Vospominaniia o Musorgskom
Recollections of Musorgsky
Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906), an art and music critic, was the ideological leader of the Balakirev circle.
. . .
. . . Musorgsky soon reached the conclusion that if, indeed, his life’s true calling was to be a musician and a composer, and he did not want to fall behind his elder and more advanced friends, he had to work very hard. Therefore, it was no longer advisable to stay on in the army, for which at any rate, he had little inclination. He decided to resign his commission in the Preobrazhenskii Regiment. I vividly recall how I met him in 1857, through M[ilii] A[lekseevich] Balakirev, and how we immediately became close friends. I remember that during the summer and fall of 1858,1 during our walks, I diligently tried to talk him out of resigning. I used to tell him that Lermontov himself was able to be an officer in the hussars and at the same time a great poet,2 in spite of the expenses and the parades. Musorgsky would reply: “That was Lermontov, but I am not like him; may be he was able to cope with it but I cannot. Military service keeps me from working as I ought to!”
For the new Russian school of music the second half of the sixties was not only a time of unusually brisk activity; it was also a most exhilarating time of creativity. On one hand there was the fifty-year-old Dargomyzhsky, who had suddenly flared anew with unexpectable force, fearlessly moving toward the completion of his brilliant last work.3 On the other hand, a number of twenty-year-olds were just emerging: endowed with strong, original, highly diverse talents, they were beginning to compose a number of really important works. It was a time of truly lively and exuberant activity.
At the beginning of their careers, Balakirev was his fellow composers’ most reliable critic, their mentor when it came to musical forms and orchestration. Balakirev had been the earliest among them to master the form and achieve eminence, and now he was stretching out a trustworthy hand to his comrades. He provided the young composers with the majority of the themes for their most important compositions. He was the one who suggested that C[esar] A[ntonovich] Cui write an opera about Ratcliff, that N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov write Pskovitianka [The maid of Pskov] as well as Antar, and that A[leksandr] P[orfirievich] Borodin write his Tsarskaia Nevesta [The tsar’s bride] (which, by the way, Borodin never completed). Balakirev had an unusually powerful influence on his musical circle: none of his comrades matched his passion for research. He discovered and immediately performed the as yet unknown works of the masters of the post-Beethoven period, such as F[ranz] Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, and Listz. A newly discovered composition would make him radiantly happy. With his ardent passion he would infect all of his followers, he was such a powerful leader.4
Balakirev was surrounded by a phalanx of young composers with the most varied natures and interests, but with an identical talent: passionate, powerful, and deep-rooted. They all developed and achieved their first successes at practically the same time. By the middle of the sixties each of them had composed many original and important works which were to play a significant role not only in the course of their own creativity but also in the history of Russian music. Cui was the composer of the overture to Kavkazskii plennik [The prisoner of the Caucasus], a beautiful scherzo for orchestra, and several songs in which all his passionate, nervous, and graceful nature found expression. At times his work is reminiscent of Schumann. He was also capable of striking soulful notes of an emotional depth well beyond the reach of any other composer. One of his best songs of that period is the one based on the words “V dushe gorit ogon’ liubvi” [My soul is aflame with love].5 Cui had also started to work on his marvelous first opera, Ratcliff.6 N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov had already met Balakirev and started to compose talented works while still a cadet in the Naval School.7 In 1865, having barely returned from a world cruise, he composed a symphony which immediately attracted the attention of even such a demanding public as ours was then.8 He was soon to compose a whole series of strikingly beautiful and poetic songs: “Evreiskaia pesn’ ” [Hebrew song], “Plenivshis’ rozoi, solovei” [Enslaved by a rose, the nightingale], “Iz slyoz moikh” [From my tears], “Sosna” [The pine tree], “Iuzhnaia noch’ ” [Southern night], “V temnoi roshche” [In the dark grove]. And he was already thinking about Sadko and Antar.9 Finally, Borodin, the last one of the group to publish although he was somewhat older than the others, produced his magnificent and original symphony in 1862. It made a strong impression on Balakirev from its very first measures; and he immediately recognized the enormous originality of the new composer. At that time, Borodin had already written the first of his wonderful songs: “Falshivaia nota” [The false note] and “Spiashchaia kniazhna” [The sleeping princess].10 These very talented young men were not only fellow musicians but also friends. They met constantly, would spend whole nights together playing music, and, naturally, had a strong effect on each other since they lifted one another’s spirits and fanned each other’s poetical fire. In that circle, Musorgsky was one of the most important and one of the most gifted.
During those years Musorgsky produced some of his most perfect compositions—a whole series of songs.11 The group gathered in several friendly neighboring homes, either at Dargomyzhsky’s or Cui’s, or Shestakova’s (Glinka’s sister), or, finally, sometimes, at my place. Nothing can compare with the marvelous artistry that prevailed in these intimate gatherings. Each man in the group was such a talented composer. Each brought with him that wonderful poetic atmosphere intrinsic to the artist deeply involved in his work and seized with inspiration. They rarely came empty-handed to the meetings: one would bring either one of his new works, barely finished, or he would bring excerpts of what was being composed at the moment; another would show a new scherzo; a third, a new song; a fourth, part of a symphony or an overture; a fifth, a chorus; and yet another one, an operatic ensemble. What a freedom of creative forces it was! What a luxurious triumph of fantasy, inspiration, and musical innovation! They would crowd around the piano, where the accompanist was either Balakirev or Musorgsky, the best pianists of the group. The reading of the piece would begin immediately, followed by the criticism, the weighing of the merits and shortcomings, the attack and the defense. Then they would sing and play the best-loved previous compositions by the members. During these meetings, where talent, vivacity, exacting criticism, and gaiety were all in full swing, Musorgsky’s songs always made a great impression. The tragic character of some and the comical character and humor of others had a profound effect on this highly talented and therefore highly susceptible audience. These songs were, almost without exception, performed by unanimous request. No wonder! The talent of the composition was constantly paralleled by the talent of the execution. Musorgsky was a magnificent pianist, and he got better every day (naturally, we are not talking about the concert pieces). He would accompany the singing—mainly his own—with peerless perfection. What was a mere listeners’ enthusiasm in the face of that exceptional honesty, wit, grace, and simplicity, pouring forth from Musorgsky!
