In 1937 in Moscow, what was to be the premiere performance of the dramatization of Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin,” with music by Sergei Prokofiev, was suppressed when authorities failed to approve Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s text for the work. The text subsequently vanished. With no text available, no production of the piece, as it was first envisioned, was possible.
Two generations after the Moscow project was aborted, Simon Morrison, professor of music at Princeton, rescued it. He found the text in 2007 and recruited Princeton professor of Slavic studies Caryl Emerson to translate it. Morrison and Emerson chose the cold month of February for a series of events celebrating this discovery because Krzhizhanovsky relocates Pushkin’s novel to the depths of winter.
Soviet authorities commissioned Krzhizhanovsky to take part in the widespread celebration of Soviet literary hero Alexander Pushkin on the 100th jubilee of his death in 1937. Pushkin occupies in Russia roughly the place that Shakespeare or the Bible commands in the English-speaking world. Krzhizhanovsky’s assignment was to transform Pushkin’s masterwork “Eugene Onegin,” a novel in verse, into a theatrical script for which Prokofiev would provide music.
Krzhizhanovsky’s adaptation raised hackles. His abridgement of Pushkin offended Pushkin purists, along with Soviet bureaucrats, as well as the director of the theater where the piece would be produced. Although the text disappeared, Prokofiev’s music survived.
The swarm of Onegin happenings in February on the Princeton campus encompasses two concerts, a theatrical version of the abandoned 1937 work, a five-week online alumni course ending this week, and a major international conference of musicologists that includes Onegin-related events.
On Sunday, February 5, about 20 minutes of Prokofiev’s incidental music for “Eugene Onegin” will open a concert by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra titled “Simply Russian.” Music director Rossen Milanov conducts this event, which is part of the PSO subscription series. The featured soloist is cellist Joshua Roman.
On Thursday, February 9, the PSO performs a semi-staged version of Prokofiev’s entire “Onegin” score. The program includes excerpts from the Krzhizhanovsky text selected by Emerson; dance choreographed by Sydney Schiff, Princeton ’10, and directed by Princeton dance faculty member Rebecca Lazier; and choruses performed by the Princeton Glee Club. Morrison orchestrated several passages not orchestrated by Prokofiev. The concert includes a bass drum concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev, Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson. Percussionist Joby Burgess is the soloist; Milanov conducts this special Onegin event.
Friday, February 10, is the by-invitation-only opening of the complete theatrical version of the Krzhizhanovsky/Prokofiev “Eugene Onegin” in English translation. James Falen is credited as the translator. Pianist Anna Tchetchetkine, Princeton ’12, plays Prokofiev’s piano score. Additional performances take place during the week following. Tim Vasen of Princeton’s Program in Theater directs undergraduate actors. A troupe of mostly undergraduate Princeton dancers participates. Additional performances take place Saturday and Sunday, February 11 and 12, and Thursday through Saturday, February 16 to 18.
“After the End of Music History,” a conference chaired by Morrison, includes presentations relevant to censorship and to the Onegin performances and takes place Thursday through Sunday, February 9 to 12.
In a telephone interview from Copenhagen, Denmark, Morrison explains his involvement with Prokofiev and his work on the Krzhizhanovsky/Prokofiev piece. Morrison selected Copenhagen as his base for a Guggenheim fellowship, since it is only two hours by plane from both London and Moscow.
A breezy academic, Morrison says, “Several years ago Prokofiev became my guy. My work is editing and restoring his manuscripts.” Morrison was able to gain exceptional entree to the materials left by the composer.
The Prokofiev family has granted Morrison full access to the legacy of the composer, who died in 1953. In addition, the family has selected Morrison to help carry on the posthumous affairs of the composer. Morrison works with Prokofiev’s descendants, notably his two grandchildren, Paris-based Serge and London-based Gabriel, who are responsible for the Prokofiev estate. “I’m their designated music historian,” Morrison says.
As president of the Prokofiev Foundation, Morrison handles business aspects of the Prokofiev estate, tending to copyright matters, among other tasks. The foundation publishes a journal, maintains an archive in London, and sponsors research projects. Twice a year Prokofiev estate members meet with the Prokofiev Foundation.
