Vospominaniia o Musorgskom
Recollections of Musorgsky
Nikolai Kompaneiskii (1848-1910) was a composer, the author of religious music, a singer, and a music critic. He was educated in the same Cadet School of the Imperial Guards as Musorgsky, but at a much later date. In his youth, he associated with A. Serov and Musorgsky; and he took singing lessons from A. Petrov. His recollections of events he actually witnessed are worthy of attention, but the rest is based on hearsay and gossip, and therefore is not trustworthy.
. . .
. . . The boy was sent by his parents to the Cadet School of the Imperial Guards,1 where Musorgsky was still surrounded by the same atmosphere of serfdom. Each ensign had his own lackey, who came from the serfs and was given a flogging by the administration if he failed to please his young master.
The same type of serf-like relationship, with a tinge of petty military tyranny, was established between the older and the younger cadets. The cadets in the advanced class called themselves “Sir Cornets” and behaved haughtily toward their junior counterparts, whom they called “Vandals.” Each cornet had a lackey as well as a vandal at his service. The vandal was subject to a number of humiliations from the cornet, since might makes right, such as having to carry his cornet on his back to his morning bath. Messrs. Cornets considered it debasing to do homework. The same attitude was shared by the director of the school, General Sutgof.2
All the dreams of the Messrs. Cornets were focused on the grandeur and honor of the uniform of the Imperial Guard. The highest praise at the school was to call someone a “real cornet.” The cadets called their beloved priest Cornet Krupskii. When they were through with their military exercises, the cornets devoted their free time to dancing, love making, and drinking. General Sutgof was very determined that the drunken cadets should not come back to school on foot and should not drink common vodka; he championed the honor of the school and was proud when a cadet returned from vacation drunk on champagne and sprawled in a carriage drawn by his own trotters. It was in such an institution . . . that the young Musorgsky received his education. He studied German philosophy enthusiastically, read historical works, and translated foreign books. For such behavior, General Sutgof, who took a great interest in him, would give him a good scolding: “But what kind of an officer are you going to be, mon cher?”
During his entire stay at the Cadet School Musorgsky took piano lessons.3 Herke introduced the young Russian virtuoso to German piano literature exclusively. The young pianist liked to improvise, relying only on his ear and imagination, since he was totally ignorant of ways to put his thoughts on paper and was utterly unaware of the elementary rules of music. While in the Cadet School, he constantly had to thump out dances on the piano for the pleasure of the cadets, varying his repertoire with his own improvisations.4
While he was at school, Musorgsky used to sing arias from Italian operas, in a clear baritone voice. This fashionably educated young man had not the faintest notion about the existence of Russian composers, still less about such individuals as Glinka or Dargomyzhsky. He did not even dream of the existence of music theory or musical science. The comment in his autobiography that, while at school, he would often visit the teacher of religion, the priest Krupskii, and that thanks to him, he was able to fathom the essence of ancient Greek and Catholic religious music, only bears witness to the fact that, later on, he was still unfamiliar with this subject. The priest Krupskii was also in the school during my time (1866). Being seriously interested in the study of religious music, I also went to him for clarification of some questions I had; more than once I conversed with him and came to the conclusion that in this specialty his knowledge was almost completely nil; therefore he could have given Musorgsky only the most elementary information on ancient religious music.5
[Musorgsky’s life in the Preobrazhenskii Regiment consisted of6] training, marching, riding drill, social calls, dances, cards, drinking, political amours in search of a rich countess or, if it came to the worst, a merchant’s daughter with a fat dowry. Musorgsky mastered the external qualities of an officer of the Preobrazhenskii: his manners were polished, he walked cockily on his tiptoes, dressed like a dandy, spoke excellent French, danced even better, played the piano masterfully, and sang beautifully. He even learned how to drink himself to oblivion; in addition, he abandoned his reprehensible studies of German philosophy; to make a long story short, fortune was smiling upon him. . . .
