IZ Detskikh vospominaniiakh o velikikh liudiakh
FROM Childhood Memories of Great People
Varvara Komarova-Stasova (1862-1942), musicologist and writer under the pen name Vladimir Karenin, was the daughter of the lawyer Dmitrii Stasov (1828-1918), a musical and public figure. She was the author of monographs about George Sand and about her uncle Vladimir Stasov. Her memoirs, as well as those of her cousin Sofiia Fortunato, are attractive because of their sincerity and the authenticity of Musorgsky’s portrait, and her recollections of Musorgsky’s singing are valuable.
. . .
I remember Musorgsky from the time I was seven years old.1 More exactly, I was seven when I paid attention to his coming to our house, since undoubtedly he must have come to my parents’ house before that time, but I do not remember that, not having given it any importance. And here, all of a sudden, he entered the circle of our childhood as “Musorianin,” as all the adults called him, and we children immediately started to address him this way too, having come to the conclusion that it was his real name. He would often come to our house, either in town, or the dacha, in Zamanilovka, near Pargolov. Since he did not strike a pose with us and did not speak to us in that artificial language ordinarily used by adults in a house where there are children with whose parents they are on friendly terms, we children not only quickly became attached to him but also began to consider him as one of us. My sister Zinochka and I were particularly thrilled because when he greeted us, he would always kiss our hands, as if we were grown-up ladies and would say: “Good day, boyarishna” or “Your hand, boyarishna and this seemed to us incredibly surprising and amusing. But in return we would chat freely with him, as if he were our equal. My brothers were not shy with him either. They would tell him all about everything they were doing; my younger brother was not even able to pronounce his name correctly; he called him “Musolianin,” so when Musorgsky would come to see us and my brother caught sight of him, he would shout “Here comes Musolianin!” The musical scenes “Kot Matros” [The sailor cat], “V Iukki verkhom na palochke” [In Iukk’, riding on a stick] and “Son” [Dream] [based on Zinochka’s story, which it seems, was not published, and may not exist in manuscript], and a fourth small scene taken from our childhood life, were performed by Musorgsky on the piano. They were said to represent stories from our childhood.2
With me, since I was the eldest, Musorgsky often talked about “serious matters.” Thus, he was the first to explain to me that the stars were divided into various constellations and that many single stars, as well as constellations, had their own names. He taught me how to find the Big and the Little Dipper, Cassiopea, Orion, and Canis Major with the Dog Star. I still remember our conversation one New Year’s Eve. He explained to me—until then, somehow, I had not paid any attention to it—that tomorrow there was to be a “new year,” and he told me what it meant and why it was celebrated in the middle of the winter and not in the fall (when everyone comes to town from the dacha and when, according to a child’s viewpoint, the new year begins, which ends the next spring; and as for the summer—it is something special, extraneous to the year).
Musorgsky was often a guest at our dacha in Zamanilovka, and we became accustomed to the fact that he took part in all the events of our life: he watched my two-year-old brother being bathed outside, in the sun: my little brother would scream and run away, on the sand, naked, and he could only be enticed to come back when promised strawberries. Later on, Musorgsky would reenact this amusing scene, and he would mimic the way my brother requested the promised “bellies-bellies.”
I do not clearly remember when and how it happened that we children began to be present when Musorgsky performed his own compositions or those of the others. To be more precise, I cannot remember a time, when from very early childhood, I would not be nearby (hiding in a corner, or behind an armchair, or even under the table) when the famous musicians, who so often came to our house—Balakirev, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Musorgsky, Rubinstein—were playing the great works of the world’s musical literature or their own compositions, often not yet finished but still works in progress. Listening to them, we children, little by little, were able to memorize almost the whole piece so that in our nursery we would sing “Kak v gorode bylo vo Kazani” [So it was in the City of Kazan’], “Popin’ka,” “O, tsarevich, u-umoliaiu, ne-e kliani menia za re-echi moi” [Oh, tsarevich, I beg of you, do not damn me for my evil words], or:
Ratklif, Ratklif, ty krov’iu istekaesh’.
Poidi siuda, pereviazhu ia ranu. . . . 3
[Ratcliff, Ratcliff, thou art bleeding to death,
Come here, I will dress thy wound. . . . ]
and for the sake of the beat, in order not to miss the eighth, we sang this pause on the letter “m”: “M m . . . podi siuda” [Mm . . . come here]. Or we would scream: “Domine, Domine, salvum fac!” as it was sung by the frightened Jesuits in the last act of Boris; or we would sing Borodin’s “Ia khrabr, ia smel, strakha ia-a ne zna-a-iu”4 [I am courageous, I am audacious, I know no fear].
