5 Russian Classics Inspired by Literature

An early 20th century illustration for Evgeny Onegin.

Photo: E. Samokish-Sudkovskaya

There are many types of Russian literature fans. Some collect English translations; others learn Russian in order to read works in the original. Still others spend years composing symphonies, ballets, and operas inspired by Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Gogol. That’s a lot of effort to be spending on fan tributes (though they would prefer that you call them "adaptations").

As with all adaptations, some don’t quite work out, but others do succeed in capturing the spirit of the original, while introducing a new perspective on the source material. Here are five adaptations of Russian literature to classical music that we feel are worth listening to.

Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1878)

Only a great composer would dare to try topping Pushkin’s great novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Then again, with his opera adaptation of Onegin, Tchaikovsky didn’t aim to top Pushkin so much as pay a faithful tribute. Some aspects of the novel were lost in translation – for instance, Tchaikovsky cut the novel’s omnipresent witty narrator. But he more than made up for it by scaffolding Pushkin’s story with a lush, evocative musical landscape.

Most of the opera’s libretto comes directly from the novel. For example, when adapting Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin, Tchaikovsky cut just seven lines from Pushkin’s 79-line letter. Still, Tchaikovsky makes plenty of judgment calls when signaling characters’ emotions. In the opera version of Tatyana’s letter scene, for instance, Tatyana starts off emotionally fraught but grows confident by the end. Whether you agree with that interpretation of her character, it’s undeniable that Tatyana’s torment feels even more real when sung than it does on the page.

Anna Netrebko as Tatyana in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 staging.

The Nose

Dmitri Shostakovich (1928)

Shostakovich is well known for his operatic adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; the scandal around it led to his denunciation by the Communist Party in 1936. But relatively few know about Shostakovich’s first opera, an adaptation of Gogol’s famous short story “The Nose.”

The original short story is chock-full of whimsy and snark and flits from absurd scene to absurd scene. Shostakovich’s opera captures that irreverence perfectly. The style is highly experimental, incorporating everything from folk songs to atonal recitatives and snappy percussion-only interludes. Ivan Yakovlevich and his wife’s argument becomes an exaggerated melodramatic duet, while the nose screams at Kovalyov in a high-pitched tenor. Oh, and that’s just Act 1.

Although The Nose is seldom performed, those who stage it have an absolute blast. The Royal Opera House’s 2016 staging added this scene, where Kovalyov dreams about tap-dancing noses.

The only thing weirder than Gogol’s “The Nose” is, well, Shostakovich’s The Nose. / Royal Opera House

Semyon Kotko

Sergei Prokofiev (1939)

The opera Semyon Kotko is probably the only work in this list whose adaptation is better known than the original. Prokofiev based Kotko on a then-popular novel about a soldier who fends off German invaders and Ukrainian nationalists during the aftermath of World War I. It’s unclear if Prokofiev would have chosen this subject matter if not for the denunciation against Shostakovich three years prior. That said, Prokofiev did an impressive job showing off his artistic capabilities within the confines of Socialist Realism.

The overture features clear if not quite catchy melodies, while later sections imitate the chaos of war, adapt popular songs, and even set a Ukrainian poem to music. As one scholar writes, “While attempting to meet contemporary demands, [Prokofiev] continued to write for posterity, and intended that Kotko should remain ‘without propaganda, which quickly goes out of style.’”

Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Choir, and Flemish Radio Choir in a 2016 staging of Kotko (audio only).

A recording of the overture to Kotko is available on the Russian National Orchestra’s Russian Overtures album.

Anna Karenina

Rodion Shchedrin (1971)

Tolstoy’s classic novel has inspired dozens of movies and TV shows, and at least one memoir. So no one will be surprised to learn that Anna Karenina also has a ballet version, composed in 1971 by then-Soviet composer Rodion Shchedrin.

Shchedrin’s ballet has been compared to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, in that both are split into episodes and whisk viewers right into the action. But don’t go into Anna Karenina thinking the music is anywhere near as digestible as Tolstoy’s classic. Though the plot is from the nineteenth century, the music is highly contemporary: atonality is the norm, and bursts of sound and rhythm, rather than melodies, convey the characters’ emotions. That said, ballets are meant to be watched. Choreographers have no shortage of source material to work from, so, despite the difficult music, Anna Karenina is always stunning to watch.

A 1974 film version of Maya Plisetskaya’s choreography for Anna Karenina.

Symphony No. 10 in F minor

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1927)

Nikolai Myaskovsky is undeservedly underrated. Not only did he pen beautiful works for cello, he also wrote 27 symphonies, a feat that contributed to his winning the Stalin Prize five times. It’s rare for a composer to remain in the Stalinist regime’s good graces while retaining respect in the West. After a quick look at his Tenth Symphony, it’s not hard to see why.

Myaskovsky’s Tenth Symphony is an obscure gem based on a famous jewel — Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman. More than any other adaptation in this list, it adheres to the spirit of the original without bothering to adapt it scene by scene. The first half ratchets up dissonance, building up to the devastating Neva flood of 1824. Eventually, the symphony slows down to a twisted, haunted grief. Not to end with a whimper, though, it closes with three endings – two fake-outs and a real ending – evoking, without directly spelling out, Yevgeny’s tormented hallucinations of Peter the Great.

Yevgeny Svetlanov conducts the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in this recording of the symphony.

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