Tag Archives: Yakov Knyazhnin

Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

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Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.