The death of a tyrant, abduction by the secret police and insight into the minds of some of the greatest composers in history are all part of the details that Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre has discovered in the margins of the centuries-old sheet music in its archives.
The discoveries have been made during the digitalization of the Bolshoi’s music archives, which are some of the oldest and most extensive in the world and include rare treasures such as a 15th-century Italian songbook. The Bolshoi has digitalized about 20 percent of the archives, under a project it embarked on two years ago. The results will eventually be made available online.
Amid the pieces of music are also notes and doodles by ordinary musicians, written and drawn during countless hours spent in the orchestra pit or rehearsal rooms of the 18th-century theater, bringing touches of humour and reality. It is clear that the musicians had their own opinions on the political climate of the day.
- At the bottom of one music score, written in Cyrillic capital letters, are the words “The Great Stalin is Dead,” referring to the Soviet dictator who died in 1953. The word “Great” has been scratched out. No one knows whether that was the original author or one of the next musicians to use the score.
- “It seems they came for Tatyana,” one violinist wrote during rehearsals of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” in 1968, referring to the frequent disappearances of people taken away by the Kremlin’s secret police for interrogation.
- A note from 1940 on the side of an opera by composer Carl Maria von Weber read: “It was 8 degrees [Celsius] today, and we played. Some people’s noses froze.”
The repetitive nature of orchestra life can be boring, and sometimes minds wandered. The doodles and notes provide precious glimpses of the life and times of past Bolshoi musicians.
The Bolshoi suffered three fires during the 19th century, and much of the early archive collection was destroyed. The documents that survived the fires in 1805, 1812 and 1853 are counted among its most treasured pieces. Archive administrator Boris Mukosei said,
Most of the oldest and most valuable things, of course, originate from the Italian composers … and several French and German [composers] who worked in Russia. Many of them were the best-known musicians in Europe, earning quite big money — it must be said that the Russian monarchs had quite elevated taste and invited first-class musicians here.”
Russia’s own national musical heritage is widely represented in the archive, with manuscripts by composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninov and Dmitry Shostakovich.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.