Arthur Vincent Lourié’s Opera on Pushkin’s Black Great-Grandfather

Caryl Emerson and Klára Móricz


     The four texts below were delivered orally and in tandem at the interdisciplinary conference “Alexander Pushkin: An Historic Symposium at Harvard. Exploring the Dual Heritage of Russia’s Greatest Poet, Father of Modern Russian Literature and the Black Russians of the 20th Century,” held at Harvard University on April 4, 2008. We opened with a brief biographical introduction to the modernist composer Arthur Vincent Lourié (1891–1966), reproduced here as a timeline, followed by a summary of the plot of his Арап Петра Великого. Then Klára Móricz provided a musical and thematic interpretation of the opera. Caryl Emerson closed as a discussant, com­menting on three themes from that presentation. To date the opera has not been recorded or staged.


Biographical-Musical Prelude 

Caryl Emerson


Arthur Vincent Lourié [Артур Лурье] (1891–1966)

  • Born Naum Izraelevich Lur´ya, 1891 St. Petersburg, son of a timber merchant; d. 1966 Princeton, NJ and buried behind St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Nassau Street.
  • Student of Glazunov’s and classmate of Prokofiev’s at the Petersburg Conservatory; active in Symbolist-Decadent, pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg (idolizes Alexander Blok, Velimir Khlebnikov). Gains fame among the poets of his generation for his wit, superb piano skills, and fastidious dandy-like dress.
  •  Early career is avant-garde: by 1913 he is well-known as a minimalist “musical Futurist,” indebted to Debussy, Scriabin, and, briefly, to the Futurist Nikolai Kul′bin, a rarefied modernist composer who worked with microtones and an altered piano.
  • 1912: Prior to marrying the pianist Yadwiga Tsybul´skaia (Polish by birth), Lourie is baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. (Later influences of this religiosity on the opera: Ibrahim gets a patron saint, “St. Benedict the Moor”; portions of the score resemble oratorio and medieval chant.)
  • 1921–22: Intimate of Olga Glebova-Sudeikina and Anna Akhmatova. Among the first to set Akhmatova’s verse to music; also one of her early lovers.
  • 1921–22: Serves Lunacharsky as Head of Music Division of the Commissariat for Popular Enlightenment. Possible financial mismanagement.
  • 1922: Defects to Berlin during a business trip, leaving his wife and daughter in Russia.
  • 1924: Settles in Paris; works as musical arranger and public spokes­person for Igor Stravinsky.
  • 1920s: Lourié’s music, like Stravinsky’s at the time, is an exotic mix of styles with a strong neoclassical accent: influence of Palestrina, Monte­verdi, sacred genres of the Roman Catholic church (masses, motets). While remaining a minimalist, he filters these medieval Western sounds through dense bass sonorities of Russian liturgical chants.
  • 1920s–30s: Contact with Parisian Russian Eurasianists.
  • 1920s: Befriends French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and his Russian-Jewish wife Raissa.
    °   Maritain, a celebrated interpreter of St. Thomas Aquinas, founds a Catholic social action movement and “liberal Christian humanism.” In Paris associates with Nicholas Berdiaev.
    °   In 1940 Maritain moves to USA, teaches at Princeton (1941–42) and Columbia (1941–44); 1944–48 serves as French ambassador to the Vatican.
    °   In 1960 Maritain returns to France, and wills his Princeton house to the Louriés.
  • 1926, March 12: Lourié appears at Pougny’s ball on 14 rue de la Croix-Nivert in turban and blackface, anticipating the Parisian craze for la négritude in the 1930s. According to Stefan Hulliger, head of the Lourié Gesellschaft in Basel (November 30, 2007, personal communication), Lourié relished such outré masquerades. He chose to remain an out­sider among aristocratic Russian émigrés in Paris, where he was known as the “Bolshevik commissar who had been ‘nationalizing’ their Stradivarius and Amati instruments for the Communist regime.”
  • 1928–31: Three of Lourié’s articles on the state of contemporary music published in English in the journal Modern Music: “NeoGothic and Neoclassic” (1928); “An Inquiry into Melody” (1929–30); “The Crisis in Form” (1931). Highlights of his thesis:
    °   Futurists wished to banish the past, but now it is “back to Bach,” the right blend of structure and melody.
    °   The late 1920s as “the last phase of struggle between two hostile forces”: the personal or romantic principle (neogothic, expressionist, egocentric) and the neoclassical principle (a “triumph over personal utterance,” objective, an affirmation of unity, a “transcendence of the temporal”).
    °   This opposition also recast as: Schönberg (music as a religion, as egocentric fetish) versus Stravinsky (music as a limitation of the ego and “subordination to superior and eternal values”).
    °   “From the six-tone chord of Scriabin it was only a step to the twelve-tone scale of Schönberg and to the disorder that followed.”
    °   Atonality seeks “to control the element of emotion and evoke a purified and obedient material”; this move must be resisted by an ethics of melody.
    °   “Music has lost the ingredient of melody, just as poetry has lost lyric expression.… Musicians and poets of the vanguard have, until very recently, been ashamed of melody and of lyric moods.… [But] melody is the biological foundation of a musical work, its moral conclusion.”
As Klára Móricz will show in her essay below, this Stravinskian blend of Eurasianism and neoclassicism, put into battle against Schönberg’s twelve-tone row, is central to the ethics of Lourié’s Arap Petra Velikogo, especially the violent behavior of Tsar Peter against the rights of Eros.
  • Early 1930s: Due to Lourié’s meddling in Stravinsky’s family affairs, relationship ends in a bitter break.
  • 1940, the Nazi invasion: Lourié flees France with his third wife, Ella, a countess and great-granddaughter of Vasily Zhukovsky.
  • 1940–41: Through intervention of Serge Koussevitzky, emigrates to the US.
  • Lourié pins his hopes on the US musical-artistic émigré community: Koussevitsky, the expressionist artist and set designer Mstislav Dobu­zhinsky, later Leopold Stokowski, but without success.
  • 1943: Struggling to survive professionally in New York City, he at­tempts to recruit Vladimir Nabokov as librettist for an opera on Dostoevsky’s Idiot and then (1948) on Pushkin’s Arap Petra Velikogo. Nabokov, who did not appreciate Dostoevsky and disliked Lourié’s music, declinesboth offers.
  • 1949: Launches “Blackamoor” project to mark 150th Jubilee of Push­kin’s birth. Libretto by Lourié’s final muse and mistress, Irina Graham (d. 1996. Russian-Italian journalist-writer, born in Genoa, raised in Harbin, China, married to an American engineer in Shanghai, widowed in 1950 and by 1957 moved permanently to New York, where she was employed at the Tolstoy Foundation).
  • 1949: Lourié to Graham, while recruiting her services: “I had thought to attract Sirin [Nabokov], he liked the topic, but he’s very busy and what’s more I no longer think I could have gotten along with him: he’s very capricious and I am capricious, and what I need is cooperation…”
  • 1956: Piano-vocal score of Blackamoor completed; full orchestral score in 1961.
  • 1961: Attempts to stage Blackamoor, by enlisting the support of UNESCO and the mediation of a “Committee of the Friends of The Blackamoor of Peter the Great.” Koussevitzky Foundation unrespon­sive. Lourié to Jacques Maritain: “ils n’arriveront pas à m’etouffer de leurs silence” (March 1). This probe falls through.
  • 1961: Lourié writes to Maritain that he disapproves of turning his Blackamoor opera into an orchestral suite, although Boston Symphony is willing to do fragments in concert form; he is holding out for one en­tire scene, with three solo voices and a small chorale. A stage premiere possible in Belgrade, through the Yugoslav attaché in New York; “Si cela se réalise, l’opéra sera chanté en russe, ce qui est de grande impor­tance” (March 24). Falls through. Lourié writes the suite.
  • 1961: Lourié and Ella move to Jacques Maritain’s house in Princeton. Lourié befriends the Mandelstam scholar Clarence Brown.
  • 1961: Stokowski tries to arrange a New York premiere of Blackamoor. Concert suite performed successfully; Lourié is ecstatic.
  • 1962: Lourié to Maritain: “The City Opera a refusé de montrer le Blackamoor.… Je suis sûr que la vraie raison est le problème nègre.… Stok. a été naïf. Le problème blanc et noir … continue” (March 1).
  • 1963: Lourié to Maritain: “La Metropolitain opera m’a fait savoir qui’ils on trouvés le libretto de “Blackamoor” admirable! Et que si la musique est aussi belle … il n’y a aucun obstacle” (February 13, 1963).
  • 1963: Lourié to Maritain (in English): “UUUPS! The cold shower: The Metropolitain Manager speaks frankly…” (July 24, 1963). (Archival correspondence between Lourié and Maritain courtesy of Stefan Hulli­ger of Lourié Gesellschaft.)
  • 1966: Lourié dies and is buried behind St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on Nassau Street in Princeton.