But . . . he could not afford to spend as much money as his comrades did. . . . He participated in the carousing, and for nights on end he would pound out polkas on the ivories. His comrades appreciated his services, but this was not sufficient to support the honor of the Guards’ uniform. One had to spend one’s fortune. . . . The unsuitable conditions forced Musorgsky to resign.7 However, the three years of existence in the milieu of the Guards officers exerted a fatal influence on his whole life and was the reason for his being unable to make proper use of his enormous and original musical talents. This waste of time, day after day, distracted him from useful work, taught him idleness, prevented him from developing discipline of thought, and brought him finally into the milieu of people for whom knowledge was totally alien. He was deprived of exchanging ideas and thoughts, which is so vital for a young artist. Later on, when Musorgsky did not try to conceal the bad influence of the Guards milieu, he would occasionally say: “This is in accordance with the true Preobrazhenskii style.”8
As a pupil at the same school where I was also perfecting my equestrian skills, Musorgsky was remembered as being an excellent pianist, and also for having had the honor of being invited to the home of the school’s director to play duets with his daughter. The interest aroused in our school was quite understandable when the concert given in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobles featured Porazhenie Sennakheriba [Destruction of Sennakherib],9 a work composed by a former cadet. Everyone was saying, “Look what kind of cadets we have here in the Guards; we are not like the Army.” By that time, I had already botched a fair amount of music paper, and for that reason, I rushed to the concert hall. As I remember, I was disappointed with Destruction of Sennakherib and its composer. “Come with me, I will introduce you,” M., a captain in the household troops of the cuirassiers regiment, said. “He is over there, standing next to the column on the upper step.” And I saw a dandy, of medium height, whose appearance, I dare say, was not attractive. He was snub-nosed, with protruding eyes, little red cheeks, and slightly curly hair. A real cockerel, and a provocative one at that. I was all set to refuse to be introduced, but it was too late: my friend was already talking to him. I soon found that I was talking to an extremely refined, smartly dressed aristocrat, with tightly pursed lips, lilac gloves, and elegant manners. His speech came through clenched teeth and was interspersed with many French words. Everything gave the impression that he was a fashionable fop, but at the same time, this aristocrat had something which made him highly likable and not at all banal. His expression changed quickly; at one minute he was stern-faced, the next he was laughing whole-heartedly. His speech was bold in its changes of intonation and rhythm, for his voice had a wide range. His movements were jerky, his attitude challenging, but immediately afterward some sort of shyness and timidity would reveal a very nervous nature and gentle character. Some five years later, at O[sip] A[fanasievich] Petrov’s, where Musorgsky was a frequent guest, before the staging of his opera Boris Godunov, I got to know Modest Petrovich much better. By that time, I was enthralled with his compositions and would play them as much as I could wherever I went. Our closer relationship convinced me of his phenomenal musical talent. At the time I was seriously studying music theory from the viewpoint of acoustics as well as how it would apply to art, and consequently I am sure it is quite understandable why I was interested in the opinion on this subject of such an original composer as Musorgsky. From our conversations, I was soon convinced that the great composer was as innocent as a newborn babe when it came to music theory and the technique of composition. He did not even have the broad outlook of a piano virtuoso. I am convinced that he did not want to undertake a serious study of composing technique, or even think about it: he did not have time. He would study it sporadically, but as he was self-educated, he was not prepared for systematic work.10 Although he talked extensively about the seriousness of the role of the arts, and assigned them an instructive rather than a simply diversionary function, he wrote music only in his spare time, at random. The melody would flow instantly from his lively conversation, while its accompaniments would appear in masterly figures in Lisztian style. Theoretically, these figures were extraordinarily clear, artistic, original, and genuine, but technically they were of an inappropriate complexity and clumsiness. But considering Musorgsky’s technical preparation and his attitude about work, he had to be a genius to compose at all.
Musorgsky’s memory for music was staggering. He was at O. A. Petrov’s the day Petersburg received Wagner’s Siegfried. Musorgsky played it through, singing its score; and when asked to repeat Wotan’s scene, he played it from memory, from beginning to end. He was able to do the same with Rubinstein’s opera Demon.11 Immediately after hearing its premiere Musorgsky stopped by to visit “Grandfather” Petrov and played all the characteristic passages, from A to Z, heightening them by exaggeration. This impromptu performance was almost twice as good as his “Rayok” [Peep-show].12 Musorgsky was a first-class pianist; he was scarcely inferior to Rubinstein, especially when interpreting the essence of a composer’s music. It is not so difficult to imagine what came from his hands when he played Slav’sia, Slav’sia [Glory to Thee], when we read that the old keys of the Virt droned like bells and boomed like a brass orchestra.13 At the piano, Musorgsky was an inimitable humorous storyteller. He kept a straight face, which enhanced the comic aspect even more. I recall some hilarious scenes, such as the one of the young deacon’s wife playing sentimentally La prière d’une vierge [A virgin’s prayer]14 on a badly tuned piano. I think it quite important to stress that Musorgsky, most likely, never knew precisely what his compositions sounded like. He played them from memory, with slight changes each time. Thus, when he performed them, his rendering never followed the written score. I also think when somebody was singing and he was the accompanist, as he always was, he did not really hear the singer’s performance.
