Vospominaniia o M[odeste] P[etroviche] Musorgskom
Reminiscences of Musorgsky
Arsenii Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1848-1913) was a poet on whose texts Musorgsky based many of his compositions. See the Preface for more information about him.
. . .
On March 16 of this year, one of the most talented composers of the new Russian school of music passed away. Modest Petrovich Musorgsky died too early, as do the majority of gifted Russians. He did not win fame during his lifetime, and he did not achieve half of what he could have achieved under different circumstances, with the talents with which nature had endowed him.1
Why do our Russian gems die young? Does the reason lie hidden in themselves or is it in the milieu? God only knows. It is a difficult problem to solve. Whatever the reason might be, Musorgsky’s voice was silenced too soon, and he sank into the grave mourned by a very small circle of friends and admirers who accompanied his mortal remains from the Nikolaev Hospital, where he died, to the cemetery of the Aleksandr Nevskii Monastery, where he was buried not far from Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, and Serov.2
Having enjoyed, during the last eight or nine years, very close, friendly relations with the deceased,3 I wanted to jot down my reminiscences of him immediately after his death; these reminiscences would have rather fully covered Musorgsky’s activities from the time of his finishing the opera Boris Godunov up to the time of his death. But having written a couple of pages, I decided that my work was going to be too influenced by the recent loss of a close and dear friend; that its character would be too personal and fleeting; that it would reflect the feelings understandable and forgivable in the friend of one who has just died, but of no use or interest to the majority of the readers who, fairly enough, ask of a biographer an impartial, sober, and realistic description of the personality who, for one reason or another, deserved his attention. I already feared being partial and I was afraid that I, although unwittingly, would err against the truth, and consequently would not pay a tribute worthy of Musorgsky through failing to recreate his moral and artistic image in its inviolable truth and faithfulness. It is for that reason that I had postponed my project for several years, restricting myself to writing down in a memorandum book separate reminiscences and bare facts as they came to mind. This memorandum book was to be used as the nucleus of the biography of Musorgsky, which I planned to write at a later date.
Meanwhile, first in newspapers, and then in “fat” journals, articles about Musorgsky began to appear with biographical information and critical judgments on his works. One of these articles, which had appeared in the last two issues of Vestnik Evropy [The European herald], signed by Mr. Stasov,4 is one of the lengthiest, and it has unveiled even the most intimate details of Musorgsky’s life and work. For the first time, Musorgsky appeared in the public eye not only as a composer but also as a human being. But he was arbitrarily depicted from one angle only, which, perhaps, least conforms with his artistic mission; this angle, in any case, fails to present all the traits of his distinctive and unique personality. In Mr. Stasov’s article, Musorgsky was exclusively depicted as a member of a famous circle, a famous musical sect, to which he indeed belonged, but only for a short time. The theories of this circle were a heavy burden upon the natural inclination of his talent; but he was finally able to divorce himself completely from them when his talent had fully developed. Those who knew Musorgsky well could only blame the author of this article for his somewhat thoughtless and biased attitude toward the memory of the deceased composer; since having decided to write a biographical essay, he obviously had more than one objective, of which the elucidation of Musorgsky’s personality was not even in the foreground. But the majority of the public who knew Musorgsky only through his compositions, would, as a result of reading this article, have a totally false notion about Musorgsky; and this notion began to find its expression in the press and in oral comments I often heard about Stasov’s article. In view of the situation, I decided that I no longer had the right to remain silent, and, despite my previous resolution, I choose to publish my recollections immediately, even though they are in a very incomplete and fragmentary form.
I drew closer to Musorgsky during the summer of 1873. We had previously met each other occasionally in a private home where during musical evenings, excerpts from his Boris Godunov were at times performed.5 During these evenings, a circle of young Russian composers gathered. It was an intimate, small, but at the same time very friendly circle; the members mutually supported each other, encouraged each other in their works, and loved one another, exaggerating with youthful enthusiasm the importance of each member in particular and that of the circle as whole. All this was very sincere and lively with, however, a touch of something very juvenile and immature. M[ilii] A[lekseevich] Balakirev was the only one who looked at the whole thing seriously and soberly; he had a stern attitude toward his young comrades’ compositions. Very soon, unfortunately, he completely divorced himself from the circle and had almost no influence on its subsequent development.
