IZ Dalyokoe Blizkoe
EXCERPTS FROM Distant, yet Familiar
Il’ia Repin (1844-1930), a painter, was affiliated with the group “Peredvizhniki” [Wanderers].
. . .
In the winter of 1871-1872, I was commissioned by A. A. Porokhovshchikov, the builder of the Slavianskii Bazar [The Slavic bazaar, a Moscow restaurant], to do a painting representing groups of Slavic composers: Russians, Poles, and Czechs. V[ladimir] V[asilievich] Stasov, whom I had just met, was very enthusiastic about the project and completely self-lessly rejoiced at my progress. At great personal sacrifice, wherever he could, he obtained the indispensable portraits of those who had died as well as portraits of those who had long ago abandoned the stage; and he introduced me to all the musicians on my list who were still alive, so that I could paint them from life. . . . Stasov and I both fell in love with the painting, and we made every effort to make it artistic and significant. . . .
Often Stasov, having scarcely stepped across the threshold to my studio at the Academy, in consonance with his exuberant personality, without even closing the door, would shout his sincere and loud praise from the entry-way. His powerful enthusiasm would pull me from my chair, and I would rush over to search his briefcase, where—I was certain—I would find portraits I had not yet seen, or get a new perspective on a portrait from some ancient photograph, daguerreotype, or old lithograph, etc., that he had dug up somewhere.
“But, you know, you must also include two of our young aces in the picture. I mean, Musorgsky and Borodin, who belong to ‘Moguchaia Kuchka’ [The Mighty Handful],” said Vladimir Vasilievich.
I was in total agreement with him.
Everyone liked A[leksandr] P[orfirievich] Borodin: he was a new face and strikingly handsome; as for M[odest] P[etrovich] Musorgsky, although not everybody appreciated him, he astonished everyone with his audacity and vitality; nobody could resist his exuberant laughter, especially in his performance of comic types and his unexpectedly lively and characteristic recitatives. Oh! it is impossible even now to remember without deep sadness how Vladimir Vasilievich did not have the chance to live long enough to see that all Europe has acknowledged that native genius of Russian music—Musorgsky! While he was alive, the guardians of our musical tastes, all sternly educated in the narcotic, sweet sound of Romanticism, would not even deign to retain in their memories the name of an already fully mature national genius. Even such a beloved and popular writer as Saltykov-Shchedrin, when asked his opinion by Musorgsky’s admirers, who assumed that the sound of the new comic music would be very much to his liking, had answered with a satirical pen in a vitriolic caricature.1 All of Petersburg, dying of laughter, read this libel of the young talent. It is amusing to tell how this loud aesthete crucified Musorgsky in the eyes of the connoisseurs, when the same Saltykov-Shchedrin, this newly blooming talent, mooed his own aria on a folk theme—about a coachman who had lost his whip.
Nonetheless, I asked Porokhovshchikov to let me add Musorgsky and Borodin to the group of Russian musicians.
“Good heavens! Are you going to sweep any kind of trash into this painting? Nikolai Rubinstein2 himself selected the names on the list, and I don’t dare either add or subtract any name from the list given to me. . . . I am disappointed by one omission: he did not include Tchaikovsky. You know how we adore Tchaikovsky, here, in Moscow. There is something suspicious here. . . . But what can we do? As for Borodin, I know him; but in music he is just a dilettante: he is a chemistry professor at the Surgico-Medical Academy. . . . No, don’t you litter this painting with all kinds of trash! Fewer portraits will make it easier for you, anyway. Hurry up! Hurry up! Finish the painting, the people are waiting for it.”
I copied most of the faces from portraits. The only ones that I painted from life were M[ilii] A[lekseevich] Balakirev; Rimsky-Korsakov, who was then still a naval officer; and Napravnik. . . . The painting was successful, but Turgenev rejected it, principally because of its subject.
I happened to have closely watched the process of creating Khovanshchina and other masterpieces by this inspired artist, and I heard him sing and perform these compositions himself. They were unexpectedly bright and always original.
Vladimir Vasilievich loudly and cheerfully welcomes him; the lively, chubby little “Modestius” begins a loud and graceful report. Without our pleading, he quickly goes over to the piano, and immediately gives his audience that somersaulting character of unexpected ringing sounds in amusing recitatives, accompanied by his own slightly hoarse and lively singing. Within minutes, the audience can no longer hold its laughter.
[In the summer of 1875] I waited for Vladimir Vasilievich [in Paris]. For a long time he was held up in Petersburg helping Musorgsky with the gems he was then writing.3 Stasov’s presence was indispensable: the “Russia of un-fathomed depths—the bedrock of all our epics” was on the rise.
