September 01, 1997

Tolstoy on Stage

There is no shortage of great Tolstoys in Russian literature. Just in the short period from the 19th to the beginning of the 20th centuries, three of them, including Lev, of War and Peace fame, and Soviet writer Alexei Nikolaevich, graced the literary scene. But the first Tolstoy, chronologically speaking at least, was Count Alexei Konstantinovich, whose 180th anniversary Russia celebrates on September 5.

Alexei Tolstoy (1817-1875) only lived to the age of 58, but he led an extremely full and productive life, leaving Russia with a great literary and moral inheritance. For, more than just about any other Russian writer before or since, Tolstoy’s personality – his generosity and purity of spirit – was reflected in his work. The writer Turgenev was quite correct in saying that “Alexei Tolstoy’s humanity shows through and breathes in everything he wrote.”

And he wrote prolifically. Tolstoy entered the Russian literary scene at the end of the 1840s and beginning of the 1850s primarily as a lyric poet, whose work was moving and subtle. He achieved popularity almost immediately through the amazing musicality of his verses. Many of them became songs, and later, in the 1860s and 1870s, the most famous composers – Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Rubinshtein and Taneev – composed romances based on them. More than 70 of Tolstoy’s verses were set to music, among them the world-famous romances Among the Noisy Dance and It Was Early Spring.

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