IZ Nekrologa Musorgskogo
FROM Musorgsky’s Obituary
Mikhail Ivanov (1849-1927) was a composer and a music critic. He was on the staff of the newspaper Novoe vremia [New time].
. . .
Everyone was as unprepared for Musorgsky’s death as they had been for N[ikolai] Rubinstein’s.1 His constitution was so strong that no one ever thought that he was in any serious danger. [But] Musorgsky’s foe was that unfortunate propensity which has destroyed so many talented Russians. He was driven to his grave by that fatal passion, which held him in a vice, as well as by the irregular life of an artist, which affects the nervous system. It was only about a month ago, in mid-February, that Musorgsky became ill. His illness was quite complex. He had a liver disorder, an adipose heart, and an inflammation of the spinal cord. He was in need of intensive care, and we could never have let him stay at home. The distressing situation of the composer at the beginning of his illness is difficult to imagine. He had always had a Bohemian life-style, but in the last two or three years he forsook almost everyone and was leading the life of a vagabond. Just before falling ill he had rented a room in chambres garnies somewhere on Ofitserskaia. But it was inconceivable that we leave him alone and sick in a furnished room. So his friends determined to find him a place where he could be properly cared for. He was entrusted to the care of Dr. L[ev] Bertenson, who, to assure his isolation and the best conditions for his treatment, had him taken to the Nikolaev Military Hospital. Dr. Bertenson looked after him with the utmost care. Musorgsky was given a private room; Dr. Bertenson came to see him twice a day; and the composer’s friends did not leave him alone either. He had constant visitors. The treatment was successful. He quickly began to improve, and in such a marked manner that he was positively unrecognizable: everyone hoped that he would be totally cured, and that he would find a return to his previous life-style unthinkable. Money had already been gathered to finance a trip to the Crimea or abroad, where he could rest and fully recover. In short, everything had been done to pull him out of the impossible conditions in which he had been living in Petersburg. These conditions were truly appalling. In the last few years he had been forced to leave the Government Control, where he had been working. From a financial point of view, his retirement did not cause him any privation, since, I repeat, his friends came to his rescue: he had been paid in advance for his music (some of which had already been written). Consequently, he was not in dire need of money; but he was deprived of this last restraint, which employment—to a certain extent—represented for him, and he totally ceased to control his fateful weakness. Alcohol, sleepless nights, erysipelas on one leg, and strenuous mental activity (during these last years he had worked assiduously) quickly exhausted his strength. Nevertheless, by nature, his constitution was so strong that, provided with reasonable conditions and with sensible treatment, he promptly began to improve. The hopes of his friends, however, were not to be fulfilled. On account of his own gross imprudence, a sudden change for the worse occurred.2 It became clear that recovery was no longer a possibility. His arms and legs were paralyzed. Under different conditions this might not have been too grave, but taken into account with all his other ailments, these symptoms foretold the end. Properly speaking, Musorgsky’s last two days were one long agony. Paralysis was gradually taking hold of his respiratory organs: he was able to breathe only with difficulty and constantly complained about the lack of breath. However, up until the last minute he was mentally alert. Saturday, his condition was hopeless. But he himself did not want to believe that the end was near. When the question arose of officially giving Mr. T[ertii] Filippov (a person close to the composer) the copyright for Musorgsky’s works, because of the composer’s susceptibility, his friends were at a loss as to how to proceed with the deal without aggravating the sick man’s condition.3 They were also afraid of his seeing any of the newspapers which informed their readers of the hopelessness of his condition and described his agony. But even during the last two days Musorgsky demanded to have the newspapers read to him or requested to have them held in front of him so that he could read himself. On Sunday, his condition improved. The respite was temporary, the result of the various medicines prescribed for him, but he rejoiced and hope once more awoke in his heart. He was already dreaming about traveling to the Crimea or to Constantinople. Gaily, he told various anecdotes and recalled several events from the past. He unceasingly asked to be helped to sit up in an armchair. “I have to be polite,” he said, “ladies are visiting me; what are they going to think of me?” This activity helped to hearten his friends, but it was the last gasp of a dying man; he spent Sunday night as usual—not any better, not any worse; at five o’clock in the morning he died. At his side he had only two doctor’s assistants. They say that twice he uttered a loud cry, and that fifteen minutes later everything was over. The previous evening Mr. Bertenson, who was in charge of him, told me of his dangerous condition. At ten o’clock in the morning I went to see him in the Nikolaev Hospital. I was shown his ward. In the doorway, I ran into Count Golenishchev-Kutuzov. “You wish to see Musorgsky? He is dead.”