It was precisely at that time that fate brought Musorgsky and me together. We moved to the same house on Panteleimon Street—he had a furnished room with windows that looked out on the street, I had a small apartment which opened onto the courtyard.6 I was writing poetry, passionately hoping to see it published one day; he had finished Boris, and for the time being was content that his opera was being satisfactorily performed by a circle of amateurs; he was dreaming about having the opera put on stage. Both of us were deeply convinced of our genius and determined that, without fail, each would say “a new word” in his chosen field. Musorgsky was older than I; what is more, he already belonged to a “circle”; he had his admirers and knowledgeable critics; and worst of all, he had his leaders. He believed that he had already “spoken his new word in music.” What he still had to do was make that “word” universally accepted. As for me, I still shyly hid my writing from the majority of my acquaintances, and I continued “to create” secretly. Most likely, our similar predicaments helped us at first to understand each other; at any rate from the very beginning we both realized that we would become friends. Musorgsky’s character—open, honest to the point of effeminacy, and delicate to the point of naiveté—accomplished the rest. Within a month, we were virtually inseparable; we confided our artistic projects to each other; we judged and criticized each other with a partiality that is only possible to inveterate flatterers or intimate friends. In short, we had become bosom friends.
Nine years later, as I reflect objectively on that period (although we thought we were happy then), I have become more and more convinced (and it is my unswerving conviction now) that neither before nor after would Musorgsky deviate so far from his true path as he did at that time. He had never been so false to himself; his talent had never been put to such a difficult and dangerous ordeal. Not before, not later. The sixties—an era of sudden change and regeneration throughout Russian life and society—provoked an unbelievable confusion in our ideas regarding the purpose of literature and art; of course, it also affected Russian music, and Musorgsky in particular. His responsive, sensitive nature, so easily influenced by external pressures, reflected perfectly the spirit of the time, with all its enthusiasms and mistakes, and if I may say, wild fanaticism. An artist-idealist, Musorgsky began to reject passionately art in general and music in particular. He convinced himself and others that sounds were only a means of conversing with people, of telling them the “bitter and naked truth”! Aristocrat to the marrow of his bones, reared and educated in a good, old family of landed gentry, and, as I have already said, delicate to the point of effeminacy and considerate to the point of naivete, he tried very hard, and at times unfortunately succeeded, in cloaking himself with a rude, abrupt awkwardness that he had been convinced (of course, by others) was characteristic of true strength and genius. The results of such program were compositions like “Savishna” [Darling Savishna], “Sirotka” [The orphan], “Kozyol” [The he-goat], “Rayok” [Peepshow], “Klassik” [The classicist], “Seminarist” [The seminarian], and many separate numbers in the opera Boris Godunov in which the absence of music and beauty was utterly compensated for, in the eyes of his leaders, by the realism (or the comedy) of the content and by the “veracity in the sound.” There was no end to their ecstasy when these compositions appeared. When I first knew him, he was always delighted to talk about the ecstasy his compositions occasioned and was always very willing to play and sing his latest works in the “new” taste. I remember as if it were yesterday what my reaction was on hearing the famous “Peepshow” for the first time: it was definitely beyond me; those present roared with laughter; everywhere one heard: “Marvelous,” “Masterful!” and so forth. I was bewildered and I looked everywhere for an answer. Finally, I was given a detailed explanation of the meaning of the satire. I was told the names of those satirized, and eventually I was able to convince myself that “Peepshow” was indeed an astonishing work. Nevertheless, the same evening, on my way home with Musorgsky, I brought myself to ask him, somewhat shyly, if he himself thought his “Peepshow” was a work of art.
“It seems to me, Mr. Poet, that you deign to be displeased?” smiled Musorgsky good-naturedly.
“Oh, no, no,” I was quick to reply. “That’s not it at all! I only mean that ‘Peepshow’ is a joke—witty, wicked, talented, but it’s still a joke, a prank. . . .”
