Vospominaniia o Musorgskom (pervye vstrechi)
Recollections about Musorgsky (Our First Encounters)
Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1887) wrote these recollections at Stasov’s request when Stasov was preparing Musorgsky’s biography.
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My first meeting with Modest Petrovich Musorgsky took place in 1856 (I think it was the fall, September or October). I had just completed my training as a military physician and was doing my internship in the Second Military Hospital; M[odest] P[etrovich] was a very young officer in the Preobrazhenskii Regiment (he was seventeen at the time). We met in the hospital duty room. I was the doctor on call, and he was the officer of the day. We were in the day room, the duty was boring; and as we were both outgoing people, it is easy to see how we got into conversation and very quickly became friends. That evening we were both invited to the house of the head physician, Popov, who had a grown daughter. The Popovs held many soirées for her to which, as a rule, they invited the physicians and the officers on duty. This was a special kindness from the head physician. M[odest] P[etrovich] at that time was just a very graceful little boy; he looked like an officer in a picture: his little closely fitted uniform was neat as a pin; his short legs slightly bowed; his hair sleek and pomaded; his fingernails manicured; and his carefully tended hands were those of a gentleman. He had graceful and aristocratic manners; his conversation, spoken slightly through his teeth and interspersed with French sentences, which was somewhat artificial, was nonetheless aristocratic. There was a hint of foppishness, although a very moderate one. He was unusually courteous and well brought up. The ladies paid him court. He would sit down at the piano and, affectedly throwing up his hands, would begin to play, very sweetly, graciously, etc., excerpts from Trovatore, or Traviata, and so on, while all around him, people were buzzing in a chorus “Charmant, délicieux!” etc. In such circumstances I met M[odest] P[etrovich] about three or four times at Popov’s during my duty at the hospital. After that, for a long time I did not see M[odest] P[etrovich]. Popov had resigned from the hospital, the soirees had come to an end, and I was no longer on duty at the hospital, as I had become a lecturer in the Chemistry Department.
In the fall of 1859, I saw him again at S[tepan] A[lekseevich] Ivanovskii’s, an adjunct professor at the Academy and a physician in the Artillery School. Musorgsky had already resigned.1 He had matured considerably, and had started to put on weight; he no longer had an officer’s mannerisms. He was still elegantly dressed, his manners were still refined, but that hint of foppishness had totally vanished. We were introduced; we, of course, immediately recognized each other and recalled our first meeting at Popov’s. Musorgsky stated that he had resigned from the army because he was “seriously studying music, and that combining military duties with art was difficult,” and so on. The conversation involuntarily turned to music. I was still an ardent admirer of Mendelssohn but, at that time, barely knew Schumann. Musorgsky was already acquainted with Balakirev, and he had had a taste of many musical novelties which I did not even suspect. The Ivanovskiis, seeing that we had found a common ground for conversation, i.e., music, suggested we play a piano duet version of Mendelssohn’s Symphony in A minor.2 M[odest] P[etrovich] frowned a little bit and said that he would be very happy to comply, but requested that he be allowed “to omit the Andante, which is not really symphonic, but more like the Lieder ohne Worte or something comparable, that has been orchestrated.” We played the first part and the scherzo. Then Musorgsky started to talk enthusiastically about Schumann’s symphonies, but, at that time, they were totally unknown to me. He started sketching in excerpts of Schumann’s Symphony [No. 3] in E-flat major. When he reached the middle movement, he stopped playing and said: “Well, now musical mathematics begin.” It was new and very attractive to me. Seeing that I was so interested, he played more of the new music for me. I then learned that he also wrote music. Understandably I showed great interest in that news. He began to play one of his scherzos very softly (that probably was the one in B-flat major3); at the Trio he said with set teeth: “Well, that’s oriental.” I was extremely affected by what were for me unprecedented new elements in music. I cannot say that they particularly appealed to me at first: rather, they somewhat puzzled me by their novelty. But in listening more attentively, I soon began to appreciate them and revel in them. I must admit I did not take his declaration very seriously when he said that he wanted to devote himself wholeheartedly to music. I thought it was rather pretentious, and I condescended to him a bit over that. But, after getting to know his scherzo, I no longer knew if I should believe him or not.
On my return from abroad, in the fall of 1862, I met Balakirev (at S[ergei] P[etrovich] Botkin’s house4); and it was at Balakirev’s, when he lived on Ofitserskaia Street in Khil’kevich’s house, that I met Musorgsky the third time. We recognized each other immediately, and both of us recalled the first two occasions on which we had met. Musorgsky had by now developed his musical talent substantially. Balakirev wanted to introduce me to the music of his own circle and, above all, show me the symphony of the “absent one” (meaning Rimsky-Korsakov, who was at the time still a naval officer; he had just left on a long voyage5 to North America). Musorgsky and Balakirev sat down at the piano (Musorgsky on primo, and Balakirev on secondo). Musorgsky’s playing was quite different from what I had heard during our first two meetings. I was dazzled by the brilliance, expressiveness, and energy of the performance, as well as by the beauty of the piece. They played the finale from the symphony. Then, learning that I had a latent impulse to write music, Musorgsky asked me to show them something. I was extremely abashed and categorically refused to comply.