Moi dalyokie vospominaniia o M[odeste]
P [etroviche] Musorgskom
My Distant Recollections of M[odest]
P [etrovich] Musorgsky
Sofiia Fortunato, née Serbina (1851-1929), was actually Vladimir Stasov’s daughter. Her first husband was Vasilii Prokof’evich Medvedev (1844-1878), a lawyer. More than any other recollections of Musorgsky, Fortunato’s memoirs attract the reader with their unbiased character, her respect and love for Musorgsky, and her desire to understand and appreciate him.
. . .
One of the most vivid impressions in my life was made by dear Modest Petrovich Musorgsky. I was still a little girl when I saw him for the first time. Nevertheless, this man was so unique that, having seen him once, it was impossible to forget him. He was such a graceful, such an elegant man. Our acquaintance dates from the late fifties of the last century, when he had just left a military career and donned his civilian clothes. At that time he was still very thin, of medium height, with small hands and feet. He was always, as one says, smartly dressed, and he was exceptionally elegant. His head was slightly peculiar: it was fairly large with a rather big face and dark wavy hair. His eyes were somewhat protruding, large and light colored; they seemed to be particularly luminous in contrast to his quite swarthy complexion, his dark beard and moustache. His manners were very mild and graceful; his speech, often interspersed with fluent French phrases, testified to good breeding. All these characteristics gave him the appearance of being particularly graceful and elegant. If I repeat these two words so often, it is because they suited him so well; they were so appropriate for him.
Life in my father’s family was rather original. The apartment was spacious, divided in two by a big corridor. This hallway made a turn, and at its end there were several rooms belonging to my father’s old aunt; beyond those were the rooms occupied by people who had come to live with my father’s family and who now served it.
The first part of this corridor divided the apartment in two. The female realm was on the left; the large reception room held a grand piano; this area also served as a dining room. Then there were the drawing rooms and the ladies’ bedrooms. On the right side of the corridor were the gentlemen’s rooms, mainly used by the male guests. On Sundays, a big company would usually gather for lunch. The gentlemen would sit at one end of the table, and my father sat in the middle of their company. The result of such a division was that we, the women and the little girls, were very seldom able to hear the discussions and the conversations held at the gentlemen’s end of the table; we were even less able to participate in their subsequent conversations, since after lunch they would retire to the gentlemen’s half and would, in clouds of smoke, continue their conversations without restraint. They would usually come back to the reception room at tea time. As children, and later as adolescents, we were always sent back to the dining room, and there we lived our own life. It is for that reason that it is almost impossible for me to repeat verbatim what was overheard of Musorgsky’s conversations. Another reason is the remoteness of that life. The general impression was that Musorgsky always shared the opinions of those who were the most progressive, humanitarian, and enlightened. The obscurants, as a rule, did not stay long with our family. Those closest to us, such as V[ladimir] V[asilievich],1 as well as his brothers, in particular Dm[itrii] Vas[ilievich], were the heart of the lively cultural society in those times. As is now well known, the late fifties and the whole decade of the sixties witnessed the cultural Golden Age of Russia. Almost all of those who got together with our family took a very active part in this cultural renewal. It was therefore quite understandable that such a company, for the young, lively, and adventuresome Musorgsky, was like water for the millstone. Thus, notwithstanding his youth, at first shyly, but later on more and more boldly, he entered this circle and soon became a full-fledged member. Before long they began to gather for purely musical purposes. And it was then that M[odest] P[etrovich] clearly assumed a very active role.
Although I was extremely young, I was nevertheless astonished by his nature. Outwardly, he was such a man of the world, so elegant, and, it seemed, somewhat superficial. But with his music and his unforgettable, penetrating performances, he began to stir deeply felt reflections and feelings. How strange it all was! Really quite a marvel! Here, at the piano, where all this highly talented company brought their new creations, which sometimes sparked strong arguments, he, without ever offending anyone’s self-esteem or being rude or abrupt, managed to withstand the pressure and hold his own course. His extraordinary good breeding balanced both his confirmed belief that he was right and his inflexibility in refusing to accept opinions which were foreign to him and unsuitable for him. How adept he was at defending his convictions while respecting the point of view of other people! A rare virtue!
Here, in a nutshell I have given the whole cast of his mind, his talent, his ability to play and sing his own creations and those of the others. And this image of him will never leave my soul until the day I die.
I already had the opportunity, in my reminiscences about N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov, to state the degree to which the members of this young musical company were inseparable. Those who were then close to them could not mention one of them without mentioning the others. What was amazing was the fact that the general comportment of this circle was so highly spiritual that base elements of jealousy did not affect them. Each of them contributed something of his own, according to his nature, but at the same time each was equally interested in the compositions of the others. This trait seemed to be ingrained in M[odest] P[etrovich] more deeply and more strongly than in the others, if that were at all possible. It compelled everyone who knew him to love and value him even more.
As for me, I consider that this time was for us, mere children, a time of exceptional moral instruction which influenced our whole lives.
Such musical and ethical associations with these extraordinary people were not simply pleasures or pleasant pastimes, but were vital, avidly sought-out spiritual necessities. That is the reason why one recalls this period with such a feeling of pure joy.
Our ecstasies were endless when the musical gatherings became regular. Many things have been written about these soirées, and they became the center of many a talk. We were as enthusiastic about those meetings in private houses, such as my father’s, or my uncle’s,2 or L[iudmila] I[vanovna] Shestakova’s, as we were about assiduously attending the public concerts. M[odest] P[etrovich] always played a very big role in both. One should also point out that in conversation as well as in music, he was a great humorist and a great comic, which meant that he was always a conspicuous member of any gathering.