The song “Savishna” was composed before any of the others.12 As Musorgsky himself told me later, he got the idea for the piece while in the country at his brother’s (at the Minkino estate), during the summer of 1865. One day, standing by the window he was startled by the sight of the commotion that was taking place before his eyes. The unfortunate village idiot was pouring out his love to a young peasant girl. He begged her to love him, but he felt ashamed of himself, his ugliness, and his miserable condition. He realized that nothing on earth, especially the happiness of love, existed for him. Musorgsky was deeply affected, for both the subject and the scene strongly impressed him. In a trice he had both the original forms and sounds to embody the shattering images. But he did not finish the song at that time. First he wrote his “Kolybe’naia pesnia” [Lullaby] (“Spi, usni, krestianskii syn”) [Sleep, sleep, peasant’s son], which is full of painful, anguished sorrow. It was only several months later that he completed “Savishna.” Musorgsky wrote his own text for this song, as he was to do for all his best songs.
I have already mentioned what a great master Musorgsky was as an accompanist and as a singer. Quite often at the time, as well as later on, during our little get-togethers and meetings and among ourselves, we would say that in this field he was definitely unique and incomparable. Even such an utterly outstanding pianist as A[nton] Rubinstein13 was only half the equal of Musorgsky. With equal perfection both could accompany the brilliant songs of Schumann, Schubert, and other great Western composers. But Musorgsky had another talent which was unattainable by Rubinstein or any Western musician: this was the talent for performing national music, especially these truly popular, completely new, realistic scenes and pictures à la Gogol’ I just mentioned. Here, Musorgsky was in his own special, novel, and original kingdom, where no purely Western musician could follow him. But, fortunately for him (and also for his entire group of fellow composers), two others joined them, around the mid-sixties, in performing the entirely native compositions of this new Russian music. They became his close followers, comrades, and helpers. Aleksandra and Nadezhda Purgold were two young ladies of unusual talent.14 The first was a singer, the second a pianist. Both Glinka and Dargomyzhsky were always surrounded by a whole retinue of amateur singers and pianists. The latter would usually perform these composers’ songs and arias for their immediate circle, but sometimes they would also perform them in public. No doubt, more than one had real talent, an attractive manner, and great enthusiasm. But none of them (I have every right to say this, since I heard all of them, at either Glinka’s or Dargomyzhsky’s) even closely matched the talent and deep musical feeling of the Purgold sisters.
The elder sister, the singer, had little talent for performing formal operatic arias. On the other hand, she was inimitable in the realistic and lively performance of those musical works whose principal feature was their genuine, true-to-life realism, the passion of the soul, or the human comedy. Because of this gift, Dargomyzhsky’s and Musorgsky’s music was prominent in her repertoire. How she could perform Musorgsky’s best works! She would very faithfully reproduce his realistic recitative, so close and dear to her own heart, but she did not copy him blindly. She would freely interpret the work she performed, following her own instincts, and would add something of her own, more often than not a note of subtle and beautiful femininity. And according to the composers themselves, she would often add such expression that even they saw their own works anew. Her younger sister also came very close to Musorgsky’s accomplishments when she accompanied the singers and her sister. She would add her own inflection and character, her own audacious and subtle expression (this was not surprising in that she was herself a gifted composer and a powerful musician). In his conversation and letters Musorgsky often called her “our dear orchestra.” The presence of the two sisters in the circle of the “comrade composers” added enormously to the general harmony. When Dargomyzhsky was rehearsing Kamennyi Gost’ [The stone guest] toward the end of 1868, both sisters played an important part: the elder one was magnificent and unusually poetic in her rendering of Anna and Laura; and the younger one played the role of the orchestra.15 Dargomyzhsky himself played the part of Don Juan, Musorgsky that of Leporello and Don Carlos. No audience today will ever have the opportunity to hear Dargomyzhsky’s work in such a perfect performance. Even at that time only Petrov16 was their equal; his rendition of Leporello’s part was one of the wonders of his already amazing repertoire.
