Tales of Cultural Transfer: Russian Opera Abroad, 1866-1906

Alexander, Tamsin. 2015. Tales of Cultural Transfer: Russian Opera Abroad, 1866-1906. Doctoral thesis, University of Cambridge [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

Studies of Russian music’s first movements abroad have typically meant unidirectional accounts of East meets West – of Russian music being framed as Other by critics and impresarios alike. While such research is important in understanding the roots of the long-standing exoticisation and denigration of Russian composers, it paints a picture of Russian musical culture as structurally isolated, and of little interest beyond novelty to its westerly neighbours. Based on contemporary reviews, articles, memoirs and archival materials, this thesis examines the reception and dissemination of operas by Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein from their earliest international appearances in 1866 to the last performances before Sergei Diaghilev introduced his Saisons russes to Western stages. By comparing responses to this repertoire in three cities where it was first prominently endorsed – Prague, London and Nice – I reveal that the trajectory of Russian operas westward was far more complex than the standard accounts indicate, and, in so doing, recast our understanding of the history of Russian music in its wider European context.
This complexity came in markedly different forms, however. As I show in Part I, for Czech Prague, cultivating international ties beyond the German-speaking lands became a crucial tool in preventing cultural isolation; cosmopolitanism, in other words, became a force of nationalism. Part II explores the ways in which, despite numerous cultural interconnections, this repertoire was initially denounced in London as ‘too Russian’ for British ears. But, later, as the ideals Russia embodied among leftist circles and the new aesthetic and social demands of opera began to align, operas by Russian composers came to be judged by their modernising and democratising potential. The example of Nice (Part III) complicates the usual dividing lines between Russia and West. Not only was there a substantial Russian presence in city, but the Franco-Russian Alliance was generating new imperatives for transnational understanding. Russian operas became an asset in the city’s claims for artistic and political recognition: claims that became embroiled in the intriguing wider argument that Russia might be the harbinger of an alternative ‘music of the future’.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Music > Centre for Russian Music


March 2015

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 Jul 2022 15:07

Last Modified:

07 Sep 2022 17:20



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