Summary of the Libretto and Commentary

Caryl Emerson


     Three versions of the libretto survive; see Klára Móricz below, n. 4. Olesya Bobrik, Lecturer in Music at the Moscow Conservatory, is producing an electronic edition (as of 2010, Act I is complete).

     Арап Петра Великого [The Blackamoor of Peter the Great] (1949–63),  an opera by Arthur Vincent Lourié and librettist Irina Graham (d. 1996)

     In genre and theme, Lourié’s operatic Arap is a family tragedy unfolding inside an imperial opera. Alexander Pushkin’s own Petersburg fate, fan­tastically idealized and distorted, glints through it. A gifted black man is favored by the tsar, educated at the tsar’s expense in the lap of European luxury and decadence (Paris), repatriates after much wandering to a city—Petersburg—where the imperial will is supreme, wins a beautiful wife, but is undone by a force so terrible that even tsars cannot control it. In the Petersburg text, this force is most often identified with the “un­tamed elements,” stikhiia: the cold, mist, fog, floods, all those dire threats to the well-being of the little man that destroy Evgeny in Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and Akaky Akakievich in Gogol’s “Overcoat.” In the Symbolist variant of the “untamed elements” plot (Lourié’s opera belongs to this category), this force is generalized into Eros.

     For Lourié’s “cast of characters” contains an additional embodied pro­tagonist not in Pushkin’s story: Eros, a dancer and mezzo-soprano. This pagan god first appears in the prelude to the opera, where it runs on stage in blackface, pursued by women, to the taunting of a chorus. At the end of Act II, Eros arrives in more dignified classical form, in the shape of a statue sent from Greece to Tsar Peter at his crude, distant fortress-city. It is one of the genre-markers of the Petersburg text that inanimate objects come to life—comically for Gogol, more ominously for Pushkin—and this inanimate thing, a Greek statue honoring love, will come to life and begin to dance whenever Peter decrees some unnatural act that the “untamed elements” ruling over Petersburg will not tolerate. Throughout the opera, the statue issues warnings, offers advice, and laments the action on stage, thus functioning both as a classical Chorus and as a check on the caprice of imperial power. The three acts of Arap Petra Velikogo move geograph­ically in a one-way trajectory from West to East, unusual for historical opera (more commonly structured as “Home—Abroad—Home,” as in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov or Borodin’s Prince Igor). The travel route is linear, but the action contains a cruel symmetry.

     Act I takes place in Paris, where the Countess Eleonora, mistress to the gentle and compassionate Ibrahim, gives birth to a black baby in her husband’s house. While Eleonora is in labor off-stage, gamblers and gos­sips bet on the color of the countess’s baby. A mulatto boy is born, switched for a white child, rumor subsides and society returns to normal, but Ibrahim, longing for Russia, decides to quit decadent Paris and return home.

     Act II takes place in a tavern on the border between East and West, where Tsar Peter has come to welcome his godson home. Peter sings a “flash-forwarded” arioso based on the opening stanzas of The Bronze Horseman. Continuing in Lourié’s vein of mixing the intimate, public, and imperial aspects of Pushkin’s personality, the act closes on an interweave of lines taken from that narrative poem and the conclusion of Evgenii Onegin:

Промчалось много, много дней
С тех пор, как юная Россия
И с ней Петрополь в смутном сне
Явилися впервые мне;
И побежденную стихию
Я сквозь магический кристалл
Еще неясно различал…

     Back in his frontier fort, we see Peter in his element: at the dockyards, fraternizing with British sailors at an Assemblée and forcing his reluctant boyars to dance. (In Lourié, Korsakov, the dandy freshly arrived from Paris, will replace Pushkin’s Valerian.) Suddenly, the tsar decides to marry his gifted, educated, cosmopolitan black Ibrahim to a boyar’s daughter, Natasha Rzhevskaia, thus pitting his tsar’s Word against the Rzhevskys’ horror. The modest, sorrowful Ibrahim hesitates. The Greek statue trembles and becomes anxious. An unnatural act.

     In Act III, Peter and Eros do open battle. To some extent this is also a struggle between Petersburg and Moscow, between an imperial will and the more organic, spontaneous inclinations of the pre-Petrine body. The Rzhevskys are at table with their dancing bears, dwarfs, fools, and out­landish pastries. Peter visits them, arranges the marriage, and then the matchmaking tsar takes a turn on the dance floor with the stunned Natasha. After paying her seductive compliments, he drives off: more reso­nances with Pushkin’s life. In scene 8, a “Magic Lantern,” Natasha is be­ing dressed for her wedding in deep grief, while the dwarf sings about the birth of Eros from the union of Night and Wind. When Ibrahim appears, Natasha shrinks back in terror. There is a time warp before the ninth (final) scene, titled “Puppet Theater” [Kukol´nyj teatr], which takes place in the Petersburg quarters of the Rzhevskys’ Swedish dance-master. Eros in military uniform arrives at the door; he has heard about the scandal at the Blackamoor’s house. The wife, it appears, gave birth to a white baby. What happened next is acted out woodenly, in mime, the singers now transformed into puppets. Peter is furious. He sends the disgraced wife to a convent, and forces her lover Korsakov to marry Dura the Fool (Dura throws her new husband on the bed and begins to beat him with a stick). We do not see the Blackamoor. And Eros, left alone on stage as the curtain falls, re-ossifies into a statue, weeping over this ghastly sight.


     Petersburg, Peter the Great––and, in the final minutes of the opera, Petrushka. This is a Petersburg Othello with no Iago, in which the black man continues to trust until the very end but who can say in what, for nothing like Desdemona ever existed. Reciprocal love never gets a foot­hold; everything is consumed by the fury and caprice of the tsar. How could this opera––about a highly civilized black man, ancestor of Russia’s greatest poet, written by an émigré Symbolist-era composer––hope to find an audience in post-World War II America?

