Serov, Alexander (Nikolaievich)

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Serov, Alexander (Nikolaievich)

Serov, Alexander (Nikolaievich), important Russian music critic and composer; b. St. Petersburg, Jan. 23, 1820; d. there, Feb. 1, 1871. He studied law, and also took cello lessons with Karl Schuberth. He became a functionary in the Ministry of Justice and served in St. Petersburg (1840–45), Simferopol, Crimea (1845–8), and Pskov (1848–51). He never took lessons in composition, except a correspondence course in counterpoint with Joseph Hunke, but achieved a certain mastery in harmony and orchestration by studying the classics. In 1851 he began writing critical articles on music, and soon became an important figure in Russian journalism; in 1856 he became ed. of the Musical and Theatrical Monitor. In 1858 he made his first trip abroad, visiting Germany and Bohemia; the following year made another German visit, and also traveled in Austria and Switzerland; during this journey he met Wagner, whose ardent admirer he became and remained to the end of his career; expounded Wagner’s ideas in Russian publications and engaged in bitter polemics with those who did not subscribe to his views, including his old friend and schoolmate Vladimir Stasov. Serov started very late in the field of composition. Inspired by the performance of a biblical play, Judith, by an Italian troupe at St. Petersburg in 1861, he resolved to write an opera on this subject, essaying an Italian libretto, but later deciding on a Russian text. Judith was produced in St. Petersburg on May 28, 1863, with excellent success, but although Serov intended to emulate Wagner in the music, the style of Judith was closer to Meyerbeer. Quite different was Serov’s second opera, Rogneda, written on a Russian subject, in a distinctly national idiom, with plentiful use of Russian folk songs. Rogneda was staged in St. Petersburg on Nov. 8, 1865, and won a spectacular success; the Tsar Alexander II attended a subsequent performance and granted Serov an annual stipend of 1,000 rubles for it. He then began the composition of another Russian opera, Vrazhya sila (Malevolent Power), but death (as a result of heart failure) overtook him when the fifth act was still incomplete; the opera was finished by N.T. Soloviev and produced in St. Petersburg on May 1, 1871. All 3 operas of Serov retain their popularity in Russia but are unknown elsewhere. Serov wrote further an Ave Maria for Adelina Patti (1868), a Stabat Mater, incidental music to Nero, Plyaska Zaporozhtsev (Dance of the Zapor-ozh Cossacks) for Orch. (1867), Ouverture d’une comédie for Piano, 4-Hands, and a few other small pieces. A selection from his writings was pubi, in 4 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1892–95). In 1863 Serov married a Cons. pupil, Valentina Bergmann (1846–1924), who was the first Russian woman to compose operas: Uriel Acosta (Moscow, 1885) and llya Murometz (Moscow, March 6, 1899; with Chaliapin in the title role). She helped to ed. and pubi. Serov’s posthumous works, and also wrote essays and pubi, a number of piano pieces and a book of memoirs (St. Petersburg, 1914) under the name Valentina Serova.


N. Findeisen, A.N. S.: His Life and Music (St. Petersburg, 1900; second ed., 1904); V. Serova, A.N. S. (St. Petersburg, 1914); G. Khubov, The Life of A.N. S. (Moscow, 1950).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire