Sunday, October 28, 2018

Turgenev's 200th

Ivan Turgenev
I learned, a little late, that today is the bicentenary of one of the writers I love best: Ivan Turgenev. (Some give the date as '9 November new style', though; take your pick.)

He's perhaps the quieter, undersung hero of Russian literature, sometimes submerged under the tidal waves of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and the rest. Yet to encounter his novella First Love is to find a work so perfect that it encapsulates an ideal story structure before anyone thought there was any such thing, and - perhaps more importantly - there is not one spare paragraph in it. I once attempted to abridge it for reading with music and it simply couldn't be done. Remove any tiny element and the edifice is wrecked.

Ballet-lovers are - as so often with rare music and literature - better informed than many of us. A Month in the Country is probably seen more often in Frederick Ashton's beautiful Chopin-filled interpretation than as Turgenev's original play, at least in the UK.

It's highly autobiographical, of course. Turgenev spent most of his adult life in thrall to the great singer Pauline Viardot, who was married to a distinguished theatre director 20 years her senior, and the play reflects Turgenev's sense of frustration and depression as the more-or-less resident 'admirer', watching helplessly as she is seduced by someone else. [I am sure I read somewhere that the younger man in the story who arrives and causes havoc had some basis in Charles Gounod... but I can't immediately lay my hands on the right book to check this.]

Viardot was a protegée of George Sand, friend of Chopin, sometime pupil of Liszt, sister of Maria Malibran and inspirer of music ranging from Meyerbeer and Berlioz to Saint-Saëns, Brahms (the Alto Rhapsody) and - at a bit of a tangent - Bizet. She was of course a fabulous composer as well and Turgenev wrote her three operetta libretti. He also wrote a libretto for Brahms, which - dang - was never set. Saint-Saëns brought the young Fauré to her salon where he fell in love with her third daughter, Marianne, and spent four formative years amid this extraordinary milieu.

Turgenev was fond of Fauré and helped to persuade Marianne to accept his proposal - only to have her dump him three months later, scared away, apparently, by the young composer's passionate intensity. Fauré spoke touchingly of Turgenev later in life, remarking that whenever he read his prose, it was as if he could hear the author's gentle voice again.

Several years after finishing my Fauré biography, I read, for other reasons, a story I hadn't come across before by Turgenev: The Song of Triumphant Love. This was the fantastical, Renaissance-set tale that inspired Chausson to create his Poème. It was written several years after Fauré and Marianne split up. And there, in the story, were two figures who seemed, in terms of their character, very, very familiar. I spent some time delving into this, convinced I'd stumbled upon something that nobody had spotted since Turgenev himself (though one can never be sure, naturally), and exploring whether it was plausible he had based these characters on Fauré and Marianne. It was eminently plausible, as things turned out...

The article that resulted was published in The Strad, together with an exploration of the Poème itself by Philippe Graffin. It's on my website, so here it is again in tribute to this glorious writer and his circle. Enjoy.

(I also borrowed the title for a novel - not about them, but a present-day story inspired to some extent by them.)