     Sustained in friendship first by Koussevitsky (whose ghostwriter he was) and then by Jacques Maritain, Lourié never grasped the profoundly non-European needs, tastes, and pulse of his American place of exile. In March 1963 he wrote Anna Akhmatova: “I have written a huge opera, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, and dedicated it to the memory of our altars and hearths. It is a monument to Russian culture, the Russian peo­ple, and Russian history. For two years now I have been trying unsuccess­fully to have it staged. But in this country nobody needs anything and the road is closed to a foreigner. All this you foresaw forty years ago: “the bread of a foreign land is as bitter as wormword.’”[1]

     Akhmatova never answered this 1963 letter, just as she had left unanswered the seventeen letters Lourié wrote her from the West in 1922, begging her to join him (she did, however, write a lyric in response, “Cherez 23 goda” [After 23 years], dated May 13, 1963). It appears she was not very sympathetic to the Arap project. Anatoly Naiman writes in his reminiscences of the poet that near the end of her life Akhmatova “de­scribed with amusement how ‘Arthur had sent a request from America’: could she use her connections to get his ballet The Negro of Peter the Great produced in the Soviet Union? ‘Over there,’ [Akhmatova observed], ‘he couldn’t think of anything more intelligent than a ballet about a negro amongst whites—and this was the time of the race riots.’”[2]

     Lourié and Akhmatova died within half a year of each other, in 1966, she in the Soviet Union and he in Princeton, New Jersey. Perhaps Akh­matova was right in ridiculing the illusions of her distant friend. But she too was utterly encapsulated. Like Pushkin, for most of her life she had not been allowed out, had chosen not to go out, and thus what she knew about the larger world was inevitably the result of the echo-chamber that was Stalinist Russia. Had it found its producer, however, Lourié’s “Ameri­can” project might have educated both sides, Russians and Americans. For the image of the black man in this drama is no Stravinsky-like exoticism, no tantalizing curiosity from the Harlem Renaissance, nothing savage or thrillingly “primitive.” Quite the contrary. The most savage, under-civilized place in Lourié’s opera is white, pre-Petrine Russia. To modernize such a place, Tsar Peter, with a civilizing Westernized black man at his side, must have continual recourse to methods that are also savage. At the end of the opera, Peter behaves in exemplary Eurasianist fashion, with all the fury of a Scythian. This is one bewildering paradox of the St. Petersburg myth.



Decadent Truncation: Liberated Eros in Lourié’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great

Klára Móricz


     The most frightening scene in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Mate­rials—a nominal children’s book with apocalyptic dimensions—is the main character Lyra’s capture in the experimental laboratory in Bolvangar, where scientists, indoctrinated by church dogma about original sin, are severing children from their demons, their visible soul, in order to prevent the full development of their personality and their potential corruption. In Lyra’s world children’s demons are playful animals that can change their shapes freely before the child reaches puberty. Separation from one’s demon causes excruciating pain and shock that often results in the child’s death; with the new experimental methods, however, the child stays alive, but in a zombie-like state. Pullman’s description of Lyra’s immensely fear­ful anticipation of the fall of the surgical blade is much more unsettling than any murder scene—for here the result of violence is not death but a truncated life deprived of human consciousness. What the scientists do not know—and another character in the book discovers—is that the separa­tion from one’s demon releases immense energy that can open a gateway to other, parallel worlds.

     In Arthur Lourié’s opera The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1948–61) we witness the result of a similar, if less frightening, truncation. In the opera it is not the act of separation that is significant but its consequence: released energy that the main characters cannot control and that spurs violence unmatched in Pushkin’s story. This unconstrained energy is the erotic drive of the main character Ibrahim, which, separated from him, be­comes an independent agent. Embodied as Eros, this liberated, autono­mous force turns against its former master and, like nature in Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, challenges the autocratic power of Peter the Great. I explore the significance of this detached Eros in Lourié’s opera, showing how the de-eroticization of his hero and the eroticization of the plot distin­guish this Silver-Age-inspired opera from its Golden Age source.

     Whereas in Pushkin’s story the power of Eros is felt only by the im­plied conclusion, in the opera Eros is a central figure who, more than the passive Ibrahim or the powerful tsar, is the main motivating force of the plot. Eros, like his French equivalent “amour” in “Black-amour” (a spelling Lourié considered using instead of Blackamoor), is initially an attribute of the sexually intriguing African protagonist.[3] In the first scene Ibrahim is described as “the offspring of Moors” who, in Pushkin’s words in the poem “To Yuryev,” pleases some young beauties by his “enticing, shameless pas­sion” (besstydnym beshenstvom zhelanii).[4] These lines, however, are mis­leading if taken out of context. Although Lourié’s librettist Irina Graham imagined Ibrahim as a “black panther,”[5] she also maintained that his “African passion” was “combined with melancholy.”[6] Lourié tamed him even more, seeing in him “something subtle and mysterious.” “There’s nothing animal in him,” he wrote to Graham, contradicting Pushkin’s sexually charged description of the moor in “To Yuryev.” “His cruel ele­mental impulses are subordinated, already bridled.”[7]

     Lourié’s initial interest in transforming Pushkin’s enlightened Ibra­him into a decadent “black Eros” (or black amour) stemmed from his intent to tie his opera—as Stravinsky did in his almost contemporaneous neoclassical The Rake’s Progress—to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “I want a libretto in the spirit of Mozart [and] Lorenzo da Ponte,” he wrote to Graham in 1949, “a libertine opera in the taste of the eighteenth cen­tury.”[8] Yet Ibrahim, especially after his decision to leave Paris and return to Russia, emphatically lacks all of the dynamic features of Don Juan. It is as if the ritualistic pantomime representing the birth of Eros in the second scene of the opera signaled the disconnection between Ibrahim and his erotic drive, which does not need the exotic Moor any longer to exercise its power over the characters. The autonomous Eros has many functions in the opera. It is an elemental force that drives the plot; a disinterested, ob­jective observer; an impersonator of Pushkin’s sensuous side; and, last but not least, an operatic shadow of Lourié’s own promiscuous sexuality.

     In the introduction to the opera Lourié and Graham deliberately cast this independent Eros as Pushkin himself.[9] As Eros is pursued by women, the chorus sings two lines from Pushkin’s Mon Portrait: “Vrai demon pour l’espièglerie / Vrai singe par sa mine” (A real demon for mischief / A real monkey in his appearance). Yet Graham and Lourié also indicate Eros’s ties to Ibrahim by making him appear on stage with the makeup of a Blackamoor.[10] Here the identity of Eros, Ibrahim and Pushkin is still in close symbiosis.

     The presence of Eros is detectable in almost all scenes. Significantly, Lourié gives the final word (or gesture) to him at the end of all three acts (see bold type on Figure 1, which lists the scenes and musical numbers with some of their literary sources in the opera). At the end of Act I, Eros, and the maskers who have presented the pantomime “The Birth of Eros” in the previous scene, form a line in front of the curtain; Eros finishes the act with a short arioso. Eros also plays an important part in the last scene of Act II. Before Ibrahim starts his dance with Natasha, the statue of Eros comes to life and tries to keep him away from his future bride. Here Eros’s behavior strangely contradicts his function as facilitator of love. Unlike in the finale to act one of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, no seduction takes place during the minuet Ibrahim dances with Natasha. Eros’s strange behavior and the un-erotic dance display the contrast between the opera’s Russian and French scenes. Scene 6 is the Russian equivalent of scene 2, both featuring celebrations of Eros. But while Eros is born on stage in the Parisian scene, in scene 6 he appears as a statue brought to the tsar’s palace from Greece. Savage Russia does not seem to be a natural environ­ment for Eros—he has to be forcefully dragged into Peter’s new capital. No wonder that in this new Russian milieu Ibrahim’s sexually intriguing exotic blackness became repulsive. The second act also ends with Eros, swirling alone on the stage. At the end of the opera Eros appears again and quietly evokes Natasha’s melancholy aria on Pushkin’s poem “Gde nasha roza, druz´ya moi?” (Where is our rose, my friends?). On the dark­ened stage only the marble statue of Eros remains visible, wearing, like the young Pushkin, a cloak, a tri-cornered hat and Hessian boots. Eros’s costume creates not only symmetry between the first and last scenes of the opera, both presenting Eros as Pushkin, but also indicates that having accomplished his task in this story Eros is ready to leave the characters to their own misery.

     Even when Eros is not on stage, his presence can be sensed by fre­quent references to his human embodiment, Don Juan. Perhaps the subtl­est reference is Lourié’s decision to assign Ibrahim’s role to a baritone, the range of Don Giovanni in Mozart’s opera. Casting Eros as a statue coming to life in scene 6 also has Mozartian resonances. And although the live statue in the Blackamoor is much less threatening than the otherworldly Commendatore in Don Giovanni, his appearance similarly forecasts a doomed ending.

