By Bella Brover-Lubovsky

Catherine the Great (1729–96), Empress of All the Russias, was neither a devoted music lover nor a musical connoisseur, unlike her husband Peter III, or her son, the future Emperor Paul I and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna. Although during Catherine’s reign St. Petersburg became one of the foremost European musical capitals, Catherine herself maintained the court musical establishment purely as an obligatory component of political display. At the same time, she assigned exceptional importance to dramatic performances that extolled her reign and policies, with a particular passion for spectacles based on her own literary production. Among these, Catherine especially favored the grandiose pageant Nachal’noe upravlenie Olega (The Early Reign of Oleg), based on one of her three historical plays and elaborating on events from the history of ancient Rus under the Varangian rulers Rurick, Oleg, and Igor. Oleg was credited primarily for having founded Kievan Rus in 898 and for his victorious campaign against Constantinople in 907. Staged during the Second Russo-Turkish War (1787–91), the play praised Catherine as a worthy successor to one of the greatest early sovereigns of Rus, whereas Oleg’s Byzantine campaign related directly to Catherine’s famous project of restoring the Greek Empire.

Catherine’s decision to have Oleg performed as a musical spectacle was prompted by her own perception of the play’s lack of dramatic unity (it bears the subtitle “An imitation of Shakespeare, without preserving the common theatrical rules”). As she explained to her secretary Alexander Khrapovitsky, “There is no unity of place. It is rather an opera” (Pamyatny’ya zapiski A. V. Xrapovitskago, ed. G. Gennadi [Moscow: V universitetskoi tipographij, 1962], 205).

Oleg’s incarnation on stage had been carefully designed by the empress, who personally supervised every detail of the production, participating in the cast selection, attending all the rehearsals, and offering costumes from the imperial wardrobe. A constellation of native and foreign artists was involved in the performance: the celebrated dramatic actor Ivan Dmitrevsky appeared as Oleg; the renowned choreographers Giuseppe Canziani and Charles LePicq were tasked with staging the dances and pantomimes; the famous Parisian harpist Jean-Baptiste Cardon was invited to St. Petersburg to play the stylized “lyra” part; and the decorations were prepared by the well-known stage designer Pietro Gonzaga. The spectacle involved about 800 persons in total, including actors, the court chapel singers, and extras from three military regiments. Premiered in 1790 at the Hermitage court theater and then shown in the public Kamenny Theater during the 1790–91 and 1794–95 seasons, it was a stunning success.

This is a highly eclectic work, both textually and musically. Its language is magniloquent and kitschy; it includes citations from Russian folk songs, odes by Mikhail Lomonosov, and a sizeable excerpt from Euripides’s Alceste. The literary text was published anonymously in 1787 and again with the orchestral score (St. Petersburg: College of Mining Press, 1791). Although the play had been translated into English by Matthew Guthrie, the court physician and intellectual (Noctes Rossicae; or, Russian Evening Recreations, 1800; British Library, Add. MS 14390), no English translation has ever been published.

My edition includes the portions of the play that are sung, both in Russian and English translation. In the score, the somewhat awkward but space-saving transliteration system GOST 2002 (B) was chosen in order to fit the underlaid portions.

The music numbers play primarily a diegetic role, amplifying elements of encomiastic court pageantry. The score consists mainly of choruses during the bridal party and wedding ceremony of Igor and Ol’ga in Kiev (act 3), the festive reception of Oleg and the ambassadors in Constantinople at the palace of Emperor Leon VI and later at the Hippodrome (act 5); and various orchestral movements. The main portion of the scene from Alceste is presented as a melodrama. The music was provided collaboratively by the court musicians. Carlo Canobbio (1741–1822), a Venetian ballet composer and guitar virtuoso, furnished the orchestral numbers; Vassily Pashkevich (1749–97), a prolific native musician, trained by Vincenzo Manfredini and Tommaso Traetta, contributed the wedding choruses; and Giuseppe Sarti (1729–1802) eventually supplied music for act 5. The numbers by Canobbio and Pashkevich cite several Russian folk tunes from the collection compiled by Nikolay L’vov and Ivan Prach (Sobranie narodnykh russkih pesen, St. Petersburg: College of Mining Press, 1790), such as the famous chant “Slava” (Glory), quoted by Beethoven (in the E-minor Razumovsky quartet, op. 59, no. 2) and by a number of Russian composers. These songs are included in appendix 2.

