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The 19th century was the century of nationalism. The Brothers Grimm went from German-language land to German-language land to collect folklore, which they believe would help reveal distinct German roots. Germany had yet to unify and become the German Empire.

As for The Five, our Slavic composers, they attempted to express Eastern Russia. Music in Russia had been westernized since Peter the Great. The Five did not turn their back fully on classical harmony and counterpoint, but they started using whole-tone scales leading Western composers to create new scales.

The Programme

However, the “programme” remained to be established. In the 19th century, several composers favoured “programmatic” music. Music had to tell a story. Despite his early death, in a duel, poet Alexandre Pushkin (1799-1837), wrote poems that were Russian fairy tales, whatever their origin. A nation acculturates folktales.

Our examples are Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas entitled The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, which premiered in 1900, and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel first completed in 1907  and premiere in 1909, with a set designed by Ivan Bilibin. Ivan Bilibin who had gained notoriety in 1899, when he published illustrations of Russian fairy tales, including The Tale of the Tsar Saltan and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d’or). The Tale of the Golden Cockerel had Arabic roots, the Legend of the Arabian Astrologer. It had been retold by Washington Irving (The Tales of Alhambra), Friedrich Maximilian Klinger (Der goldene Hahn [1785]) and Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov (Kaib [1792]). Yet, it was Russian folklore. It had been acculturated.

“In turn, all of them borrowed from the ancient Copts legend first translated by the French Arabist Pierre Vattier in 1666 using the 1584 manuscript from the collection of Cardinal Mazarin.”

(See The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Wiki2.org)

Ivan Bilibin had studied at the Anton Abže Art School in Munich and had been influenced by Art Nouveau and Japanese prints. But he also studied under Ilya Repin. However, he became interested in folklore. It was a magnet. He graduated from the Anton Abže Art School after publication of his illustrations of Russian fairy tales. He was associated with Mir iskusstva, an association and a magazine. Bilibin fled Russia, during the October Revolution in 1917. In 1925, he settled in Paris where he worked for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and decorated private mansions and Orthodox churches. But he was homesick. After decorating the Soviet Embassy, in 1936, he returned to Soviet Russia. He died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad, in the land whose fairy tales he had illustrated.

Ivan Bilibin‘s 1909 stage set design for Act 2: The Tsardom of Tsar Dadon, Town Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


At first, we associate The Tale of the Tsar Saltan and The Tale of the Golden Cockerel with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas. But operas are programmatic music or program music. So, the full dimension of the above-mentioned operas is not revealed until we know that their programmes were fairy tales written by legendary poet Alexander Pushkin. The libretto, in Russian and French, of The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, is by Vladimir Belsky.

As for Ivan Bilibin‘s delightful illustrations of Pushkin’s fairly, they are yet another lovely and universally enjoyable expression of a ‘distinct’ Russia.

Sources and Resoources

The Gallery

-Tsar Dadon meets the Shemakha Queen
The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, 1906
The Merchants visit Tsar Saltan (WikiArt.org.)
Princess in the prison tower ‘The White Duck’ (WikiArt.org.)
From the Tale of the Tsar Saltan (The Isle of Buyan; WikiArt.org.)
The Tsaritsa and Her Son Afloat in the Barrel (WikiArt.org.)
From the Tale of the Tsar Saltan (WikiArt.org.)



Love to everyone

© Micheline Walker
23 December 2018
revised 24 December 2018