Russian Literature and Music

Interaction between Russian Literature and Music
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  • Lectures 11
  • Length 2.5 hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
  • Includes Lifetime access
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About This Course

Published 2/2012 English

Course Description

A Faculty Project Course - Best Professors Teaching the World

During the previous two centuries, Russian speaking writers and composers have made extraordinary contributions to Russian literature and to the culture of the world. They have also presented a truly remarkable understanding of the human soul. The objective of this Russian Literature course is to provide an opening into this colorful, absorbing, and deeply sensitive universe of written images and pulsating sounds

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Course Introduction
Section 1: Course Lectures

We will begin the course with a lecture on the medieval beginnings in Kiev to help conceptualize Russain literature and music. For each lecture, I'll post some thought questions for you to ponder or comment in a post.

Thought Questions

  • How could medieval literature successfully portray the lives of Saints, perfect people in every detail?
  • Why must Modern Literature portray morally complex characters in order to be believable?

Additional Reading

Nicholas Riasanovsky, "History of Russia"

Sergei Zenkovsky, "Medieval Russia's Tales, Legends, Chronicles"


Thought Questions

  • In what ways were the tyrannical aspects of Ivan the Terrible connected with the memory of Tatar Rule?
  • In what ways might they be connected with events of the 20th Century?

Additional Reading

The Correspondence Between Kurbsky and Ivan the Terrible (published in English Translation, in Cambridge, Massachusetts)


The title of this lecture refers to St. Petersburg and Pushkin's education. 

Thought Questions

  • Petersburg is often called "Russia's window to the West" -to what extent could Russia and its culture be called "under Western influence"?
  • What might be involved in Pushkin's pride concerning his African predecessor and his old aristocratic Russian predecessors?

Pushkin showed extraordinary talent from a very early age. He was fortunate to enter an extraordinary school, called a Lycee, whose teachers recognized both his magnificent talent and his equally magnificent way of being hard to handle.  

Thought Questions

  • In what ways do the complexities of a poet's personal life interact with the artist's talent and creativity?
  • How does a poet react to the actions of a repressive political regime? 
Additional Reading
An excellent, detailed account of Pushkin's life can be found in the Oxford University Press, "Pushkin: A Biography" by T. J. Binyon, a fine British Scholar.

In the early 1820's the 23-year-old Pushkin for the first time encountered the work of Shakespeare -- in French translation. The Russian youth was deeply moved by the English Poet's poetic drama. Pushkin decided to do for the Russian Historical Theatre what Shakespeare had done for the English.

In Russia, Karamzin's History had just appeared, and the saga of the presumed 16th Century murder of the Muscovite Crown Prince, organized by Boris Godunov, was fresh in the reading public's mind. Pushkin saw the parallel with Henry IV, who had organized the murder of King Richard the Second. The resulting Russian Poetic Drama. "Boris Godunov" was enough to send shivers up the spine of the Tsar in Pushkin's time, so that the drama was not performed on the stage until several decades later.

Thought Questions

  • To what extent is regicide and general political murder a constant in Russian History?
  • Why do such themes engage the best of Russian and English Writers?

Additional Reading

Read the book by Chester Dunning, Caryl Emerson, and others: "The Uncensored Boris Godunov" - Prof. Emerson is one of our finest teachers, researchers, and musicians. 


In Musorgsky's powerful operatic work, the story of the monarch with a guilty conscience comes forward with burning intensity. In spite of the fact that the Composer was a Member of the "Mighty Five", whose adherents wanted only Russian tones and themes in their music. Musorgsky managed to combine both Church Slavonic Chants and Russian Folk Music with the best of techniques developed in Italy by Verdi. The result is an umparalleld combination of History, Drama,and Music.

The lecture includes some demonstrations of the vocal music.

Thought Question

  • How does opera bring together so many musical, historical, and daramatic moments?

Additional Activity

Listen to a DVD of Musorgsky's Opera, preferably with a cast from the Russia's Bolshoi theatre.


Pushkin's most famous Poem was "a novel in verse" - the story of Eugene Onegin and his understanding and misunderstanding of the great feminine character of Tatiana Larina. The music of Tchaikovsky's Opera caught the poetry better than any other translation.

Thought Questions

  • How do two different geniuses approach some very parallel materials?
  • How do Music and Poetry fit together?

Additional Reading & Activity

  1. Read some commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, in the four volumes together with his absolutely literal translation of the Poem.
  2. Compare it to the poetic translation by James Falen.
  3. Listen to a DVD Production of Tchaikovsky's Opera, preferably with the cast from Russia's Bolshoi Theatre. 
I would like to express sincere gratitude to the people who have taken the time and patience to listen to my words about Russian Literature and Music, all in the context of Russian Cultural History. I hope you have received both pleasure and learning in a way that makes your life broader. One of the…
Section 2: Bonus Material

A brief snippet about one of the great Russian writers - Alexander Pushkin 

Tolstoy and Stendhal - Charterhouse of Parma and War and Peace

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Instructor Biography

Professor Irwin Weil, Professor of Russian Literature and Music - Northwestern University

One has the impression that Professor Irwin Weil was born approximately 12 months  before the launching of Noah's Ark. He was actually born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the context of a family whose members spoke only American English, peppered with a few words of Cincinnati Deutsch. He received his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. at Harvard University. In the process of study, he met the work of a writer whom he had never met before, in Cincinnati. That was a man named Dostoevsky, a new name to the young student. When his friends recommended that he read more novels by this man, the young Weil decided he would read that work in its original Russian Language form.
In 1947, this started his encounter with the Byzantine like corridors of the Russian Language - its complicated grammar, its powerfully adumbrated style, and its wonderful musical tonalities. In 1948, the young fellow had the opportunity to live in Paris for several months, and he promptly entered the Soviet Consulate to ask for permission to visit a large city where Russian was spoken. The Soviet Diplomats laughed in his face and asked him what world he thought he inhabited.
It was only 12 years later,after Kennedy and Khrushchev signed an agreement for cultural exchange, that the 32 year old Weil was able to enter the country then known as the USSR.That was the beginning of over 100 visits to the USSR/Russia, where he did research, taught college courses,and got to know the remarkably attractive side of literally hundreds of acquaintances, and dozens of real friends. His spoken Russian is often taken as native by many people in that fascinating and hospitable country.
He has now taught courses in Russian Language and Literature for over sixty years, 46 of them at Northwestern University, where his course on Russian Culture drew 800 students annually . He has also developed unique courses in Russian Music, considered in the context of Russian History and Culture. One not unimportant result is the fact the the Northwestern University Football Team is the only such athletic group in the USA whose members sing Russian Opera in the original language.

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