Mlada (1872): Scenes from a Collaborative Opera-Ballet by César Cui, Modest Musorgskii, Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin

By Albrecht Gaub

Mlada (1872)Within the annals of Russian opera, the collaborative opera-ballet Mlada (N067), whose surviving music is now available in its entirety for the first time, is a case sui generis. Let us imagine the situation in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early 1872. Stepan Gedeonov, the director of the imperial theaters since 1867, is losing ground. His supervisor, the tsarist court minister, has criticized him for his inability to budget. To make things worse, the Russian opera troupe needs fresh works for its repertory, but whatever Russian composers have submitted recently is either experimental and un-operatic (like the 1869 version of Musorgskii’s Boris Godunov, rejected for its lack of a prima donna role) or of inferior quality.

Gedeonov comes up with a risky plan. He wants to combine the forces of the Russian opera and the imperial ballet in one grand spectacle, styled an “opera-ballet,” that would top everything the Russian stage has seen before. Gedeonov himself devises the scenario. It is closely modeled on Filippo Taglioni’s ballet Ten’ (The shadow), produced in St. Petersburg in 1839. However, Gedeonov, a historian by training, transplants the action into the lands of the westernmost Slavs, the Polabians, who inhabited what is now northeastern Germany. The stage work he devises illustrates the world of the Polabians in the grandeur imagined in his own writings—especially their religion, which he connects to those of ancient Greece and Egypt. With the help of the playwright Viktor Krylov, Gedeonov expands his scenario into a libretto in four acts. Its title, Mlada, is the name of its heroine—who, however, dies before the action sets in and who is present only as a shadow—a silent, pantomimic role.

In search of composers, Gedeonov approaches the art historian and critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov is a mutual friend of Gedeonov and the group of composers known as the Mighty Handful (in Russian, Moguchaia kuchka): Milii Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgskii, and Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov. An ardent champion of Italian opera, Gedeonov is at odds with the group’s aesthetics. Yet he knows that he has few alternatives. Gedeonov wants the entire Mighty Handful to compose the music for his opera-ballet in collaboration. Part of the ballet music will be supplied by the recently appointed staff ballet composer of the imperial theaters, Ludwig Minkus. To Stasov’s surprise, the composers agree. Cui takes over the first act, Borodin the fourth; Musorgskii and Rimskii-Korsakov, who are roommates at the time, share the two middle acts scene by scene. Only Balakirev does not participate; he has become estranged from his erstwhile students, and his long-term retreat from the public is imminent. As is their wont, the composers make use of earlier scores and sketches. Cui salvages two juvenilia from the 1850s. Musorgskii rehashes the score of his unperformed orchestral work Ivanova noch’ na Lysoi gore (St. John’s Night on Bare Mountain), splicing in snippets from his unfinished opera Salambo. Borodin turns to the sketches for his temporarily abandoned opera Kniaz’ Igor’ (Prince Igor). In early May 1872, about three-quarters of the music is completed and partly orchestrated. But then work on Mlada ceases. As Stasov would explain much later, the commission was withdrawn because Mlada would have overstretched the theatrical budget by far. Gedeonov’s grand scheme has failed.

Mlada falls into oblivion, but its music does not. Borodin recycles much of his music for Prince Igor. Musorgskii uses some of his material in his opera Sorochinskaia iarmarka (Sorochintsy Fair). Rimskii-Korsakov transfers the bulk of his Mlada sketches to his next opera, Maiskaia noch’ (May Night); two leftovers go into Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). When he “rediscovers” the Mlada project in 1889 and embarks on setting the libretto all by himself, only one short scene from 1872 is left for inclusion.

In my doctoral dissertation, accepted by the University of Hamburg in 1997 and published one year later (Albrecht Gaub, Die kollektive Ballett-Oper “Mlada”: Ein Werk von Kjui, Musorgskij, Rimskij-Korsakov, Borodin und Minkus [Berlin: Ernst Kuhn, 1998]), I tried to turn Mlada, this “phantom of an opera,” into something palpable. I intended to publish the music alongside my dissertation, but it was only in 2006 that the Russian authorities holding the manuscripts finally granted me permission to do so. With my edition of Mlada, all surviving operas by major Russian composers of the nineteenth century have been published.

