Modest Musorgsky


Musorgsky bibliography

Musorgsky discography

Modest Musorgsky (Mussorgsky, Moussorgski, Moussorgsky) is the most unexpected and least prolific of the great composers -- a self-taught amateur who was widely thought to be incompetent. Only five of his larger works, plus a few songs, are commonly performed, and there are only a handful of other pieces of much interest.

In fact, it could be denied that he is a major composer at all.  However, the works of his which are played are all masterpieces, and Boris Godunov might be the greatest of all operas. Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky studied his supposed musical mistakes, and with their help were able to escape from the suffocating Germanic orthodoxy which had cursed European music since Beethoven's death. From our vantage it is sometimes hard to see what the talk of incompetence and  originality was all about, but Mussorgsky has a strong individual flavore and still remains listenable and interesting, whereas most of his European contemporaries do not. (Musorgsky had much in common with my other XIXc musical hero, Erik Satie.)

By and large, Mussorgsky wrote the librettos for his two operas himself (based on quite a thorough study of the historical sources), and he still has not been given full credit for his strengths in this regard. A close reading of either of his operas shows him to be as dark and sardonic as his master Gogol. Both operas end in despair for Russia, and in them the most villainous players make the most pious pronouncements.  In either opera, when you hear a gorgeous musical passage you can almost be sure that it has a barbed meaning -- most are sung on command by slaves or lackeys who clearly are really thinking something quite different. Musorgsky called himself a musical realist, but like Gogol's, his realism was grotesque.

Musorgsky II:

Dark Realism

Musorgsky's most gorgeous music is to be found in the choruses of his operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, but in the context of the operas as a whole, the choruses always have an ironic twist. In diametrical opposition to his contemporary Tchaikovsky (who was perhaps the first pop composer), Musorgsky aspired to realism and did not trust beauty. Musorgsky was personally associated with political progressives and narodniks (populists), and the "Kuchka" school to which he belonged was slavophile (more or less), but the only label Musorgsky ever explicitly accepted was "realist".

His new, less artificial way of setting words to music, following Dargomyzhky's example  and probably inspired by the progressive pamphleteer Chernyshevsky, was most notably seen in his unrecorded experimental opera The Wedding, and this has been the most-discussed aspect of his realism. However, I think that the realism of his librettos is much more striking. While Musorgsky had collaborators, he did extensive independent research for Khovanshchina, and had the final say in both librettos. One critic, Prince Mirsky, described Musorgsky as "the greatest Russian tragic poet of the period".

Musorgsky's was a sardonic national realism like Gogol's, verging on the grotesque.  Musorgsky's nationalism, like much Russian nationalism, often had an odd flavor of hopelessness. Perhaps this is because Russia was an imperial oppressor and could not claim victimhood, so that an inward, self-flagellating turn was necessary:

"Our beloved homeland.... Your oppression comes not from afar -- no remote and evil foe...."

(Khovanshchina, Act I, p. 62). 

 Khovanshchina concludes with the self-immolation of the saintly but doomed Old Believers, and at the end of Boris we hear  the Holy Fool:

"Darkness blacker than night -- woe, woe, oh Rus"

(Boris, Act IV, scene 3, p. 132).

 Musorgsky is not usually thought of as a poet of blackness, but if you pay attention to his librettos you can see that that's what he is.

Musorgsky used peasant themes more than any other Russian composer of that time, but his treatment of the common people, either as individuals or in ensemble, was neither optimistic nor edifying. In Musorgsky's two major operas, as Musorgsky's friend Stasov complained, only a handful of non-clergy commoners appear outside the choruses.  In Boris, there were the  peasant Mitiukha, the innkeeper, the two rogues Varlaam and Misail, and two policemen. In Khovanshchina, there were the drunken Kuzka, Golytsin's craven servant, and the bigoted Susannah. There is not an admirable character among them -- all are either thuggish,  vindictive, corrupt, craven, or visibly stupid.

