If you're the sort of obsessive (like me) who loves reading about music and composers and if you also have a penchant for Russian music, the name Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-69) will have kept popping out at you. He is one of those composers whose names are ever-present in the history books but whose music is never - or hardly ever - heard. (This may be different within Russia). So what does his music sound like? Well, there's only one way to find out...
Dargomyzhsky was a slightly younger contemporary of Mikhail Glinka and is considered, like him, to be a spiritual father of the Mighty Handful. He is most famous for his Pushkin-based opera The Stone Guest - a take on the Don Giovanni story, albeit a tragic rather than a tragicomic one. It's the work which gets him all the mentions in the history books.
Like many of his contemporaries, Dargomyzhsky aimed at realism in the arts and pioneered the use of speech rhythms in opera. His innovation was to make them fit a new type of "melodic recitative" (as Cui christened it). The result, when you listen to The Stone Guest, is an overwhelmingly recitative-driven through-composed opera which, for the most part, avoids set-piece arias (except when the drama demands a song - as with Laura's songs), duets, ensembles (etc). That the recitative style invented by the composer is a 'melodic' one will be heard immediately. There was enough melodic material in the work (as Dargomyzhsky left it) for its orchestrator Rimsky-Korsakov to fashion an overture from it. However, the fact remains that the prime purpose of The Stone Guest - to project Pushkin's words and create a naturalistic sung drama - means that there isn't too much that lingers in the memory after the opera has ended. That doesn't make it a failure, of course - if you watch as well as listen to the opera (as you are meant to do!). Still, I've seen it now and have no great wish to listen to it again for pleasure.
As an example of a later opera directly influenced by Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, please try Rimsky Korsakov's Mozart and Salieri.
What else does Dargomyzhsky have to offer?
Well, he was also a composer of songs. As an enthusiast for the music of Glinka, I can clearly hear the influence of the elder composer in each stage of what follows. I would say that Glinka was, by a long way, the better composer but that Dargomyzhsky was the one who took what Glinka began and nudged it on towards his famous successors.
He seems to have started out writing French-influenced romances (of the kind Tchaikovsky was to specialise in), as well as 'Russian songs'. An early example where the French influence is all-pervasive comes with Au bal. As later examples of his straightforward romance style, please give his melancholy Mne grustno ('I'm sad because I love you') or his stoical Rasstalis' gordo mi ('We parted proudly, without a word or tear') a try. Both are lyrical pieces but ones with character. Even better is the short but memorable Ya vas ljubil ('I loved you') - understandably the composer's most popular song. His glorification of free love Svad'ba ('The Marriage') was a popular piece in the composer's time, but Ya vas ljubil seems to have beaten it all hands down these days. Other songs in this vein you might like to listen to are his Bolero and Tutschky nebesnyje ('Heavenly clouds'), with its touches of gypsy passion.
As he developed, however, his style - moving in the direction of The Stone Guest - began to change towards the 'realist', with declamatory, character songs assuming primacy in his output. An interesting example of this is Starzy kapral ('The old corporal'), a ballad about an old soldier condemned to death for insulting a young officer, who urges on the reluctant firing squad with the words 'In step, lads...one, two!' It has definite echoes of Glinka's magnificent The Night Review but its 'natural' speech rhythms carry us one step closer to the dramatic songs of Mussorgsky - as does Mel'nik ('The Miller'), a comic song about a drunken miller coming home at night and getting an earful from the missus. It's in these songs where you see the great talent, if not necessarily the genius, of Alexander Dargomyzhsky. The satirical side of Mussorgsky is most closely anticipated in Chervyak ('The Worm'), a song where a man grovels and cringes towards a count, and Titulyarniy sovetnik ('The Civil Servant').
Many of you will know the old Russian witch Baba Yaga from her appearance in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or in Liadov's tone poem Baba Yaga - two masterpieces of Russian music. Now, our man Dargomyzhsky got there first with an episodic orchestral piece depicting the old girl's flight from the Volga to Riga. Now, it's interesting to hear some of the colours the composer brings to his depiction - a very Russian sense of colour, learned from Glinka and inherited by all and sundry. Dargomyzhsky's Baba Yaga really takes off, so to speak, when the pace picks up and, though it's not a patch on those two later pieces, it has passages when it makes a strong impact and will (I hope) be one of the more pleasant surprises of this post.
For another side of the composer, his salon-friendly side, please try the Valse melancholique - and, for my final piece of music, why not give this arrangement of his Tarantelle a go? It was made by one of his admirers, a composed who enthused over his originality - one Franz Liszt.
There's certainly no denying his originality nor his significance in Russian music. I think I've gained a sense of why he gets so many mentions in histories of Russian music. I think I've also gained a sense of why his music is so rarely heard (outside of Russia). It just hasn't got the imaginative clout - the genius - of a Glinka or a Balakirev. Hopefully, you will be forming your own opinions about Dargomyzhsky.