Mar 312018

Today is the birthday (1809) of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь), [O.S. 19 March], a Russian writer of Ukrainian origin. Gogol was born in the Ukrainian Cossack village of Sorochyntsi, in Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire, present-day Ukraine. His mother descended from Leonty Kosyarovsky, an officer of the Lubny Regiment in 1710. His father Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a descendant of Ukrainian Cossacks (see Lyzohub family) and who died when Gogol was 15 years old, belonged to the ‘petty gentry’, wrote poetry in Ukrainian and Russian, and was an amateur Ukrainian-language playwright. As was typical of the avant-garde Ukrainian gentry of the early 19th century, the family spoke Ukrainian as well as Russian. As a child, Gogol helped stage Ukrainian-language plays in his uncle’s home theater.

In 1820, Gogol went to a school of higher art in Nezhin (now Nizhyn Gogol State University) and remained there until 1828. It was there that he began writing. He was not popular among his schoolmates, who called him their “mysterious dwarf”, but with two or three of them he formed lasting friendships. He developed a dark and secretive disposition, marked by a painful self-consciousness yet with strong ambitions. He developed a talent for mimicry, which later made him a matchless reader of his own works and induced him to toy with the idea of becoming an actor.

In 1828, on leaving the university, Gogol went to Saint Petersburg, full of vague ambitious hopes. He had hoped for literary fame, and brought with him his Romantic poem of German idyllic life – Hans Küchelgarten. He had it published, at his own expense, under the name of “V. Alov.” The magazines he sent it to almost universally derided it. He bought all the copies and destroyed them, swearing never to write poetry again. Gogol met the literary elite, had a story published in Anton Delvig’s Northern Flowers, was taken up by Vasily Zhukovsky and Pyotr Pletnyov, and (in 1831) was introduced to Pushkin.

In 1831 Gogol brought out the first volume of his Ukrainian stories (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka), which met with immediate success. He followed it in 1832 with a second volume, and in 1835 by two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod, as well as by two volumes of miscellaneous prose entitled Arabesques. At this time Russian editors and critics such as Nikolai Polevoy and Nikolai Nadezhdin saw in Gogol the emergence of a Ukrainian, rather than Russian, writer, using his works to illustrate supposed differences between Russian and Ukrainian national characters. The themes and style of these early prose works by Gogol, as well as his later drama, were similar to the work of Ukrainian writers and dramatists who were his contemporaries and friends, including Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko and Vasily Narezhny. However, Gogol’s satire was much more sophisticated and unconventional.

At this time, Gogol developed a passion for Ukrainian history and tried to obtain an appointment at the history department at Kiev University. Despite the support of Pushkin and Sergey Uvarov, the Russian minister of education, his appointment was blocked by a Kyivan bureaucrat on the grounds that Gogol was unqualified.] His fictional story Taras Bulba, based on the history of Ukrainian cossacks, was the result of this phase in his interests. During this time he also developed a close and lifelong friendship with another Ukrainian, the historian and naturalist Mykhaylo Maksymovych.

In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the ‘historian’ had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final oral examinations, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor examined the students. This academic venture was such a failure that he resigned his chair in 1835.

Between 1832 and 1836 Gogol worked with great energy, and though almost all his work has in one way or another its sources in these four years of contact with Pushkin, he had not yet decided that his ambitions were to be fulfilled by success in literature. During this time, the Russian critics Stepan Shevyrev and Vissarion Belinsky, contradicting earlier critics, reclassified Gogol from a Ukrainian to a Russian writer. It was only after the presentation at the Saint Petersburg State Theatre, on 19 April 1836, of his comedy The Government Inspector (Revizor) that he finally came to believe in his literary vocation. The comedy, a violent satire of Russian provincial bureaucracy, was staged thanks only to the intervention of the emperor, Nicholas I.

From 1836 to 1848 Gogol lived abroad, traveling through Germany and Switzerland. He spent the winter of 1836–37 in Paris, among Russian expatriates and Polish exiles, frequently meeting the Polish poets Adam Mickiewicz and Bohdan Zaleski. He eventually settled in Rome. For much of the 12 years from 1836 Gogol was in Italy developing an adoration for Rome. He studied art, read Italian literature and developed a passion for opera. He mingled with Russian and other visitors, and in 1838 met Count Joseph Vielhorskiy, the 23-year-old son of the official who had brought Gogol’s Government Inspector to the attention of the emperor. Vielhorsky was travelling in hopes of curing his tuberculosis. Gogol and Vielhorsky fell in love, a relationship which was soon severed as Vielhorsky died in 1839. Gogol left an account of this time in his Nights at the Villa: “if my death could restore him to health, with what readiness I would have rushed toward it!”