It's in the choruses, however, that Musorgsky's dark political vision can most clearly be seen. The glorious choral songs of mourning and praise at the beginning of Boris are intensely affecting, but the action very explicitly tells us that the singers have been coerced, and that they neither know nor care what they're singing about. Much the same can be said of the folkish songs of Marina's attendants in Boris and of Khovansky's peasant girls in Khovanshchina. (Oddly, both Khovansky and Marina reject the lovely songs that they are offered. Is this to be taken as evidence of their bad character -- or was Musorgsky obliquely telling us that he had himself grown a bit tired of folkishness?) In Khovanshchina the Muscovite chorus enters singing a smutty nonsense chorus; later on they bully the clerk, cynically excusing themselves by saying

"No need to be frightened, we're only peasants, poor and simple"

(Khovanshchina, Act I, p. 56).

 In this opera the odious, brutal streltsy are also get long stretches of jolly music.  Finally, at the end of Boris the populace descends into confused thuggishness, bullying the Holy Fool, the boyar Khrushchev, and the Jesuit priests, while at the same time praising the usurping False Dmitri -- a Catholic pawn -- under the mistaken impression that he is a staunch defender of Orthodoxy. (It is a general rule in both operas that the crowds don't really know what's going on and are controlled by blind impulse).

For Musorgsky realism came first, and he refused to offer false hope. With the possible exception of the offstage Peter the Great in Khovanshchina,  there are no genuinely positive characters in either of his politically-themed operas. The big players are all terribly flawed: though they all purport to love Russia and perhaps really do, their acts are sly, dishonest and often vicious. The common people, meanwhile, are servile, blind, and brutish -- the sufferers and patients of history, but not in any sense the agents. As in Tolstoy, there are really no agents here: fatalism is pervasive, and both operas seem to portray a cyclic pattern or usurpation and murder (an unsuccessful one in the case of the Khovanskys). Yet the choruses, without being agents,  are protagonists in Mussorgsky's operas, and not just mouthpieces for history or for the author: they represent suffering Russia. Their ability to produce beauty from wretchedness and servility is both a triumph of the human spirit, and an example of the dilemma of the powerless, socially-aware artist, dedicated both to art and to truth, who lives under a blind, unshakable  government which will never listen.

After well over a century, Musorgsky has not yet found his audience. The generic opera audience  loves pretty music in an exotic setting, and Musorgsky gives them that. (In his defense, it should be pointed out that the audiences of his time found the music harsh). But Musorgsky's best  listeners probably have not heard him, because they despise escapism and prettiness -- just as Musorgsky did. His operas are precursors of contemporary anti-art, and Musorgsky (trapped in the "nightmare of history") was an early prophet of political despair. Like his monk Pimen, Musorgsky spoke to the future: 

"One day a hard-working monk will discover my painstaking, anonymous work.... and after wiping the centuries-old dust off the charters, will copy out my truthful narrations."

(Boris, Act I, scene 1, p.51).


The Interpretation of Khovanshchina

A number of difficulties make any interpretations of Khovanshchina doubtful. First, the opera was unfinished -- its present form is due to Rimsky-Korsakoff and other editors, who had to reconstruct most of the last half of the work. Second, while the opera assumes considerable background knowledge of the events portrayed, it is not completely faithful to the historical facts. 

The opera shows the last days of the adversaries of young Peter the Great: the old-fashioned boyar Ivan Khovansky (and his streltsy),  Golitsyn the modernizer (who was Peter's enemy only because of his close association with Peter's half-sister and rival ), and Dosifei and his fundamentalist Old Believers. Peter had to be off-stage throughout because of a censor's ruling, but he is represented musically by offstage trumpet fanfares and by the overture theme, "Dawn Over Moscow". (Leaving an absolutist ruler in the background as a distant, unknown power is actually quite appropriate; absolutist rulers did not try to establish a personal bond with their subjects).

Some think that the religious groups in Musorgsky's operas are to be taken as the positive figures: Pimen, Dosifei, the minstrels and hermits in Boris, and the Old Believers in Khovanshchina. The prominent place given the Old Believers in  Khovanshchina makes it possible to believe that they are the real heroes of the piece, but I doubt this (though they do represent suffering Russia). In Khovanshchina the pious Old Believer Dosifei goes on bended knee to beg the support to the brutish conspirator Ivan Khovansky (as well as Khovansky's worthless failed-rapist son Andrei, whose father wants to make him czar). In Boris, the devious Shiusky uses the saintly Pimen is to demoralize Boris -- for the sake of a usurper whom Pimen well knows is an utter fraud. What we know about Musorgsky tells us that he was an admirer of Charles Darwin with positivist sympathies, and while it is clear that he appreciated the dramatic possibilities the Old Believers brought to his opera, it seems doubtful to me that he sympathized with their vision in any real way.