     Lourié’s strange decision to merge the statue/Commendatore and the Eros/Don Juan figures may be explained partially by a peculiar Russian focus on the Commendatore (see Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, Blok’s The Steps of the Commendatore, and Akhmatova’s references to the statue in the Poem Without a Hero),[11] and partially by Lourié’s decadent interpreta­tion of Mozart’s Don Giovanni as a story in which the Don and his un­earthly avenger have equal share in lust and in demonic power. The parallel between these two seemingly opposing figures is the clearest in Lourié’s essay about Mozart, in which the composer compares the famous seduction scene “Là ci darem la mano” (There we’ll join hands) between Don Giovanni and Zerlina with the final scene between the Don and the Commendatore, “Dammi la tua mano in segno” (Give me your hand as a sign). Lourié argues that although musically contrasting, these two scenes both show the sensuous aspect of physical human contact. The sensuality of Zerlina’s seduction needs no explanation. But in a highly decadent fash­ion Lourié also interprets the Don and the Commendatore’s final meeting not as a sudden shock, but as a gradual, sumptuous, cruel consumption of a human body, in which the composer recognizes an ironic, grotesque doubling of Don Giovanni’s last voracious dinner:

The impression this monotony creates is merciless and terrify­ing… It is like breaking bones, and dislocating joints; man is mys­teriously destroyed piece by piece with a merciless appetite, and with a quiet gluttony. It is not death but a kind of subtle voracity, which, as a contrast, suddenly reminds us of Don Juan’s last feast. By the end of the dialogue nothing remains of Don Juan.[12]

Lourié’s cannibalistic description of the last scene of Don Giovanni sug­gests that ultimately Don Juan, consumed by the Commendatore, becomes unified with the very demon that destroys him.

     In the Blackamoor,duringPeter the Great’s seductive dance with Natasha in scene 7, the conversation between the young girl and the tsar evokes the very duet Lourié contrasted with the last scene of Don Giovanni:

Peter:        Thought of love I try to banish
And your beauty to forget!
Natasha:  Oh! Ah, me! I must avoid you!
P:             You drive my rest and peace away!
N:             Your deceits are known to me!”
P:             You have heard of my misfortunes,
You can see my cruel torments!
I’m a captive held by thee!
N:             To confusion you’ve reduced me![13]

     The last scene of the Blackamoor, in which the Swedish tutor recounts to Eros what happened to the characters after we have left them in the previous scene, is a distorted gesture toward the “lieto fine” (happy end­ing) of Don Giovanni, in which the characters line up in front of the cur­tain and tell the audience about their future in a Don Juan-free world.

     The Blackamoor’s ties to Don Giovanni are made explicit at the end of Peter the Great’s Assembly in scene 6, in which Lourié brings the shadows of Don Giovanni and Leporello on stage, quoting what in the final dinner scene of Mozart’s opera was already a reference to another opera on a da Ponte libretto, Martin y Soler’s Una cosa rara (1786).[14] Above a low rambling chromatic accompaniment that reminds the listener more of the statue’s music from Don Giovanni than of the light tune of Soler’s opera, Lourié quotes the music and text of Don Giovanni and Leporello. Don Giovanni: “Che ti par del bel concerto?” (How do you like this music?); Leporello: “É conforme al vostro merto” (It’s just the thing for you, sir). With this shadowy double entrance, which follows Peter the Great and Ibrahim’s dialogue in the opera, Lourié, for a moment, casts the tsar as Don Giovanni and Ibrahim as his accommodating comic sidekick.

     For Lourié, most references to Don Juan come through specifically Russian interpretations. Because of its represented time period, African protagonist, and frequent reference to Don Juan, Lourié’s Blackamoor recalls Meyerhold’s famous 1910 production of Molière’s Don Juan at the Aleksandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, in which Meyerhold filled the stage with little blackamoors, “floating about the stage sprinkling intoxi­cating perfumes from crystal bottles … darting about the stage picking up a lace handkerchief dropped by Don Juan, offering a stool to a tired actor…”[15]

     Lourié also recalls the most famous Russian version of the Don Juan legend by quoting from Pushkin’s little tragedy The Stone Guest in the first epigraph that the chorus sings backstage during the introduction to the Blackamoor: “Of all the happy pleasures life supplies, / To love alone does music yields in sweetness; / But love itself is melody.”[16] The same passage comes back in scene 3, sung by the husband of the countess and answered by Ibrahim with another line from The Stone Guest: “What sounds! What depth of feeling in the words!”[17]

     These quotations from The Stone Guest intimately connect Lourié’s opera to Pushkin’s perception of Don Juan, whose seductions are “a series of improvised artistic performances in which he recreates himself time and again.”[18] “Attentively reading The Stone Guest, Anna Akhmatova remarks in her essay on Pushkin’s tragedy, “we make the following unex­pected discovery: Don Juan is a poet.”[19] In Pushkin’s conception Don Juan’s insatiable libido is a metaphor for artistic creativity. In The Stone Guest Don Juan seduces verbally, relying on the most difficult poetic device, improvisation.[20] In Mozart and da Ponte’s version, his main tool of seduction is music, the style of which he deftly adapts to the object of his desire. In this respect Ibrahim’s wide range of poetic utterances—he can sing Pushkin’s poem “O deva roza” (Oh rose maiden) just as well as a Mallarmé sonnet (#11 in Figure 1), a Rilke chanson (#12), a Baudelaire poem (#20) or a passage from Dante’s Vita nuova (#27)—can be seen as an aestheticized, Decadent remnant of erotic versatility.

     The relationship between music and love, more specifically between love and melody, can also be explained by this Pushkinian concept of Don Juan. In the opera the presence of melody indicates free, socially uncon­strained, natural love, promoted by the liberated Eros. Lourié believed that melody, which he considered to be the “soul of music,”[21] is “a libera­tion in spirit from the chains of spatial and temporal limitations.”[22] Melody, like the evasive but effective Don Juan, is free of function and obligation. For Don Juan every new seduction is a new artistic creation, a new poem, a new song, a new melody. No wonder that in the Blackamoor Eros’s aria in scene 2 starts and ends with free, pure melody, unaccom­panied by the orchestra. Ibrahim’s first aria also ends with an unaccom­panied melody, suggesting a latent relationship between him and Eros.

     The central role of Eros in the opera, however, is not only a tribute to Pushkin; it also has biographical significance for Lourié, who, as his librettist and lover Irina Graham willingly attested, was a genuine Don Juan. According to Graham Lourié, like da Ponte’s Don Giovanni, took pleasure in trying out different flavors of love. Once, Graham recalled, he seduced a huge Scottish woman just because her stunning corpulence re­minded him of Baudelaire’s erotic poem “Giantess.” Despite his spiritual aspirations, for Lourié, as for Pushkin, a promiscuous lifestyle and artistic creativity were manifestations of the same elemental force.[23]

     The music associated with Eros in the opera contains age-old musical references to the sensuous and to the demonic. Although descending chro­maticism, tritones, and augmented triads are characteristic of the musical language of the entire opera, they are primarily associated with Eros. The women pursuing Eros in the introduction sing glissando tritones, an inter­val whose medieval name, “diabolus in musica” (devil in music), signals cultural associations that make it appropriate to illustrate the demonic (“vrai démon”) and the evil (“très vilain”) in Pushkin’s text. The tritone re­mains the sign of illicit love, and also of Ibrahim in the opera. The end of Ibrahim’s first aria contains the same tritones that characterized the women’s cries (#4). Tritones indicate the cavaliers’ betting on the baby’s color in scene 1 (#3). At the parallel moment in scene 9 (when the chorus announces that Natasha’s baby is white) we hear the same tritone. The countess’s pronouncement of Ibrahim’s name in her duet with Ibrahim (#2) also receives tritones. Most significantly, Ibrahim’s last utterance in the last scene is built on a scale that contains four tritones, as if to signify the closing of the circle that trapped Ibrahim in an impotent state.