This is why I said I cannot remember a time when I did not know these operas. And when, for the first time, excerpts from Boris were performed and then the entire Boris,5 we children categorically demanded to be taken to the theater. I remember how deeply hurt we were by an old friend of our parents, E. A. Shakeev. He teased us by telling us a fairy tale which went thus: “Once upon a time there were parents who were too kind. Father Dmitrii and Mother Pavlina had wicked children—Varia and Zina—who insisted on being taken to the theater. But in punishment, they were not taken to the theater, and in their place Uncle Zhenia went,” and so on. From that day on we nicknamed Uncle Zhenia “Pavlina,” and in spite of him we were taken to the theater. How could it have been otherwise? After all, it was, in a way, our own opera.
I can vividly remember these two performances as if it were yesterday. I can even picture the singers’ costumes and hear the nuances in the performances by Palechek, Platonova, Petrov, Mel’nikov, Kommissarzhevskii, and Krutikova.* The night excerpts from Boris were performed was the same evening that one act of Lohengrin was given, with Raab as the singer; it was a benefit performance for someone. . . . 7
The same thing happened with Igor’ [Prince Igor]. We were slowly introduced to it and knew all the changes and alterations the opera underwent as it was being written. For instance, the chorus now sung in the prologue was originally intended for the finale, where it had different words; and the actual finale was later performed during the concerts of the Free School; I still have the poster for that concert.
We children, listening to the separate numbers and scenes of these operas, already had chosen parts that we particularly liked; and sometimes we would even dare to ask “Musorianin” or Aleksandr Porfirievich to play this or that scene for us. Thus, I remember how Borodin, on my humble request—I was about thirteen then—once played the Polovetskii chorus and the dances of the Second Act of Prince Igor, which I have adored ever since. Musorgsky kept on saying: “Now, allow me to play it for you, professore! You can’t do it with your fat little pullets.” (This expression referred to Borodin’s hands, which were white and pudgy. But one had to recognize that they were by no means clumsy, and therefore this friendly joke provoked only laughter.) And then, Musorgsky sang Konchak’s aria. He sang it absolutely incomparably, with his unique underscoring of certain sentences or words. For instance, in a particularly original way he exaggerated the pronunciation of “Ia tebe pod-dariu” [I shall offer thee], while making a wide gesture with his hand. Even now the way he sang the following verses in an astonishing, purely oriental sublimity, resounds in my ears:
Vsyo khanu zdes’ podvlastno,
Vsyo boitsia menia,
Vsyo trrrepeshchet krugom. . . .
[Here, everything is under the khan’s ruling
Everything fears me
Everything here is trrrembling. . . . ]
And then, with an inimitable gentleness, he could do:
No ty menia ne boialsia,
Poshchady ty ne prosil kniaz’
[But thou, Prince, thou wert not afraid of me,
Thou didst not ask for mercy, Prince.]
And with a kind of passionate anguish:
Akh, ne vragom by tvoim. . . .
[Oh, If I were not thy enemy. . . . ]
After hearing Musorgsky, any other performance of Prince Igor which I heard on stage, even by Kariakin8—he sang that part remarkably—seemed inferior to me, and I still hear Musorgsky’s voice singing: “Esli khochesh’, liubuiu iz nikh vybirai” [If thou wish, choose anyone of them].
I also remember how, as little children, we laughed to see a grown-up at the piano singing such “songs” as were usually sung by our nannies; for example, the one about “Selezen’ ” [The drake] or “Kak komar drova rubil, klopik vodu nosil” [The mosquito chopped wood, and the little bedbug carried water].9 But it was only later that we realized the difference between “the songs a child invents” and art songs. Naturally without putting this difference into words, we also understood the comic character of “Rayok” [Peepshow]. I recall very clearly how Musorgsky deliberately distorted the “vocalization,” when Patti’s admirer was indignant at her wearing a “parikrik-rik belokokkury” [blo-blo-blond wi-wi-wig], and we, on our own, would sing: “O Patti, Patti, Papapatti.”
But I also remember how Musorgsky sang “Sirotka” [The orphan], “Zabytyi” [Forgotten], and “Trepak”10 for the first time in our home and how we, huddled in a corner, silently cried and were ashamed of our tears in front of the adults.