In the fall, when Musorgsky returned to Petersburg, the first act of Zhenit’ba [The marriage] was performed by the circle of comrade musicians.17 Dargomyzhsky, who, at the beginning of the summer had been so deeply moved by the first rehearsals of the opera, was now playing the role of Kochkaryov, Musorgsky himself that of Podkolesin; Aleksandra Nikolaevna Purgold was playing the matchmaker Fyokla; and her sister, Nadezhda Nikolaevna, was the accompanist. Both the rehearsals and the performance were accompanied by bursts of laughter because the exact tone of Gogol’s brilliant comedy was so carefully preserved at every turn. Several years later, Musorgsky gave me the original piano score of his Marriage and wrote to me (January 2, 1873):
Today is a special day for me and you too. It’s your birthday. I have been thinking about you all day, and I have been asking myself what I would do for you. The answer came in a flash. And as it often happens with truly impudent fellows: I have decided to give myself as the gift. So that is what I am doing. Take my early work based on Gogol’s Marriage, have a look at my attempts at recitative, compare them with Boris, compare the years 1868 and 1871, and you will see that I irrevocably send you myself. I have included the part of Kochkaryov copied by Dargomyzhsky, as a precious memorial to him from his last days: he copied it out, notwithstanding his grave illness and his own work on The Stone Guest. I cannot stand confusion and I think that for the one who is interested, Marriage will clarify a lot of my musical daring. You know how dearly I value this Marriage, and to set the record straight, you know that it was suggested to me by Dargomyzhsky (as a joke) and by Cui (for whom it was not a joke). The time and the period of the work are clear; the location is also given. To make a long story short, everything is done openly, without any concealment. Take me, my dear friend, and do with me whatever you wish.18
And now, after Musorgsky’s death, I shall do not what I wish to do, but what I must do: I will give the piano score, along with the musical autographs, papers, and letters of my dear deceased friend to our public library.
While composing his new opera [Boris Godunov], just as he did when writing Salammbô, Musorgsky was totally engrossed not only in the characters’ dialogues but also in the setting of the entire staging: all the external and internal details of the drama, the mimicry, the grouping, the postures, and so on. I will give one absolutely characteristic example. In the autograph libretto, the first scene of the opera bears the following directions:
The walls of the Novodevichii Monastery near Moscow; close to the middle are the prominent gates of the monastery and they have an awning over them. The people, in small groups, start gathering in the monastery’s courtyard; their movements are slack, their walking desultory. Boyars cross the stage, exchanging bows with the people, and make their way toward the monastery gates. When they disappear through the gates, the people start to wander about the stage. Some of them (mainly women) peek through the gates, others whisper to each other or simply scratch the backs of their heads. The Police Officer enters. At his sight, people gather into a compact crowd and stand motionless; the women—with their hands to their cheeks, the men hold their caps, or cross their arms on their chests, their heads lowered.
One can give many such examples in the opera.
Initially, the opera Boris Godunov was to have had only four acts and almost no female roles. All of us closest to Musorgsky, myself included, while we greatly admired the dramatic effect and the realism of the opera, we nevertheless continued to point out that the opera was not perfect. We felt that many essential details were missing, and that however great the beauty of the parts we heard, the opera still appeared unfinished. Musorgsky (as would any author) persistently defended what he had done; the opera was the result of his considered reflection and inspiration. For a long time he would not agree with us. Finally, he yielded, but only to force. In the fall of 1870, the theatrical directors refused to put Boris on stage, because they found too many choruses and ensembles and a noticeable absence of individual parts.19 This rejection was a blessing. Musorgsky decided to rework the opera. At last he yielded to his friends’ requests, especially mine and that of the talented architect Victor Hartmann,20 who passionately loved Musorgsky’s compositions. Hartmann particularly liked the excerpts from the “Scene by the Fountain,” which Musorgsky now reworked. The work on this scene had previously been almost completed, but, God knows why, Musorgsky had abandoned it. I also advised him to compose a short song for the hostess of the inn, whose part, as it stood, was too small and insignificant: she had only a few words to say. We decided together that it would be good to give her more “character,” namely, to make her a former débauchée, who has gone through fire and water (she is after all meant to be an innkeeper on a major thoroughfare). Musorgsky took the text for this little song “Ia poimala siza seleznia” [I have caught a dovegrey drake] from Shein’s21 collection, which I had recently discovered. That same collection provided the text for the mother’s short song “Kak komar drova rubil” [The mosquito chopped wood] and the tsarevich’s “Turu-turu” [Little rooster]. Musorgsky himself wrote the text for the tsarevich Fyodor’s story “Popin’ka nash sidel s mamkami v svetlitse” [Our Popin’ka was with the nurses in the women’s quarters]. He based it on our discovery of Karamzin’s account that parrots had been first brought to Russia, as a gift for the tsar, during Boris’s reign. The scene with the clock was also based on a detailed description we had discovered in Karamzin. We decided to use yet another of his accounts: of the people’s rebellion and of the Jesuits Czernikovskii and Lavitskii. This provided the theme for the magnificent scene in which people jeer the boyar Khrushchev, the Kromy’s voevode [commander], as well as for the scene of the people’s reprisal of the Jesuits,22 the moment of the victorious Pretender’s approach with his army.* The text for the people’s chorus “Gaida! Raskhodilas’, razgulialas’ sila molodetskaia!” [Forward! Our valiant ardor has become unharnessed and has broken loose!] was based on a robber’s song, suggested by D[aniil] L[ukich] Mordovtsev.23 As for Varlaam’s song, which had been included in the first version of the opera, we searched out the song “Kak vo gorode [bylo] vo Kazani” [So it was in the city of Kazan’], based on a short note by Pushkin. The text of this song is included in the Drevnie russkie stikhotvoreniia [Ancient Russian poems] and elsewhere.** It was during this time too that much was added to Pimen’s scene, chiefly the chorus of the “night-bird,” which is heard from afar, offstage. In all likelihood, none of these important songs of Musorgsky’s would have been written if his opera had been accepted immediately by the directors and put on stage. As for the music itself, after the rejection of the opera, new music was composed, supplemented with parts borrowed from previous material. As I have mentioned before, the major part had been borrowed from Salammbo, although it was significantly changed and developed. The melody for Varlaam’s and Misail’s sermon to the people, “Solntse, luna pomerknuli” [The sun and the moon have grown dark], was borrowed by Musorgsky from the melody of a bylina by Riabinin, a popular singer of tales who came from Olonets to Petersburg in 1868. Musorgsky had heard him during a public meeting of the Geographical Society and later at A[leksandr] F[yodorovich] Gilferding’s.25 Along with all these changes, during the winter of 1870 Musorgsky made another important modification: he decided to conclude the opera, not with Boris’s death, but with the scene of the people’s rebellion, the Pretender’s triumph, and the Holy Fool’s weeping for wretched Mother Russia. This conclusion certainly enhanced the tragic, shattering force and the menacing intent of the opera. V[ladimir] V[asilievich] Nikol’skii, Musorgsky’s friend, suggested this crucial transposition. Musorgsky was enthusiastic and, in a couple of days, he had reworked the ending. I must confess that I was devastated and extremely envious of Nikol’skii for having been the one to suggest such a brilliant, magnificent idea.26