My edition is based on the extant autographs of the music and libretto in the hands of Borodin, Cui, Musorgskii, and Rimskii-Korsakov. They are spread over four repositories: the St. Petersburg Rimskii-Korsakov State Conservatory, the Russian National Library, and the Institute of Russian Literature, all in St. Petersburg, and the Glinka Museum in Moscow. Existing earlier editions of fragments from Mlada turned out to be of little value. Cui’s own edition of act 1, published by Belaieff in 1911, comes without scholarly pretense, and while “1872” is given as the year of composition, the score is thoroughly revised and also cut. The few scholarly editions, such as Pavel Lamm’s of the scenes from act 2 within his edition of Musorgskii’s complete works (ca. 1932), are also seriously flawed. As to Minkus’s share, no manuscripts from 1872 are extant. It may be hoped that the score for Minkus’s later ballet Mlada (1879), preserved at the music library of the Mariinsky Theater, incorporates the music composed in 1872, but the theater did not grant me permission to publish it.

With the exception of Minkus’s music, my edition presents Mlada in the format in which it survives. The accompaniment is notated either in piano layout (two staves) or piano duet layout (four staves), with occasional cues to the orchestration. The full score of Borodin’s “Duet of Iaromir and the Priest,” the only orchestrated scene to survive, is also included as an appendix. I have reconstructed two lacunary numbers: Cui’s trio (act 1, no. 7), where only two vocal solo parts had to be added to a full-length sketch; and Borodin’s “Chorus of the Idolaters” (act 4, no. 1), where at least the overall formal outline was clear. With these two reconstructions, the outer acts are complete. Further reconstructions would have assumed a highly speculative character and thus transcended the limits of scholarly editing. For example, Musorgskii’s “Chernobog” from act 3—adapted from his music for Bare Mountain—is presented in facsimile, since the later changes he made to this music for use in Sorochintsy Fair, written directly into the manuscript from Mlada, cannot be reverted. Some scenes, such as Musorgskii’s “Fist Fight” from act 2, were never completed, and others were possibly completed but lost, such as Rimskii-Korsakov’s finale for act 2.

The textual matter of my edition amounts to a concise, updated English version of my doctoral dissertation. It includes the libretto in all of its extant variants, as well as English translations of hitherto untranslated Russian source texts. Ample facsimile plates serve to illustrate the argument. For instance, they include the complete source material for Cui’s act-1 trio and the libretto sketch for Borodin’s “Chorus of the Idolaters,” allowing the user to assess the validity of my reconstructions.

One final question, probably more important than any fussing over historical or editorial details, remains: what does Mlada sound like? Striving for stylistic and formal unity, the composers discussed and shared their respective scenes for Mlada as works in progress; in one notable example, the manuscript of Borodin’s “Duet of Voislava and Iaromir” (act 4, no. 4) underwent heavy editing in Musorgskii’s hand. All the same, each of the four had developed a personal style by 1872, and in most cases, the music betrays its author. My edition invites a comparison among these styles. For instance, Rimskii-Korsakov’s prelude to act 3 is a fascinating essay in Russian proto-impressionism. And Borodin’s act 4, which has always been considered the best part of Mlada, inevitably sounds like a potpourri from Prince Igor, even though the chronology suggests the opposite.


Albrecht GaubAlbrecht Gaub is the editor of Mlada (1872): Scenes from a Collaborative Opera-Ballet by César Cui, Modest Musorgskii, Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin (N067).  He currently works as a translator at Point-to-Point Translation and Language Services in Milwaukee. Previously, he worked as a cataloger at J & J. Lubrano Music Antiquarians, a staff editor at A-R Editions, and a music critic at the German daily Stuttgarter Zeitung. He held a post-doctoral fellowship at McGill University with a grant from DAAD (1999–2000) and has won the AMS Janet Levy Award (2012) and the Music & Letters Award (2011).

Most of Gaub’s work deals with Russian music of the nineteenth century. He obtained his Ph.D. in historical musicology from the University of Hamburg, Germany, with a dissertation on the collaborative opera-ballet Mlada, for which he traced and studied the surviving manuscripts in St. Petersburg and Moscow. During and after his sojourn at McGill, he studied the impact of exiled musicians from Nazi Germany and Austria on Canada’s music life. He has contributed numerous articles to MGG2 and other reference works. For Lubrano, he cataloged the notable collection of Jacob Lateiner before it was sold (and dispersed). His article “Glinka, Mikhail Ivanovich” for Oxford Bibliographies in Music is forthcoming.