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Petersburg - a vocal poem

Georgy Vasilevich Sviridov (1915-1998)

'Petersburg' Poem for voice and piano

Words by Alexander Blok

Text and Translation below,

Georgi Sviridov worked on the vocal poem 'Petersburg' for some 20 years. He completed it in 1995, especially for Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Mikhail Arkadiev. The work comprises short poems by Alexandr Blok, which date from the period January 1901 to September 1914.

This was one of the most extraordinary periods in the whole Russian history - the age of cataclysms, including the tragical, 'incinerating' events of the Revolution of 1905 and ending with the World War, which has shattered the destinies of both Russia and Europe and the 'inertia' of the 19th century. Yet the first 15 years of our century were also marked by a wonderful animation in Russian culture and economics. They are usually referred to as Silver Age - the age of the heyday of Russian poetry, Russian music, Russian painting, Russian architecture, Russian philosophy, Russian patronage of arts and letters. The Silver Age has been smashed and swept away by the World War and disasters of the year 1917. The poetry of Blok - one of the greatest of Russian poets - is full of premonitions and predictions of these apocalyptic events.

The title chosen by Georgi Sviridov for his cycle alludes to a very significant trend in Russian letters and Russian thinking as a whole. The tradition in question can be defined as the romantic and post-romantic myth of St Petersburg: myth about a black ghostly city, the city which slays, the city embodying the very idea of sombre and at the same time monumentally pompous State created by Peter the Great, the city of the Bronze Horseman, the Queen of Spades, the city of the magnificent architecture, the city of the Neva and the 'white nights':

'When, sitting in my room,
I write, I read without candle
And the sleeping mighty streets
Are lucid, and the steeple
Of the Admiralty is clear

(A.S.Pushkin - Introduction to 'The Bronze Horseman')

The title of Sviridov's poem is directly related to the famous novel by Andrey Bely 'Petersburg' - one of the ultimate literary works, in which almost all the principle motifs of the Petersburg myth are concentrated, forming a unique synthesis of love and hatred for the city. The poem itself, however, appeals to the world of Petersburg tradition, taken as a whole. From the heritage of Blok verses have been chosen, which in addition, pertain to the two paramount themes of his poetry: that of the 'Beautiful Lady' and that of the Apocalypse.

The poem is built up as a cycle of 8 songs. The opening song is entitled 'Weathercock' (the original title 'To My Mother'). This is a kind of prologue to the whole poem; it introduces the idea of continually flowing Time, of infinite and misty, dangerously captivating heavenly Space. The music, pervaded with an unceasing pulse, leads us into the flow of empyrean energies, of the flame of valhalla: the composer - perhaps, quite unconsciously - reminds us of Bok's love of Wagner's music. It is very important to underline that both Sviridov's aesthetics and his idiom have very little in common with the spiritual world of Wagner; this augments the value of the association.

In the second song - 'The Golden Oar' - the image of the nameless Beloved appears. This is obvioulsy, a variation on the famous mystical 'Stranger' by Blok. The motifs of white dress and funeral music, too, play a substantial part: the theme of the bride is hinted at almost unnoticeably, strangely related to the theme of death.

It is worth mentioning that in the 1930's Sviridov was familiar with a circle of people who knew Blok personally. The composer himself considers very meaningful his recollections of strolling about the favourite places of Blok - the youthful recollections of misty shores of the Gulf of Finland near St Petersburg. It is just there that the action of 'The Golden Oar' developes.

The associations in 'The Golden Oar' are made clear in the third song, 'The Bride', which comprises an intricate complex of symbolic ideas. Here one faces the 'real' bride; she follows the coffin of the 'real' bridegroom, a dead 'fashionable' man of letters - that is, the coffin of Blok himself, seen from an unusual point of view. This is the same lady as in 'The Golden Oar' and in 'Stranger'. Yet at the same time this is the bride of Another Bridegroom - Christ. This mystical motif, in which the symbolism of Church as Bride is united with the symbolism of Mary Magdalene and, besides, with that of Our Lady, would affirm its importance in the course of the work. Owing to its presence, the funeral train which follows the coffin of a poet is raised to the rank of the procession to Golgotha.