From that very winter of 1868 up to the beginnings of 1874 (when Boris was put on stage), first excerpts, and then the entire opera, were performed dozens of times in the circle of the comrade composers. The rejoicing, rapture, and admiration were general; each of these talented men, although he might find flaws in the opera, was aware that an important new work had been created right here, before his eyes. Prior to his death, Dargomyzhsky also heard some of the principal excerpts of the opera: the first scene, and the scene in the inn. And although he was busy at the time, working on the conclusion of his great and brilliant masterpiece Kamennyi Gost’ [The stone guest], which was the apex of his artistic life, with great generosity and enthusiasm, he kept repeating to all that Musorgsky “is going even further than I.”27 Musorgsky would usually perform everything himself at the musical gatherings of the comrades: the choruses, the recitatives, the ensembles, and the arias. Aleksandra Nikolaevna Purgold was his superb assistant. She performed the female roles—the nurse Kseniia and Marina—as well as the tsarevich and the small boys pestering the Holy Fool. She sang with ardor, passion, grace, youthful energy, and playfulness, but mainly with a simplicity and naturalness that came close to the incomparable renditions of Musorgsky himself. The rehearsals for Boris took place at L[iudmila] I[vanovna] Shestakova’s, at V[ladimir] F[yodorovich] Purgold’s, at A[lina] A[leksandrovna] Khvostova’s.28 Khvostova, too, sang superbly both romances and opera, with true excellence, simplicity, faithfulness, and artistic feeling. She performed the female roles in Ratcliff [William Ratcliff] and Pskovitianka [The maid of Pskov] and the best songs of Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Musorgsky; perhaps, best of all, she sang the marvelous nurse’s fairy tale in The Maid of Pskov.29 Boris Godunov was constantly being changed each time these friends got together. When the opera was completely finished at last, during the winter of 1871-1872, excerpts were performed on several occasions by Iu[liia] F[yodorovna] Platonova and F[yodor] P[etrovich] Kommissarzhevskii30 at the home of Mr. Lukashevidch,31 the head of wardrobe and set design, who at that time, was still very much interested in the fortunes of the new Russian opera. In February 1873, in the Mariinskii Theater, at a benefit performance for the producer G[ennadii] P[etrovich] Kondratiev, three excerpts of the opera were performed: the scenes “At the Inn,” “In Marina’s Boudoir,” and “By the Fountain.” Shortly after that Musorgsky had written me (January 2, 1873).
Soon we will be brought to trial! Gleefully we dream of how we will stand before the executioner, fully preoccupied now by Khovanshchina (the new opera that Musorgsky was already working on) judged for Boris. With courage bordering on audacity, we look toward the far musical distance that beckons us. The verdict does not frighten us. We shall be told: “You have violated the laws of God and man!” We shall answer: “Yes!,” and we shall think: “This is only the beginning!” They shall caw: “Soon you shall be forgotten forever!’”* We shall answer: “Non, non, et non, Madame!” [Madam!]
The three scenes sung at the benefit were an enormous success. Petrov, who performed Varlaam brilliantly, outshone them all. I would say that in his repertoire, there were no other parts that he performed with greater talent and creative power than that of Leporello in The Stone Guest and Varlaam in Boris. This role best showed the maturity, force, and breadth of his talent. The singularity, humor, historical accuracy, and plenitude of the national character that Petrov put into the part have never been equaled. The other performers were also excellent, and D[ar’ia] M[ikhailovna] Leonova was superb in her role as the hostess of the inn. The next morning, one friend sent Musorgsky his “hurrah!” and another his congratulations and warm wishes. On the night of the performance, a lady admirer had sent him his first garland.32 Several months later, the rehearsals for the complete opera were under way. After the first one, on January 9, 1874, an extremely lively and happy Musorgsky, all “excited” (as he wrote me at the time), had his best photograph taken by Lorens. According to our agreement, he offered me the first print.33
At long last, on January 27, 1874, the full opera was performed. It was Musorgsky’s great triumph. On one hand the old people, those who were indifferent, the conservatives, and the worshippers of the banal operatic music of the period sulked and were angry (this was also, in its way, a triumph!); the pedants of the conservatory and the critics protested furiously. Some sort of stupid plot was hatched to deprive Musorgsky of the four garlands from his female supporters with the inscriptions: “Slava tebe za Borisa, slava” [Glory to Thee for Boris!], “Podnialas’ sila pododonnaia” [A force has arisen from the “bosom of the deep,” which was a quotation from the people’s chorus in Act V], “K novym beregam!” [Toward new shores!], and so forth. The garlands were to have been presented after the first performance, but his unfortunate admirers were forced to send them to Musorgsky’s home. On the other hand, the young generation rejoiced and immediately lauded Musorgsky to the skies. What did it matter to them if the critics competed with each other in tearing Musorgsky to pieces? One critic talked about his illiteracy; another about his crudeness and lack of taste; a third one about the violation of traditions; a fourth one about the unsuitability of starting the chorus straight from the pedal; a fifth one saw a kind of melodramatics in the Jesuit Rangoni’s part: a sixth one said that the best parts were the “rounded off” scenes of the opera—according to the usual prescription for an opera (such as the cute but in no way original child’s story “Popin’ka nash sidel” [Our Popin’ka was . . . ], or the trio at the end of the “Scene by the Fountain”). Someone said that the author was too “satisfied with himself” (!), that his music was “immature and hasty” (!), and so they continued.34 What did the young care about all this pettiness, boorishness, misinterpretation, and scholasticism, which were nothing but ingrained habits of envy and malice! The young people with their fresh and unprejudiced vision saw that a great artistic force had created and given our people a new, marvelous, national opera, and they rejoiced and celebrated. Twenty performances were given to very full houses.35 Often at night a crowd of young people, as they approached the Liteinyi Bridge to cross to the Vyborg side, would sing “velichanie boiarina narodom” [the people honor the boyar] and other choruses. The younger generation overlooked what was weak and unsatisfactory in the opera (such as Marina’s scene with the maids and the girls from Sandomir, and a few others) and hailed everything else with the same enthusiasm that their fathers had hailed the best of Pushkin, Gogol’, and Ostrovskii. They understood, and therefore they applauded Musorgsky for being one of their own and dear to their hearts.