     Eros’s wordless cry of pleasure in the introduction consists mainly of descending chromatic lines, which, since Bizet’s Carmen (and Borodin’s Prince Igor), have been strongly associated with sensuous love. Besides descending chromatic motion and tritones, Eros’s appearances almost al­ways recall a characteristic phrase, containing a major/minor-third motive and occasionally an augmented triad. We hear this motive first in Eros’s aria in scene 2 at the end of the ballet performance, then at the beginning and at the end of scene 3, “Les Adieux.” It reappears in scene 6 as Eros warns Ibrahim before his dance with Natasha. It also forms the closing line of Eros at the end of scene 9, where it displays the two most charac­teristic forms of the motive.

     Ending the opera with Eros’s utterance lends dramatic significance to the detached erotic power he embodies. But because his melody here is an abridged recapitulation of previous music, it also forms an integral part of the final scene that consists of disconnected, distorted fragments taken from earlier scenes. In the spirit of Pushkinian symmetry Lourié con­structs the last act as a reversed, dark version of the first, French act. Scene 1 ended with Ibrahim’s farewell aria (#4). Scene 7 also ends with Ibrahim’s aria, which, as its title indicates, he sings “in maschera” (#37). Its Italian text by Dante (“Tutti i miei pensieri”) recalls the Italian text by Gaspara Stampa in Act I (“Ma che, sciocca”), there sung by the countess (#10). The Italian text, like Ibrahim himself, seems to be strangely dis­placed in this Russian scene (besides Korsakov, Ibrahim is the only char­acter who sings “foreign” poetry in the Russian acts). Although almost all of Ibrahim’s arias convey diatonic clarity, this last one is the most rhyth­mically and melodically constrained expression of Ibrahim.

     To distinguish the part of the plot that was not written by Pushkin, Lourié and Graham presented scenes 8 and 9 as stylized performances, 8 as a “magic lantern” show, 9 as a puppet theater. The characters in scene 8 gradually turn into shadows, as if anticipating the puppet show at the end of the opera. In the Russian libretto the description of scene 8—the nurse preparing her mistress for the night and singing a song—creates the strongest connection between Lourié’s Blackamoor and Verdi’s Otello, an opera that casts a shadow at least on this scene.[24] Here the melancholy Ibrahim, at least for a fleeting moment when he appears at the end of the scene and bows deeply to the petrified Natasha, has the threatening char­acter of Otello. But while in Verdi’s opera Otello is mad with rage and kills the innocent Desdemona, in Lourié’s Blackamoor the cuckolded Ibrahim remains melancholy and passive and lets Peter the Great punish the illicit lovers while he withdraws into the shadows.

     Giving up all semblance of realist theater, in the last scene the charac­ters are reduced to puppets who, with their short entrances and exits, illustrate the conclusion of the story the Swedish tutor recounts to Eros. Besides Korsakov’s aria at the beginning of the scene, none of the main characters on stage sing an extended number. Natasha merely repeats a line from Korsakov’s aria, Ibrahim sings a fifteen-measure arioso and Peter rages only for thirteen measures—even Eros’s role is limited to four short phrases. Only the fool has her say in a thirty-two-measure grotesque song that she sings as she dances with Korsakov, dragging him around as if he were a rag doll. Although this episode has historical accuracy (Peter the Great enjoyed arranging weddings for the freaks in his All-Drunken Assembly), in the opera the marriage between Korsakov and the fool stands for more than historical veneer. By letting the tsar, rather than Eros, pair the characters with disregard for nature’s will, the scene repre­sents the total degradation of love.

     Lourié emphasizes the violence of this last act by giving Peter the Great a twelve-tone melody, reinforced in unison by the low strings, muted horns, and bassoons of the orchestra. The artificial, strictly con­structed twelve-tone row appears here as representative of the unnatural imperial control over love. Its presence suggests that Peter, maddened by his obvious impotence in commanding Natasha’s love, turns to ultimate violence against melody and thus, at least according to Lourié (and Pushkin), love itself. For although the twelve-tone row, which contains all the notes in the chromatic scale, can be seen as the symbol of the tsar’s omnipotence, it is an alien element in Lourié’s music, an artificial (un­natural) order that Lourié exploits to demonstrate Peter’s constriction of nature. This last act of violence does not restore the tsar’s lost power. In this grotesque and disillusioned puppet world the tsar, like Ibrahim, Natasha, and Korsakov, becomes a shadow of the previous story in whose conclusion he cannot participate and whose outcome he cannot influence.

     By showing his characters as passive, shadowy puppets, Lourié trans­forms the comical symmetrical ending of Pushkin’s novel into a frighten­ing pantomime. As in the Greek satyr plays or in Alexander Blok’s first lyric drama The Fairground Booth (1906), the farcical elements of Lourié’s puppet show parody the previous seriousness of the story. The fool’s dance with Korsakov is a grotesque device out of the fairground booth, perfectly fulfilling Meyerhold’s requirement for the grotesque as “hideous and strange … which with no apparent logic combines the most dissimilar elements.[25]

     The discontinuity of the genre, achieved by the replacement of the stylized opera with the even more extremely stylized puppet theater at the end, not only marks Pushkin’s story as a fragment, but also becomes a symbol of an incomplete life. Like Blok’s TheFairground Booth, which the poet conceived as an attack on symbolism’s more solemn manifestations, Lourié’s puppet show creates distance from the previous story and from Symbolism itself. In the Blackamoor this distance is self-consciously ironic, but in Lourié’s career, which never came to fruition to the extent that the composer’s artistic talent had promised, the same ironic distance became tragic; for like the main characters in the opera, Lourié himself turned into something of a shadow. The Blackamoor of Peter the Great—the opera about Russian Baroque based on a fragmentary novel by Rus­sia’s greatest Golden Age poet and realized with the help of texts by Silver Age authors—is ultimately about Lourié’s past. As such it is, as Lourié believed, a personalized monument to Russian culture, which, by the evocative power of music, re-creates a lost world preserved in memory as a shadowy, fragmentary existence.

     The difference between Pushkin’s unfinished novel and Lourié’s oper­atic rendition of it lies in the difference between their authors’ cultural perspectives on the Petrine epoch. The perspective of the Silver Age com­pletely changes the dynamics of the historical period represented in the opera. Whereas Pushkin’s St. Petersburg is a construction site filled with enthusiasm for its future, Lourié’s St. Petersburg is sealed and wrapped in its past. Pushkin’s story of transformation has an optimistic outlook; Lourié’s opera is historically fixed and lacks perspective on the future. It is not a site of new construction, but a monument to the past, or, to describe it in Decadent terms, it is a tombstone that seals the past while at the same time functioning as a sign of remembrance. That is why Ibrahim, who in Pushkin’s novel is an appropriate tool through whose “domesticity” Pushkin can display the characteristics of the epoch,[26] is alienated from his own erotic potential in Lourié’s opera. Despite the numerous historical references, the main character of Lourié’s Blackamoor is not the Petrine epoch (as in Pushkin’s story) but Ibrahim—aloof, melancholy, Decadent, aestheticized, stylized, passive, devoid of energy and erotic force, a pitiable shadow of Silver Age, decadent St. Petersburg where Eros and the Muses reigned supreme.

     In its rich cultural referentiality Lourié’s monument is similar to Akh­matova’s Poem Without a Hero. Both works project fear of the potential emptiness that lurks behind culture’s multilayered games. In Akhma­tova’s Poem this fear manifests itself in her horror of the dangerously evasive identity of the frightening superfluous shadow “with ‘neither face nor name’” who slipped among her imaginary maskers. In Lourié’s Blacka­moor, the libretto of which is a compilation from Russian and European literature from Catullus through Blok, it is the text of the work itself that creates the sense of evasiveness, for it produces, like most Decadent texts, “a sense of the inevitability of textuality, of texts behind texts like a suc­cession of masks without a face.”[27] But whereas in its second and third parts of the Poem Akhmatova re-establishes strong ties to the poem’s present tense, Lourié purposefully severs his museum of shadows from his émigré existence. It is this tragic, decadent truncation of the old Lourié’s life that ultimately enables him to represent in the Blackamoor both the lost culture of Silver Age Russia and the painful distance from it that the new political brutality of Soviet Russia, and the émigré existence of those who escaped it, forced on its last representatives.