“And how mad he got at me for that prank!” Musorgsky interrupted me. “At the concert, he met me, pushed me against the wall with such delicacy and shouted that he had recognized himself. He was laughing, but twitched with anger.”
We arrived home.
“I don’t feel sleepy at all,” Musorgsky remarked. “Let’s go to your apartment. I want to show you something.”
We entered and turned on the lights, and then he sat down at the piano.
“I know what you need,” he said and played “Kolybel’nia” [Lullaby] from Voevoda by Ostrovskii—a beautiful, musical work filled with unaffected feeling and simplicity, and I was sincerely and frankly taken by it.
“Well, that’s totally different from ‘Peepshow’!” I could not help exclaiming.
Musorgsky again smiled his crooked smile.
“That was dedicated to the memory of my late mother,” he said.
“And to whom was ‘Peepshow’ dedicated?” I asked.
And we both burst out laughing.
Musorgsky stayed until dawn. All night he sang and played tirelessly, choosing with an amazing insight what, he knew, would particularly please me. I remember that among other things he played “Saul”; “Noch’” [Night], based on Pushkin’s poem,7 the last part of the scene by the fountain from Boris, and then Marina’s scene with the Jesuits and Boris’s death scene. It was only the morning light peering through the window that showed us that it was time to go. [We shook hands heartily and parted], but we left each other with the realization that we had much more in common than we had assumed several hours earlier and that we would be seeing each other more and more often.
And we did begin to meet often. We would have lunch somewhere and then go straight to my apartment. I had a rather good piano. Musorgsky would sit at it and improvise for two or three hours; he would come across a felicitous musical phrase, repeat it several times, memorize it—and in a couple of days it would appear with a text, as a passage of Khovanshchina, the opera which Musorgsky intended to write even before the staging of Boris. I must say that his first improvised version, in my opinion, was always better, more beautiful, and even richer than the later one in its harmonized and finished form. Musorgsky the artist improvised, but the Musorgsky who put it on paper was a member of the circle; he was a musical innovator who valued above all his mentors’ opinion, whose tastes he knew and whose approval he sought. To begin with, whenever it was possible, one had to hide and muddle up the beauty and melodiousness of the theme in order to avoid being criticized for being “sickly sweet and sugary,” as was their customary way of putting it. By the same token, the simplicity would then disappear to be replaced by the “originality of the harmonies.” The richness of themes and organic succession of sounds that had flowed naturally at the moment of genesis were forced to suffer a rearrangement, since that organic sequence of sounds and richness of musical themes (it goes without saying) represented in their fullness something true, which unfortunately reflected the “classicism” of the “conservatory.” It was necessary to remove this “retrograde flavor” whatever the cost. So the initial theme was cut off in the middle, harmonies were shorn of their natural development, and the musical movements were left hanging in the air, to the great joy and rapture of the leaders. Incidentally, I should add that some of the leaders, and the most important ones at that, were indiscriminately enthusiastic since they had no clear concept of the musical scholasticism with which they warred.8 They would have been incapable of determining what was really incorrect in a given composition and wherein the “innovation” was to be found. They only judged a piece by the spontaneous impression made on their ears, although in all fairness it must be said that that impression never misled them. Anything that was traditionally acknowledged outside the circle and among mere mortals as soothing to one’s ears was an offence to the leaders’ ears and vice versa. Their keenness in this respect went to such extremes that whenever Musorgsky did not succeed in the difficult task of entangling and camouflaging the initial beauty of a good musical theme, despite his best efforts, and it sometimes forced its way out—they would say that the composition was “poor” and “mediocre.” (Which is why I said above that it was at this time that Musorgsky diverged most from his true path.) The leaders’ opinions prevailed even for the author himself, consequently he abandoned whatever failed to meet with their approval.
Here, I ought to confess frankly that at the time I too had fully adopted the views and taste of the circle, to whom I was introduced by Musorgsky. I could always tell which of his compositions (he usually showed them to me first) would please or displease the circle, and I sincerely convinced myself that it should be so. A really strange and inexplicable rule was at work: whatever was undeniably beautiful or unaffected, for some reason, always sounded unattractive to me; but what was misshapen and distorted satisfied my warped expectations. For instance, when Musorgsky was playing or singing, I avidly awaited something totally unusual or unexpected; I was looking for some sudden sound that could not even be imagined in advance, and when I heard that unexpected effect I was satisfied. If there was no such surprise it seemed that I had missed something.
