Pushkin in Exile: The Life of a Great Poet in Song
Cultural History | Digital Humanities | European History | Music Performance | Russian Literature
The life of a romantic is a life of an exile. A poet is never at home—he is driven by wanderlust, the yearning for self-discovery, by love unattainable, and by thirst for the forbidden knowledge. A poet is a prophet, a rebel, a priest, and a revolutionary. Few romantic poets were content to search for this unattainable sublime from the comfort of their drawing rooms. Many became wanderers, and some were driven from their homelands by the powers that were, who viewed their unquenchable fire as a threat to the established status quo. Heinrich Heine, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pushkin were each of this ilk—the incorrigible souls incapable of staying out of trouble.
Today, Pushkin is glorified as the very loadstar of Russian literature. Without him, the great Russian canon that includes such luminaries as Gogol, Tolstoy ,and Dostoyevsky, is simply unthinkable. Russian vocal music, that includes both opera and art song, also owes much of its literary foundation to his pen. Yet Pushkin was forced to spend six years of his short life as an internal exile. At the ripe age of nineteen, Pushkin improvised “An Ode to Liberty,” a rebellious poem that soon spread in hand-written manuscripts throughout the politically conscious circles of Russian intelligentsia. This poem earned him a term of banishment to the south of the vast exile.
Pushkin wrote much of his most-beloved poetry during this period. A young man, he fell in and out of love constantly, sometimes with multiple women at once. His incomparable love poetry became so iconic that every Russian can quote it by heart. Through his travels, he met people of many backgrounds—Muslims, Gypsies, Greeks, and Jews. His poetry was infused with exotic romanticism. Yet ever socially relevant, his verses inspired the Decembrist Rebellion of 1825—the seminal moment in Russian history of the 19th century.
My recording project is an outgrowth of a lecture/recital, Pushkin in Exile, a program that I have presented multiple times throughout the United States. It traces Pushkin’s journey through the Caucasus, Crimea, and Moldova, his de facto house arrest at his estate of Mikhailovskoye, the royal pardon, and his eventual elevation as the “prophet” of Russian poetry. I arranged Pushkin’s poetry in a chronological order and compiled a collection of songs from various composers ranging from his contemporaries to the great virtuosi of late Russian romanticism, such as Rachmaninoff and Medtner.
While working on the recording, however, I noticed that a simple CD format is lacking certain features inherent in the project. A CD would have simply presented a collection of songs in diverse styles that have very little continuity in a purely musical sense. Consequently, instead of producing a traditional album, I decided to build a website that offered not only the audio tracks, but also the background information and translations. Since launching, the website has seen thousands of visitors and the response that I have received from it has been overwhelmingly positive.
Belov, Anton, "Pushkin in Exile: The Life of a Great Poet in Song" (2019). Post-Grant Reports. Report. Submission 164.