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Russian music in and around Chekhov

by Arnold McMillin

Anton Chekhov, the anniversary of whose death falls in 2004, has many connections to music, both passive and active. He was on very friendly terms with both Chaikovskii and Rakhmaninov, his contemporaries, and he was also, as the second best-loved Russian writer after Pushkin, a popular choice for twentieth-century composers, Russian and non-Russian alike, seeking literary works to set to music in various forms. As many critics have observed, his own writing is extremely musical, and no less a person than Shostakovich (who himself loved Gogol′ and Chekhov above all other writers) perceived musical form, particularly sonata form, in several of Chekhov’s works, believing, indeed, that Chekhov had an essentially musical way of thinking and writing. Many others, including such diverse figures as Jonathan Miller, Rakhmaninov and André Maurois, to name but three, have also commented on the musical nature of Chekhov’s prose and drama. Indeed, Chekhov originally described one of his stories, ‘Schast′e’ (Happiness, 1887) as ‘quasi simfoniei’. A particularly strong example of Chekhov’s musical thinking is the story, ‘Chernyi monakh’ (The Black Monk, 1894), a work particularly loved by Shostakovich who noted its basic sonata form, an aspect of the story that has been analysed in detail by, amongst others, Rosamund Bartlett. Chekhov has also been described as a librettist manqué and his works contain numerous references to music, directly or as part of the imagery.

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