Morrison calls his finding the Krzhizhanovsky text “a detective hunt.” The search began in 2007 with a puzzler. Morrison was working at RGALI, the Russian State Archives for Literature and Art in Moscow, on a book about Prokofiev. “I ran into material revealing that Prokofiev wrote music for a play, ‘Eugene Onegin,’” Morrison says. “I wanted to know what the music had to do with the play.
“Eventually, a friend in the Archives gave me photocopy of Krzhizhanovsky’s typescript,” Morrison says. “I realized that it was something special. Imagine discovering a new Franz Kafka. Messing around with Pushkin is not something you do with faint heart. It’s like messing with Shakespeare or the Bible. Imagine a new surreal version of ‘King Lear!’”
At the time Caryl Emerson, a Princeton colleague and a Pushkin expert, was in Moscow for a conference. “We met in the Pushkin Station of the Moscow subway,” Morrison says. “I triumphantly gave her the copy of the typescript. She was really moved and said that it was remarkable. She thought it would provide new insight on Pushkin.”
Emerson, in a telephone interview from her home in Princeton, says, “As a Pushkin scholar I was very excited. I had never heard of Krzhizhanovsky. The first thing you do when you get something like that is translate it.” By the way, Emerson has devised a way to avoid using Krzhizhanovsky’s cumbersome full name. “I call him ‘KK’ around the house,” she says.
Morrison included Emerson’s translation in a publication arising from the 2007 Prokofiev summer festival at Bard College, which he organized. The pair was on the way to putting the 1937 “Eugene Onegin” on stage, but they would have to work out, for the first time, details that had not yet been settled when the 1937 performance was cancelled.
Polishing the text was a major endeavor. “I did a free translation,” Emerson says. “I was stupefied by the intricacies of doing a translation in verse. The Onegin stanzas are in sonnet form. There’s a rhyming couplet at the end, preceded by three quatrains, each with a different rhyme scheme. It’s an astonishing, artistic, mathematical thing. There is no more difficult task for a translator than to produce a Pushkin stanza.” A further problem, Emerson points out, is Pushkin’s use of iambic tetrameter with four feet to a line, which can feel uncomfortably short to those used to Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter with five feet to a line.
Emerson sent her translation to James Falen, whose 1995 verse translation of “Eugene Onegin” is now considered by most experts to be faithful to Pushkin’s spirit. “He didn’t like it,” she says. “He hears things in tetrameter. When I added an extra beat, he was appalled. I was interested in meaning, and he was keyed to rhythm and beat.” In the summer of 2010 Emerson and Falen reworked the translation. “We fought over every line,” Emerson says. “Now it’s about three quarters Falen and one quarter me.”
Morrison called on Emerson not only for the Onegin projects, but also, in 2007, for a Princeton production of Prokofiev’s “Boris Godunov,” which was also based on a Pushkin work. The original version of Prokofiev’s “Godunov,” like his “Onegin,” made its premiere in Princeton.
For both works well-known operas predate Prokofiev’s settings. Indeed, Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” were so much a part of the cultural landscape that Prokofiev was nervous about accepting commissions to set the Pushkin works to music.
“We learned from ‘Godunov’ how tricky it is to put on a play when the opera version already exists,” Emerson says. “People have to strip back what they have heard. They have to ‘de-operatize’ it and prevent the opera from taking over the play.”
Classical Series, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, February 5, 4 p.m. “Simply Russian” with music by Sergei Prokofiev, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Joshua Roman is featured on cello. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $25 to $68. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.
Also, Eugene Onegin, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Thursday, February 9, 8 p.m. Fully-staged world premiere production of Prokofiev’s project with music and dance by Princeton students. $25. 609-258-9220 or www.princetonsymphony.org.
“Eugene Onegin,” Princeton University, Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, on the Princeton campus. Friday, February 10, 8 p.m., by invitation. Saturday, February 11, and Thursday through Saturday, February 16 to 18. A new translation of the 1936 dramatization of Pushkin’s novel with Prokofiev’s music. Actors and dancers include undergraduate students in the departments of theater and dance $12. 609-258-1500 or www.princeton.edu.