Throughout 1871 Musorgsky was busy with the new scenes to be added to Boris.36 He was living with his loyal friend N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov, and toward the end of the year was working particularly hard. It was an unprecedented event in the history of music: in the same apartment, in the same room, and at the same time, two operatic masterpieces, Boris and Pskovitianka [The maid of Pskov] were being composed. Two friends sat, each at his own desk, silently writing his opera. Later, when a particular excerpt, scene, chorus, or ensemble was ready, each would play his new piece on the piano for the other, and then for the rest of their comrades and friends. When had anything like this ever been seen or heard before?
I shall never forget how, when they were still young men living together in one room, I would go there early in the morning and find them both still asleep. I would wake them up; get them out of bed; give them whatever was necessary for their morning toilet; hand them stockings, pants, robes or jackets, and shoes. We would drink tea together and eat the Swiss cheese sandwiches, which we liked so much that Rimsky-Korsakov and I were often called “Russulas” [A play on words. “Cheese eater” and the mushroom Russula are homonyms.—Trans.]. And immediately after morning tea we would start working at what we most loved and was so vital to us—music. The piano could be heard and the singing would start, and with great excitement and bustle they would show me what they had composed the previous day, or the day before, or the day before that. How wonderful it was, but how long ago.37
In 1875 Musorgsky composed a series of songs with the general heading Pliaska smerti [Dance of death].38 I was the one who had suggested the subject. Count A[rsenii] A[rkadievich] Golenishchev-Kutuzov, Musorgsky’s friend, who shared his apartment from 1874 to 1875, wrote the text and Musorgsky composed the music. The series included: (a) “Trepak.” During a snowstorm, the Grim Reaper meets an old drunken and hapless peasant in the forest and freezes him to death. This tragic song, one of the most beautiful written by Musorgsky, was performed many times when our group met at L[iudmila] I[vanovna] Shestakova’s by O[sip] A[fanasievich] Petrov. He sang it with the same uncompromising realism and sense of tragedy with which he sang “Savishna.” The song is dated February 17, 1875. (b) “Kolybel’nia” [Lullaby]. Death snatches a sick child from her mother’s embrace. This song, gloriously beautiful and deeply dramatic, once made such a strong impression on one of the listeners, a young mother, that she fainted. It was usually performed by Anna Iakovlevna Petrova (Petrov’s wife) with inimitable perfection, despite the fact that she no longer had that wonderful contralto that drove Petersburg out of its mind in the thirties and forties, when she sang the parts of Vania and Ratmir.39 Even in her old age her singing retained so much talent, passion, and dramatic expression that nobody could ever equal her. At those same meetings at Shestakova’s, meetings which were truly unforgettable for the lucky ones who frequented them, A[nna] I[akovlevna] Petrova sometimes would sing “Sirotka” [The orphan]40 by Musorgsky and “Pesnia raskol’nitsy Marfy” [The song of Marfa the Old Believer] from Khovanshchina, with a truly incomparable sense of the tragedy and emotion that the songs arouse. “Lullaby” is dated April 14, 1875. (c) “Serenada” [Serenade]. Death in the guise of a knight-troubadour strangles a beautiful young girl while singing a love song to her. This song is dated May 11, 1875. (d) “Polkovodets” [The field marshal]. Death, portrayed as a general, destroys a whole crowd of people in the midst of the stormy riot of battle. This is a magnificent song, one of Musorgsky’s best works. The song is dated June 1877. Along with these four themes, I had suggested several others: the death of a stern, fanatic monk in his cell while the distant ringing of a bell is heard; a political exile on his way back home perishes at sea, which represents his homeland; the death of a young woman while dreaming about love and her last, treasured ball. I had also suggested other themes.41 But Musorgsky, although very pleased with them, had no time to complete a song; he would just play excerpts for me and the others. Even the four songs he did complete, mentioned above, remained unpublished at that time.
