Salammbô (Mussorgsky)

Salammbô (Russian: Саламбо, Salambo [alternative title: The Libyan (Russian: Ливиец, Liviyets)]) is an unfinished opera in 4 acts by Modest Mussorgsky. The fragmentary Russian language libretto was written by the composer, and is based on the novel Salammbô (1862) by Gustave Flaubert, but includes verses taken from poems by Vasiliy Zhukovsky, Apollon Maykov, Aleksandr Polezhayev, and other Russian poets.[1]

Salammbô was Mussorgsky's first major attempt at an opera.[2] He worked on the project from 1863 to 1866, completing six numbers before losing interest.

Composition history

Gustave Flaubert

The Russian translation of Flaubert's 1862 novel was published serially in the Saint Petersburg journal Otechestvennye Zapiski in 1863, and was read with enthusiasm by the six members of the commune in which the composer was then living.[3] Mussorgsky was likely influenced in his choice of subject by having recently heard Aleksandr Serov's Judith, which premiered on 16 May 1863, and which shares with Salammbô an exotic setting and similar narrative details.[4]

The unfinished vocal score consists of three scenes and three separate numbers:

No. Completed Scene Description
1864-08 Act 1 Song: "Song of the Balearic Islander"
1866-04-10 Act 1 Chorus: "War Song of the Libyans"
1863-12-15 Act 2, Scene 2 Scene: The Temple of Tanit in Carthage
1864-11-10 Act 3, Scene 1 Scene: The Temple of Molokh
1864-11-26 Act 4, Scene 1 Scene: The Dungeon of the Acropolis
1866-02-08 Act 4, Scene 2 Chorus: [Chorus of Priestesses]

Two numbers (No.2 and No.5) were orchestrated by the composer.

The chorus of priestesses and warriors (Act 2, Scene 2, Episode 3: "After the theft of the Zaimph") is a reworking of the "Scene in the Temple: Chorus of the People", the only surviving number from Oedipus in Athens (1858-1861), Mussorgsky's earliest stage-work.[5][6]

In Mathô's monologue in the dungeon (the passage "I shall die alone"), the text is borrowed from the poem Song of the Captive Iroquois, by Alexander Polezhayev. The theme of this passage, accompanying a new text, was recycled in 1877 in the chorus Joshua [see Subsequent use of musical materials in this article for more details].[7]

Mussorgsky's orchestration in Salammbô is quite ahead of its time. One example of a modern idea is, in the projected scoring for the "Hymn to Tanit" (Act 2, Scene 2), the abundance and variety of percussion, in addition to a mixture of pianos, harps, and glockenspiels of a sort which only reappeared fifty years later.

Performance history

The first staged performance of Salammbô took place at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, on 29 March 1983 in a version revised and edited by Zoltán Peskó.[8] The work was repeated on 30 March and on 1, 2 and 6 April. It had originally been agreed that the role of Salammbô in these performances would be sung by Lyudmila Shemchuk and that of Mathô by Georgy Seleznev, but the Soviet authorities subsequently withdrew the exit visas of both singers,[9] and they were substituted by Annabelle Bernard and Boris Bakov respectively. Because of these enforced changes it was necessary to postpone the date of the premiere from 26 to 29 March.


Role Voice type Premiere, 29 March 1983,
Teatro di San Carlo, Naples
(Conductor: Zoltán Peskó)
The Balearic Islander baritone William Stone
Salambo (Salammbô), Hamilcar's daughter, chief priestess of Tanit mezzo-soprano Annabelle Bernard
Mato (Mathô), leader of the Libyan mercenaries bass Boris Bakov
Spendiy (Spendius), a freed slave, a mercenary leader baritone William Stone
Aminakhar (Aminachar), high priest of Molokh baritone Ferenc Berganij
1st Pentarch tenor Dimiter Petkov
2nd Pentarch bass Nicola Troisi
3rd Pentarch tenor
4th Pentarch bass
Libyan mercenaries, warriors, priestesses of Tanit, priests of Moloch, women, children, old men, people of Carthage



Time: 241 to 238 B.C., before and during the Mercenary Revolt.
Place: Carthage (in what is now Tunisia).