In Rimsky-Korsakov's version at least, one of the Peter themes is heard at the very end of the opera, making it possible to give the work a rather grotesquely optimistic interpretation when the fanatical Old Believers go to their fiery deaths. The last two acts put together are only a little longer than the first act standing alone, and there's no way of knowing what the lost material might have been. I suspect that in the completed opera the Old Believers would not have dominated the ending the way they do now. But we will never know. 


I have used the libretto of the Rostropovich version of Boris Godunov, and the Khovanshchina libretto found in Jennifer Batchelor and Nicholas John's  Khovanshchina (Calder / English National Opera, 1994). I cannot read Russian and have had to rely on the translations, though occasionally deciphering the Cyrillic has allowed me to clear up a point.

Link to Musorgsky: Dark Realism

Musorgsky III:


Musorgsky was of aristocratic descent and grew up in comfort, but after 1861, when the czar ordered that the serfs be freed and given land, Musorgsky (who was 22 at the time) received very little income from the family property. Against the advice of friends, he had already renounced his military commission in order to dedicate himself to music, but he made very little money from music either. As a result, he was forced to take a poorly-paid civil service position. The position he got was not a sinecure, though he was treated very leniently by some of his supervisors. His rank was "titular counselor", but what he actually was was a clerk, copyist, or scribe -- more or less the equivalent of a typist, or even of a photocopy machine.

In old Russia where Musorgsky's great operas were set, as in medieval Europe, clerks and scribes had a unique, ambiguous status -- not peasants, not nobles (boyars), not soldiers, and not really clergy -- though their education almost always was religious:

"Pretty much the only education available in Muscovy was churchly, and most government officials, even high-ranking ones,outside of the Foreign Office were illiterate, so the scribe played an important role (but was also the object of suspicion).....  the pod'yachie [scribes] were notorious for bribe-taking and general chicanery.

(Steve at

In an illiterate world, scribes had a degree of power, but they also were mistrusted, and like Jews, were not able to defend themselves.

Musorgsky's nameless clerk (pod'yachii) in Khovanshchina is not much discussed in what I've read, but I think that he is one of Musorgsky's best-drawn characters and is also a key to the understanding of the opera. (In the Bolshoi version he is very well played by Vitaly Vlasov). Both dramatically and musically Musorgsky very effectively portrays the clerk's obsequiousness, venality, fearfulness, and impotent resentment. 

At the very beginning of Khovanshchina, the clerk enters just after the thuggish streltsy policemen have finished bragging about the scribe that they had just killed:

"The old clerk (dyaku)  of the council had his whole chest slashed open with a hatchet"

Khovanshchina, Act I, p. 48

He ignores the streltsy taunts as best he can and sets up to do business. He writes out a dangerous letter of accusation for Shaklovity, reluctantly reads a police  proclamation to the Muscovite crowd (which also bullies him), and then leaves in a hurry when the arrival of Shaklovity's enemy Khovansky is announced. Later on Khovansky, representing the old aristocracy, accuses the reformer Golitsyn of having made the boyars  "equal to the serfs" and "the laughingstock of the clerks (dyakam)" (Act II, p. 82). Later, however, this "lowly scribe who scratches and scribbles" will have the pleasure (which he dissimulates very well) of telling the roistering streltsy that Peter's foreign soldiers had attacked the streltsy quarter -- in effect, that they are all doomed (Act III, p. 104).

Pimen, the scribe in Boris Godunov (a monk) likewise brings the bad news to Boris: a shepherd had had a miraculous vision of the child Boris had murdered in order to attain the throne.  Earlier Pimen had been seen recording Boris's crime for future ages:

One day a hard-working monk will discover my painstaking, anonymous work; he will light his lamp like I used to, and after wiping the centuries-old dust off the charters, will copy out my truthful narrations.

Boris Godunov, Act I, p. 51

By Mussorgsky's time the clerk was just a low-paid civil servant, without the clerical connection and also without the ancient clerks' marginal, slightly dangerous reputation. But perhaps Musorgsky nonetheless felt some affinity with the clerks in his drama. Like the clerk in Khovanshchina, he witnessed events he was powerless to affect. Like Pimen, he wrote for future generations.

