The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and the Works It Has Inspired

In A.D. 1185, as the Kievan Rus Empire was starting to deteriorate, a little known prince on the eastern Russian borders led his outnumbered men into battle against Mongolian invaders, the Polovtsians (Kumans). This battle and its aftermath would become the topic of the Russian literary epic, “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign.” Its conclusion was not what one would expect; the hero was not a fearless Beowulf, a mighty Roland, nor even a betrayed Siegfried. Igor Sviatoshlavich's only claim to fame resulted from a bad military decision stemming perhaps from cockiness, pride or stupidity. Yet, its outcome remained true to the great epic form; the ending was not an overwhelmingly happy victory or love affair. Rather, it was subdued with a ray of hope that things would be better in the future.

As a frontier prince, it was Igor Sviatoshlavich’s job to protect his domains (Novgorod-Seversk) and consequently the rest of Russia from invasion. Igor’s defeat and capture in 1185 (he eventually escaped) was not a major military set-back, but for the literary world it would constitute a small but persistent thematic thread in musical presentation after Musin Puskin rediscovered the lost lay in 1792.[1]

The three works inspired by the lay were all named Prince Igor: Borodin’s opera, Serge de Diaghilev’s ballet, and the Soviet musical movie that combined and elaborated upon both the opera and ballet, creating one huge cinematic feat. This paper will examine the changes “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” has undergone both in the narrative of events and the development of the persona over the last 200 years. Part I, the larger part of this paper, will provide a historical background (on the authors and the works) as well as synopses of all four versions to show the evolution of Igor's narrative. Part II will provide a brief discussion of seven characters that reflect the traditional “Russian soul:” endurance, composure, pride and determination.

There are two translations of Igor’s tale: “The Lay of Igor's Campaign,” which will be used for this paper, and “The Lay of the Host of Igor,” which is more poetical and prone to flourishes while limiting the substance. Although the copy of the lay that Pushkin found was lost when Napoleon burned Moscow, his attempted translation had been published and so survived the War of 1812.[2] Pushkin’s translation contained some confusing passages.[3] In the 1940's, S.D. Likhachev attempted to retranslate “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign,” from Pushkin’s translation, in an attempt to clarify it.[4] One portion that did not need to be clarified was the very beginning where an eclipse is mentioned as being a bad omen. This solar eclipse occurred on May 01, 1185, and was recorded in the Novgorod Chronicle for that year, although, ironically, Igor’s campaign is not mentioned at all.[5] The battle that Igor commanded was part of a larger war headed by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav Vsevolodich, who had defeated and captured a large part of the Polovtsians in 1184.[6] Khun Konchak, leader of the Polvtsians, who will center importantly in all the works dealing with Igor, had united the Polovtsians in 1171, and was called “The Wild Polovtsy.”[7] He disrupted Russian life and pillaged towns on the frontier during the 1170's and 1180's.[8] The actual date of the lay’s composition is unknown, but there are two likely possibilities: in 1187, the year Igor returned from captivity, or between 1194 and 1196. The latter period is more likely because Igor, his brother, Vsevolod (d.1196), and Igor’s son, Oleg/Vladimir, are wished long glorious lives, but the Grand Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav, who died in 1194, is not mentioned.[9]

“The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” is broken down into fifteen parts with each focusing on a different segment of the battle’s story. There are also frequent jumps within the narrative. We are told that Igor is a brave and courageous man preparing his men for battle. But before leaving Putivl there is an eclipse that the people interpret as a bad omen. Igor is apparently not superstitious and he tells his men that it is better to die in battle than to be captured. He then hastens to add that they will defeat the Kumans (Polovtsians) on their own land near the Don River. He is carried away with ambition and invents a ballad in his own honor. Then Igor’s brother, Vsevolod, arrives and tells Igor that his men are ready, and inquires about the readiness of Igor’s men. Igor climbs up onto his golden saddle and leads his men into battle. During the march, other bad omens are seen but again Igor is not concerned. The Russians are led to the Don River by Igor and Vsevolod, while, simultaneously, the Kumans are moving towards them. The Russians easily crush the enemy and take lots of booty. On the second day of battle, there are two Kuman Khuns; Gzu (Gzak) and Konchak, and they attack the four Russian princes (Igor, his son Oleg/Vladimir, Igor’s brother, Vsevolod, and Igor’s nephew, Sviatoslav). The Kumans surround all the Russians. The bravery of Vsevolod is highlighted, and even though his death is implied it is not clearly stated. The narrative then shockingly switches to a history of a feud among the Russian princes led by Igor’s grandfather, Oleg Sviatoslavovich. Again, there is a leap in the narrative back to the battle with the Russians holding out for several days before Igor is forced to surrender and apparently mourn the death of his brother.