Act 1

Scene: Hamilcar's Garden in Carthage

Act 2

Scene 1:

Scene 2: The Temple of Tanit in Carthage

Act 3

Scene 1: The Temple of Moloch

Scene 2:

Act 4

Scene 1: The Dungeon of the Acropolis

Scene 2:

Subsequent use of musical materials

Mussorgsky reused much of the music from Salammbô in later works. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov gives the following account of thematic borrowing in his memoirs, Chronicle of My Musical Life (1909):

During the season of 1866-1867 I became more intimate with Mussorgsky. I used to visit him; he lived with his married brother Filaret, near the Kashin Bridge. He played me many excerpts from his opera Salambo, which greatly delighted me. Then also, I think, he played me his fantasy St. John's Eve, for piano and orchestra, conceived under the influence of the Danse Macabre. Subsequently the music of this fantasy, having undergone many metamorphoses, was utilized as material for A Night on Bald Mountain. He also played me his delightful Jewish choruses: The Rout of Sennacherib and Iisus Navin [Joshua]. The music of the latter was taken by him from Salambo. The theme of this chorus had been overheard by Mussorgsky from Jews who lived in the same house as Mussorgsky and who were celebrating the Feast of the Tabernacles. Mussorgsky also played me the songs which had failed with Balakirev and Cui. Among these were Kalistrat and the beautiful fantasy Night, on a text by Pushkin. The song Kalistrat was a forerunner of the realistic vein which Mussorgsky later made his own; the song Night was representative of that ideal side of his talent which he himself trampled into the mire, though still drawing on its reserve stock in emergency. This reserve stock had been accumulated by him in Salambo and the Jewish choruses, when he took but little thought of the coarse muzhik. Be it remarked that the greater part of his ideal style [in, for example, Boris Godunov], such as Tsar Boris's arioso, the phrases of Dmitriy at the fountain, the chorus in the boyar duma, the death of Boris, etc., were taken by him from Salambo. His ideal style lacked a suitable crystal-like finish and graceful form. This he lacked because he had no knowledge of harmony and counterpoint. At first Balakirev's circle ridiculed these needless sciences, and then declared them beyond Mussorgsky. And so he went through life without them and consoled himself by regarding his ignorance as a virtue and the technique of others as routine and conservatism. But whenever he did manage to obtain a beautiful and flowing succession of notes, how happy he was. I witnessed that more than once."[10]

The Song of the Balearic Islander (Russian: «Песнь балеарца», Pesn' baleartsa) was included by the composer in a collection of his juvenilia composed between 1857 and 1866 called Youthful Years (Russian: «Юные годы», Yunïye godï, 1866). The song is No. 17 in the series of manuscripts consisting of 17 songs and one duet.[11][12]

Several measures of Salammbô's dialogue with the crowd were used in the 1867 tone poem St. John's Eve on the Bare Mountain[13] (but appear rather to have been used in the later adaptation of this work, Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad, 1880):

Several musical themes from this project were recycled and played important roles in the composer's subsequent opera Boris Godunov (18691872). The borrowings concern the orchestral accompaniments only, which are fitted to new vocal lines. The correspondence in narrative detail, mood, or atmosphere in each case is often quite close:[14]