Pushkin’s death produced a strong impression on Gogol. His principal work during years following Pushkin’s death was the satirical epic Dead Souls. Concurrently, he worked at other tasks – recast Taras Bulba and The Portrait, completed his second comedy, Marriage (Zhenitba), wrote the fragment Rome and his most famous short story, “The Overcoat”. In 1841 the first part of Dead Souls was ready, and Gogol took it to Russia to supervise its printing. It appeared in Moscow in 1842, under the title, imposed by the censorship, of The Adventures of Chichikov. The book instantly established his reputation as one of the greatest prose writers in Russian.

After the triumph of Dead Souls, Gogol’s contemporaries came to regard him as a great satirist who lampooned the unseemly sides of Imperial Russia. They were not aware that Dead Souls was but the first part of a planned modern-day counterpart to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first part represented the Inferno; the second part would depict the gradual purification and transformation of the rogue Chichikov under the influence of virtuous publicans and governors – Purgatory.

In April 1848 Gogol returned to Russia from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and passed his last years in wandering the country. While visiting cities he stayed with friends such as Mikhail Pogodin and Sergey Aksakov. During this period, he also spent some time with his old Ukrainian friends, Maksymovych and Osyp Bodiansky. He intensified his relationship with a starets (spiritual elder), Matvey Konstantinovsky, whom he had known for several years. Konstantinovsky seems to have strengthened in Gogol the fear of perdition by insisting on the sinfulness of all his imaginative work. Extensive and severe ascetic practices undermined his health and he fell into deep depression. On the night of 24th February 1852, he famously burned some of his manuscripts, which contained most of the second part of Dead Souls.

He later claimed this was a mistake, a practical joke played on him by the Devil. Soon thereafter, he took to bed, refused all food, and died in great pain nine days later (4th March).

Gogol was mourned in the Saint Tatiana church at the Moscow University before his burial and then buried at the Danilov Monastery. His grave was marked by a large stone (Golgotha), topped by a Russian Orthodox cross. In 1931, Moscow authorities decided to demolish the monastery and had Gogol’s remains transferred to the Novodevichy Cemetery. His body was discovered lying face down, which gave rise to the story that Gogol had been buried alive. The authorities moved the Golgotha stone to the new gravesite, but removed the cross; in 1952 the Soviets replaced the stone with a bust of Gogol. The stone was later reused for the tomb of Gogol’s admirer Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2009, in connection with the bicentennial of Gogol’s birth, the bust was moved to the museum at Novodevichy Cemetery, and the original Golgotha stone was returned, along with a copy of the original Orthodox cross.

Gogol is relatively easy to celebrate with specific dishes because his writings are filled with lush descriptions of food. He was also a joyous gourmet, despite the fact that he had habitual stomach ailments. In Italy, for example, he learned how to make Italian pasta dishes, which he often prepared for his friends. Pogodin recalls how Gogol’s spirits would rise whenever he had a chance to serve macaroni:

…right at dinner he would make the macaroni, not trusting anyone else to do it. He demanded a large bowl, and with the artistry of a true gastronome began to sort through the individual pieces of macaroni; he put into the steaming bowl some butter and grated cheese and mixed them together. Opening the lid, with an especially bright smile for everyone at the table he’d exclaim: “Now fight over this, people!”

When traveling, Gogol would sometimes buy fresh milk at the coach stops, skim off the cream, and churn his own butter. One of his favorite dishes was boiled goat’s milk mixed with rum, which he jokingly called gogol-mogol. Kogel mogel, gogl-mogl, gogel-mogel, gogol-mogol (Гоголь-моголь), gogli-mogli, or gogle-mogle is an egg-based homemade dessert popular in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Caucasus. The dish consists of raw egg yolks and sugar, beaten and ground until they form a creamy texture, with no discernible grains of sugar. In modern kitchens, it is often mixed in a blender until it changes color and becomes thick. A classic single Gogl-Mogl portion is made from two egg yolks and three teaspoons of sugar beaten into a cream-like dish. Variations can be made by adding chocolate, vodka, rum, honey, vanilla, lemon juice, orange juice, raisins, whipped cream, or a number of other ingredients based on taste preferences.

Then there is kulebiaka, or four-cornered pie. Here’s an excerpt from Gogol:

And bake us a four-cornered fish pie,” he said, sucking the air through his teeth and inhaling deeply. “In one corner I want you to put the sturgeon cheeks and the gristle cooked soft, in another throw in some buckwheat, and then some mushrooms and onions, and some sweet milt, and the brains, and whatever else, you know the sort of thing. And make sure that on the one side it’s, you know, a nice golden brown, but not so much on the other side. And the pastry, make sure it’s baked through, till it just crumbles away, so that the juices soak right through, do you see, so that you don’t even feel it in your mouth, so it just melts like snow.

Kulebiaka is a pie with four distinct fillings, distributed in such a way that a slice contains all four. Making it is a rigmarole, and I have never done it. Instead I give you this website which has complete instructions with a ton of photos showing the steps.