At the time Oleg was conceived, Sarti was in the service of Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739–91), following him in his military camps during the Second Turkish War. The commission to compose the music reached Sarti in Potemkin’s headquarters in Yassi (now Iași, Romania) in August 1789. The composer had previously impressed the empress with the grandiosity of his choral writing during his brief although brilliant tenure as a court composer (1784–86). Catherine’s enthusiasm for Sarti’s choral style is clear from her letter to Potemkin: “I ask you, as my friend, not to forget to order Sarti to compose the choruses for Oleg. . . . Here no one writes as well as he does.” (Ekaterina II i G. A. Potemkin: Lichnaya perepiska, 1769–1791, ed. V. S. Lopatin [Moscow: Nauka, 1997], 387).

Sarti’s contribution comprised four choruses on the excerpts from Lomonosov’s odes and all of the music for the closing divertissement from Alceste, which is styled as a melodrama: the protagonists’ spoken dialogue alternates with brief orchestral interjections and an accompanied unison chorus. The entire spectacle closes with an ode to Apollo, set as a series of five unison choruses. The music of the fourth of these is based on a quotation from a supposedly ancient Greek musical fragment presented in Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia universalis (Rome: Corbelletti, 1650, 1:541). This stylized representation of ancient Greek prosody and monody, with their tonal and metric structures and orchestration, was considered both by Catherine herself and by her intellectual circles as the artistic apex of the spectacle, and enchanted the audience.

The present edition includes two introductory texts: Catherine’s “Pred’uvyedomlenie” (Preface) and an “Ob’yasnenie” (Explanation), a Russian translation of Sarti’s “Eclaircissement sur la musique composée pour Oleg,” preserved in manuscript together with the autograph score of the “Greek” choruses at Faenza, Biblioteca Comunale Manfrediana (R.M. cart. 38). In his explanation, Sarti analyzes the choruses in terms of the ancient Greek doctrine of modal affect and the performing conventions of Attic dramas. Because of several serious discrepancies between the Russian translation of this important document, prepared by the polymath Nikolaj L’vov, and Sarti’s original, both in the wording and in the authorities cited, both versions of this text are reproduced in full in my edition, each with its own translation. I am greatly indebted to Leofranc Holford-Strevens for kindly supplying fuller versions and decoding of Sarti’s cryptic references to classical sources in marginal notes.

Thanks to the recommendation of series editor Neal Zaslaw, the volume includes (as appendix 3) a chorus originally commissioned from Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801), tenured as court composer during Oleg’s creation. The identification of this chorus led to an adventurous archival search. Catherine’s disappointment with Cimarosa’s piece and her intention to hire Sarti to compose the choruses instead had been explicit: “The chorus by Cimarosa did not please. . . . I have sent Oleg to the prince [i.e., Potemkin], so that it is Sarti who will compose the music” (Lopatin, ed., Ekaterina II i G. A. Potemkin, 387–88). Although the identity of this chorus as Cimarosa’s rejected music for Oleg leans on no direct evidence, it has traditionally been presented as such in the literature. The chorus’s Italian text has no relationship with the text of act 5, nor has it been found among the oeuvre of the court poet Ferdinando Moretti (d. 1807). Not until the proof stage did I discover a report by Peter Soimonov and Alexander Khrapovitsky to the empress on 24 July 1789: “On the superior orders of Your Highness, a number of choruses for Oleg have been commissioned from Cimarosa; for his better understanding, these choruses will be translated into Italian, and a sample of a chorus composed by Sarti has been given to him” (P. N. Arapov and Avgust Roppol’t, Dramaticheskij albom” [Moscow: Universitetskaya tipografiya, 1850], plate 94).

Oleg had a multivalent impact on Russian and European musical theater, triggering such leading forthcoming trends as the rise of nationalism, historicism, and the growing vogue for neoclassical imitations of Greek drama. My edition presents this emblematic work for the first time in its entirety, supplemented by contextual materials, in order to correct the many inaccuracies and misconceptions that have plagued its proper comprehension within late eighteenth-century European culture and to make it available to modern scholars and performers.

Bella Brover-LubovskyBella Brover-Lubovsky is a professor at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance with expertise in musicology, history of music theory, and historical analysis. She is the author of Tonal Space in the Music of Antonio Vivaldi (Indiana University Press, 2008) and of numerous articles on the epistemology of tonality and the history of modal dualism. Her essay “The ‘Greek Project’ of Catherine the Great and Giuseppe Sarti” (later published in Journal of Musicological Research 32, no. 1 [2013]: 28–61) won the Thurnau Award for Music Theater Studies (Bayreuth University), and her further research on Sarti was supported by the Einstein Stiftung Berlin (in collaboration with the research team from the University of the Arts, Berlin). She is a recipient of the research grants from the Israel Science Foundation, the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America (Columbia University), and the Vittore Branca Center for the Study of Italian Culture (Fondazione Cini, Venice).