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Opera and lyrical music
Sheet music for Aleksandr Nikolayevitch Serov
Judith, first performed in 1863, was an immediate success. the libretto was written by Serov himself (first act), his friend Zvantsov (fifth act) and a number of other people. The plot is based on the story from the apocryphal Bible book of Judith and Friedrich Hebbel’s drama Judith (1839). Wagner’s influence in the music is much less evident than would be expected on the basis of Serov’s previous writings. Serov apparently got his inspiration from almost every composer whose works were familiar to him. The part of Holofernes was one of Fyodor Shalyapin’s big successes. Judith has been recorded (Le Chant du Monde, LDC 288035-6). Like Verstovsky’s Askold’s Grave, Serov’s next opera, Rogneda (1865), takes his subject from Russia’s remote past. It was an even bigger hit than Judith. Tsar Aleksandr II granted him a thousand rubles per year. Unlike Serov’s two other opera’s it was not revived in Soviet times. Serov was not able to finish his third opera, The Power of Evil, after a play by Ostrovsky. His wife, Valentina Bergman, completed the fifth act with the help of a teacher at the Petersburg conservatory. At its premiere it was received coolly, but performances with Fyodor Stravinsky and later Fyodor Shalyapin in the role of Yeromka, were quite successful. Another fifth act was composed by Boris Asafyev in 1949. As Mussorgsky acknowledged in private, several of Serov’s ideas found their way into his works. Rimsky-Korsakov, too, recalls his enjoyment of Rogneda in his autobiography.
My main sources, besides the usual handbooks, were
Keldysh, Yu. V., Istoriya Russkoy Muzyki, 1947. Tom II, p. 46-86.
G.N. Khubov, Aleksandr Serov, voinstvuyushchiy realist, in A.N. Serov, Izbrannye Stat’i, Leningrad, 1951 (German edition, Berlin, 1955).
G. Abraham, The Operas of Serov in Essays presented to Gerald Abraham, Oxford, 1966, p. 171-183.
R. Taruskin, Opera and Drama in Russia; as preached and practiced in the 1860’s, Ann Arbor, 1981, Chapters 1-4.
R. Taruskin, Serov and Mussorgsky in Essays presented to Egon Wellesz, Oxford, 1985, p. 139-161, reprinted in Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, Princeton, 1993.
Bibliography (not consulted, because not available):
M.R. Cherkashina, Aleksandr Nikolayevitch Serov, 1820-1871, Moscow, 1985.
A. Stupel, A.N. Serov, Leningrad, 1968.
G.N. Khubov, Zhizn’ A. Serova, Moscow/Leningrad, 1950.
(Birth and death dates according to the Julian calender are 23 January 1820 and 1 February 1871.)
Besides being an influential music critic, Aleksandr Serov was the composer of several popular Russian opera’s of the nineteenth century.
Aleksandr Serov was born as son of a civil servant and as a child showed a talent for science, drawing and music. He was taught the piano and the violoncello. At the age of fifteen he entered the just opened School of Jurisprudence, where he played the piano at musical evenings. After his graduation in 1840, Serov entered the civil service. Always wanting to pursue a career in music, he tried to make a living out of writing critical essays on music. But only in 1855 Serov was able to quit his government job and became a full time writer. His early enthusiasm for the theories of Richard Wagner, even before he had heard Wagner’s music, earned him a reputation as the Russian Wagnerian. In 1861 he found the courage to embark on the composition of an opera. Judith was finished in 1863 and was successfullly produced at the Mariyinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Serov had the good fortune of enjoying the patronage of high officials. He continued his success as an opera composer with Rogneda (1865). A third opera was left unfinished at his sudden death at the age of 51. Composing opera’s did not prevent Serov from writing long essays. The latest collection of his collected writings on music runs to seven volumes (Leningrad, 1984-). Furthermore, Serov was also a prolific writer of letters.