Mussorgsky's operas paint a dark picture: the commoners are brutes who do not understand what's happening to them and only suffer history, whereas the real players in the game are sly, dishonest, selfish, and ruthless. Pimen and the clerk are the third term, and represent that familiar figure, the powerless intellectual who sees clearly but cannot act. An resentful intellectual with delusions:

"He knows nothing of the power I have....and I, a lowly servant, can still outwit him".

Khovanshchina, Act I, p. 56, (clerk speaking).

Link to Musorgsky: Clerks

Musorgsky IV:

The Female Roles

In his own life Musorgsky  was charming and courtly and had several close female friends, but he never married and had no apparent romantic entanglements, so standard  speculations about his sexuality naturally arose. Right now, however, I will limit myself to the operas.

The first version of Boris Godunov (1869) included no major role for a female singer, but only three very small parts (for the innkeeper, for Boris's daughter, and for the children's nurse).  Primarily for this reason, the first version was refused and sent back to Musorgsky, who cheerfully added a prima donna role and two whole new acts. In Khovanshchina there was no such problem: the much-admired role of Marfa was there from the beginning, and while the Lutheran girl Emma's dramatic role is terribly one-dimensional, she does at least get to show off her voice.

Anti-romanticism was one of the main manifestations of Musorgsky's realism, and the ladies' parts in his operas were as unromantic as you could possible imagine. In Boris, sinister Jesuits bully Princess Marina into giving herself to False Dmitri as part of their plan to convert Russia to the Catholic faith. At first she resists, but she eventually gets with the program because the thought of becoming Czarina appeals to her. But she doesn't give anything away for nothing: Dmitri is not going to get any before he becomes Czar.

In Khovanshchina we see the most bizarre love triangle in all of opera. Prince Andrei is obsessed with Emma, who would rather die than be with him. When she finally definitively escapes from his attempts at rape or murder, he is left broken-hearted and still obsessive. However, once Emma is gone, Andrei falls into the clutches of the delusional Marfa, who sings beautifully of their supposed love -- in blatant defiance of the clear fact that Andrei, in his own sick way, is in love with Emma and no longer loves Marfa (if he ever did), and is furthermore about as lame and worthless a character as has ever been seen on any stage.

Besides her delusions about Andrei, Marfa has several other peculiarities. She is a pious Old Believer, but she also can conjure up the spirits of the dead, and three different characters call her a witch or a demon. In the end she joins the other Old Believers in self-immolation and brings the worthless Andrei with her, and self-immolation seems to have been her goal from the beginning. Early on, she dreamed that she and Andrei would burn beautifully, "like two candles", and candles and flames and bright lights show up again and again in her dialogue.

So is Musorgsky a misogynist? Considering that he is a grotesque realist like Gogol, and considering that few or none of his male characters are admirable either, I think that we can answer "No". But I do think that he must have said to himself something like, "If they want prima donnas, I'll give them their goddamn prima donnas".


 The rejection of the 1869 Boris, has  traditionally been thought of as a bad, thing, but more recently anti-Soviet critics have claimed that the 1872 version is superior. By and large, I disagree: the two new acts are fine in themselves, but dramatically they amount to a detour and an anticlimax, the ending of the1869 version, with the death of Boris, is incredibly powerful. furthermore, rewriting Boris also cost Musorgsky two or three years of his very short career of about sixteen years. I would gladly trade all the new stuff in the 1872 Boris for a completed version of Khovanshchina.

Link to Musorgsky: The Female Roles


Musorgsky V:

The Man


Many witnesses testify to Musorgsky's charm and wit, gentleness, kindliness, and lack of malice. (At the same time, however, he was the most pugnacious of the Kuchkists in their fight against such "Germanist" musicians as Tchaikovsky and Rubenstein). Almost the only negative testimony about Musorgsky's character before his alcoholic decline comes from Nadezha Purgold (Rimsky-Korsakoff's wife), but it seems pretty clear that Musorgsky's supposed arrogance and standoffishness were simply his ways of escaping marriage to Nadezha's sister, Alexandra.

Alexandra was a wonderful person and a good match, but Musorgsky was adamantly opposed to marriage. It has been speculated that he was gay, but there are also good reasons to believe that he had been influenced by the Narodnik spokesman Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who recommended that radicals avoid the encumbrance of marriage. While Musorgsky's degree of politicization is uncertain, it seems most likely that he avoided marriage in order to dedicate himself more fully to music.

