The Devil's Party: Peter Conrad Succumbs to the Demonic Creativity of Rubinstein's Rare Opera. (Music)

By Conrad, Peter | New Statesman (1996), February 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Devil's Party: Peter Conrad Succumbs to the Demonic Creativity of Rubinstein's Rare Opera. (Music)


Conrad, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Where would we be without the devil? Probably still in the boring, bucolically innocent garden, doing a bit of decorous weeding. The serpentine naysayer is the promoter of inquiring intellect and of rebellious fantasy; we ought to say thankful prayers to him every evening. My own bout of Satanism has been provoked by Anton Rubinstein's rare and underrated opera The Demon, which Valery Gergiev and his Kirov troupe from St Petersburg have just performed at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris in a production by Lev Dodin.

God may be defunct, but we all possess our resident demons: the word simply refers to a spirit, an energetic driving force that impels us to ask questions or dream up images. It is Christianity, fearfully prohibitive, that gave it a diabolical meaning. Rubinstein's bogey comes from a narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov, a fractious Byronic outsider who -- describing himself as "world-exiled, hunted everywhere" -- died in a pointless duel in 1841. Perched in midair, Lermontov's demon broods over a sanctimonious world that has expelled him. He is no Satan, even though, like the serpent ingratiating himself with Eve, he seduces a nun from whom he hopes to receive absolution. Rather, he is a force of demonic creativity, whose elemental freedom terrifies a smugly pious society.

For Rubinstein, the demon's grudge against heaven's courtly cabals had a miserably personal relevance. Rubinstein single-handedly invented Russia s musical culture; his compatriots paid him back by reviling him. His career as a globetrotting pianist convinced him that the performer could be a heroic figure, dramatising the frenzy and ferment of inspiration as he improvised at the keyboard. Ever since Paganini's demented fiddling, virtuosity like his had been attributed to the devil's intercession: did the player gain such skills at the cost of his soul? Rubinstein knew that the secret was professional training, not an infernal pact. He therefore established the first Russian conservatory, and educated the laggard public by giving a series of encyclopaedic concerts. In one programme, he played a synopsis of musical history from Byrd to Haydn; in his tribute to Beethoven, whom he idolised, he performed eight sonatas in a single session.

Yet his colleagues disowned him. They were proud to be amateurs, holding on to sinecures in the imperial civil service and indulging in music in their spare time: Borodin was a chemist, Rimsky-Korsakov a naval officer, Cesar Cui a military engineer. As nationalists, they thought that Russian music should derive from folk songs, and they condemned Rubinstein's cosmopolitanism. His family were German Jews, so such criticism was often cryptically anti-Semitic. He unrepentantly considered music itself to be "a German art"; despairing of acceptance, he spent the last years of his life exiled in Dresden. By taking the Paris production of The Demon into the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre, where it was first performed in 1875, Gergiev makes amends for this acrimonious and unjust history. …

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