Seq. Scene Salammbô Seq. Scene Boris Godunov (Revised Version)
1 Act 2,
Scene 2
Salammbô: "Gentle Tanit" ('Ritual scena')
Act 4,
Scene 1
Boris: "From empyrean unassailable heights" (Prayer)
2 Act 2,
Scene 2
Chorus: "Go down to the dark meadow and forest" (in the 'Hymn to Tanit')
Act 3,
Scene 2
Dmitriy: "Tis you alone, Marina"
3 Act 2,
Scene 2
Mathô: "Divine, wondrous singing"
Act 3,
Scene 2
Dmitriy: "You wound my heart, cruel Marina"
4 Act 2,
Scene 2
Salammbô: "Away! Away from me!" (Salammbô's curse)
Act 4,
Scene 2
Vagabonds: "Gaida! Choke them! Throttle them!" (The lynching of the Jesuits)
5 Act 3,
Scene 1
High Priest: "Our sacred city is besieged"
Act 2 Boris: "Heavy is the right hand of the awesome judge" (Boris's arioso)
6 Act 3,
Scene 1
People: "Repel the daring foes from our walls"
Act 2 Boris: "In vain the astrologers foretell" (Boris's arioso)
7 Act 3,
Scene 1
Priests and people: "Glory to Moloch!" (Processional music)
Act 4,
Scene 2
Vagabonds: "Glory to the Tsarevich!" (Processional music)
8 Act 4,
Scene 1
Mathô: "You were under my heel" (describing Narr'Havas's treachery)
Act 4,
Scene 1
Shuysky: "Pale, bathed in a cold sweat" (describing Boris's hallucination)
9 Act 4,
Scene 1
Four priests of Moloch: "Glory to thee, all-powerful one!"
Act 4,
Scene 1
Orchestral introduction
10 Act 4,
Scene 1
The pentarchs sentence Mathô to execution
Act 4,
Scene 1
The boyars pass sentence on the Pretender

The War Song of the Libyans (Russian: «Боевая песнь Ливийцев», Boyevaya pesn' Liviytsev) from Act 1 became the basis of the chorus Iisus Navin (Russian: «Иисус Навин»), better known as Joshua, for alto, baritone, chorus, and piano, composed in 1877. An orchestral edition prepared by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was published in 1883. The theme of the middle section of Joshua, a solo for alto and a brief women's chorus, "The women of Canaan weep", said to be of Jewish origin by Vladimir Stasov and Rimsky-Korsakov, is based on part of Mathô's monologue in the dungeon, "I shall die alone" (Act 4, Scene 1).[15]

The 'Chorus of Priestesses' (Act 4, Scene 2) was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov (1884), and published and performed as an independent piece after Mussorgsky's death (1881).[16]

Versions by other hands

Zoltán Peskó was the first to orchestrate the rest of the numbers. Peskó claims to have found a Mussorgsky orchestration of No. 1 in the library of the Paris Conservatory, but this version has disappeared.[17]

Year Editor Type Notes
1980 Zoltán Peskó Orchestration Performance: 10 November 1980, Milan
1991 Vyacheslav Nagovitsin Orchestration Performance: 1991, Mérida


Year Cast:
High Priest)
Conductor and Orchestra Version Label
1980 Ludmilla Shemchuk,
Georgiy Seleznev,
William Stone,
Giorgio Surjan
Zoltán Peskó
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano della Radiotelevisione Italiana,
(Recording of a concert performance on 10 November of the six remaining scenes (3 of which were orchestrated by the conductor)
Peskó LP: CBS Masterworks,
Cat. #:79253 (UK); MZ 36939 (USA)[18]
1991 Olga Borodina,
Bulat Minzhilkiev,
Valeriy Lebed,
Vladimir Ognovienko
Valery Gergiev
Kirov Orchestra and Chorus
2003 Irina Makarova,
Mikhail Dyakov,
Andreas Schulist
Mstislav Rostropovich
Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Augsburger Domsingknaben



  1. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pg. 97)
  2. Lloyd-Jones (1974: pg. 2)
  3. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pg. 18)
  4. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pg. 98)
  5. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pp. 95, 102)
  6. Orlova, Pekelis (1971: pg. 41)
  7. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pp. 106, 182-183)
  8. In-house theatre programme: Salammbô di Modest Musorgskij: Prima esecuzione mondiale in forma scenica. Naples, Teatro San Carlo, 1983.
  9. "Cambiano i cantanti per «Salammbô»." L’Unità, 10 March 1983, p. 13.
  10. Rimsky-Korsakov (1923: pp. 73-74)
  11. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pp. 64-65)
  12. Taruskin (1993: pg. 55)
  13. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: p. 105)
  14. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pp. 99-106)
  15. Calvocoressi, Abraham (1974: pp. 106, 182-183)
  16. Lloyd-Jones (1984: pg. 3)
  17. Tedeschi
  18. Recording source:


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