Musorgsky was of aristocratic descent, but really quite poor. He ended his military career at age 19, and when the Czar's decree freed the serfs three years later, Musorgsky's brother Filaret got almost the whole estate, which left Modest pretty much on his own. While Musorgsky was usually treated very leniently by his employers, the civil service jobs he got were not sinecures but real clerical jobs, and they paid very poorly. Musorgsky also earned very little from his music, and his marginal status among the working poor may well explain his refusal to marry (and perhaps some of his other peculiarities too). Sometimes it seems that none of Musorgsky's contemporaries, most of whom were in reasonably comfortable circumstances, really understood how poor he was, or what the consequences of his poverty were.

Musorgsky formed intense attachments both with men and with women, and several times he fell into despair when a friendship was ended by death or weakened by marriage or relocation. Music was almost always the central theme in Musorgsky's personal relationships and social involvements, and for him music was to an unusual degree a collective or collaborative activity. In St. Petersburg there was a dense network of musical amateurs meeting in salons, and at these salons Musorgsky and other composers would perform their new pieces and ask for criticisms -- Mussorgsky even would compose music during the salon itself, playing each section for the attendees as he finished it. He frequently solicited advice about his new music, and on more than one occasion was devastated when a friend failed to give him the expected support. He was aware of his dependency or vulnerability: "Moreover, I am discovering in myself something that is already obvious -- a kind of looseness, a softness; you called it doughiness, I now recall, and I was a little hurt, because dough has the quality of retaining the impression of dirty fingers as well as clean fingers...." (Leyda, p. 39) He descried his attitude both to formal teaching and to collaboration thus: "I am an 'enemy of advice' really because in my humble opinion each man is an individual .... Consequently, again in my humble opinion, conference, that is, the exchange of ideas and viewpoints, is the best soil for the free acquisition of that which is called advice." (L 146-7).

For Musorgsky, these salons served as a substitute for a conservatory. All members of the Kuchka were amateurs (except for Rimsky-Korsakoff, the youngest of them, and only after the group had effectively dissolved), and to a greater or lesser degree they deliberately rejected formal training. In turn, the school musicians (of whom only Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubenstein are remembered any more) were by and large hostile to the Kuchkists, and Musorgsky could not expect much support from the Russian musical establishment. And in fact, Musorgsky could not even rely on support from the other members of the Kuchka -- all except Borodin slighted Mussorgsky at one time or another.

What Musorgsky did was use his charm to put together a friendship-based informal support group which helped him with advice, emotional support, and (I assume) tactfully given material support. His awareness of the importance of this support group probably accounts for the oft-noted fact that he was absolutely crushed by the deaths of friends, which not only took away his friends, but also threatened his ability to continue to make music. Kompaneisky reports that at the death of Petrov (an eminent bass singer who strongly supported Musorgsky), Musorgsky cried "With grandfather's death, I've lost everything. I've lost the support of my bitter life." (O7, L 367-8). And he mourned the marriages of his friends just as much, since they took his friends away from him: "And I am left alone -- so, I'll be alone. You have to die alone anyway....." he wrote in 1875 when Golenishchev-Kutuzov's married (L 322-3).

At the end of his life Musorgsky succumbed to alcoholism, which had intermittently been a problem before then. He seems to have produced almost nothing during the last three years before his death at the age of 42, and his actual productive career -- counting from the first composition to become part of the repertoire -- the song "King Saul" of 1863 -- was 15 years or less. During that time he wrote two versions of Boris Godunov, three incomplete operas (of which Khovanshchina is a masterpiece), Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain, and several dozen songs. We can only wish that he had done more, but even with this small oeuvre he surpasses and most of the non-Russian musicians of his time, and all of the Russians except Tchaikovsky. As he said, his goal was quality rather than quantity, and his works were original and influential in a way that Tchaikovsky's were not. (In his own words, speaking of a most prolific contemporary and adversary who is now almost forgotten: "What prerogatives does [Anton] Rubenstein have for such narrowness? -- glory and money, and quantity rather than quality."

