Here are just a few thoughts to share because I’ve been puzzled by The Spectre’s Bride.
I’ve been asking myself why people in the nineteenth century would have gone to listen to a piece like The Spectre’s Bride. One answer to my question was that people wanted an exciting evening out with a few thrills and shivers accompanied by Dvorak’s great music. There were, of course, no streaming TV services with ghoulish, hyper-realistic special effects that we can enjoy at home. So, The Spectre’s Bride was great entertainment.
Entertaining the nineteenth century audience was certainly part of the reason for The Spectre’s Bride. Poetry was big in that century. And the narrative poem was a feature of the times. Think of Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Evangeline, Whittier’s Snowbound.
But more than this, it seems that the story of The Spectre’s Bride and variations on it had themes that gripped people. A little proof of this is that I read in Chorus Notes today that Washington Irving had written a story The Spectre Bridegroom about a living man who impersonates a dead one in order to win over the dead man’s fiancee.
Recently, I read Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin (translation by Roger Clarke). The epigraph to Chapter Five is “My Svetlana, be you spared/all such dreadful nightmares.” The translator’s notes tell me that this quote is from the ballad Svetlana by a Russian poet Zhukovsky which reworked an earlier German ballad called Lenore. In the Russian poem the heroine Svetlana wants her absent lover to come home. But, unlike Dvorak’s prayerful heroine, Svetlana conjures him up by magic. The lover returns and carries her back to his grave. But it’s all a nightmare, and Svetlana wakes up.
Also, recently, I read The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. At the end, one of the main characters, Parfim Rogozhin, murders the gorgeous Nastasya Flipovna. She had begged him to carry her away from her impending wedding with Prince Myshkin who is the idiot of the title. So, Rogozhin and she go off while she is about to start for the church and is dressed in her wedding gown. What was so interesting is that Rogozhin rips the wedding dress into bits that surround Nastasya’s modestly laid out corpse. Aren’t there bits of wedding finery scattered over the graveyard in The Spectre’s Bride? So now I wonder if Rogozhin was a kind of spectre groom and whether the story of Svetlana, Lenore, or whoever rang a bell in Dostoyevsky’s mind when he wrote the chapter.
And by the way I just saw again a creepy old Italian movie from the early 60s called Blood and the Body. It’s about another one of these guys who comes back from the dead to meet up with that special someone!
So, what are the themes of these Spectre stories that gripped people? Is it a sense of loss and a desire to retrieve the lost person? Is it a lesson about the danger of obsession. Is it the lesson that the retrieval will fail no matter what? The lesson that we shouldn’t even try?