Throughout our stay in Paris, Vladimir Vasilievich was of a particularly joyful disposition. But a thought gnawed at his heart: he could not stop thinking about Musorgsky! “Oh, what is happening to our poor Musorianin?!” More than once Vladimir Vasilievich had to go to the rescue of his genius friend, who, in his absence, sank to the very bottom. It was truly unbelievable how this officer of the Guards, with his excellent education and beautiful social graces, this witty conversationalist in ladies’ company, that inveterate punster, as soon as he found himself alone, without Vladimir Vasilievich, would quickly sell his furniture and his elegant clothes. Soon after, he would be found in some cheap tavern, all his buoyancy lost, no better than the other habitues, a “has-been” in whom one could no longer recognize that childishly happy, chubby little fellow with his little red potato-shaped nose. Was it really Musorgsky? Musorgsky who was always dressed in a brand-new suit, clicking his heels: the perfect man of the world, perfumed, refined, and fastidious. . . . Oh, how many times, upon his return from abroad, would Vladimir Vasilievich, after great difficulty, finally find him in some basement establishment, nearly in rags. . . . Musorgsky would stay until two o’clock in the morning, sometimes until dawn, with dubious companions. While still abroad, Vladimir Vasilievich would continually bombard all his close friends with letters, asking for news about Musorgsky, about the mysterious stranger he had now become, for nobody knew where Musorgsky had hidden himself.4
What profound love Vladimir Vasilievich had for chronicles and manuscripts and what a deep knowledge of them. From his published correspondence with Musorgsky, one quickly becomes aware of the great service he rendered the brilliant musician in his libretto to Khovanshchina.5
From boyhood Stasov was interested in the musical world: particularly in the Russian musical world of Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and the others. Of them all, he attached himself most especially to Modest Petrovich. In the very first lines dedicated to his memory, Vladimir Vasilievich wrote: “Musorgsky belongs to the type of people to whom future generations will raise monuments.”6
I must quote here some lines by Musorgsky himself from a letter addressed to a friend (I think it was to Stasov): “Soon we will be brought to trial! With courage bordering on audacity we look on the remote musical distance that beckons us onward. And 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.’ We shall answer: ‘Non, non et non, Madame.’ ”7
Vladimir Vasilievich concludes his short foreword to his essay “Pamiati Musorgskogo” [To the memory of Musorgsky] with the following words: “We are simply proud to say that we were the contemporaries of the greatest of all Russian men.”8 . . . Such was the faith with which Vladimir Vasilievich looked upon Musorgsky, and this faith was the reason why he protected him so vigilantly from adversity.
Vladimir Vasilievich never missed the staging of his favorite operas. The difficulties linked with the production of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina were borne by the entire Stasov family as if they were their own. Vladimir Vasilievich’s failures in his encounters with the powerful theatrical directors provoked sincere grief on the part of the whole family. In the end, the success of Boris was grandly celebrated by all of Musorgsky’s friends.
IZ Pis’ma k Andreiu Rimskomu-Korsakovu
FROM A Letter to Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov
M[odest] P[etrovich] was a person of great natural gifts, a bogatyr [epic hero] with the looks of Chernomor; incidentally, he did not mind playing the fool. The attraction he held for me, although I am not a musician, is an enigma I cannot fathom. I think that it was M[odest] P[etrovich] himself who sparked my sincere (albeit ignorant) enthusiasm for his talent, which at that time was far from recognized. . . . “Pull on, wheelhorse, pull on,” he wrote.9 Well, what sort of a wheelhorse am I? His genius profoundly impressed my instinctive nature, but I could only sense it; I was incapable of judging or comprehending it.
At the Stasovs’, M[odest] P[etrovich] would improvise a lot when under the spell of inspiration, and he plunged us all into ecstasy.
While I was painting M[odest] P[etrovich]’s portrait in the Nikolaev Hospital, a terrible event took place: the death of Aleksandr II. During our breaks in the sittings we would reread many of the newspaper accounts which dealt with that frightful event.10
We were getting ready to celebrate Modest Petrovich’s birthday.11 He was on a strict program of no alcohol and was in a particularly healthy and sober frame of mind. . . . But, as always happens with alcoholics, he was constantly gnawed by Bacchus’ worm; so he was already dreaming about a reward for his lengthy endurance. Despite stern orders given to the hospital attendants regarding the ban on brandy, “the heart is not made of stone,” and one of the attendants, to celebrate M[odest] P[etrovich]’s birthday, got him a whole bottle of brandy (everybody loved him so). . . . The following day we were supposed to have our last sitting. But when I arrived at the appointed hour, he was no longer with us.12
I hear Khovanshchina (on the radio) quite often, and each sound, each individual note reminds me so much of him. . . .
After all, it had all been rehearsed at the Stasovs’ in front of my very ears, and I, lucky man that I was, heard it performed by the author himself many times, so often that, in fact, I knew almost all of the melodies by heart. . . . Vladimir Vasilievich so greatly adored “his Musorianin” that when at times he could not sleep (from three to four in the morning), he would be immediately attacked by the artistic and historical possibilities arising from the wealth of the chronicles, whose depths he was then exploring with a historian’s passion. Those manuscripts were kept in the basement of the Public Library, as well as in the section of which he was the head.
With all the sincerity and liveliness his titanic nature discharged, when V[ladimir] V[asilievich] would catch sight of me from afar, he would shout: “Look at what new materials I came across in our manuscript section!!” And thus it was that even before M[odest] P[etrovich] himself, I was often honored with a look at these extremely rare documents.
At my request, V[ladimir] V[asilievich] Stasov agreed to stand as my daughter Vera’s godfather in 1872. V[ladimir] V[asilievich] arrived together with Musorgsky. Both the great musician and the great historian stayed with us common folk until late evening. M[odest] P[etrovich] greatly entertained us by playing the great Mozart, albeit, on a rather bad piano (there being no better one available). He improvised so many things that evening, and then he played “The Seminarian” and other pieces. He remembered several songs sung by choirs of beggars which he, obviously, had studied at the fairs. We laughed a lot. He performed all that by himself. . . .