During his last five or six years, Musorgsky was totally engrossed in two operas written simultaneously: Khovanshchina and Sorochinskaia Iarmarka [The fair at Sorochintsy]. I had suggested the first subject in the spring of 1872, when Boris Godunov had not yet been put on stage. It was my belief that the struggle of the Old and the New Russia, the falling of the former and the rising of the latter, was a rich field for drama and opera, and Musorgsky shared my views. I thought that the majestic figure of Dosifei—the head of the Old Believers—should be at the heart of the work. He was a strong, energetic man of great intelligence, who had suffered greatly. Like a commanding and powerful force he directed all the movements of the two princes—Khovanskii representing the old, dark, fanatic, and impenetrable Russia, and Golitsyn representing Europe, which was now beginning to be understood and appreciated even among Tsarevna Sof’ia’s followers. There were to be various characters and events taking place in the German and the Streltsy settlements. There would be a pastor and his elderly sister, their young German niece, and two Old Believers: Marfa, the picture of youth and passion (somewhat similar to Potiphar’s wife), and Susanna, the dry, sallow, wicked old fanatic. These two women constantly clashed with each other. There would be a youthful ten-year-old Peter with his Poteshnyi Regiment; and the intelligent and energetic Sof’ia with her wild Streltsy. One would see the Old Believers’ monastery and the suicide by fire of the wild fanatics at the end of the opera, when Dosifei realized that “Old Russia was dying and a New Russia was born.” It all seemed to be a worthwhile enterprise. Musorgsky eagerly began work on the opera. His research of the Old Believers, of Old Russian historical sources, as well as his general research of the sources from the eighteenth century, was extremely thorough. Numerous, often long letters written to me at that time were filled with the details of that research and with our discussions about the composition of the opera, its characters, and its scenes. His best work was composed between 1872 and 1875, and that work was magnificent and showed enormous talent.42 But after that period, affected by his failing health and his shattered physique, his talent began to weaken and, apparently, to change. His compositions became confused, bizarre, and even, at times, incoherent and tasteless.43 In order to finish the opera more quickly, since it had become too much for him, he greatly changed the libretto, leaving out many scenes, details, and even characters; quite often this was done at great detriment to the opera.44 In the summer of 1880, he finally finished Khovanshchina45 while living at the dacha of his close friend D[ar’ia] M[ikhailovna] Leonova, the very talented artist who was the “hostess of the inn” (in Boris) and Marfa the Old Believer (in Khovanshchina), and who sang many of his best songs.
The idea of another opera, Sorochinskaia Iarmarka [The fair at Sorochintsy], came to Musorgsky in 1875, as a result of his desire to create a Ukranian role for O[sip] A[fanasievich] Petrov, whose unusual talent he greatly admired and to whom he became very close during the staging of Boris in the years 1873 and 1874. He also became close friends with Petrov’s wife, A[nna] Ia[kovlevna], who, as we said above, was a remarkable singer even in her old age. The opera was to remain far from completed,46 but the second act (the scene with Khivria and the reader, and other passages) presents some comic moments which are as good as those that Musorgsky wrote in better times.
Two series of songs written at that time, one entitled Bez solntsa [Sunless] (1874), based on the words by his friend Count Kutuzov, and another based on verses by Count A[leksei] Tolstoi (1877), are far less representative of the earlier Musorgsky’s works.47
His very last compositions were “Pesn’ Mefistofelia v Auerbakhovom pogrebe o blokhe” [Mephistopheles’ song about the flea in Auerbach’s cellar], composed during a trip in 1879; and as a result of an impression from the same trip, two capriccios, “Baidarki” and “Gurzuf”; and a big piece, “Buria na Chyornom more” [Storm on the Black Sea]. All three are piano pieces.48 He then thought about writing a long “suite for orchestra, harps, and piano” on themes he had gathered (as he wrote to me on August 5, 1880) “from various helpful wayfarers of this world. Its program is to include themes from Bulgarian shores, a Black Sea crossing, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and Fergana up to Burma. The suite is unfinished.” The 1866 romance “Pesn’ Eryomy” [The song of Eryoma] was reworked by Musorgsky into the romance entitled “Dniepr.” However, except for the “Pesnia o blokhe” [The song of the flea], none of these late compositions reflect Musorgsky’s earlier talent, force, and originality.
His dissatisfaction with his official duties, mentioned to me more than once in his letters,49 his lack of means, his forced withdrawal from the Ministry of State Properties in 1879 (and the following year, his departure from the Government Control, where he had been given a job thanks to the efforts of T[ertii] I[vanovich] Filippov50), his failing health, and more than anything else the castration of Boris by the directors of the theater and its subsequent removal from the repertoire for an unknown cause:51 all of this had a fatal effect on his mood, on his entire moral constitution, and at the same time deeply affected his creativity and his talent itself. Both the talent and the creativity began to weaken. The only thing that could still lift his spirits and console him was his constant participation in the countless concerts to which he was invited as the splendid accompanist for the singers. The majority of these concerts were given in order to raise money for students and for young people. Musorgsky never declined an invitation. He always had such enormous success that, at one time, he seriously considered earning his living as a pianist and accompanist. On June 15, 1876, he wrote to me: “Since I am so active on the keys, I am starting to reach the conclusion that if it is my fate to earn my daily bread by clanging,—I will be able to manage it. . . . ” But this did not happen. The piano and concerts never brought him any money. He had to continue to earn his living through his official duties, for which he was criticized and ridiculed by Rostislav and other worthless critics. His trip through southern Russia with D[ar’ia] M[ikhailovna] Leonova in the summer of 1879 and the series of triumphs they both achieved in concerts in Poltava, Kherson’, Odessa, etc., revived him for a short while.52 But very shortly after that his health definitely declined, and he passed away on March 16, 1881, in the Nikolaev Military Hospital. The concern and care of friends and admirers had been insufficient to help him.
