IZ Moikh vospominanii o Moguchei Kuchke
FROM My Recollections of the Mighty Handful
Aleksandr Molas (1856-1942) was a naval officer and the brother-in-law of Aleksandra Molas (nee Purgold). Orphaned at an early age, he lived with his older brother’s family.
. . .
From early youth my brother1 was a close friend of the then young midshipman, Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov lived with his older brother, my cousin’s husband, Voin Andreevich, the Director of the Naval School. Nikolai Andreevich and Modest Petrovich Musorgsky often performed in the big reception room, where they acquainted their relatives and friends with the operas Pskovitianka [The maid of Pskov] and Boris Godunov even before these works were staged.
Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov and my brother married two sisters; this brought them even closer together. Rimsky-Korsakov married the wonderful pianist Nadezhda Nikolaevna, and my brother the talented singer Aleksandra Nikolaevna. Musorgsky, on very friendly terms with both men, was particularly close to my brother: he was a shafer [he held the crown] at his wedding. He came to see us often, and not just to our musical gatherings on Tuesdays.
It goes without saying that Modest Petrovich Musorgsky was our permanent guest. He always came at dinner time and would stay the entire evening to accompany all the singers.
[Aleksandra Nikolaevna] really loved to sing in the intimate circle of the musicians and for her closest acquaintances. She could tirelessly sing all evening; however, performing at formal concerts was, in her own words, “sheer agony.” Nevertheless, her official performances were always a great success. Her own unpretentious concerts, held in the small hall of the Singing Capella, had the atmosphere of a family affair. Here, she sang with pleasure and personally knew by name almost everyone in this audience, which wanted to listen to works by members of the Balakirev circle, performed according to the wishes of the authors themselves. After all, most of their works were usually performed in manuscript form, prior to their publication, by their authors, or by singers and pianists under the direction of the creators of these astonishing musical compositions. Nevertheless, Aleksandra Nikolaevna was also supposed to perform at formal concerts. I clearly remember one particular concert. When Balakirev had momentarily divorced himself from music, Nikolai Andreevich R[imsky]-Korsakov, Aleksandra Nikolaevna’s brother-in-law, became the director of the Free School of Music of the Russian Musical Society.2 The proceeds of those concerts supplemented the small budget of the School.
Rimsky-Korsakov asked Aleksandra Nikolaevna to participate in the forthcoming concert.3 As she agreed with the purpose of the concert, she accepted the invitation to sing. Shortly before this, at one concert or another, she had heard one of the famous singers of Petersburg perform Musorgsky’s “Sirotka” [The orphan]4 very poorly. The clumsy rendition of a highly dramatic song provoked smiles and even laughter in the audience, to the great consternation of Aleksandra Nikolaevna. She decided to demonstrate to the public, at whatever cost, how “The Orphan” should be performed.
Rimsky-Korsakov and Musorgsky were working on the program for the concert, and when Aleksandra Nikolaevna announced that she wanted to sing “The Orphan,” Rimsky-Korsakov began to plead with her to change her mind, but to no avail. Then he pressed his case with Musorgsky: “Modest Petrovich, perhaps you can convince Sasha not to sing this song, which has just recently been such a failure!” “I can only be grateful to Aleksandra Nikolaevna for having given me the honor of choosing my song,” declared Musorgsky. Consequently, Rimsky-Korsakov had no other recourse than to agree to the song: Aleksandra Nikolaevna would have categorically refused to participate in the concert.
In the first part of the concert Maria’s aria was well received; there were either one or two curtain calls; it was a rather moderate success. At last Aleksandra Nikolaevna came on the stage for the second part of the program. My brother and I had the impression that she was pale: she was obviously nervous. Musorgsky calmly took his seat at the piano. Following the first introductory notes a faint moan was heard: “Barin moi milen’kii, barin moi dobren’kii” [Kind gentleman, good gentleman], and so forth. When Aleksandra Nikolaevna finished singing the words “S kholodu stynet krov’, s golodu smert’ strashna” [My blood grows colder, death by hunger frightens me], the audience seemed to have frozen up, and only the tears in the voice of the poor orphan could be heard.
After the song ended, there was silence for several seconds; Aleksandra Nikolaevna’s face started to take on an expression of sadness. Then suddenly a deafening, unending applause with unanimous shouts of “bis, bis” from the entire audience was heard. Musorgsky wanted to follow the program and go on to the next number, but the audience stamped its feet and applauded, and repeated its request for “The Orphan.” Aleksandra Nikolaevna, with a beaming smile, bowed to the public. Musorgsky jumped from his stool, kissed her hands and applauded her. They had to repeat “The Orphan” twice. . . .