It was his birthday. I entered the ward. My heart was involuntarily wrung by what I saw. The conditions in which Musorgsky died: his total solitude and the barren hospital surroundings in which a prominent talent had to die produced in me great melancholy. The big room with its plastered walls looked inhospitable, despite its tidiness. Except for the bare necessities it was empty. I could see that in this room an impoverished soul had died. Half of the room was partitioned off by a grey screen, behind which there were several other beds. Just across from the entrance there were a wardrobe, a writing desk, two chairs, and two small tables with newspapers and five or six books, one of which was Berlioz’ treatise “On Instrumentation.” Like a soldier, he had died with his weapon in his hand. To the right of the door there was a small bed, and on it was Musorgsky’s body, covered with a grey hospital blanket. How he had changed! His face and hands, white as wax, made a strange impression on me—as if a total stranger were lying here. The expression of his face was, incidentally, peaceful; one could even have thought that he was sleeping, were it not for the deathly pallor. An involuntarily bitter feeling stirred my heart: I thought about the strange fate of our Russians. To have such talent as Musorgsky had had (his talent was recognized by everyone, even though they did not share his aspirations), to have all the qualities, to be superior, to live—and then to die in a hospital, among strangers, without a friendly or a loving hand to, at least, close his eyes. What is this fate that hounds our gifted ones. . . .
Soon, several of Musorgsky’s close friends gathered: Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, his brother D[mitrii] V[asilievich] Stasov, N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov, Mr. Kel’chevskii the uhlan officer, a former roommate of Musorgsky’s, and some others, including two ladies (one of whom, I believe, was Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife).4
I[l’ia] E[fimovich] Repin, who had recently arrived from Moscow and who was an old friend of Musorgsky, was fortunate enough to have painted his portrait shortly before he died. The portrait had very successfully caught the expression of the composer’s face. Soon this portrait will be part of a traveling exhibit.5
M[odest] P[etrovich] Musorgsky passed on in the prime of life. [Short biographical details follow.]
He was a highly likeable and good-natured person. It is extremely rare to find in the artistic world such a forgiving man, with so much tolerance for others’ opinions. He had been, at times, the target of very wicked pranks, but his behavior, even toward unfriendly people, was invariably even-tempered and affable. Even though he sometimes scoffed at their banter, he did so in an extremely mild manner; in such instances his sense of humor, as well as his awareness of his own talent, prevailed. His humor, as is known, is seen in many of his works. I hope to speak about his work shortly; at the moment, I want to point out that he left two operas: Khovanshchina, which is completely finished although not orchestrated, and The Fair at Sorochintsy, which, on the contrary, has great gaps and is far from complete. Lately, he had been thinking about another opera—“Biron,” but its music had not been written; he just played some excerpts for his friends and obstinately refused to put them in writing, saying that he “had it all very well memorized in [his] head.”6
There were no limits to his generosity. A very great number of Petersburg concerts—especially charity concerts—were dependent upon his participation: on every stage he could be seen at the piano, diligently accompanying the artists. . . . With the same generosity he accompanied and willingly played excerpts from his operas in private circles and homes. It seems that his last visit to the editorial office of New Time, where he was a frequent visitor, took place on the eve of his illness.7
Yes, we have lost a great talent, and we have so few of them.
