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,
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'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".
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
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.
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
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"
Act I, p. 56).
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).
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.
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."
I, scene 1, p.51).
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
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,
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).
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
Musorgsky: Dark Realism
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
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.
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.
very beginning of Khovanshchina, the clerk enters just after
the thuggish streltsy policemen have finished bragging about the
scribe that they had just killed:
old clerk (dyaku) of the council had his whole chest slashed open with a
Act I, p. 48
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).
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
Boris Godunov, Act I, p. 51
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,
The Female Roles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
Musorgsky: The Female Roles
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
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."
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
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 .
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.
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,
[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.....
 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
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:
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..... 
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
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.
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
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
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
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 and Politics
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.
Original materials copyright John J