Wednesday 2 May 2012

The Death of Koschei the Deathless

Having written last week about Rimsky Korsakov's opera at Buxton, I was curious about Koschei/Kaschei. The character's first significant occurrence in English was in Andrew Lang's Red Fairy Book (which was the 2nd of his fairy books, a follow up to the Blue Fairy Books). Here he includes the tale of The Death of Koschei the Deathless; itself based on the Russian tale collected by Alexander Afanaseyev (1826 - 1871), who collected some 600 Russian folk-tales. The tale also occurs in Frazer's The Golden Bough.

Afanazeyev's collection was the first systematic attempt to record Russian folk culture; prior to his work dating from the 1850's, few efforts had been made to study folk culture. But Afanazeyev was not just interested in the folk tales themselves, he wanted to promote Russian culture and promote the Russian language above the French. Secular Russian literature only really started in the 18th and 19th centuries, so Afanazeyev's 8 volumes of folk-tales made a sizable contribution to the literature.  Like the Kallevala in Finland, these folk assemblages were part of the Nationalist movement whereby countries re-discovered their own literature and traditions in the face of external domination (in Finland it was Russian domination, in Russia it was the use of French by the aristocratic elite).

This movement would continue and develop, with folk museums and collections of traditional buildings being created. Into the 20th century this movement would continue to have political significance. In Helsinki the creation of the folk museum with its collection of traditional Finnish buildings, was part of a statement against the Russians and in the Baltic states in the Soviet era the folk movement was a serious force, with the folk museum in Tallinn suffering serious fires.

Afanazeyev's end was tragic, he died aged 45, destitute and forced to sell his library to eat. But his folk tales influenced many people. Rimsky Korsakov based at least 3 operas on them (Sadko, The Snow Maiden and Kaschei the Immortal) and Stravinsky used them for The Firebird and l'Histoire du Soldat.

Andrew Lang was a Scots poet and novelist who was intensely interested in folk-lore and folk-literature. His body of work includes translations of Homer as well as work's of Scottish Historical scholarship. He first published the Blue Fairy Book in 1889; in all there would be 12 fairy books published between 1889 and 1910 containing some 437 stories. Lang did not collect the stories, instead he selected them from collections created by people who had collected them (like Afanazeyev and Grimm). Though his name is on the books, it was in fact his wife and others who did the majority of the work translating and re-telling the stories.

Kaschei/Koschei's name in Slavic languages suggest that it might be derived from the word for bone, suggesting a skeletal appearance, though none of the surviving tales describes him. Typically he abducts the heroes wife and cannot be killed by ordinary means; his soul is kept separate from his body.

Rimsky-Korsakov's opera uses a libretto by the composer based on Afanazeyev's tale.

For Stravinsky's The Firebird, Alexandre Benois and Michael Fokine combined the tale of Kaschei with the separate tale of the Firebird. There is a suggestion that a popular verse for children by Yakov Polonsky (1819 - 1898) might have brought this about as Polonsky conflates the Firebird with a sorcerer-tsar (and Kaschei is often referred to as Tsar Kaschei). Polonsky's poems were set by many of the Russian 19th century composers and he provided the libretto for Vaukla the Smith which was eventually set by Tchaikovsky

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