Musorgsky died far from fulfilling all that his rich nature had promised, but also far from having been fully appreciated by his homeland. This last task will be the responsibility of future generations.
IZ Nekrologa Musorgskogo
FROM Musorgsky’s Obituary
Once again Russia has lost a great man! Today, Monday, March 16, at five o’clock in the morning, in Nikolaev Military Hospital, near Smol’nyi, Modest Petrovich Musorgsky passed away from paralysis of the heart and of the spinal cord. The disease which had been developing over the years in the greatly ruined and now shattered physique climaxed on February 12, with three nervous shocks succeeding each other in a matter of only a few hours. The following day, thanks to the efforts of his friends and those closest to him, Musorgsky was placed in the military hospital, and soon he started to improve under the care of Dr. L[ev] B[ernardovich] Bertenson, who showed the suffering invalid the warmest concern and the most loving solicitude. During the next two weeks, Musorgsky suddenly improved so much that he frequently repeated to the numerous friends who visited him: “Never in my life did I feel so well as I do now.” The people close to him could not stop marveling at this happy change; they found in his appearance an unexpected change for the better; they noticed that his strength, good spirits, and healthy complexion were returning. And hope began to revive among Musorgsky’s sincere admirers. But he was suddenly overcome by an unexpected relapse:53 new and frightening symptoms began to appear, his arms and legs were paralyzed, and in a very few days he was no more. Total consciousness and memory did not leave him until his last minutes. He died without pain or suffering; the agony lasted only a couple of seconds. Who among the many friends, who only yesterday had spent several hours with him during the day or evening, could have imagined that they were seeing him for the last time and that in a few hours he would be no more?
Musorgsky died on his 42nd birthday in the very prime of life and talent. (He was born on March 16, 1839.54) How distant the years of old age should have been, and how much one could have expected of him, in view of his powerful talent and dynamic nature! But he was stricken by the castiron, implacable hand of that very bitter fate which hangs, practically without exception, over the greatest talents in our fatherland: almost none of them lives long, lives as long as he could and should live; almost none of them accomplishes everything he obviously was called to and for which he was born. Almost everyone is mown down halfway.
IZ Perov i Musorgskii
FROM Perov and Musorgsky
Did Musorgsky (who, incidentally, had never heard of Perov’s painting) intend to write the opera “Pugachevtsy” after completing Khovanshchina? We had many a talk on this topic, and the traces of his intentions can be found in our correspondence.55 Musorgsky, just like Perov, thought about basing his plot to a large extent on Pushkin’s Captain’s Daughter; however, he was planning to add many other, new elements. In one of the acts of the opera, the very scene painted by Perov was to be used: Pugachyov stands on the porch, surrounded by his comrades, assistants, and a whole crowd of wild, unruly, Russian and Asiatic free-booters, and Father Gerasim stands close by (according to Pushkin).
IZ Pamiati Musorgskogo
FROM In Honor of the Memory of Musorgsky
His biography is short, sad, and full of woe, as is the case for almost all of our most talented men. He died young. He was still a long way from having accomplished everything he had surely been destined to achieve, endowed as he was with such great powers and talent. He was forced to spend the best years of his life at work behind a government desk. And when, notwithstanding the merciless distractions of day-to-day life, he created great and important works, which will be the pride of Russia in years to come, those in power in the musical world made every effort to suppress those works and to prevent them from ever being known.
IZ Dvadtsa’ pisem Turgeneva i moyo znakomstvo s nim
FROM Twenty Letters of Turgenev and Our Acquaintanceship
[On March 6, 1867, Stasov met Turgenev at a concert given by the Free Music School, in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobles.] At first, we discussed Briullov. But when we started talking about Dym [Smoke] I quickly changed the subject to Glinka, and I asked Turgenev if he really agreed with what his character Potugin56 said about him.
“But that’s horrible!” I said.
“Well, it’s really not a question of what Potugin thinks . . . retorted Turgenev. “It’s a bit of a caricature. I wanted to show a consummate Westerner; however, I basically agree with Potugin . . .”
“What? You mean Glinka had only a natural gift for music, and nothing more?”
“Well, of course, Glinka was talented, but he was never what all of you here in Petersburg assumed and now preach in all our papers. . . s.”
But we did not spend much time on Glinka. Turgenev changed the subject to the latest Russian composers, whom he utterly disliked and of whom he spoke with the greatest contempt.
“You know my opinion of all of them from what you have read in Smoke,” he said, now quite exasperated with me.
“But, Ivan Sergeevich,” I said, “how many times did you have a chance to listen to them in Paris?”
“When I come back to Petersburg, I make a point of hearing everything new that is being played here . . . It’s terrible . . . By the way, you needn’t look far for an example: just listen to what was performed here, tonight. In the first part, they sang some sort of ‘magic chorus’ by Mr. Dargomyzhsky . . .”
“Well, yes, from Rogdana, or wherever else it comes from . . . Magic chorus! Ha, ha, ha! Some wonderful magic! And what horrible music! Truly insignificant, really most ordinary. It’s not worth coming to Russia to hear such a ‘Russian School’! This type of music will be performed for you wherever you wish, in Germany, or France, at any concert . . . and nobody will pay any attention to it. But, here, it is hailed at once as a great creation, as the original Russian school! Russian! Original! And then, there is Korol’ Lir [King Lear] by Mr. Balakirev.58 Balakirev and Shakespeare, what do they have in common? A colossus in poetry and a pygmy in music, who is not even a real musician . . . And then there was this Khor Sennakheriba [Chorus of Sennacherib] by Mr. Musorgsky.59 What self-delusion, what blindness, what benightedness, what a slight to Europe. . . .”