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Aug 202014


My good friend and colleague, Robert Fertitta – organist, music teacher, choral director, et al, has for some time asked me to write a post on the premiere of a musical piece. So as a sop to his request I present to you “The Year 1812, festival overture in E♭ major,” Op. 49, popularly known as the “1812 Overture,” an overture written in 1880 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate Russia’s defense of the motherland against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812. The overture debuted in Moscow on 20 August 1882, conducted by Ippolit Al’tani under a tent near the then unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, which also memorialized the 1812 defense of Russia. My apologies Robert, for my choice of works to honor your request with a piece I suspect you abhor. If so you are in good company. As a young boy I enjoyed the piece for no other reason than that I loved the novelty of live cannon (something which makes the piece an eternal favorite with audiences). Now with greater musical knowledge I consign it to my category “harmless spectacles.”

There is no question that Tchaikovsky himself disliked it. He expressed blank lack of enthusiasm on receipt of the original commission, which came to him in the summer of 1880 via his publisher, Jurgenson. In the following year, Jurgenson told him, there was to be an Arts and Industry Exhibition in Moscow, and Nikolai Rubinstein had been put in charge of organizing the music. Since Tchaikovsky was the most celebrated Russian composer of the day, it was natural that he should be approached to write something. Rubinstein gave him three options. It could be an overture to inaugurate the actual exhibition. It could be an overture to celebrate the silver jubilee of the tsar, Alexander II, who had acceded to the Russian throne in 1855. Or it could be a cantata to dignify the opening of the gigantic Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, a project that had been underway for decades but which was finally coming to fruition during the 1880s.

The original 19th-century cathedral project had been instigated as a commemoration of, and thanksgiving for, the 1812 Russian rout of Napoleon and the hungry, humiliated French army’s retreat from Moscow, a factor that seems at least to have put an idea into Tchaikovsky’s head. But he responded with open disdain to the notion that he should take it any further. ‘It is impossible to tackle without repugnance this sort of music which is destined for the glorification of something that, in essence, delights me not at all,’ he wrote to Jurgenson in July 1880. ‘Neither in the jubilee of the high-ranking person (who has always been quite antipathetic towards me), nor in the cathedral, which again I don’t like at all, is there anything that could stir my imagination.’ He continued to grumble about it throughout the year, writing to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck in the autumn, ‘There is nothing more antipathetic to me than composing for the sake of some festivities or other. What, for instance, might one write on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition apart from banalities and generally noisy passages?’ He added, however, ‘I do not have it in my heart to refuse such a request,’ reporting later that he had ‘diligently set about’ composing. He completed the 1812 in only a week. ‘I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and so it will probably be lacking in artistic merit,’ he told Mme von Meck in October 1880, although 18 months later he showed signs that a bit of characteristic equivocation was setting in. ‘I’m undecided’, he wrote to Jurgenson, ‘as to whether my overture is good or bad, but it is probably (without any false modesty) the latter.’

The 1812 Overture is scored for an orchestra that consists of:

Brass band (finale only)

Woodwinds: 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets in B♭ and 2 bassoons

Brass: 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in B♭, 2 trumpets in E♭, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass) and 1 tuba

Percussion: timpani, an orchestral bass drum, a snare drum, cymbals, a tambourine, a triangle, a carillon and cannon

Strings: first and second violins, violas, violoncellos, and double basses

The music can be interpreted as a fairly literal depiction of the campaign: in June 1812, the previously undefeated French Allied Army of over half a million battle-hardened soldiers and almost 1,200 state-of-the-art guns (cannons, artillery pieces) crossed the Niemen River into Lithuania on its way to Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of All the Russias, aware that the Russian Imperial Army could field a force only a fraction of this size, inexperienced and poorly equipped, called on the people to pray for deliverance and peace. The Russian people responded en masse, gathering in churches all across the Empire and offering their heartfelt prayers for divine intervention (the opening hymn). Next we hear the ominous notes of approaching conflict and preparation for battle with a hint of desperation but great enthusiasm, followed by the distant strains of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, as the French approach. Skirmishes follow, and the battle goes back and forth, but the French continue to advance and La Marseillaise becomes more prominent and victorious – almost invincible. The Tsar desperately appeals to the spirit of the Russian people in an eloquent plea to come forward and defend the Rodina (Motherland). As the people in their villages consider his impassioned plea, we hear traditional Russian folk music. La Marseillaise returns in force with great sounds of battle as the French approach Moscow. The Russian people now begin to stream out of their villages and towns toward Moscow to the increasing strains of folk music and, as they gather together, there is even a hint of celebration. Now, La Marseillaise is heard in counterpoint to the folk music as the great armies clash on the plains west of Moscow, and Moscow burns. Just at the moment that Moscow is occupied and all seems hopeless, the hymn O Lord, Save Thy People that opens the piece is heard again as God intervenes, bringing an unprecedented deep freeze the French cannot bear (the winter winds blow in the music). The French attempt to retreat, but their guns, stuck in the freezing ground, are captured by the Russians and turned against them. Finally, the guns are fired in celebration and church bells all across the land peal in grateful honor of their deliverance from their treacherous and cruel enemies.