When in 1872 my aunts went abroad for several years and my uncles moved to a new apartment on Nadezhdin Street, all these friend-composers, if I remember correctly, met every Wednesday at Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov’s to make music, or, as it was said in their circle (it was, it seems, Glinka’s expression), “to produce music.” But at our house, these meetings were still held on Thursdays, and we would, as before, listen in. We heard both scenes from Khovanshchina, as Musorgsky was writing it at that time,”* and the readings of scenes from the drama “Shuiskii” by Count A[rsenii] A[rkadievich] Golenishchev-Kutuzov, who was working on it at that time.12 Toward the end of that period, I would occasionally be taken to these “Wednesdays” at Vl[adimir] Vas[ilievich]’s, and I recall seeing a charming young girl there, who soon became the Countess Kutuzova.13
At this period, during the summer, Musorgsky came even more often than before to our dacha. He would come either by himself or with Vl[adimir] Vas[ilievich], usually on a Saturday evening and stayed until Monday morning; sometimes, he would stay even longer if there was a party on Friday or Tuesday. As a rule, during the summer we never saw Borodin, Cui, or Rimsky-Korsakov; although Rimsky-Korsakov did live somewhere nearby for one or two summers, and would walk or drive to pay us a visit as a dacha neighbor. When I was a child, for some reason, I was terribly afraid of him. It was only much later, in my last year in the gymnasium, when I was taking lessons with him, that I “discovered” how exceptionally nice, gentle, witty, and gay this great man and great musician was. As for Musorgsky, I repeat, we children were not in the least afraid of him and would often run to him with any kind of nonsense and even ask him to act as a judge during some of our “dramatic conflicts.” I remember the hot summer of 1875 (mother left us for a while to go to Revel’ to visit an acquaintance of hers, and we stayed with father), and Musorgsky and Vl[adimir] Vas[ilievich] visited us particularly often. They had decided to reread Gogol’. In the horrible midday heat, after lunch, everybody gathered in the study and took a seat on the sofas; then, taking turns, my father, Vl[adimir] Vas[ilievich], and Musorgsky read aloud “Maiskaia noch’” [May night], “Koliaska” [The carriage], “Nos” [The nose], and “Myortvye Dushi” [Dead souls]. Everyone would laugh boisterously.
This lasted until I entered the gymnasium. Apparently, Musorgsky started to visit us less frequently at that time, and I had become involved in other activities and was participating less in what was happening at home. At first Musorgsky came about twice a week, but later on, only once a month. He came in the evening or at lunchtime. Usually right after dinner (and sometimes immediately after coming) he sat down in the rocking chair and either dozed or daydreamed with his eyes closed and his hands waving in front of his face, as if he were fanning himself. He was already quite changed from the way he had been with us as children; he talked much less and, in general, told fewer stories than before. Often he would utter some isolated sentences or even single words which were, at times, rather obscure. He gave me the impression, at that time, of being someone important and rather mysterious.
In his last years, I saw him at Leonova’s concerts, where he was the accompanist, but by that time he had already become quite a stranger to me. At the beginning of 1881, Uncle Vladimir Vasilievich came running to our house to tell us of Musorgsky’s illness. And very soon after, we learned of his death. That sad news of his illness and then of his death, this death of a man who had been so dear to us when we were children, our Musorianin, made no shattering impression on me, an already grown-up young lady, then finishing school. I do not even remember his funeral. I am extremely ashamed to confess that I absolutely failed to realize the great weight of this loss for Russia, my whole family, or me personally. I am ashamed to admit it, but it is the truth. I am not interested in justifying whether this indifference was due to my youthful egotism, wrapped up in my own life as I was at the time, or whether it was due to Musorgsky’s progressive estrangement from us, the little ones. Only now do I fully realize how kind fate was in bestowing on me the joy of having known, in very early youth, one of the greatest geniuses of Russia. I was able to see him and listen to him as one does with a close friend of the family, in the natural way a child accepts things, which allowed me unwittingly to see reflected in everyday life the soul that had created Boris and Khovanshchina.
* I remember many scenes and separate musical episodes which were deleted later: for example, Emma’s scene with her uncle-pastor, and the little German waltz she sang; or Peter’s scene with the Poteshny Regiment; or the now significantly shortened Tararui’s exit, as well as Loter’s arrival and the destruction of the clerk’s booth.11