Unlike some now more famous Russian composers of his time, Nápravnik was well trained in music. He was a modest man, well aware of his gifts and limitations, and very keen on professionalism. Composing music had to be done during the summer holidays. His compositions, including four symphonies, are now forgotten, although most were performed during his life-time. Nápravnik’s friend Peter Tchaikovsky tried in vain to persuade the publisher Jurgenson to print Nápravnik’s third and fourth symphony.
However, Dubrovsky (1895) was an enduring success. The vocal score was reprinted in Moscow in 1972. The libretto does not follow Pushkin’s original closely. The story is about a young man, Vladimir Dubrovsky, who wants to revenge his father’s death. Of course, he falls in love with his adversary’s daughter, Masha. At the end of the opera, the police, who wants Vladimir for arson, is close on his heels. He gets the opportunity to sing a long duet with Masha before being shot. Masha’s father enters to find his now insane daughter with Dubrovsky’s body. Although this ending recalls Tchaikovsky’s Mazepa, Dubrovsky has more in common with The Queen of Spades. The pair of lovers, Vladimir and Masha, reminds one of the pair Herman and Liza. It is perhaps ironical that Nápravnik, who gave Tchaikovsky such good advice on The Oprichnik, was not able to profit from his example.
Nápravnik is, of course, mentioned in all books about Russian music, but not primarily as a composer. The most important source for this article was the biography by his son Vladimir Eduardovitch, who died in 1948. Vladimir always wanted his book to be published in Russia, which was finally achieved in 1991 (ISBN 5-7140-0412-4).
(In the Julian calender the Birth date is 12 August 1839 and death date is 10 November 1916.)
Eduard Frantsovitch Nápravnik is best known for his leading role in Russian musical life as the principal conductor of St. Petersburg for over fifty years. His accomplishments as a composer justify his inclusion in a composers database. However, this restriction to his compositions does no justice to his great merits for Russian music.
Eduard Nápravnik was born in Beischt, Bohemia, as the second son of a school teacher. When he was eleven years old, his mother died and Eduard and his brother Karl were sent to an aunt. Their father died only three years later leaving the boys penniless. An uncle found him a position as organ player in a local church to earn his keep. In 1854 he entered the Prague Organ School, but after finishing its two year’s course, he could no afford to study at the Conservatory. However, its director, J.F. Kittl, recognizing the talents of the boy, allowed him to attend the daily opera class and even gave him private theory lessons. In 1861 Kittl found him a post as second conductor of the Frankfurt Opera, but at the same time he received an offer from Russia. His brother having died shortly before, he had no relatives left and decided to accept the post of conductor of the private orchestra of Prince Yusupov in St. Petersburg. After a few years he found a job at the Mariinsky Theatre which proved crucial to his career.
Meanwhile he was writing music. His first opera, Nizhegorodzy (1867), was composed as a pot-boiler. After the big hits Judith (1863) and Rogneda (1865) by Serov, who was not known as a composer before, every Russian musician tried to make a fast ruble by writing an opera. Nápravnik, being a young family father, was no exception. His increasing duties as a conductor left him hardly any time to supply his small salary with income from private lessons. Nizhegorodzy did reasonably well and achieved its purpose. Unfortunately, it also lead to an estrangement between him and the young Rimsky-Korsakov (to be explained elsewhere).
In 1869 Nápravnik succeeded both Konstantin Lyadov as first conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre and Balakirev as conductor of the Russian Musical Society. He also organised concerts at the Imperial Court, at which he appeared as pianist and organist as well. Although he could not find the time to accept a position at the Petersburg Conservatory, he lectured regularly. Nápravnik was a great help to up-and-coming composers. He advised Tchaikovsky on The Oprichnik, the first of Tchaikovsky’s operas to be successful. His advice on the scoring proved practical and he made sensible suggestions about cuts to speed up the action.
Thus, he occupied an influential position in Russian musical life, where he felt at home. In 1874 Nápravnik acquired Russian citizenship and he seldom travelled abroad. One of Dostoyevsky’s characters says: "Mr. Nápravnik is our well-known Russian orchestra conductor" (The Brothers Karamazov, book 2, chapter 2). Nápravnik’s next opera, Harold (1884) is reputedly his most personal work, Its failure is attributed to the gloomy story, set in the England of William the Conqueror. For Dubrovsky (1894) he asked Modeste Tchaikovsky to write a libretto after Pushkin, as Modeste had done for his brother Peter (The Queen of Spades). This time Nápravnik scored a lasting success (see Works). His last opera, Francesca da Rimini (1902) after Dante, did not survive its first successful performances. In December 1914, after more than fifty years in a leading role in Russian musical life, ill health forced Nápravnik to stop conducting. He died in November 1916.
In May 1917, his family went abroad and eventually settled in Belgium. Only one of Eduard Nápravnik’s daughters remained in her father’s house in Peterburg. She took care of his huge archive and occasionally sent documents to her family in Belgium.