Music and politics with Rimsky-Korsakov and John Adams

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Monday, October 7, 2019

On today’s date* in 1909, “The Golden Cockerel,” the last opera of the Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had its premiere in Moscow. Rimsky-Korsakov had died the previous year, after a bitter battle with government censors who objected to the opera’s thinly disguised satire against the bumbling administration of Czarist Russia. For the premiere, the censors won — the opera was performed with all the changes that Rimsky-Korsakov had so stubbornly resisted while alive.

The original text was not restored until after the Russian revolution of 1917.

Closer to our own time, in October of 1987, American composer John Adam’s “Nixon in China,” debuted at Houston Grand Opera. Alice Goodman’s libretto depicts the historic visit to Red China of President Nixon and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Adams says he was completely indifferent to what the real-life personages in his opera might have thought of it.

No government censors objected, in any case, but Adams said that Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Leonard Garment, did attend a performance of “Nixon in China,” and probably reported back to the former President. Nixon’s reaction is not known — nor that of Henry Kissinger. We’re happy to report, however, that according to John Adams, Leonard Garment DID subsequently became something of a fan of his music.

COMPOSERS DATEBOOK is produced by APM, American Public Media, in conjunction with the American Composers Forum, reminding you that "all music was once new."

*Julian calendar date September 24.