Obviously, the singer had achieved her goal: Musorgsky’s song had been appreciated by an audience at its true worth. The following remarkable incident corroborates this fact. In the 1920s, the elderly A[leksandra] N[ikolaevna] Molas came to live in the house belonging to the USSR Academy of Sciences in Leningrad. On hearing that, the president of the Academy, A. P. Karpinskii, paid her a visit to express his gratitude for that aesthetic delight she had given him half a century ago with her rendition of “The Orphan.”
The day after A[leksandra] N[ikolaevna] Molas sang Detskaia [The nursery] at one of her concerts, dozens of copies of that work were sold in Bessel’s music store.
When I was a little boy, Musorgsky, with his protruding eyes, in particular, impressed me as being a very gentle and kind person. It was impossible not to feel his unusual kindness, which sometimes bordered on the amusing. For example, when he paid us a visit at our dacha, he would brush mosquitoes away without hurting them, because he did not want to kill “a living being.” He always readily accepted requests from singers to accompany them, free of charge, at concerts or in private homes. He considered it his responsibility to play every new composition of his for us, and he never declined to come to our place when his presence was required by Aleksandra Nikolaevna.
On one occasion, two or three of our close Muscovite acquaintances, great admirers of Al[eksandra] Nik[olaevna]’s singing, arrived in Petersburg and begged her to arrange a concert. Everything depended on whether Musorgsky was available on that particular evening. Unfortunately a concert of the Free School of Music of the Russian Music Society5 had been scheduled several days before. Musorgsky was to accompany the bass Vasil’ev, the Second,6 who was singing Pimen’s aria from Boris Godunov. Therefore, Modest Petrovich was at a rehearsal at Vasil’ev’s, an unusually hospitable person, who would never let you go without giving you supper. Our acquaintances could not postpone their departure to Moscow. During the day, Modest Petrovich came by, and during lunch it was decided that I, a student in the tenth grade of the Naval School, would go by around ten o’clock, when Vasil’ev would have finished his aria, to pick up Musorgsky, who would have warned Vasil’ev in advance, and then, perhaps, we would be able to leave the Petersburg area, where Vasil’ev lived in a small house. When I arrived at my destination and explained to the host the reason for my coming, I was very warmly invited to meet the composers and listen to the singing, which had not yet started. I informed him that I already knew the composers.
“So much the better,” answered Vasil’ev and showed me in. The first one to meet me was R[imsky]-Korsakov. He was very surprised at seeing me, and he involuntarily exclaimed: “Shura! How did you get here?”
I had to explain the reason for my presence to him too. Cui and Borodin were also surprised to see me; however, there was no time for explanations: Vasil’ev had come in with the opera Boris Godunov in his hands, and Musorgsky was already sitting at the piano. It was with pleasure that I listened to the well-known, beloved aria sung twice; and when Musorgsky saw me he began to take his leave. Apologizing to Vasil’ev, he told him that he could not go back on his word to be at our place, where an entire audience was awaiting him. Thus, since it had been possible to bring Modest Petrovich, our concert was held, to everyone’s delight. Aleksandra Nikolaevna was at her best, and she sang particularly well; and Modest Petrovich, delighted at the idea that he had been able to leave Vasil’ev without any trouble, was very sweet and obliging to our guests. He played and sang excerpts from Sorochinskaia Iarmarka [The fair at Sorochintsy], which he had begun to compose;7 he also performed a Chopin Polonaise beautifully. In a nutshell, the evening was a brilliant success. Our guests could not find words enough to express their gratitude for the pleasure that had been bestowed on them. As for me, I was very proud that, thanks to my expedition, I had been able to bring Modest Petrovich to our house. He had a very pleasant baritone voice, and when he was in voice, he liked to perform his recently composed works. One day, he sang Shaklovityi’s aria from Khovanshchina. When he finished, he said melancholically: “Unfortunately, there is almost no metal left. And what a clear, velvety voice it used to be.”
Musorgsky’s health was taking a turn for the worse. During the winter of 1880-1881 he had to be admitted to the hospital, where I[l’ia] E[fimovich] Repin, in four sittings, painted his wonderful portrait.8 On March 16, 1881, Modest Petrovich died.
I was on a long voyage, and my brother sent a letter to me in Naples:
We have suffered a great loss: on March 18 we buried Musorgsky. His death has left us with a ineffaceable void. I am not only talking about the void in music, but in everything else. Now that he is no more, we clearly see how close we had been and what sincere relations we had had. Sasha is wasting away with grief.