The next song - 'I'm Nailed to a Tavern Counter' - is one of the work's lyrical centres. It is written in a most 'simple' manner, which refers both to the tradition of 'urban' romance and to the 'minimalist' trend in contemporary music. It is especially characteristic of Sviridov, that the extreme simplicity of form leads to a limitless depth of expression: the composer reveals the cosmic dimension of what is happening in the poem. The poems final words: 'and you, my soul, my blind soul, you're drunk, you're dead drunk...' sounds as a cry of human solitude in the face of death itself.

'The Breeze Has Brought From Far Away' is, except for 'The Weathercock', the only part of the cycle written in a major key. It is the cycle's bright intermezzo and at the same time, a slow introduction to the seventhsong ('Petersburg Song). The function of anticipation of what is going to happen is emphasised by such words as 'a motif of the spring's song', 'the ringing motif of your song'. One fascinated with the song's fine harmonic and rhythmic design, which, curiously, hints at the harmonies and rhtthms of sarabands by Handel in major key. The composer lends special importance to the following words: 'somewhere, bright and deep, a piece of heaven has been opened'; Sviridov describes this 'opening of heaven' as one of the most powerful experiences in St Petersburg in springtime. The motifs of heaven's depth and of song which rings from far away, the major mode and the rhythmic ostenato, the apparent absence of love related topics - all these features associate the song with the cycle's opening movement, 'The Weathercock'; thus an important constructive 'arch' is formed.

The 'Petersburg Song' - the only fast song in the whole cycle - is an entrancing and at the same time tragic waltz. Solitude, hope, love and despair are blended here in an unimaginable , fascinating artlessness. And once more appears the image of 'bright clothes' and the nameless beloved - as embodiment of wearisome waiting and the elusive presence of death.

The final two songs can be understood as the whole poem's epilogue. 'Those Born in Obscure Years' is one of the most famous poems by blok; nowadays, too, it sounds painfully burning. we percieve here the return of the apocalyptic theme in the form of death-prayer; thus, a second constructive 'arc' appears.

The same motif of End is manifested in the cycles ultimate song - 'The Virgin in the City; here, too, the simplicity of expression so characteristic of the late Sviridov reminds one of the 'minimalist trend'. Both cardinal symbolic ideas of the whole, finally, reach unity. The motif of the beloved - the Beautiful Lady, Stranger, Bride, - embodied in a lonely image of the Virgin, combines with the image of Advent, the arrival of the Infanton his sacrificial way to Golgotha.

In Georgi Sviridov's 'Petersburg', the martyrdom of Russia, the tragedy of the City, World, and Man are depicted with exceptional simplicity and force, with incomparable ingenuousness. The vocal poem by Sviridov crowns more than two centuries of the 'Petersburg' tradition of Russan art.

Mikhail Arkadiev

Petersburg, a vocal poem

1. The pennant (The weathercock)
2. The golden oar
3. The bride
4. A voice from the chorus
5. I am nailed to a tavern counter
6. The breeze has brought from far away
7. Petersburg song
8. Those born in obscure years
9. The virgin in the city


1. The pennant (The weathercock)

It is calm. And will be more calm
The useless flag is lowered.
The little weathercock on the roof, alone,
is singing a sweet song about the future.

The wind has spread the poor enchanted cockerel
over the half-sky;
agitated by the smoke and the sun,
the thing is overturned in the blue deep.

The fragrant pitch is burnnig,
the horizons are misty, from time immemorial.
The weathercock's songs seem sweet to me;
sing, my little tin cockerel.


2. The golden oar

We would meet at daybreak,
You would cleave the bay with your oar,
I was fond of your white dress,
since I had lost my passion for subtle reverie...

Our chance meetings were strange...
Just ahead, on the spit of sand,
the evening candles were flaming,
and someone was weeping for the pale beauty...

But the sky, azure and serene, rejects
every approaching, every merging, every flaming...
We would meet in the evening mists
on the ruby shore, where the waves are rippling...

Neither yearning, nor love, nor resentment;
they have faded, have goneby, are over...
Your white figure, the voices of the Requiem,
and your golden oar.


3. The Bride

Our Lady Soothe-my-sorrow
was before the coffin, bright and serene,
and behind the coffin, in a black veil,
the bride walked, she was bidding farewell
to her bridegroom...

He was but a fashionable man of letters,
a creater of blasphemous words...
yet every dead man is dear to the people's soul,
for the people revere every death.

And those who met the procession bowed their
heads, and crossed themselves
Heavy with thought and work,
while the friends and relatives scattered dust
on the icon, on her, on the coffin...