Musorgsky VI:

the Russian Tradition

Musorgsky was the culmination and triumph of Russian musical nationalism, a decades-long movement begun by Glinka and continued by Dargomyzhky, Balakirev, and their disciples. Balakirev's kuchka (Cui, Musorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakoff, aided by the librettist and polemicist Stasov) supported the Russian cause against the Germans and their allies in the Russian conservatory (notably Anton Rubenstein and P.I. Tchaikovsky)..

The kuchka chronology goes something like this. By 1861 all of its members had met, and they were working together under Balakirev's leadership. The next year Balakirev started the Free Music School to compete with the Russian Music School (later to become the Conservatory). In 1866 a journalistic piece by Stasov introduced the kuchka to the world under that name. In 1867, however, the issue became confused when Balakirev was hired by the Russian Music Society upon Rubenstein's resignation. But Balakirev broke permanently with the RMS the next year, and for the next four or five years relations were hostile, with nasty lampoons exchanged in 1870 and 1871.

About this time, however, the kuchka itself began to break up -- Rimsky-Korsakoff had already felt doubts in 1868, and by 1871, according to Borodin, Balakirev had alienated almost everyone. In 1872 Balakirev's Free Music School closed down. The next year Rimsky-Korsakoff joined the Conservatory, and Balakirev left the music world a disappointed man. Cui and Borodin continued with their day jobs (respectively as an artillery and fortifications expert, and as a research chemist -- the discoverer of the Aldol reaction and the Borodin [or Hunsdiecker] reaction). Only Musorgsky remained to fight on.

In retrospect it's hard not to feel that the whole fight was pretty silly, and was primarily the product of Balakirev's difficult personality (with quite a bit of help from Stasov and Musorgsky). As late as 1867 Balakirev was still able to work with the RMS, and five years later the battle was over -- ultimately,Rimsky-Korsakoff would teach at the Conservatory, even the ever-so-cosmopolitan Tchaikovsky would write some works on Russian themes.

From the point of view of Musorgsky's reception, it's hard to decide whether the polemical environment harmed him by making him unnecessary enemies, or helped him by getting him publicity and giving him protectors and supporters. (I would guess that on the net it did him more harm than good.) However, I think that it is clear that Musorgsky's unexpected and unlikely achievement (how many other great self-taught amateur composers are there?) would not have been possible without two generations of advocacy for an authentically national Russian music, including the entire bodies of work of the dozen or so composers who tried to make that music a reality .

The pathos of history is thus made manifest. Serov, Dargomizhky, Cui,  Rubenstein and the others all hoped for musical fame, but by now they're mostly just supporting players and names on a list. Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakoff still appear on concert programs of the older type, but they were already obsolete in my youth in the distant Fifties, when I was listening to Scheherazade and the Capriccio Espagnol out in the provinces. By now almost everything of that time has, like Rome, crumbled into ruin.  Only Musorgsky and his arch-enemy Tchaikovsky are regularly heard today.

Musorgsky VI

His Reception



At the beginning, the senior members of the kuchka (Balakirev, Cui, and Stasov, the group's spokesman) all thought that Musorgsky was an idiot, and said so. Reviews of Musorgsky's works in the musical press, except for Stasov's, were generally mixed or negative, and even after Musorgsky's death, when Rimsky-Korsakoff prepared Musorgsky's manuscripts for publication, he felt obligated to revise them heavily. Among the Germanists of the Russian Music Society, of course, the situation was worse: Tchaikovsky basically despised him, and after a certain point Rubenstein ignored him entirely because he believed that Musorgsky had insulted him. Borodin and Dargomizhky were the only composers among Musorgsky's contemporaries who are not on record denigrating his music in some way, and perhaps that just means that my research hasn't been thorough enough.


Yet almost everyone, even Tchaikovsky, granted Musorgsky's enormous talent, only regretting what they regarded as his technical incompetence. Especially in the cases of Rimsky-Korsakoff and Cui, envy cannot been ruled out as a motive: Boris Godunov came on the heels of the failure of Cui's opera Ratcliff, and it is said that in when Rimsky-Korsakoff wrote his opera Mozart and Salieri (after Pushkin), he thought of his own relationship with Musorgsky.


Musorgsky's support did not come from the official musical community, but from a large group of personal friends, amateur musicians, and singers. (Composers do not regard singers as musicians; they're just genetic freaks with beautiful voices.) The general musical audience, too, seems to have responded very well to Musorgsky's works, when they were able to hear them.