It’s all highly contrived and sentimental, of course. For example, La Marseillaise was banned under Napoleon, and did not become the French national anthem until the 1870’s. But the tune evokes the right tone of French patriotic militarism. Make of the piece what you will. Here’s a decent rendition of the full work with live cannon:



Tchaikovsky frequently mentions kulebiaka in his correspondence as a favorite dish. It was created by French chefs in Russia, shortly after the War of 1812, and henceforth served to the gentry and nobility. It is complicated and time consuming to make, and so I give you a recipe (edited) from a Russian cook from this site:





4 cups all-purpose flour.
½ lb chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits.
6 tbs chilled vegetable shortening.
1 tsp salt.
10-12 tbs milk.
2 eggs.


½ cup whole milk.
1 cup coarsely chopped onions.
½ cup coarsely chopped celery.
1 cup scraped, coarsely chopped carrots.
2 ½ lbs fresh salmon.
8 tbs unsalted butter.
½ lb fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced.
3 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped.
salt and pepper.
1 tbs fresh dill, chopped.
1 cup sour cream.
½ cup unconverted, long-grain white rice.



In a large, chilled bowl, combine the flour, butter, shortening and salt. Working quickly, use your fingertips to rub the flour and fat together until they blend and resemble flakes of coarse meal. Pour 10 tablespoons of water over the mixture all at once, toss together lightly and gather into a ball. If the dough seems crumbly, add up to 2 tablespoons more ice water by drops. Divide the dough in half, dust each half with flour, and wrap them separately in wax paper. Refrigerate 3 hours, or until firm.

Combine 3 quarts of water, the milk, the coarsely chopped onion, celery, carrots, peppercorns, and 3 teaspoons of the salt in a 4-to 6-quart enameled or stainless steel casserole. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the salmon into the liquid and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 8 to 10 minutes, or until the fish is firm to the touch. With a slotted spatula, transfer the fish to a large bowl and separate it into small flakes with your fingers or a fork. Melt two tablespoons of butter in a heavy 10- to 12- inch skillet set over high heat. Add the mushrooms, reduce the heat to moderate and, stirring occasionally, cook for 3 -5 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft. With a slotted spoon, transfer the mushrooms to a small bowl and toss them with lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Melt 4 more tablespoons of butter on the skillet over high heat and drop in all but 1 tablespoon of finely chopped onions. Reduce the heat to moderate and, stirring occasionally, cook 3-5 minutes, or until the onions are soft but not brown. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper and with a rubber spatula, scrape into the mushrooms. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet over high heat. Drop in the remaining tablespoon of chopped onion, reduce the heat to moderate and stirring frequently, cook for 2-3 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Stir in the rice and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring almost constantly, until each grain is coated with butter. Pour in the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and cover the pan tightly. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 12 minutes, or until the water is completely absorbed and the rice is tender and fluffy. Off the heat, stir in the dill with a fork. Add the cooked mushrooms and onions, rice and the chopped hard-cooked eggs to the bowl of salmon and toss together lightly but thoroughly. Taste for seasoning.

Preheat oven to 400˚F. Place one ball of dough on a floured surface and roll it into a rough rectangle about 1-inch thick. Dust with flour and roll until the dough is about 1/8 inch thick, then trim it to a rectangle 7 inches wide and 16 inches long. Coat a large cookie sheet with 2 tablespoons of butter, drape the pastry over the rolling pin and unroll it over the cookie sheet. Place the filling along the length of the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border of dough exposed around it. With a pastry brush, brush the exposed rim of dough with the egg-yolk and cream mixture. Roll the other half of the dough into a rectangle about 9-inches wide and 18-inches long, drape over the pin and unroll over the filling. Seal the edges by pressing down hard with the back of a fork. Or use the fingertips or a pastry crimper to pinch the edges into narrow pleats. Cut out a 1-inch circle from the center of the dough. You may also gather the remaining pastry scraps into a ball, roll them out again, and with a cookie cutter or a small sharp knife, cut out decorative shapes such as leaves or triangles and decorate the top of the loaf. Coat the entire surface of the pastry with the remaining egg-yolk and cream mixture, place any pastry shapes on top, and refrigerate for 20-minutes. Pour 1 tablespoon melted butter into the opening of the loaf and bake the kulebiaka in the center of the oven for 1 hour, or until golden brown.

Serve at once, accompanied with a pitcher of melted butter or sour cream.