Throughout Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, the once-roving-romantic Dr. Dorn sings snatches of art song, opera, and gypsy ballads, a counterpoint to the action created onstage. Though one of them remains easily accessible to theatres when they prepare for a production, the other songs he sings have drifted into obscurity since Chekhov's day, creating a detective hunt for a dramaturg, composer, or sound designer.
As we prepared for this production, we discovered that our colleagues at many theatres around the country either make up new tunes or substitute other songs that are more easily found. Google searching for the English titles turned up lots of other people who were looking for the same songs with little result. But, living in Boston, with its wealth of institutions devoted to music history, we thought we'd try to track them down — and we've almost found them all, with help from researchers Liza Vick and Hugh Truslow from Harvard and Sarah Hunter from Boston University.
So, to pay this knowledge forward, I'm glad to share here the way we found these songs, both as a general tool for finding the obscure Russian songs from Chekhov and a specific guide to tracking down sheet music and recordings for these numbers.
Let’s start with the easy one:
In Act II, Dorn sings the first line of Charles Gounod’s "Faites-lui mes aveux" from Faust. Widely available.
The rest are Russian songs, often sung in English translation; the references below correspond to the Paul Schmidt translation, which is the one we are using in production here at the Huntington. For these songs, you have to think in three directions:
- The translated English title and lyric, which is usually unique to your translation and won’t help you find the song
- The original Cyrillic title or lyric, which is the best way to find text through Google or YouTube
- Possible transliterations of the title or lyric into English, which is the best way to find copies in a library. There are several different systems for "Romanizing" Russian into English, and they are not consistent, so use several different tools for transliterating the Cyrillic – but it is much more common to find Russian songs in American libraries by their transliterated title, since being able to catalog in languages with different characters, like Cyrillic, is a relatively new development, brought on by the computer age.
In Act I, Dorn sings "Once more, love, before you, enchanted I stand" from what Paul Schmidt refers to as "Krasov's 'Stanzas'." "Stanzas" is a generic name, and in the period, many songs were untitled, and were referred to by their first line. (Additionally, Krasov is the poet whose words were set to music by an unknown composer, possibly Alyabyev, so searching for "Krasov's 'Stanzas'" really won’t find you anything.) Here, the best solution is going back to the original Chekhov text and pulling the Cyrillic text "Я вновь пред тобою стою очарован."
- Recordings: (There are others if you search for the Cyrillic text)
- Sheet music: We found it in a book, Sobranie starinnykh russkikh romansov : antologii︠a︡. That is the book's transliterated title; the whole book is in Cyrillic, so be sure to bring a copy of the title in Cyrillic to match. We were lucky enough to find a copy at a local library. (Here is the record locator for the book we used)
In Act IV, Dorn sings "The bright moon sails the midnight sky" from what Schmidt refers to as "Shilovsky's serenade 'The Tiger Cub'." A popular ballad at the time, this song is not widely available in America today, and can only be tracked down through the Cyrillic title (Тигрёнок). Shilosky in Cyrllic is written as "Шиловский"
- Sheet music: The only copy we could find in America is at Brigham Young University in Utah. Again, the sheet music is found using a transliterated title "Tigrenok," and BYU was very helpful in sending us a scan of the music, since it is in the public domain, though we did pay a fee for the scan.
Finally, the hardest — In Act I, Dorn sings "Never say thy youth was wasted" from what Schmidt refers to as "Prigozhy's 'Heavy Cross'." Here again, the song seems to be more commonly referenced by its first line "Не говори, что молодость сгубила" and the composer’s name in Cyrillic is written "Яков Федорович Пригожий." (Some scholars reference this as Adolf Prigozhy, but we now believe that is an error, and that Yakov Prigozhy is the correct composer.) The text comes from a Nekrasov poem, usually referred to by that same Cyrillic line above, though sometimes referred to in English as "The Heavy Cross" or "A Sick Man's Jealousy;" we haven’t seen any versions of the song referred to by that title.
Of course, with these last three, you’ll need someone who can adapt the original Russian music to the English lyric. In our case, composer Mark Bennett is fitting Schmidt’s lyric to an approximation of the Russian melody.