Arthur Lourié and Irina Graham, Arap Petra Velikogo (The Blackamoor of Peter the Great), opera in three acts and nine scenes (1949–63), based on Alexander Pushkin’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great

Main characters:

Peter the Great bass
Ibrahim, the Blackamoor, the tsar's godson baritone
Eleonora, mistress of Ibrahim soprano
Eros mezzo-soprano
Korsakov, a Paris-educated Russian officer tenor
Princess Natasha Rzhevskiy soprano
Yekimovna, jester mezzo-soprano
Lastochka, a dwarf, Natasha's nurse contralto
A captive Swede, Natasha's music teacher tenor


Act I

[numbered according to the score and piano reduction of the opera]

1.  Hymn, Introduction, Opera games and Pantomime
      Justus ut palma
      Opera games, three epigraphs by Pushkin
          from Autumn
          from The Stone Guest:
               “Of all the happy pleasures life supplies,
               To love alone does music yields in sweetness;
               But love itself is melody…”
          from Onegin
      Pantomime, from Pushkin, Mon portrait:
          “Vrai demon pour l’espièglerie
          Vrai singe par sa mine”


Scene 1: The Letter and Gossip (The Countess Eleonora, expecting a baby by her lover Ibrahim, learns about her husband’s imminent return. Later cavaliers in Eleonora’s salon play baccarat and bet on the color of the countess’s baby. At the end of the scene the black baby is exchanged with a white one.)

2.   Recitative of Eleonora and Ibrahim

3.   Recitative of cavaliers and ladies

4.   Ibrahim’s aria


Scene 2: A Masked Ball (Ibrahim, Eleonora and her husband are guests at the Regent’s. They are entertained by a ballet “The Birth of Eros.” The Regent informs Ibrahim that Peter the Great is asking for his return to Russia. Ibrahim decides to leave Paris.)

5.   Chorus of maskers and recitative of Ibrahim

6.   Ballet, “The Birth of Eros”

7.   Recitative of Ibrahim and the Prince

8.   Finale


Scene 3: Les Adieux (Ibrahim tells Eleonora that he has to return to Russia. The lovers say good-bye.)

9.   Prelude and concert

10.  Eleonora’s aria (Gaspara Stampa, “Ma che, sciocca”)

11.  Recitative and Ibrahim’s madrigal (Mallarmé, Sonnet I, “Dame sans trop d’ardeur”)

12.  Recitative and duet of Eleonora and Ibrahim (Rilke, “Toi, a qui je ne confie pas”)

13.  Finale (Eros and the maskers)


Act II

Scene 4: At the Inn (At an inn on the road to Petersburg the tsar is waiting for his godson. When Ibrahim arrives, Peter tells him about his plans to build Petersburg.)

14.  Chorus and lullaby

15.  Recitative of Ibrahim and Peter the Great

16.  Ballade of Peter the Great

17.  Finale

18.  Scherzo, “Road to Petersburg”


Scene 5: On the Dockyards (Ibrahim and the tsar are participating in the building of a ship. Korsakov arrives and expresses his dismay with the tsar’s lack of fashion and the barbarity of Petersburg. The scene ends with the Neva rising and a reference to Pushkin’s TheBronze Horseman.)

19.  Chorus of sea captains

20.  Recitative and duet of Ibrahim and Korsakov
         (Baudelaire, “Comme vous êtes loin…” from Fleurs du mal)

21.  Recitative of Ibrahim and Peter and regulations

22.  Entr’acte, The Bronze Horseman


Scene 6: The Festival (At the assembly of Peter the Great they are celebrat­ing the arrival of a statue of Eros from Greece. Korsakov asks Natasha to dance and thus offends etiquette. In punishment he has to drink the Goblet of the Great Eagle. Natasha dances with Ibrahim and the tsar offers to be Ibrahim’s match-maker.)

23.  Introduction and chorus

24.  Appearance of Eros, recitative of Peter and chorus

25.  Recitative of Natasha and Korsakov

26.  Goblet of the Great Eagle, Peter and Ibrahim and chorus
         Eros (arioso)

27.  Minuet (trio with chorus)

28.  Canticle about Cerberus (Peter the Great)
         Recitative of Peter and Ibrahim

29.  Dance of Bacchantes (chorus) and training

30.  Arioso and Serenade of Ibrahim (Pushkin, “O, deva-roza”)
         Shades of Don Giovanni and Leporello
         Don Giovanni: “Che ti par del bel concerto?” (How do you like this music?)
         Leporello: “É conforme al vostro merto.” (It’s just the thing for you, sir.)

31.  Khorovod (finale), Tretyakovsky “Leave your arrows, Eros, you need them no longer, for we all are wounded by your golden weapons
         Dance of Eros



Scene 7: Dinner at the Prince’s (During the dinner at Prince Rzhevskiy the tsar arrives to ask Natasha for his godson. When Natasha hears the news, she faints. Ibrahim sings an Italian aria about his love.)

32.  Overture, “Dinner at the Prince’s”

33.  Divertissement
         Recitative of Rzhevskiy and Yekimovna, Yekimovna’s song
         Recitative of Swedish tutor
         Dance of the Gypsies and the bear
         Dance of clowns
         Recitative of Rzhevskiy, Natasha and Yekimovna

34.  Appearance of Peter the Great
         Trio of Peter, Natasha and the Swedish tutor

35.  Arioso and Aria of Peter

36.  Trio of Rhzevskiy, Lastochka, Natasha and Swedish tutor, and chorus

37.  Aria of Ibrahim (“Tutti i miei pensier parlan d’amore,” from Dante, Vita nuova)


Scene 8: The Magic Lantern (Natasha’s room. Covered bed, silver mirror… Big window, on which the frozen pattern of a huge rose appears. Natasha, wearing farthingale and powered wig, sits at the dressing-table; she lowers her hand with a rose. Lastochka is busy with preparing Natasha’s night­gown. After finishing, she sits at Natasha’s feet on a bench and takes a lute.Natasha imagines that she sees Korsakov. She and her maid sing three dithyrambs to a rose. Ibrahim enters.)

38.  Intermezzo

39.  Romance of Natasha

40.  Chorus, Arioso and Cavatina of Lastochka

41.  Arioso of Korsakov

42.  Three dithyrambs to a rose (Natasha and Lastochka), Ibrahim’s entrance


Scene 9 (43): The Puppet Theatre (The Swedish tutor tells Eros what hap­pened in Rzhevsky’s house, how Natasha gave birth to a white baby and how the tsar punished Korsakov by marrying him to the jester and Natasha by sending her to a convent. At the end only the Swede remains on the scene playing his flute. On the darkened stage the marble statue of Eros is visible, wearing a tri-cornered hat and high military boots.)



Three Hypotheses on Black Doubles, a Decadent Don Juan, and the Death of Melody

Caryl Emerson


     A few words in conclusion. Klára has suggested that the “Symbolist” impulse in this opera does not begin with the usual separation between this world and an other-worldly reality, but with a split between Eros and its carrier, between the life-force and the body that should benefit from that force. Instead of serving its own body, Eros—the Black-amour—breaks away, is incarnated in its own statue, and then at crucial moments comes to life, to target and punish a male hero. In Lourié, this punishment of the errant male is grotesque and violent, played out on stage as a Petrushka puppet show, with ominous overtones of political tyranny. When his matchmaking and marriage plans for Ibrahim are defeated by Eros, Tsar Peter savagely breaks down Korsakov, Natasha’s lover, mating him to the Fool. As Klára noted, Lourié interpreted Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in a similarly Decadent, carnivalized way: the Commendatore literally eats the defeated Don Juan, bone by bone, with a “quiet gluttony,” as if celebrating the perishability of the living.



Hypothesis #1. What happens when the statue is not only a double, but a black double?