The irony, of course, is that it was Musorgsky who would be honored by the musicians of the future, and it was precisely for his "mistakes" that he would be honored. When Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky finally were to free music from the curse of the German Seriousness, their models would be two musical amateurs: Modest Musorgsky and Erik Satie. These two men gave the lie to the pedant's slogan "If you are going to break the rules, first you must learn them". Musorgsky was mostly self-taught (and his sometime teacher, Balakirev, was entirely self-taught), and the evidence is that Musorgsky never knew the rules because he'd never seen any reason to learn them. (In his middle age, after he had already had some success as a composer, Satie would to the conservatory to study counterpoint. It is uncertain to me that this was a good thing.)


Recently, as part of the deSovietification program, Musorgsky has been "demythologized". We are told that he wasn't really a Narodnik or leftist, as the Communists claimed; that he wasn't really treated badly by the Opera Society or by the Censor; and most of his problems came from his own drunkenness. All this is arguable, but the fact remains that one of the two most fruitfully original (and best) European composers of second half of the nineteenth century, lived his life in poverty and was never fully appreciated even by his fellow kuchkists. In retrospect, we can see that the most appropriate response to Musorgsky's work would have been unconditional admiration. That sounds like unreasonable demand, but in fact, many of his amateur listeners did admire his work unconditionally. It was only the people who counted, the professionals, who didn't.



Appendix I: How Not to Demythologize


From Richard Taruskin, Musorgsky, Princeton, 1993


[Golenishchev-Kutuzov] decided to get married, leaving the composer so wounded that one has to wonder about the nature of their "most intimate friendship". (p. 14)


Golenishchev-Kutuzov intended the poem as a maximally flattering peace offering to the composer after renouncing their unwholesome intimacy in favor of marriage. (p.30)


As Rimsky Korsakoff put it....."It's time to forget all that and travel a normal artistic path"..... A normal artistic path meant working on commission and under a deadline..... [393] A normal artistic path meant collaborating actively with performers and writing with specific executants in mind..... Sorochintsy Fair had a normal cast of characters at last..... Had Musorgsky lived a normal span of years, such that Boris Godunov would be regarded as an early work, Sorochintsy Fair would very likely look to us to be a pivotal one..... [p. 394] By living longer, Musorgsky could as easily have lost in stature as gained. But it is certainly not been the purpose of this chapter to diminish that stature..... [By] getting beyond the facile categories and the shopworn propaganda -- and by discarding the composer's flawed and unattractive person as finally irrelevant to the import of his greatest works -- we may yet overcome the obstacles that have impeded the "human exchange" Musorgsky saw as the overriding purpose of his art. (pp. 392-394)



Appendix II: Tchaikovsky


There was no love lost between Musorgsky and Tchaikovsky. (Musorgsky called Tchaikovsky "Sadik Pasha", after the Polish anti-Czarist renegade Czajkowski, who after his defeat converted to Islam and settled in Turkey.) Musorgsky's musical realism was diametrically opposed to Tchaikowsky's "religion of absolute beauty".


In his diaries, Tchaikovsky wrote this about Dargomizhky's Stone Guest:


"But if anything is more dislikable and false than this unsuccessful attempt to introduce truth in a branch of art where everything is based on pseudo and where truth, in the usual sense of the word, is not required at all -- I do not know it....."

(Leyda, Musorgsky Reader, p. 105)



Tchaikovsky's very mixed feelings about Musorgsky are revealed in a letter to his patron Madame von Meck:


"Musorgsky you are quite correct in characterizing as hopeless. His talent is probably the most remarkable of all these. But he has a narrow nature, is totally devoid of a desire for self-improvement, and is deluded by a blind faith in the absurd theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition he has some sort of low nature which loves all that is coarse, crude, and rough..... But he has a real, and even original talent which flashes out now and then..... So many talented men [in the kuchka] from whom, with the exception of Korsakov, we can hardly expect anything serious..... [367]

A Musorgsky, for all his ugliness, speaks a new language. Beautiful it may not be, but it is fresh.....In their aspirations toward novelty, the French are not as daring as our innovators. But they don't transcend the limits of the possible as Borodin and Musorgsky do...."

