhelming impression that Chaikovsky's opera made on the would-be leaders of the first wave of Russian modernism. For instance, Alexandre Benois wrote in his memoirs: “I anticipated as it were the music of The Queen of Spades, with its magic evocation of shadows…. The Queen of Spades literally made me insane, turned for a time being into a visionary of a sort, awoke my dormant intuitive understanding of the past.” On the influence of the opera's aesthetics on the world of art, see Arkadii Klimovitsky, “Tchaikovsky and the Russian ‘Silver Age,’” in Tchaikovsky and His World, ed. Leslie Kearny (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998): 319–32.