Nikolai Lavrov (1853-1927), a pianist, was a professor at the Petrograd Conservatory. His recollections were recorded in 1918-1919 by Victor Beliaev, then a professor at the Petrograd Conservatory, who wrote the following account.
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In St. Petersburg a circle of musical amateurs devoted to dramatic performance was formed in 1879. This circle appeared to be a branch of a similarly named circle formed a year earlier, under the direction of K. K. Zike, to stage opera performances. This circle of amateurs met in the Hotel Demut.
The members of the new circle met several times a week to study music.
Toward the beginning of the 1879-1880 season, at A[natolii] K[onstantinovich] Liadov’s invitation, Musorgsky joined this circle. He became a member at the same time as D[ar’ia] M[ikhailovna] Leonova, who had already retired from her operatic career and was directing a music school with Musorgsky. Musorgsky was often the accompanist at the circle’s weekly musical evenings, and from the first evening he impressed Lavrov with the unusual expressiveness of his talented and passionate manner of playing the piano, a manner which always profoundly impressed his audience. Lavrov had particularly vivid recollections of the evenings in which Musorgsky played the accompaniment for a series of songs by Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others. However, his most vivid memory of that period was Musorgsky’s and Leonova’s renditions of “Pesnia o blokhe” [Song of a flea] and the fantasy “Buria” [Storm].
The “Song of a Flea” had provoked quite a sensation in the circle; the audience had burst into applause. Musorgsky’s ability for picturesque accompaniment was most strikingly illustrated there: at times one could actually hear a flea jumping. The arpeggios in the middle of the song were exquisite and were definitely in the style of Rubinstein. Lavrov had never before had the opportunity to hear such a rendition of an arpeggio, nor was he ever to have the opportunity again. The thundering fortissimo of the grand piano did not drown out Leonova’s voice for one second; each word of the song could be heard clearly.
After one of the evenings in which Musorgsky and Leonova had participated, the audience became so enthusiastic that everyone gathered by the stage and asked Musorgsky to play from his own works. Leonova prompted the audience to ask him to play “Storm.” At that time Lavrov was still unaware of the fact that Musorgsky could play as a soloist, and so he was surprised to see Musorgsky sit down at the piano and start playing “Storm.” In this performance Musorgsky greatly perplexed not only Lavrov (who was more or less unacquainted with the new music and unaccustomed to it) but also Liadov. Lavrov was utterly bewildered, since he was not able to find any music in “Storm.” But there was one thing he could not deny: the unbelievable perfection of the imitation of the sounds. In the rolling passages where Musorgsky reached the highest notes of the instrument, one had the perfect illusion of waves crashing on the rocks.
Lavrov and Liadov never heard this piece again, and they did not know whether it ever existed on paper or even in rough draft. Although they were amazed by it, they did not know what to make of it. Lavrov, at least, always talked about “Storm” with a puzzled look on his face.
The circle was very kind to Musorgsky, but unfortunately, even at that time he was already an absolutely confirmed drunkard, a total alcoholic. When he finished a number, he would immediately start sipping cognac. He would get drunk very quickly, and since his central nervous system was already affected, he had the manners of a person who even when sober gave the impression of being drunk. But when he was indeed intoxicated, the impression he made was distressing, even if at times comic: he would strike a theatrical pose and make strange gestures. This happened to him quite often on stage while he was playing, especially during a rest.
In the last years of his life, there was about his figure a kind of slackness; a red face, a bluish nose, all of which, from the first glance, indicated the typical alcoholic. His face was always slightly puffy, and this puffiness was somehow asymmetric. In his manners he had certain pretensions to good breeding—after all, he had previously been an officer of the Guards—but his manners were old-fashioned.
In his last years his constant residence was the restaurant Malyi Iaroslavets, where he was respected and loved by everyone from the waiters to the maitre d’hôtel. He almost never had any money, but he was trusted and was allowed to run a tab. After Modest Petrovich’s death, Stasov, having sold some of Musorgsky’s compositions to Bessel’,1 paid the debts Musorgsky had accumulated in the restaurant, which were around one thousand rubles.
When Musorgsky was very drunk, and this would usually occur quite late at night, just before the restaurant closed, he would confide in the senior barman and often told him: “I will die, but one day you will remember my name with pride.”
He would say this with such sincerity and conviction that the barman always believed him.
Balakirev’s closest friend, T[ertii] I[vanovich] Filippov, a Government Comptroller and a great connoisseur of Russian folk songs, saved Musorgsky from starvation by giving him a Post in the Government Control. As he was Musorgsky’s superior, he was lenient to the point of injustice and self-compromise, and forgave him everything. Musorgsky did nothing at work and would arrive drunk after a sleepless night. Tertii Ivanovich never reprimanded him for such behavior, and permitted Musorgsky such indulgence by saying: “I am a servant to the artists.”2
Musorgsky was hired in the Government Control the day after Balakirev asked Filippov—a very close friend—to provide the composer with a job. Musorgsky’s obligation was to collect his salary on the 20th of each month.