(Leyda, Musorgsky Reader, p. 366-7)


Tchaikovsky starts off agreeing with the patron he's dependent upon, and later on gradually lets it slip that his feelings are not quite so entirely negative as hers. It was Musorgsky's bad luck not to have that kind of tact, and of course, he had no Mme. von Meck either.


Musorgsky VIII:
His Originality

When I try to get people to listen to Musorgsky, the main problem is that to most people his music sounds like generic XIXc romantic opera, albeit with a definite Russian flavor. Not only does this prejudgment impede their appreciation of Musorgsky's music, but it also makes it impossible for them to understand his place in music history. Why did almost all of the composers of his time feel obliged to question Musorgsky's competence as a musician, and why did composers from a later era (starting with Debussy) turn the tables and admire him as a musical revolutionary?

When I began reading about Musorgsky I already about his use of modes and of asymmetrical and irregular meters, I knew that he was a nationalist, and I knew that he had new ideas about how words should be set and about how opera should be staged. However, other composers also did most of these things, and while Musorgsky's nationalism and musical realism did raise some eyebrows, even his Russian nationalist friends had serious doubts about his work. I think that that the specific thing which no one could quite accept was Musorgsky's flouting of the rules of common-practice harmony and counterpoint, which even rebels like Balakirev considered to be the "laws of music". Musorgsky (who was almost entirely self-taught) apparently never even bothered to learned these rules, simply because he didn't see the need for them.

After the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert in 1827 and 1828, classical music was at an impasse. Beethoven had set the standard against which his successors were judged, and between 1828 and Musorgsky's time, composers tried various ways of doing something new: greater instrumental virtuosity, new orchestration techniques, free-form program music (usually based on literary models), the use of national themes, increased chromaticism, specialization on short forms for piano and voice, and above all, a move toward opera. Nonetheless, during the fifty years after Beethoven's death no composer came close to matching his achievement, except possibly Wagner -- and for French or Russian nationalist musicians, Wagner was just reaffirming the hated German domination.

Musorgsky's innovations were regarded by his fellow-composers as errors. They probably had good reason to think this way, but this just means that Musorgsky (like Satie) is a powerful counterexample to a conservatory claim that "In order to break the rules, you must first know the rules." In any case, as I understand, the crucial rules he broke were the voice-leading rules (the prohibition of parallel fifths and octaves and the proper introduction and resolution of dissonances) plus the rules forbidding abrupt modulations. The average listener does not hear these violations (except perhaps as a "sound" or "flavor"), and the evidence I've seen seems to show that his works were well-accepted by audiences, which included many talented amateur musicians as well as professional singers and instrumentalists.  Only teachers, critics and composers found Musorgsky's innovations objectionable.

By the end of the XIXc, the "laws of music" were strangling music: the well-codified rules of the the symphonic genre, the sonata form, voice-leading, and functional common-practice harmony. Musorgsky did not write symphonies or sonatas at all and ignored the rules of voice-leading, dissonance-resolution, and modulation, thus producing a textured melodic, harmonic music without internal voices. His use of the modes drew him away from functional harmony and its tendency toward vigorous movement by fifths and fourths, and his asymmetrical rhythms also tended to weaken the strong forward impulsion of classicism and romanticism. Dissonance and chromaticism were used as colors, rather than as elements in rule-governed, progressive formal structures, and a strolling or wandering movement replaced the mechanical or the robotic movement characteristic of classicism (for example, in Bach's English Suites -- or for a more contemporary example, Bachman-Turner-Overdrive). Each musical moment (rhythmically, harmonically, and tonally) was much more a particular act or event, and much less the logical culmination of what went before.

The "laws of music" honored even by Balakirev only defined a style -- they were never laws. Even the revolutionaries submitted themselves to this style, and even at the cost of stunting their own work. When Musorgsky broke away and did new and original work, not only the forces of orthodoxy, but even those of heterodoxy, were taken aback. They knew that there was something there, but they couldn't fully accept it. The classical music paradigm had been brought to such a degree of perfection that nothing could be done with it, but that was of no concern to the academic paradigm-enforcers.

Musorgsky had not been dead for long before Debussy discovered his work (and Satie's), and music was never the same again. With a little luck, Musorgsky (born in 1839) would have lived to see his triumph. But that was not to be.





Musorgsky bibliography

Musorgsky discography

To Follow:

Musorgsky's Music

Musorgsky and Politics


I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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