K biografii M[odesta] P[etrovicha] Musorgskogo
Material for a Biography of M. P. Musorgsky
Lev Bertenson (1850-1929) was a surgeon and an amateur musician.
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Not only has the last word about Musorgsky not been said, but at the present time there is not even an essay in which this brilliantly shining, brightly dazzling semi-precious gem of Russian musical talent has been duly studied and appraised at his true worth. Therefore, every grain of information about him, even the smallest one, ought to be taken into consideration when one gathers the materials for an exhaustive monograph on the great musician.
Motivated by this thought and influenced by the fortuitous reading of a French article about Musorgsky, I have decided to tell what I know about him, even though I am not a professional writer. I feel entitled to take up this endeavor, since I was Musorgsky’s physician right before he died. I was in close contact with him and served him lovingly and loyally during his last illness. Moreover, long before his death, I knew him and admired his works, well before the public knew them. I had heard them at the homes of mutual friends as well as at my own, where Modest Petrovich was always a welcome and dear guest to me and to my wife—the singer O. A. Skal’kovskaia. Because of the favorable circumstances in St. Petersburg and my particular and innate attraction to artistic talent, which I have had since early youth, I was very close to quite a few musical figures of my time (the brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, G. Veniavskii, K. Davydov, Napravnik, Tchaikovsky, Henselt, Laroche, and others); I was especially close to the talented and progressive group composed of Balakirev, Vladimir Stasov, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin. This circle was well known in its time as the “Mighty Handful,” and it even had its own forum, i.e., the musical satires by C[esar] A[ntonovich] Cui in the newspaper S. Peterburgskie vedomosti [St. Petersburg news] (when V. Korsh was its editor). This circle selected Musorgsky as a member and, so to speak, brought him up.
Although the idea of doing my part in collecting the materials on Musorgsky was provoked by the fortuitous reading of a short article by a French music critic dealing with the opera Boris Godunov (I will talk about that later), I had often felt this desire to write about our great musician previously—ever since an article by the noted music critic M[ikhail] M[ikhailovich] Ivanov was published in the newspaper New Time (April 20, 1909). In that article M[ikhail] M[ikhailovich] Ivanov described the circumstances in which Musorgsky died in Nikolaev Military Hospital (where in a time of great need he had been admitted through my efforts). At the time, his article stirred the emotions and created indignation among Musorgsky’s friends and greatly distressed me.
I shall start with Ivanov’s article, which, even now, has the power to disturb me deeply, as soon as I tell how Musorgsky came to be a patient in the Nikolaev Military Hospital.
When Musorgsky, then retired, having no regular income and living in the most terrible and wretched conditions, fell seriously ill, his closest friends—V[ladimir] V[asilievich] Stasov, C[esar] A[ntonovich] Cui, N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov, and A[leksandr] P[orfirievich] Borodin—approached me individually and as a body as “a physician who loved and respected musicians and men of letters,” with the request to place Musorgsky in a good hospital. This request disturbed and distressed me very much, for I could not foresee any possibility of carrying it out properly. At that time I worked in two hospitals: the Rozhdestvenskii City Hospital for common laborers, with general wards only, and the Nikolaev Military Hospital for soldiers and officers. In both institutions I was only a junior staff physician, i.e., rather an unimportant member with no administrative power. I could have only acted as a modest intercessor for the request of such important people as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stasov, and the others. In the City Hospital nothing could be done, not even by the Lord Mayor himself; and Nikolaev Military Hospital, as its name indicates, was open only to lower military ranks and officers. Since Musorgsky, according to his passport, was then registered as a retired civil servant from Government Control, there was no hope of placing him in that hospital. Nevertheless, I promised his friends, not without some embarrassment, to do my best for the great man. I rushed off to the head physician. The first onslaught on my superior was not only a failure, but I was reprimanded for asking for the impossible. But as I began to take my leave, saddened and dispirited, my stern superior came up with an extraordinary solution to the hopeless situation. He stopped me and offered to accept Musorgsky in the hospital as the “hired civilian orderly of intern Bertenson” if, naturally, the ailing man and his friends could agree to such a lofty rank. . . . Needless to say, I was very happy with this unexpected and successful outcome to my intercession, and having secured the consent of the above-mentioned friends (the patient was not asked because he was unconscious with a high fever). I immediately placed Musorgsky in the hospital. Thanks to the kind disposition of the head physician, it was possible to make more than simply “good” arrangements for the patient: he was placed in the quietest and the most isolated part of the hospital, in a spacious, sunny room with a high ceiling, furnished with the necessary (although not stylish) furniture. The care could not have been better: two nurses from the Krestovozdvizhenskii Commune, hospital attendants, and a doctor’s assistant had been assigned to him. The diet was more than satisfactory, for, in addition to an officer’s ration, Musorgsky received many different dishes in generous amounts from close friends and acquaintances, who constantly showed him their loving care.
Now, to return to M[ikhail] M[ikhailovich] Ivanov: in the above-mentioned article, which was devoted, properly speaking, to the personality of N[ikolai] A[ndreevich] Rimsky-Korsakov and to the analysis of this great musician’s work, based on his posthumous notes and personal points of view, the music critic of New Time, in passing, also speaks about the highly talented Musorgsky. He mentions his life, his works, his successes, his “progressive decline,” and the fact that, at one time, he “had been abandoned by both his friends and his boon companions.” Ivanov concludes his article by saying that he had seen the conditions at Nikolaev Hospital, where Musorgsky had been placed as an orderly, because of the efforts of the “compassionate L. B. Bertenson.”1 “These were wretched conditions, the sight of which wrung one’s heart,” exclaims Ivanov. . . . This remark, which did not reflect the true conditions, was categorically refuted, not only by my afore-cited remarks, published in Golos [Voice] (No. 79, 1881) but also by the grateful attitude Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov showed for the administration of Nikolaev Military Hospital, the nurses, and myself. Furthermore, it was refuted again in Stasov’s article, also published in Voice, with the title “Portrait of Musorgsky.”2