And until that day, or more exactly, until Dym, I was unaware of the degree to which Turgenev despised the new Russian music and how little he understood it.
[In the spring of 1870, Stasov met Turgenev at an exhibition in Solianyi and told him] about the big party we were planning for Balakirev on May 30, and how we were to present him with a big silver garland and an address, in the Hall of the Duma, on Whitsunday. This was meant to be a protest by us, the supporters of the new school of Russian music, against the retrogrades in the Russian Musical Society, which had recently happily ousted Balakirev from its bosom and revoked his right to conduct the concerts of that society.60 But Turgenev had little sympathy with the new Russian music, nor the events which, at that time, were taking place in the bitter battles between the two camps.
[In the spring of 1871 Turgenev] asked me, on his very first trip back to Russia, to make arrangements for him to hear the new Russian music, not only songs but also operas and symphonies.
I had told him that our musical circle met frequently and that during the meetings whole acts or scenes from the new Russian operas were performed to piano accompaniment: The Stone Guest, The Maid of Pskov, Boris Godunov, William Ratcliff We also heard complete symphonies, overtures, and other instrumental creations by our new school on piano, four hands. But for quite a while the comrade composers refused to perform anything for Turgenev. Everyone admired his novels and short stories, everyone sincerely venerated his talent; but nobody appreciated the contempt he had for our new school of music. We all considered it useless to bother with enlightening a man whose musical nature was almost nonexistent. Besides, while living abroad he had become too settled in the old classical prejudices. Consequently, we emphatically refused to perform The Stone Guest for Turgenev, which we played quite often at our small gatherings in the early seventies. Musorgsky was the most adamantly opposed to performing for Turgenev.61 Thus, Turgenev never heard The Stone Guest: our circle never played it for him. And when it was performed on stage during the winter, Turgenev was not in Petersburg. How this composition so novel in its use of musical forms was performed at Mme. Viardot’s house, one can only guess. One wonders if it was performed according to the score, or according to the way it was performed in our circle when we followed Dargomyzhsky’s instructions. The French singers, brought up on Gluck and Mozart, in the tradition of the classical and Italian schools, surely were unable to sing it.
As for the new Russian orchestral music, except for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, it seems unlikely that Turgenev heard any of it. Nonetheless, he never changed his opposition to this musical trend, which he really did not understand.
But in May 1874, when Turgenev was once more back in Petersburg and asked again for the opportunity to hear the new Russian music, I succeeded in arranging a musical gathering of all the members of our circle at my house. Rubinstein, who sometimes paid us a visit, came too. The entire first half of the evening was filled with Rubinstein’s playing. . . . All of us were in seventh heaven, Turgenev included. He was overwhelmed with an inexpressible enthusiasm and rapture. But when Rubinstein left around ten, hurrying to catch the train to Peterhof, and we were left alone, i.e., Turgenev and our musical company, whom he had just come to know, Turgenev had an attack which scared us all. . . .
The consequence of this painful attack of gout, along with everything else, was that we never had an occasion to introduce Turgenev to the new Russian operas or symphonies. Nor did he have a chance to hear Detskaia [The nursery] by Musorgsky, which was an especially original composition. And there was never another opportunity to acquaint Turgenev with this music.62
Turgenev was a great writer. His novels and short stories were realistic and truthful, in accord with the Russian tradition; nonetheless, his tastes and judgment in art made him, as is often the case with many European artists in the West, an enemy of realism and truth about life.
[From Turgenev’s letter no. 5. Paris, March 27/15, 1872.] “And now, you can behead me, if you want to. There are only two really talented ‘young’ Russian musicians: Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.63 As for all the rest—not as people, of course (as people they are wonderful), but as artists: put them in a bag and drown them! The Egyptian King Rampsinat XLIV is not as forgotten now as they will be in fifteen to twenty years. That is my sole comfort.”
IZ PIS’MA K N. Findeizenu
FROM A LETTER TO N[ikolai] Findeizen
Nobody, myself included, even heard that Musorgsky had ever been in love. . . . Nevertheless, he showed something that could be called “amorousness” to (1) Nad[ezhda] Petr[ovna] Opochinina (I think she is still alive),64 to whom (if I am not mistaken) the song “Noch’ ” [Night] was dedicated, (2) Mariia Vas[ilievna] Shilovskaia . . .65 and particularly (3) the young singer Latysheva, who sang in the early sixties, among other things, Serov’s opera Iudif’ [Judith]. Musorianin and I always admired her very much. Surely, one can say Musorgsky was in love with her. As for Leonova, she never appealed to him in the least.
* I remember many scenes and separate musical episodes which were deleted later: for example, Emma’s scene with her uncle-pastor, and the little German waltz she sang; or Peter’s scene with the Poteshny Regiment; or the now significantly shortened Tararui’s exit, as well as Loter’s arrival and the destruction of the clerk’s booth”.
** I recall Musorgsky’s joy when I brought him the text I had finally discovered during the winter of 1868-1869. He was at one of the concerts of the Free School, in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobles. He started to read it avidly, right there, in the hall, during the concert. He was carried away by it.24
* An allusion to a letter from our well-known I(van] S(ergeevich] Turgenev, who, shortly before this, wrote to me that the entire new Russian school was worthless, and that it would soon be as forgotten as the Egyptian Rampsinites XLIV.