And with what infinite sadness
she was accepting the word of condolence
and the casual wreaths, one after another,
though she was grieving not for him
(God knows for whom she was grieving)

These repeated, standard phrases,
these words which nobody needs -
she has transformed them to the acme of
into a secret divine smile...

As if there, where people were singing and burning
incense,
where even death cannot be silent
she was waiting for another bridegroom,
dressed in a bridal veil against the dust


4. A voice from the chorus

How often do we weep, you and I,
over our wretched lives!
Oh, my friends, if you only knew,
the cold darkness to come!

Today you press your beloved's hand,
you make merry with her,
you weep only for a lie,
or else for a knife in her hand,
Poor child, poor child!

Lies and perfidies are infinite,
and death is distant...
The fearful world will grow yet darker,
the whirl of the planets will grow yet wilder,
and this will last for an age...

And both you and I will see the last age,
the most fearful age.
The heavens will be clouded by repulsive sin,
laughter will freeze on all lips,
everyone will yearn for annihilation

Oh child, you will wait for spring, but spring will deceive you;
you will call for the sun to rise,
but the sun will not rise.
and when you start crying, your cry will
disappear in the depths, like a stone...

So, children, be content with your lives
more silent than water, lower than grass!
If only you knew
the cold and darkness of the days to come


5. I am nailed to a tavern counter

I am nailed to a tavern counter
I have been drunk for a long time, I am
indifferent to everything.
My happiness is there, on a troika,
Taken away into a silver haze...

It flies on the troika, it vanishes
in snows of time, in centuries...
only the soul is overflowing
with the silver haze from under the horseshoes...

The sparks fly in the blind darkness,
because of them, it is light all night.
The sleighbells murmur over the shaft-bow
of the happiness now gone...

And only the golden harness
is seen all night, is heard all night.
and you, my soul, my blind soul,
you're drunk, you're dead drunk.


6.The breeze has brought from far away

The breeze has brought from far away
a motif of spring's song;
somewhere, bright and deep,
a piece of heaven has been revealed.

In that fathomless blue sky,
at the dawn of the approaching spring,
the winter storms were weeping,
the starry dreams were floating.

My strings were weeping,
timidly, darkly and deeply;
the breeze has brought from far away
the ringing motif of your song.


7. Petersburg song (December 7, 1906)

I'm wandering, depressed,
in my lonely lair;
the dismal organ grinder
will come and lament outside

about the free life
which I will never share,
about the steppe wind
about the new-blown spring.

Yet what does it matter?
I wander alone and lost.
The candle has burnt down,
and the pendulum ticks.

My one and only hope
is there, at her window,
she whose clothes are bright
will come and visit me.

My face is paler
than a white wall...
Yet again I will fee shy
when she comes...

Why does she come
to talk to me?
Why does she pass through the needle'seye
that merry thread?

Why does she shed
those merry words?
Why does she bow her head
and hide her face in the laces?

There is nothing to fear
and nothing to lose...
Must I confess my feelings?
May I say all?

But what can I tell this tender creature?
That my heart is in bloom?
That the wind brings snowflakes?
That my room is full of light?


8. Those born in obscure years

Those born in obscure years
do not remember their way,
and we, children of Russia's dreadful years,
can forget nothing.

Oh, years which have reduced us to ashes!
Have you brought madness or a ray of hope?
In the days of war and freedom
a blood-red shimmer appeared on our faces.

We have grown dumb; the alarm bell
has forced us to close our lips.
In hearts, once full of eagerness,
now there is a fateful void...

And let the cawing ravens fly up
above our death-bed -
may those more worthy, God, oh God,
behold Thy Kingdom!


9. The Virgin in the city

You are passing by without a smile,
your eyes are cast down,
and in the darkness above the Cathedral
the golden domes are shining.

Your face resembles so vividly
the evening Virgins,
who cast down their eyes,
who disappear in the darkness...

But there is a little boy with you,
a curly-haired, gentle boy, wearing a white cap.
You are leading him by the hand,
you do not allow him to fall.

I am in the shade of the portal,
where the sharp wind blows,
and my strained eyes
are clouded with tears.

I would like to spring up before your eyes
and to exclaim "Oh, Virgin!
Why have you brought the Infant
to my black city?"

But my tongue is powerless to shout;
you are passing by, and, behind you,
above the blessed footprints,
the blue darkness slumbers.

And I remain, watching, remembering
your downcast eyes,
and how your little boy with a white cap
smiled at you.

Translation by Levon Akopjan



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