[Objecting to some details in the description of Musorgsky’s last years as given by Rimsky-Korsakov in My Musical Life, in 1909 Ivanov brought forth the following thoughts, based on personal recollections.]
To say that Musorgsky’s decline resulted from his opera’s being taken out of the repertoire is unworthy of comment. Many others had seen their works taken off the stage and did not succumb as Musorgsky did. Nevertheless in the above-mentioned lines there is a good deal of truth. I knew Musorgsky during the last three or four years of his life, but at the time I was a very young man and did not pay enough heed to much in life. Still, even then, it seemed to me that Musorgsky had been abandoned by both friends and boon companions. He was always lonely, and this loneliness was felt very sharply by such a soft and tender nature. During that period he was deeply touched by any kindness shown to him, any kind word spoken to him. But it was only in passing that kindness and sweet words came his way. Nobody gave him a serious thought, and in the big city he undoubtedly felt lonely. I do not know what the author of My Musical Life means when he uses the term “professional composer” or for what reason, in the case stated, he uses it half ironically. Musorgsky, incidentally, was not, even in his last years, a true “professional composer”; he was only a “professional accompanist.” Accompanists can now receive good money for their work, and some even cleverly manage various special deals; but that was not the case earlier, when the accompanist could not bring in a single farthing. Everyone appeared on stage “as an honor.” Musorgsky was no exception. Contrary to the belief established by Musorgsky’s friends, that he played the piano masterfully, I boldly state that the opposite is true. He was no pianist at all, and only people who themselves played badly could have thought that he played well. But he did follow the singer very well and was sometimes capable of a finely turned “phrase,” as Korsakov said. When Musorgsky retired, he was left without means: he was unable to give concerts either as a soloist or as a composer. His only recourse was to become an accompanist in D[ar’ia] M[ikhailovna] Leonova’s school, where he conscientiously pounded the scales for the students’ solfeggio. Obviously, such a life could not have been gratifying for him, and he took to drinking brandy.8 Furthermore, if his friends began to regard his compositions critically, as Korsakov himself indicated, there was no reason for other people not to do likewise. This was perfectly normal, and Musorgsky hardly would have suffered from their opinion. But because of Stasov’s excessive efforts, a cold atmosphere had grown up around him. Stasov so violently attacked all those who refused to believe everything he shouted about Musorgsky, that many people turned completely away from the author of Boris. During Musorgsky’s last years a particular atmosphere of general indifference was created, and it is this atmosphere which killed the tender nature of the composer. Stasov overdid it, as did the bear of the fable.9
Musorgsky fell ill at the home of Leonova. The latter was so frightened she requested that the ailing man—a man who had served her faithfully—be taken away as quickly as possible from the apartment of a woman already aged and all alone. Musorgsky had toured the provinces with her as her accompanist, and probably earned little if anything, since one can guess that Leonova, at the ebb of her career, did not make good box-office returns. Musorgsky’s living conditions in his last years were simply appalling. The poet A[pollon] N[ikolaevich] Maikov told me how startled he was when he paid a visit to Musorgsky. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. Musorgsky lived in a small room on Ofitserskaia. Maikov found him sleeping in the armchair in evening dress. On the table were several bottles; there was nothing else in the room. I believe it. I also saw the conditions in which Musorgsky lay when he was at the Nikolaev Hospital, where he had been placed as an “orderly,” thanks to the efforts of the compassionate L[ev] B[ernardovich] Bertenson. These wretched surroundings wrung one’s heart. On the day of the composer’s death I described his last days in a newspaper article, and in telling the truth I incurred Stasov’s wrath10 and the indignant displeasure of Leonova and her friends.
If one were to ponder carefully the history of Musorgsky’s collapse, even in the form in which it is told in My Musical Life, one would be deeply touched. How far removed can truth be from what we think! The arrogant Musorgsky, as he was portrayed by so many people, was the same unfortunate artist who, like an abandoned child, was grateful for the smallest kindness or attention paid him.