     Pushkinists will recall that Roman Jakobson—in 1937, between the Prague Linguistic Circle and Harvard—published an essay on “The Statue in Pushkin’s Poetic Mythology.” Its thesis is this: that one major thematic invariant for Pushkin is “the statue that comes to life.” Jakobson analyzes it in three works: a “little tragedy” from 1830, The Stone Guest; a long nar­rative poem from 1833, The Bronze Horseman; and a fairytale in verse from 1834, “The Golden Cockerel.” In each, Jakobson detects the same three-stage plot:

1.  a man is weary and wishes to settle down, usually with a woman;
2.  a statue appears—which exercises a mysterious, demonic, power over this woman;
3.  the statue magically begins to move, and after a futile show of resistance, the man perishes and the woman vanishes.[28]

     Although many details in these three works do not fit Jakobson’s para­digm, still, there is something to it, and we might ask whether the Blacka­moor of Peter the Great, as transposed by Lourié into opera, provides a fourth instance of this invariant. In Pushkin, the Blackamoor has plenty of Dionysian inner passion, but he is portrayed by the respectful narrator (his great-grandson) as passive, melancholy, tactful, civilized, detached—an object of others’ fantasies, perhaps, but disciplined and apologetic in his own acts and demands. The opera adds the statue but otherwise scripts Ibrahim in the same way, even intensifying those Apollonian traits. The Blackamoor is tugged more by Duty than by Lust; he reveres and obeys the hard-working visionary Tsar Peter; and once married by tsarist de­cree, he stands off to the side shyly, while his bride glances at him in disgust. This is stage #1 in Jakobson’s triad: a man is weary and wishes to settle down with a beloved woman. Then stage #2: the statue arrives in Peter’s city, gathering up erotic energy from everywhere, warning some away from love while encouraging others toward it. Tsar Peter is a bad loser. Ibrahim, the good loser, is shamed; Korsakov is ruined; the woman vanishes into a nunnery.

     So far, so good for Jakobson’s plot, but how precisely does the “black double”—that is, the white marble statue in its various incarnations—mislead and punish? The lesson he teaches is that it’s not enough for Ibra­him to tame and civilize himself. In fact, his good behavior might even disadvantage him. When the illicit sexual aspect is stylized and made peripheral, it cannot satisfy itself, nor its love object, nor can it simply withdraw and rest. The black double, which is under taboo, can only paralyze.


Hypothesis #2: What does melody have to do with it, and do Melody and Eros move in the same direction and share the same goals?

     Klára remarked that for Lourié, melody was “the soul of music,” a “libera­tion in spirit from the limitations of time and space.” The rebellious and discordant tritone is the sign of illicit love, but—since we are no longer in the musical syntax of Mozart’s era—this same sonority is also the building-block of free melody, as in Ibrahim’s aria. Tsar Peter, in contrast, is given the artificed, destructive, and uninspired twelve-tone row; it can­not “go anywhere,” and in frustration, it defaults to its fists. At the end of the 1920s, in an essay titled “An Inquiry into Melody,” Lourié argued that free-flowing melody is itself an ethical force, the “biological foundation” of a musical work, and thus it is both truth-bearing and an anchor for per­sonality. It is no accident, he wrote, that:

the very character of contemporary melody is grotesque, grimac­ing, compounded of irony and buffoonery … personal responsibility is evaded, to be replaced by “collective responsibility” [by which he meant some artificially-constructed row].… An evil melody cannot exist. An evil motif may exist, there may be the motivation of an evil will, but not an evil melody.[29] 

     Who, then, is allowed to sing melodies? Ibrahim and those who love him (his French mistress Elenora), but not those who rely on force to defend his rights. Melody cannot make use of that defense.


Hypothesis #3: What matters in this opera: race or power?

     A Russian Symbolist composer, stranded in post-World War II America, writes an opera honoring Russia’s greatest poet, an octoroon. For all his Decadence, Lourié had a lyrical, highly stylized, disciplined Late Renais­sance mind. He was fascinated by the cold symmetry at the core of Push­kin’s “family romance,” even though unfinished: “Here’s the whole plot, the way Pushkin thought it out,” he confided to Irina Graham. “In the first act, in Paris, the Countess gives birth to a black child for which a white one is substituted. In the second and third acts, in Petersburg, the wife gives birth to a white child for which a black one is substituted. There it is, a libertine opera in the taste of the eighteenth century, all in a single formula.”[30] What is not there is any demonic subtext, such as accompanies the illegitimate mixed-race infant born to evil Aaron the Moor and his vicious mistress Queen Tamora in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; also absent is the opposite and ideal pole, a promise of social injustice set right by a blending of peoples. Nor, of course, is there any presumption of racial or social inferiority on the part of Ibrahim, Peter’s black godson.

     On the contrary: Ibrahim is the universal translator—patient, gifted, precise, sensitive, forgiving to a fault, a quick learner, beloved by people of energy and intellectual quality (like Tsar Peter). The people who laugh at him or fear him are the timid, the profligate, the closed-minded. True, Ibrahim is pacified and subdued to the point, perhaps, of “truncation”; Eros laughs at Ibrahim and humiliates him. But at the core of the operatic plot is not racial bigotry but rather the device of interracial childbirth, which has the tantalizing appeal—or better, the terror—of private life in­voluntarily made public through an “incarnated” product. Lourié felt little need to highlight Ibrahim’s blackness as moral statement or as social re­buke. “The problem of the negroes should glint through,” he wrote Graham, “but of course without didacticism and without any social moral.”[31] Russia had always been a hybrid, and did not need that moral. In Pushkin’s name, Lourié was pursuing imagery more transcendental, less sentimental and guilt-ridden.

     And Lourié must have been struck by the metaphor of “mandated ra­cial mixing” as a symbol for Peter’s particular brand of cultural reform by decree. The vigorous, pragmatic New Russia that Peter the Great dreamed of would indeed come to pass—but not by organic growth, natural curios­ity, or by an Othello-/Desdemona-like scenario where Beauty is seduced by the benign foreign Beast. Rather, inward-looking, superstitious Muscovy would be forced to breed with this hardworking, highly civilized outsider. “Something wholly other and new is happening there,” Lourié wrote to Graham on March 23, 1949, musing about Peter’s Petersburg as it must have been around 1718. “Primitive, savage Europeanization. Something for which no words can be found. Pushkin does not define that primeval energy, but one can sense it in the air. Some sort of Asia in conjunction with … Protestantism. The blackamoor is something subtle and mysteri­ous, it seems to me, there’s nothing animal about him at all. His cruel elemental impulses are subordinated, already bridled.… I agree that any­thing especially “negro” in Blackamoor would be untrue.”[32]

     This is an important point: there was to be nothing especially “negro” in Arap. But I believe that Lourié did intend there to be an equivalent to those impulsive “elemental passions” that northern Europeans so often at­tribute to peoples further east or south––and that account for so much of the facile racism that permeates orientalist works of art to this day. This element was embodied in Eros, and I conclude by expanding on Klára’s insights into this central motif.

     The image and fate of this Eros, a supplementary character in the opera, come to signify the affinity between “otherness” and creativity—a major theme for both Pushkin and Peter the Great. Eros is present in the prologues, but absent from Act I, set in decadent Paris, the scene of Ibra­him’s love affair, the birth (and disposal) of their illicit black baby, and his decision to return to Russia. No truly generative love is possible there. Act II is Peter’s vigorous young Russia. Peter builds ships and wins wars, but he knows that a civilized state must honor the arts. So he imports a statue of Eros from Greece—it does not spontaneously arise—and he requires his motley crew of boyars, burghers, and soldiers to pay homage to it. But the statue warns Ibrahim that even his benefactor, the mighty matchmaker-tsar, cannot control or pair off all the elemental energies of the cosmos simply by his imperial will. Eros stands for the creative force, that which we would try to control, but which would control us.

