Rasskaz o Musorgskom
A Vignette about Musorgsky
A. Leont’ev was a general.
. . .
Was it a dream or did it really happen? In either case, it was an unforgettable experience for me. It took place in Petersburg in 1878, perhaps in 1879, the date does not make any difference. It was late at night, in a private house and in a small, intimate company of no more than six or seven people, after a hearty supper. Among those present that night were the former diva of the Russian opera Leonova, the famous actor Gorbunov, and Musorgsky. Not yet forty years old, he had an unhealthy look and was already growing quite decrepit. He sought consolation and oblivion more and more frequently in alcohol, where he also looked for his strength and inspiration; he was quickly going to ruin—such was the picture of poor Musorgsky.
The grand piano was open; lighted candles stood on it. Suddenly the laughter provoked by Gorbunov’s story was interrupted: Musorgsky was taking his seat at the piano. He softly played the first chords of a melody we had never heard before; Leonova had already taken her position next to the pianist. The song, tender and heartrending, “Plyvyot, plyvyot lebyodushka,” etc. [The swan glides on the water],1 was heard.
This song was followed by other excerpts taken from his last and greatest work—Khovanshchina—which was in process of composition. Suddenly, Leonova fell silent: she could no longer follow Musorgsky, who was playing and improvising as he went.
We were all witnesses to the exhilarating process of inspiration that the genius, falling more and more into ecstasy, was going through. With titanic strength he was fighting to master the ever-developing theme that he alone could hear. It seemed that in playing, the composer fought for ascendency over the artist performer. Finally, the last powerful chords resounded. It is impossible to describe his eyes; their expression had changed, and they were cast down. Suddenly he looked up as if searching for a way out or for the answer to a conundrum. . . . When he finished he closed his eyes and dropped his hands in a gesture of helplessness. All of us were trembling violently. . . . What was the reason? Tension? Fear? For whom? For Musorgsky? For Russia? For us personally? Or it was because we had caught sight of a divine manifestation in a frail and ailing human being? No one dared interrupt the silence. Leonova, who up to that point stood motionless by the piano, quickly turned away and soundlessly went to the back of the room. Tears were streaming down her face. Gorbunov sat perfectly still, all shrunk down, his massive head on his knees. Everyone was frozen to his chair. “Modest Petrovich,” the host finally dared to whisper to Musorgsky, who remained sitting at the piano, utterly exhausted, “why don’t you spend the night here?” Musorgsky glanced at him, his eyes still afire with inspiration and his excited face momentarily lit by a gentle, grateful smile. But he raised his hand in such a decisive farewell that our host did not have the audacity to repeat his invitation. And Musorgsky was the first to leave. Even after his departure no one ventured to be the first to utter a word. . . . I never saw Musorgsky again. It had been said that his death was the result of his excessive passion for alcohol. What nonsense! What blasphemy! Even if there is some physiological truth in that statement, he mainly fell victim to the burden of fulfillments that exceed the human potential to which he was condemned by his genius, and ... to poverty.