In the early seventies, my personal fortune was such that I had to leave Petersburg for many years. I came back only once in a while, but never for more than a short period of time. Of course, I invariably took the opportunity to pay a call on this company of beloved musicians so dear to my heart, and I would again store up, alas, for long periods, the impressions left by their glorious art. Musorgsky was always true to himself, always unique and unforgettable.
In 1879, Musorgsky, in the company of Leonova, took a trip to the southern cities of Russia, with the purpose not only of giving concerts but also of visiting Odessa and the Crimea. At that time, I lived in Yalta and I managed the then important Hotel Rossiia, which had a very large reception hall and quite a good grand piano. When one remembers my deep love for music in general and for Musorgsky’s in particular, for his lovely and absolutely characteristic performances, it would be easy to imagine my bliss when I saw the announcement of Musorgsky’s and Leonova’s concert. Yalta, at that time, was a very small city; there was no city map or directory; consequently, the posters that had been made in other cities were pasted up, as printed, in Yalta, which meant that I was unable to find out where the musicians had found lodgings. I had to wait for the scheduled day. The concert was to be given in the building of the old club, on the seafront where the Hotel Dzhalita was built, and in whose interior, even today, the old club is preserved; in M[odest] P[etrovich]’s time the building had a small concert hall where concerts as well as other performances were given.
When I arrived at the concert, I was distressed to see a very small number of concert-goers, although at the time, one could say that high society from foreign capitals as well as major cities converged on Yalta. For a long time, I kept the posters from the two concerts Musorgsky gave in Yalta, but after numerous moves they are now lost. I remember that Leonova sang Chopin’s mazurka “Esli b ia solnyshkom” [If like a sun I were . . . ] and other songs; Musorgsky also played Chopin. Which pieces he played, I no longer remember. I know for sure that he played Utro na Moskve-reke [Morning on the Moscow River] and Marsh strel’tsov [The Streltsy march] from Khovanshchina.3
During the first intermission I ran to the green room. M[odest] P[etrovich] was sitting in an armchair, his arms hanging at his sides, looking like a wounded bird. The absence of any real audience and the failure of the concert had obviously depressed him very much. It turned out that having arrived in Yalta the previous evening and finding the hotels overbooked (since it was already August and almost the height of the season), Musorgsky and Leonova had no place to stay. They were forced to find lodging at a private house, which was thoroughly uncomfortable, dirty, and repulsive. And our dearest Musorianin had no alternative but to put up with such accommodations! Naturally, I made arrangements for them to move the following day to the Rossiia, a hotel furnished with great comfort. It had a magnificent, large hall with a decent grand piano, and, moreover, the hotel was full of people whom it would be possible to interest in the forthcoming concert. This time, the concert was a great success.
Musorgsky and Leonova spent about a week in Yalta.4 Of course, we asked them to entertain us with their music outside the concert hall, and they complied graciously and repeatedly. Thus, we had the opportunity to listen to many of Musorgsky’s beautiful songs played by the composer himself and sung by Leonova. But most significant of all, we heard several scenes from Boris and Khovanshchina. Is it necessary to say how powerful and intense the emotional experience was for these listeners, young and old, who had almost never listened to music? They were stirred to the depths of their hearts.
We made several trips with Musorgsky and Leonova to the area surrounding Yalta. Musorgsky was deeply moved by the natural beauty of the sea and the mountains, also by the glorious moonlight and the sweetness in the air.
He usually climbed into the back of those comfortable basket carriages (then so much in use in the Crimea), to avoid having to participate in the conversation and thus spoil his mood. One of the most successful trips was to Gurzuf.
That was my last meeting with the unforgettable M[odest] P[etrovich]. He was still as charming and attractive as he used to be, when I first knew him.
IZ Vospominanii o vstrechakh s Rimskim-Korsakovym
FROM Recollections of Meetings with Rimsky-Korsakov
At the time, a group called the “Balakirev circle” used to meet quite often at my father’s. Of course, Nikolai Andreevich was always present. At these gatherings, the members would show what they had composed since the last meeting. Usually Musorgsky, the best pianist in the group, played; and as he was also a singer, he sang the romances and, at times, almost the complete operas.
For those who had never heard such performers as Glinka, Serov, Dargomyzhsky, and Musorgsky (people who incidentally did not have exceptional voices), it might seem strange when I say that I never heard or never would hear again such remarkable executions as they could give. I doubt that anybody else has had such an opportunity to hear anything like it. Strictly speaking, I only understood Glinka and Serov by instinct, for I was still very young. But when it came to Dargomyzhsky’s and Musorgsky’s performances, regardless of any personal impressions, I can testify that not only musically educated people but totally uneducated people would sob violently while listening to them, such was the force of their talent, such was their ability to bring to life the character they played, with so enormous a dramatic effect for humor and comedy. The impression they made was fascinating. N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] would usually sit at the piano and assist Musorgsky, since, despite all his virtuosity, even Musorgsky did not have enough fingers to play an entire orchestra.
It was in such circumstances that we heard Pskovitianka [The maid of Pskov], Boris Godunov, Igor’ [Prince Igor], Ratcliff5 as they were being written, as we did with everything else which was then being composed by the new Russian school.