IZ Listkov vospominanii
FROM Sheaf of Recollections
Vasilii Bertenson (1853-1933) was a physician and an amateur musician.
. . .
Modest Petrovich Musorgsky, who, alas, achieved fame only after he was dead, when this purely national talent became not only Russia’s property but the property of all Europe, had a great magnetic attraction for me when I was merely a student. Practically speaking, no charity concert was held without Musorgsky. Musical evenings in the seventies, organized by the students of all the institutions of higher education for the benefit of their needy comrades, were unthinkable without his participation.
Modest Petrovich was an outstanding accompanist. Although poor as Job himself, when it came to philanthropic concerts, he accepted no money for his work.
It so happened that one winter I was responsible for organizing a concert for the benefit of the medical students. Even three weeks before the concert, I was already rushing about all day from artist to artist.
Anyone who has had the responsibility of organizing a charity concert, which, in those days, as far as the artist was concerned, was invariably without monetary reward, knows that this honorable responsibility was not, by any means, a sinecure.
Although I boldly announced to all the participants that Musorgsky was going to be the accompanist—which immediately influenced their favorable decision—I must confess that, at the moment, I was unwillingly deceiving them.
The fact was that the author of Boris Godunov, still in the prestigious Preobrazhenskii Regiment, was rumored to be drinking hard; therefore, asking him three weeks in advance to participate in a concert meant that there was no way of knowing if on the designated day one could rely on him. Although I would doubtlessly have obtained his promise to participate, naturally, I would not have had a guarantee that, on the given day, he would not be too drunk to play or even too drunk to recognize his own father.
As a special attraction, I was fortunate enough to obtain, in addition to artists from the Russian opera, the splendid tenor Ravelli, from the Italian opera. At the time he was singing in the Bolshoi Theater.
In anticipation of an “encore” I asked the singer to study the famous song by Kushelyova, “Skazhite ei” [Tell her], which the famous Tamberlik had performed so many times. It was not yet completely forgotten.
The day before the concert Ravelli told me he wanted to meet his accompanist, and, with this purpose in mind, he asked Musorgsky to come to his house the following day, as early as possible, for a rehearsal.
The day before, I had received Musorgsky’s agreement to participate; happy at having found him sober, I again went to him to fulfil Ravelli’s request.
But to my horror I found Musorgsky more intoxicated than wine itself. Babbling on, he assured me, in French for some reason, that there was no need to go see the Italian, that he would manage, etc.
No exhortation or request had any effect on him: with a drunkard’s stubbornness, he kept repeating: “Non, monsieur, non: maintenant c’est impossible. Ce soir je serai exacte [sic]” [No, sir, no: it’s impossible right now. I will be on time tonight.]
Musorgsky was then living in a small unkempt room. There was a bottle of vodka on a dirty table and some kind of poor food. . . .
When I took my leave, he stood up with great difficulty, but nevertheless saw me to the door. Making a low bow, perhaps not totally worthy of Louis XIV but utterly amazing for someone who was completely “soused,” he added: “Done, a ce soir!” [So, see you tonight!]
Having received nothing for my pains, I returned to my tenor and told him that I had not found Musorgsky at home. I was finally able, although with great difficulty, to convince Ravelli to participate in the concert, despite my having been unable to contact Musorgsky. Besides, I said, my accompanist was a marvelous and extremely capable one.
I immediately dispatched a friend to get Musorgsky. My friend had volunteered to watch for him and had promised to bring him, in any case, long before the beginning of the concert.
Indeed, promptly at seven o’clock Musorgsky was in Kononov Hall, where the concert was to take place.1
Unfortunately, in the greenroom, Musorgsky continually helped himself to the various drinks, which were right at hand, and he got more and more intoxicated. Suddenly, my Italian tenor, trying a roulade, discovered that his voice had lowered, and therefore he decided to sing all his repertoire half a tone or, if necessary, a whole tone lower.
That was the last straw!
I ran to Musorgsky and asked him if he could solve the problem Ravelli presented to us. Standing up with a certain gallantry, Musorgsky reassured me with: “Of course, why not?” also in French (the fact was that Musorgsky spoke only French to educated people even if he was just slightly tipsy). To reassure the tenor, he suggested that he sing his entire repertoire in mezza voce.
Musorgsky, who undoubtedly was hearing the Italian songs sung by Ravelli for the first time, so charmed the Italian with his talented rendition and his ability to play in any key, that the latter started to hug him saying: “Che artista” [What an artist].
Both Ravelli and Musorgsky had an immense success, especially the singer, despite the fact that, in the encore “Skazhite ei” [Tell her], he sang some false notes; but with the support of Musorgsky’s masterful playing, he was able to pass the test honorably.
Poor Musorgsky, because of the daring realism in his music, tinted, as it was, with surprisingly vivid national colors, stood alone among the Russian composers. He died in the Nikolaev Military Hospital. It was thanks to my brother’s intercession that Musorgsky—terminally ill and literally without shelter—found a refuge in the hospital as my brother’s orderly. In everyone’s opinion Musorgsky lived too soon and died too young.
Had he lived in our time, had he acquired a more serious musical education, this naturally talented man would have molded his creative powers into a different shape, and his creativity would have evolved in a completely different manner.
Perhaps A[nton] G[rigorievich] Rubinstein was right in saying that Russians have a strong inclination for music and are gifted for it, but because of a general lack of enlightenment and a Slavic carelessness, they are invariably dilettantes.