I really cannot demonstrate this by musical examples—such a long time has elapsed and I am no expert in music. Therefore, I have decided to give an example of my poetic compositions which were strongly influenced at that time by my musical tastes.
I was then writing something similar to “Reminiscences”; these had a fragmentary nature, no beginning and no end. In short, they were rather peculiar and meaningless. Among other things, I had a description of Moscow which initially concluded with the following verses:
Vot ploshchad’ Krasnaia—Vasiliia sobor
Krasoiu strannoiu moi privlekaet vzor.
[Here is Red Square. The strange beauty of
St. Basil’s Cathedral attracts my eye.]
“Well, Sir, would you be so kind as to strike that one immediately and change it,” Musorgsky told me when I read the poem. “It’s so poor and weak—it has no power at all!”
Naturally, I agreed with him, and the next day I read him the verses in their new version:
Vot ploshchad’ Krasnaia—Vasiliia sobor
Pestreet v storone, kak staryi mukhomor.
[Here is Red Square. The many-colored St. Basil’s Cathedral
Stands aside like an old death cap.]
“That really is good! That’s it!” exclaimed Musorgsky, and the same evening he read the poem to one of the leaders.9
I would never have dared to burden the reader with such a silly story, had it not summarized Musorgsky’s characteristic frame of mind at that time, in that the “death caps” were, one can see, the quintessence of an entire program and an outlook on poetry and art in general. Later on all this would change. In his last years, Musorgsky almost totally renounced these earlier enthusiasms and delusions. Had he lived longer, without a doubt his talent would have emerged victorious from the struggle with the influence of the sixties and its oppressive surroundings and would have reached its height. But I will talk about that at a more appropriate moment. I would now like to talk about the staging of Boris Godunov and try to clarify the good and the bad influences its success had on Musorgsky’s subsequent work.
It was January 1874. The rehearsals of Boris Godunov in the Mariinskii Theater were progressing quickly and successfully, Musorgsky was present at all of them and always came home happy and full of hope for its success. He could not praise the general attitude of the artists enough, and that was especially true about Napravnik, the conductor. According to Musorgsky, Napravnik gave a great deal of good advice; at his urgent request, many tedious passages were deleted, passages which added nothing to the opera, or passages which were not particularly well turned and which spoiled the general impression on the stage.10 Thus he deleted the scene in Pimen’s cell, the story about the parrot in the scene with Boris and the tsarevich, the scene of the striking clock, and several others. Musorgsky totally and sincerely agreed with Napravnik’s opinions and passionately argued with those who accused him of compliance or lack of character.
“All this is absolutely impossible on the stage,” he would often say to me after such arguments, “and these people refuse to listen to anyone. They don’t need quality, they only want quantity. They say that I am weak willed, but they do not understand that the author, by himself, before the final staging of an opera, can never judge the impression a scene will make on the public. Meyerbeer had no pity and would strike out whole pages—and he knew what he was doing, and he was right!”
Afterwards, when (I don’t know on whose initiative) the last act of Boris was to be deleted from the performances, Musorgsky not only approved of this change but was particularly satisfied with it.
He totally agreed that this last act was quite obviously unnecessary to the opera’s course of action and that it gave the impression of something which had been added in a slapdash manner (in reality, that had been the case). Nevertheless, I was very sorry that it was completely deleted, because I thought it had many good musical points. So I told Musorgsky that I would have preferred to see Boris with this act, but that it should be placed earlier; that way the Pretender’s entrance into the Kremlin would precede Boris’s death. Musorgsky did not agree with me. He passionately defended the idea that the entire deletion was not only necessary to the drama and to the conditions of its staging, but that his author’s conscicnce demanded it. I was surprised, and I asked him to say why.