What impelled Musorgsky to abandon such a promising subject as Salammbô?15 One day I asked Modest Petrovich why he stopped the work he had begun. He stared at me, then burst out laughing, and making a gesture with his hand, he said: “It would have been no good. It would have been an anomalous Carthage.” Then, after a moment of silence, he continued seriously: “There is enough of the East in Iudif’ [Judith].16 Art is no game. Time is valuable.” What Modest Petrovich meant was that it was impossible to describe the East without having seen it, without knowing its melodies.
He possessed great dramatic gifts and easily could have become a leading actor. Drama, satire, and comedy were natural for him. . . . Anyone who has ever lived in the midst of the hearty Russian people knows how sharp their tongues are, and how witty their humor can be, and at the same time, how good naturedly they make fun of everything. Modest Petrovich was a true Russian. I do not know whether he ever took singing lessons or whether he had had a good voice,17 but when I heard him singing in the seventies, his vocal abilities had severely declined. Despite this, however, he was still one of the best singers I ever had the opportunity to hear.
I recall the day I went to Serov to show him “Svetik Savishna” [Darling Savishna]. He glanced at it quickly and with great derision said: “Ah, this is the famous Destruction of Sennakherib.18 Well, show it to us, sing it for us.” In my youth I used to be a singer, and as I had paid so much attention to all the vocal literature, I came to be known as the singer with an international repertoire. When I finished singing, Serov remained silent for a long time, as if he were embarrassed or afraid to give an opinion which might shatter his authority as a critic; then, he quickly muttered: “A horrible scene. This is Shakespeare put to music. What a pity he wields such a clumsy pen.”
The opera Boris Godunov made a strong impression on the public and created a great deal of talk in society although judgments differed. The majority were of the opinion that there was very little music as such in the new opera, and if it was a success it was due to the artists: their wonderful acting, they said, came to the composer’s rescue. I recall that after the scene in the inn, I went to see some acquaintances sitting in a box whom I had persuaded to take some interest in the new opera. The mood in the box was extremely animated; they were all talking, laughing, and discussing the different types of tramps. All had been enraptured with the performances by Petrov, Kommissarzhevskii, Leonova, and even Diuzhikov, a very poor artist who played Misail. After the first scene of the fourth act (“Granovitaia Palata” [The palace of facets]), I went to another box; there, an elderly lady was still holding her handkerchief to her eyes.
“I am delighted to see that the opera made such a strong impression on you.”
“That’s not an opera, there is no music in it. To be honest, I could not take my eyes off the stage. What a wonderful actor Mel’nikov is! His words are still ringing in my ears. He is not just an artist, he is a genius!”
“And how do you like Shuiskii?”
“He is a wonderful actor, too; but Mel’nikov is far better!”
Vasin’ka Vasil’ev the Second, nicknamed The Little One, sang the part of Shuiskii. He had a good voice, but he was a terrible actor. . . . But the public’s opinion that the new opera was successful because of the artists, that their wonderful acting had saved the composer, was a delusion. What really happened was that mediocre artists appeared to be brilliant because they performed magnificent recitatives, full of truth and dramatic effect. This is the great merit of Musorgsky’s operas. . . . I saw the opera Boris Godunov on several occasions and with different casts, but the public kept the same opinion about the incomparable acting.
