By Jimmy Chen
Within the collection of Cambridge University Library, there is a piece of sheet music for a Russian song dating from the Napoleonic Wars. Insignificant at first glance, this simple song can provide important insights into European musical culture in the early nineteenth century.
As its cumbersome title (Military song in honour of General Count Wittgenstein. Dedicated to his brave soldiers by Daniil Kashin ) tells us, the song was composed in honour of General Count Pyotr Khristianovich Wittgenstein – the commander of the First Corps in the Russian Imperial Army during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812. During the early stages of the campaign Wittgenstein’s corps was tasked with defending the road to St Petersburg while the main army retreated towards Moscow. For his success in doing so he received the epithet ‘the saviour of Petersburg.’ Although Wittgenstein has been ignored in ‘patriotic’ histories of the war, almost twenty songs were written by contemporaries in honour of Wittgenstein’s exploits during 1812-14. The composition at hand was by far the most popular.
The defender of Peter’s city,
We are to glorify with a true voice,
It was Wittgenstein’s defensive line,
And the enemy was unable to come against us.
Hail, hail thee, hero,
That the city of Peter was saved by you.
It was first performed at a concert of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society by the bass singer Pyotr Zlov on 22 March 1813. The music was composed by Daniil Kashin, an ex-serf responsible for a number of popular compositions during the war. His bright melody so enchanted the St Petersburg audience that the refrain ‘Hail, hail thee, hero’ was allegedly heard throughout the streets of the imperial capital the next morning. The text was supplied by the poet Pyotr Kobyakov, a dramatist and translator active in St Petersburg during 1808-18.
The popularity of the song spawned a number of alternative verses written to be sung to Kashin’s melody. On 16 September 1814, a concert was held in Pskov in honour of Wittgenstein. The ancient Russian city lay southwest of St Petersburg on the road to the imperial capital, and generously supplied Wittgenstein’s corps in 1812. The poet Pyotr Korsakov wrote new lyrics which hailed Wittgenstein as the ‘illustrious defender of Pskov,’.
Korsakov had in fact already written a different set of words to Kashin’s tune the previous year. This text was sung as a toast to the Tsar in the 1813 ballet Fete in the Camp of the Allied Armies, choreographed by Auguste Poireau and Ivan Val’berkh. By 1813 the Russian army, together with its Prussian and Austrian allies, formed the formidable Sixth Coalition against Napoleon. The ballet was staged in this context. Near the end of the spectacle a general (played by Zlov) sings the following aria to Kashin’s tune:
Heroes, dreadful sons of glory,
The world is yours! Your sacred blood
Flows over all the states of the world:
Your guide was love for your fatherland:
Hail the sovereigns of the allied armies,
Hail the commanders of the allied armies!’
In 1814, once the allies had defeated Napoleon and entered Paris in triumph, this ballet was adapted and performed at a celebration in July in honour of Grand Duke Constantine’s (the Tsar’s brother) return to Russia. Korsakov left the first verse unchanged but changed the second and third verses, presenting the conquest of Paris as a restoration of justice and order. The second verse:
The joyful day has already arrived,
In which the enemy, in his own land –
Submitted to the heavenly court of justice,
And was deprived of the means to harm us.
In victory the Slavic race rises,
Rejoice Moscow, Russians are in Paris!
However, the melody’s influence was not limited to Russia. The tune was used as the basis of the ‘Inno russo’ (‘Onore, gloria in alto ormaggio’) in Rossini’s opera Il viaggio a Reims (1825). It also bears key similarities to the opening of the Prussian patriotic anthem Preussenlied (1832), a ceremonial anthem composed by August Neithardt. This is not too surprising, since the Prussian and Russian militaries regularly adopted each other’s soldiers’ songs and military marches. Thus did a melody composed by a Russian ex-serf inspire an anthem for the kings of Prussia.
In early nineteenth century Europe, popular melodies were spread across the continent to be appropriated for new purposes and performed in new settings. Kashin’s composition provides a fascinating insight into this phenomenon.
 Kashin, D.N., Kobiakov, P.N., Voennaia pesn’ v chest’ generalu grafu Vitgenshteinu. Posviashchennaia khrabrym voinam ego Danilom Kashinym (St Petersburg, 1813).
 Ryzhkova, N.A., ‘Muzykal’naia letopis’ otechestvennoi voiny 1812 goda’, Iskusstvo muzyki: Teoriia i istoriia, 5 (2012), 25. (Russian)
 This version of the text is in the repertoire of the Valaam Male Choir, who have made a recording of the piece.
 Corti, M., ‘L’“Inno russo” del Viaggio a Reims…’, Philomusica on-line, 9:1 (2010), 24. (Italian)
Image: Pyotr Khristianovich Wittgenstein, George Dawe, Winter Palace, State Hermitage Museum). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Pjotr-christianowitsch-wittgenstein.jpg