The narrative again strays from Igor to a battle from 1183 or 1184 in which Igor’s cousin, the Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav III, captures Khun Kobiak. Suddenly, we are inside Sviatoslav III’s head where he dreams of his funeral. Another jump in the narrative shows Sviatoslav mourning the defeat and Igor’s capture. Sviatoslav is upset that they were so greedy for honor and did not wait for him to send re-enforcements. Now, for some unknown reason, Sviatoslav is unable to send help and none of the other Russian princes will help Igor. As the lay is coming to an end, the reader learns that Igor is married and his wife is still a pagan. Yaroslavna (she is introduced as Euphrosinia) invokes the three forces of nature (wind, river, and sun) to save her husband. Returning to Igor, we learn that God has helped Igor escape through the assistance of Igor’s servant, Ovlur, who helps him get away from the Kumans. When he and Ovlur reach the Donets River, it speaks to Igor and assures him he will have joy yet, while Igor tells the river how nice and pleasant it is to be near it. Meanwhile, the Khuns, Gzu and Konchak, search for Igor, whose son, Oleg/Vladimir, is still their prisoner. Gzu (Gzak) wishes to kill Igor’s son Oleg/Vladimir, but Konchak thinks it would be better to entice him into marrying one of their maidens. Igor returns home and goes to the church that holds an icon of the Holy Virgin of Pirogoshch. The bard Boyan is quoted as saying that just as much as a body needs its head so does a country need its prince and so all of Russia rejoices when Igor returns home.[10] The lay ends on a very happy note when Igor returns to lead his countrymen again, even though his son remains a captive. After “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” was translated by Pushkin, it became popular in nationalistic circles and offered vast potential for composers of musical mediums.

In 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, the opera Prince Igor, by the then late Alexander Borodin, was staged for the first time.[11] Alexander Borodin was not a composer by profession, but by choice and for leisure. After Borodin's first musical composition
was published in 1862, the critic Vladimir Stasov convinced Borodin to write a nationalistic opera about Prince Igor, with Stasov's assistance writing the operatic outline.[12] It was Stasov who coined the moniker “The Great Five,” of whom Borodin was one.[13] When Borodin died in 1887, he had not completed Prince Igor and so his close friend and fellow composer, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and his two assistants, Liadov and Glazunov, finished it.[14] Because Vladimir Stasov was the man who provided Borodin with a story-line for the opera, it was very likely he, and not Borodin, who drastically changed the opera from the lay. Very little of the lay was included in the opera, except for the eclipse, Igor’s capture, and his escape. The lay’s marginal characters: Igor’s son, wife, and his servant Ovlar, were given greater importance, while the girl that Khun Konchak wanted Igor’s son to marry becomes the Khun’s own daughter. Stasov and Borodin added several characters: Galitsky, the brother of Igor’s wife, who apparently replaces Igor’s brother and nephew; boyars (noblemen); and two deserters from Igor’s army, who provide comic relief. Igor’s cousin, the Grand Prince of Kiev, has been eliminated completely, despite his importance in the lay. The lay gave Igor’s son two names, Oleg and Vladimir, and Igor’s second wife is also known by two names, Euphrosinia and Yaroslavna. In the opera, ballet, and Soviet movie they are known as Vladimir and Yaroslavna. Despite the opera changing almost every aspect of the lay, the feeling remains pro-Igor and sympathetic to the Russians.

The opera starts with a prologue in the town of Putivl and shows Igor and his men preparing to leave. There is an eclipse which alarms Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, and the people, who beg him to stay. Two men desert. In Act One Igor’s debauched brother-in-law, Galitsky, is seen singing with his followers and the two deserters while bragging how he, Galitsky, abducted a young girl from her house. The girl’s friends enter asking Galisky to let her free. The maidens are mocked and shooed out. Galitsky’s followers claim that they will make him prince and get rid of Igor. Meanwhile, in her room, Yaraslavna is dreaming of evil tidings when the maidens rush in to beg the release of their friend. They leave in a hurry when Galitsky enters. He begrudgingly agrees to his sister’s demand that he return the girl to her home. On Galitsky’s heels comes bad news from Igor’s boyars that they have returned from the battlefield to tell Yaroslavna that Igor and his son, Vladimir, have been defeated and taken prisoner. As they finish delivering this news, an alarm is sounded that Polovtsians are attacking the city. ...

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