I would like to say a few words about the real reason for the great Russian artist’s untimely death. Musorgsky was a warm-hearted man, but after his mother’s death in 1865, he was quite alone and most unfortunate. He did have a wide circle of acquaintances; however, excluding his musical circle (and right at the end) the Petrov family and a few others, the majority of these acquaintances belonged to the aristocracy, where purely social, superficial, and conventional ties were cultivated. Musorgsky’s closest friends were bachelors, burning out their lives in endless carousing. For some reason, he was wary of married life. One day, when Liudmila Shestakova began to talk to him about marriage, he answered her most seriously: “If you read in the papers the news that I shot or hanged myself, it will mean that I got married the day before.” There is no point in naming those who pushed the weak-willed Musorgsky into the morass which progressively undermined his health.19 Existence was miserable; it was a continuous dichotomy between the real and the ideal: between being enslaved by his bureaucratic duty or devoting himself to art. He sought oblivion from that life in the company of a few true friends and became accustomed to spending sleepless nights, poisoning himself with alcohol in the [tavern] Malyi Iaroslavets. Unfortunately, in that sympathetic company no one was strong enough to influence the weak-willed Musorgsky constructively. Quite the contrary: in most of the houses opened to him, his hosts indulged him with the poison. The staging of Boris Godunov was particularly hard on his health. He sought the patronage and support of powerful people both inside and outside the musical milieu; he could not refuse an invitation for a cup of tea or an invitation to entertain the public with his singing and playing; and then he would indulge himself with drink. With a sigh he would say: “Oh! The road to Parnassus, the one that leads to the top, is steep and tortuous.” But when he did ascend it, he was invited into homes which vied for his company, but they were homes with no real love of music. A crowd, dressed to the nines, would be invited for an evening in the company of the renowned composer. Enthralled by his glory and often oblivious to the degree of his humiliation, the celebrated composer would play and sing for the pleasure of the guests; he would wear himself out, wasting precious energy. He would then dine, drinking copiously; then, about three or four o’clock in the morning, he would return to the Malyi Iaroslavets. In addition to these evenings given in honor of the renowned composer, he often had to participate as an accompanist in the concerts of the students, who adored him.20 The poisoning of his organism exerted an ever-greater influence on his lucidity and on his ability to sustain the intense nervous exertion brought on during the periods of blessed inspiration and creativity. Musorgsky was, more than anyone else, his own worst enemy and, at the same time, he was everyone else’s best friend. His good nature knew no limit; one marvels at the meekness and placidity with which he endured all the jokes made about the direction he was taking in his art. He would laugh, saying: “Just imagine what dearest Pyotr Stepanovich told me yesterday during dinner at the Iaroslavets. ‘As a professor at the Conservatory, I am prepared to give you some advice on how to compose an opera.’ Bravo! He is such a dear. I will have to borrow something from his Oprichnik.”21
Musorgsky never even insulted those who, indeed, deserved an insult, although he would harmlessly joke about everyone who amused him. Generally speaking, he was endowed with an extraordinary number of those traits of talent and character typically bestowed on a Russian. In addition to his musical talent, he was blessed with great intelligence and a quick mind, but he never applied himself to the systematic study of a subject.
I remember vividly the shock created by Musorgsky’s death. I was devastated when I read the obituary.22 On my way to the Nikolaev Hospital, I asked myself if it were possible that everything was over and that there was no return. Just the other day I had seen his twinkling eyes and heard him say: “Everything is fine now. I have completely recovered, and soon we will start working again.” Was it possible that that fiery soul, who grieved over his famished, benighted people, was no more? When I entered the hospital chapel, all my doubts and hopes vanished. There lay the lifeless, cold body of Musorgsky, the great composer. He had died, broken down by fate, victim of a nervous disorder, before his enormous, unexhaustible talent had run dry. . . . Now, everything was over. A bright ray of the springtime sun infused the colorless face with tints of rose; the pursed lips gave him that expression he used to have when lost in thought. I remembered this expression from three years ago, when we both sat on a small green sofa in front of the casket of his dearly beloved “grandfather” Petrov, whispering about the great sorrow that befell his friends and its consequences.23 It was only then that I understood how wonderful, tender, and loving Musorgsky was, how dearly he loved Osip Afanasievich, and how much he was distressed by his death. He stood by the coffin and sobbed as disconsolately and loudly as a child. After drinking a glass of water, and having overcome his hysterical fit, he sat down on the small green sofa and began to talk, his voice breaking: “With grandfather’s death, I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost the support of my bitter life. Lately, when I was in this house, I felt as if I belonged to it. I’ve lost an irreplaceable mentor. He brought me up on the truth, and he gave me the inspiration to create. Just when it started to bloom, Russian opera was nipped in the bud. Now, in its place there will be a rank growth of foreign imitations that will stifle true Russian opera for years ahead.”