     How is that control played out? In the bleak tradition of Russian oper­atic endings, at curtain time one character is left alone on stage: a marble statue of Eros in tricorn hat and military boots. Thus the opera inter­weaves painful allusions to Pushkin’s own final year—culminating in a fatal duel in defense of his and his wife’s honor—with the threatening statuary of The Stone Guest and Bronze Horseman. The enemy is not color or race per se. The enemy is absolute power, which stifles love and distorts true melody. Thus does Lourié, the exile and outsider, who turned up at a Parisian ball in blackface in 1927, recode Pushkin’s story in the Dionysian spirit of the Silver Age. He assigns to the realm of Eros all those unmoni­tored creative impulses that are constrained by imperial will and thus turned into a caricature of the Apollonian project. Even Peter the Great—or perhaps Peter most of all—could not sustain himself inside that cage forever.


Download: Emerson, Caryl and Klára Móricz. "Arthur Vincent Lourié’s Opera on Pushkin’s Black Great-Grandfather." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 71-96.

[1] Letter cited in Ol´ga Rubinchik, “V poiskakh poteriannogo orfeiia: Kompozitor Artur Lur´e.” Zvezda, no. 10 (1997): 198–207, esp. 206. For the Lourié-Akhmatova relationship, see B. Kats and R. Timenchik, Anna Akhmatova i muzyka (Lenin­grad: Sovetskii kompozitor, 1989), 8, 30–36; Felix Roziner, “The Slender Lyre: Artur Lourié and His Music,” trans. from the Russian by Peter Lubin, Bostonia, no. 8 (Fall 1992): 36–37. The line of poetry to which Lourié alludes, “Polyn´iu pakhnet khleb chuzhoi” (the bread of a foreign land is as bitter as wormwood) is from Akhmatova’s lyric in Anno Domini (1922), “Ne s temi ia, kto brosil zemliu…” (I am not among those who abandoned their native land…).

[2] See Anatoly Nayman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova, trans. Wendy Rosslyn (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), 80.

[3] Lourié’s letter to Irina Graham, 23 March 1949, quoted in Irina Grem, “Arap Petra Velikogo,” in Novoe Russkoe Slovo, 8 January 1993, 21, as translated in Caryl Emerson, “Arthur Vincent Lourié’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great: Push­kin’s Exotic Ancestor as Twentieth-Century Opera,” in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, ed. Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Nicole Svobodny, and Ludmilla A. Trigos, Studies in Russian Literature and Theory (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006),338.

[4] Three versions of the libretto of Lourié’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great sur­vived: the earliest is a Russian libretto (Lib1); a modified English version (Lib2) (Irina Graham Collection, Amherst Center for Russian Culture); and the published version of the English libretto (Lib3) in Irina Graham, “Materialen zur Opera Arap Petra Velikogo/The Blackamoor of Peter the Great,” in Studien zur Musik des XX. Jahrhunderts in Ost- und Ostmitteleuropa (Arvo Spit: Berlin Verlag, 1990). A marked up copy of Lib3 is in the New York Public Library, Lourié Collection, no. 68b. The above quotation comes from Lib2.

[5] “[H]is musical portrait makes me to visualize him not as a lion but as a black panther.” Graham to Lourié, 22 October 1961, Irina Graham Collection, Amherst Center for Russian Culture.

[6] Graham’s characterization is quoted in a letter by Lourié to Graham, 14 March 1949, in Grem, “Arap Petra Velikogo,” 21.

[7] Lourié to Graham, 23 March 1949, translated in Emerson, “Arthur Vincent Lourié’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, 340.

[8] Lourié to Graham, 19 February 1949, ibid.

[9] “Our operatic Eros is none other than Pushkin.” Graham to Lourié, 22 October 1961.

[10] In the libretto Eros’s black face is indicated only at his first appearance.

[11] Lourié knew intimately all three works. He quotes from The Stone Guest in the Blackamoor; he set Blok’s The Steps of the Commendatore in 1920 and five frag­ments from Akhmatova’s Poem Without a Hero in 1959.

[12] Lourié, “Variations sur Mozart” (1930), in Profanation et sanctification du temps: Journal musical, Saint-Pétersbourg – Paris – New York, 1910–1960 (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1966), 64.

[13] Lib2.

[14] The appearance of Don Giovanni and Leporello is missing from all the librettos, but present in both the piano reduction (KölnMusik, Öffentlichkeitsarbeit Archive, nf 14, 1, 889 pages, bound; also in the Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Laloy Collection) and the full score of the opera (New York Public Library, Lourié Collection, JPB 92–61 no. 85, 646 leaves, ink on transparent paper).

[15] Meyerhold on Don Juan, in Edward Braun ed., Meyerhold on Theatre (New York: Hill and Wang, 1969), 102.

[16] Alexander Pushkin, The Stone Guest, in Alexander Pushkin, Boris Godunov and Other Dramatic Works, trans. James E. Falen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 141–42.

[17] Ibid.

[18] David Glenn Knopf, Authorship as Alchemy: Subversive Writing in Pushkin, Scott, Hoffmann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 32.

[19] Anna Akhmatova, “Pushkin’s Stone Guest,” in My Half Century: Selected Prose, ed. and trans. Ronald Meyer (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1992), 203.

[20] David Herman, “Don Juan and Don Alejandro: The Seductions of Art in Push­kin’s Stone Guest,” Comparative Literature 51 (Winter 1999): 10.

[21] Lourié, “An Inquiry into Melody,” Modern Music 1: 7 (December–January, 1929–31), 7.

[22] “[T]he melody exists by itself, and its main characteristic is precisely the fact that it is free of all function.” Lourié, “La technique,” in Profanation et sanctification du temps, 100. Original in French.

[23] Graham to Mikhail Kralin, 19 June 1973, quoted in Mikhail Kralin, Artur i Anna: Roman bez geroia, no vse-taki o lyubvi (Tomsk: Izd-vo “Vodoley,” 2000), 68.

[24] “Natasha’s room. Covered bed, silver mirror… Big window, on which the frozen pattern of a huge rose appears. Natasha, wearing farthingale and powered wig, sits at the dressing-table; she lowers her hand with a rose. Lastochka is busy with preparing Natasha’s nightgown. After finishing, she sits at Natasha’s feet on a bench and takes a lute.” Lib1.

[25] Vsevolod Meyerhold, “The Fairground Booth,” in Meyerhold on Theatre, 137.

[26] Svetlana Evdokimova, Pushkin’s Historical Imagination (New Haven: Yale Uni­versity Press, 1999), especially the chapter “Forging Russian History: The Blacka­moor of Peter the Great,” 139–72.

[27] Ellis Hanson, Decadence and Catholicism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 263.

[28] “The Statue in Puskin’s Poetic Mythology,” in Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 318–65, esp. 321–25.

[29] Arthur Lourie, “An Inquiry into Melody,” Modern Music 7: 1 (December–January 1929–30): 3–11, esp. 5.

[30] Lourié to Graham, 14 March 1949, in Irina Grem, “Arap Petra Velikogo,” Novoe Russkoe Slovo, 8 January 1993, 21.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Lourié to Irina Graham, 23 March 1949, in Grem, “Arap Petra Velikogo,” 21. In his diaries during these years, the composer is explicit about a nostalgia for his earlier “Eurasianism”: “8 March 1949: At night I read Khlebnikov. Youthful reminiscences swept over me, and again there wafted a wind from Asia. How I loved that wind in past years! Everything European in me is dead, decadent, bifur­cation, disintegration, doubts, skepticism and apathy, as with everyone. Every­thing Asiatic is alive, authentically-living, joyous, and bright. What a strange vision: Christ in Asia!” See L. Z. Korabel´nikova, “Amerikanskie dnevniki Artura Lur´ye (k probleme muzykal′noi emigratsii ‘pervoi volny’),” in Keldyshevskii sbor­nik: Muzykal´no-istoricheskie chteniia pamiati Yu. V. Keldysha, ed. M. G. Aranov­skii et al. (Moscow: Gosudarstvennyi institut iskusstvoznaniia, 1999), 232–39, esp. 234.