“In this act,” he answered, “for the first time in my life I lied about the Russian people. The people’s jeering at the boyar isn’t authentic; it is not the Russian way. When the people give sway to their angry passions, they condemn and kill their victims; they do not humiliate them.”
I had to agree.
“That’s the whole point, dear friend,” he added sternly. “An artist shouldn’t make a joke about such matters. In Khovanshchina I am not going to have what I had in Boris, although, it’s likely that many people will be angry with me for that; except that now I am no longer afraid of their anger. And as for you, Mr. Poet, I advise you to take note of this rule: always be yourself, speak the truth only and . . . do not give a straw for anybody or anything, don’t pay attention to anybody else’s advice.”
I emphasize these words of Musorgsky’s particularly because they directly contradict the statements made in the biographical article I mentioned above. The article had said that the abridgment, or, as it was put, the castration of Boris by the Board of Directors, deeply outraged and distressed Musorgsky and that it even hastened his death. It was even more peculiar to read this, knowing as I did, that the author of the article had often heard Musorgsky himself say that he completely approved of the cuts in Boris; and although the author never agreed with Musorgsky on that point, in my opinion he still had no right to ascribe to the late composer feelings, that he, the author, wished him to have held. On the contrary, that deep respect and gratitude which Musorgsky constantly showed Napravnik (without whose consent the deletions in the opera naturally would not have occurred)—precisely because of his stern, artistic, and honest attitude toward the staging of the opera, the musical style of which Napravnik did not totally approve—should have been for Mr. Stasov sufficient proof that Musorgsky did not consider the deletion in Boris a castration.11 Although the dead feel no shame, the living have no right to attribute to them these tendentious fables.
Let’s go back to the staging of Boris Godunov. On the eve of the first performance Musorgsky paid me a visit. As usual he sat at the piano, and after playing a few chords, he stood up, closed the lid, and said with great resentment:
“No, I can’t. It’s all so stupid, but what can I do? I can’t stop thinking about tomorrow. How will it all turn out?”
All evening we both tried to talk about totally extraneous matters. Musorgsky forced me to read excerpts from Smuta [Sedition],12 a dramatic chronicle I was writing at the time. He pretended to listen with great attention, caviling at my wording, but I easily saw that his thoughts were aimed at one single question: what is going to happen tomorrow?
I must confess that the same question haunted me too. Musorgsky spent the night at my place, but he had a sleepless night, waking several times, and each time I saw him pace the room with his hands behind his back, deep in thought. In the morning he left, agreeing to meet at the Mariinskii Theater.
As is known, the performance ended in a triumph for Musorgsky; Boris Godunov was an absolute success. After the first act, which was received by the audience rather coldly, I began to worry seriously. This act, when performed by the author himself was magnificent, but on stage with an orchestra it did not turn out well at all. Nevertheless, the scene in the Inn, the scene at the Fountain in the Palace of the Kremlin, and particularly the scene of Boris’s death made truly shattering impressions on the audience, impressions which did not fade away even during the totally unnecessary last act, which was dramatically much weaker than the preceding ones. At the end of the performance, Musorgsky was given many curtain calls, the audience cheering him most enthusiastically. Naturally, some protesting voices were heard, but they were drowned out by the roar of general delight. This success was neither accidental nor fleeting. During the winter, there were, I think, nine performances, and each time the theater was sold out, each time the public tumultuously called for Musorgsky.13
At the same time critical articles began to appear in the newspapers, and what was worth noticing was that all of them criticized rather than praised the opera. Even the famous musical critic, who at the time was writing in the S ] ankt] P[eterburgskie] Vedomosti [St. Petersburg news], using the signature⁑*, and who always wrote very warmly about the music of the circle to which Musorgsky belonged, dealt with the opera rather severely; he could not discover the good points in it and restricted himself to focusing on its serious shortcomings.14
Thus, the critics’ opinion was divorced from the public’s opinion, and Musorgsky’s triumph was overshadowed by the realization that the voices of competent judges,15 in defiance of the loud approbation of the public, were not on his side. In conclusion, who was right, the public or the critics? This was a question which naturally arose from such a contradiction. Unfortunately, Musorgsky did not ponder it long enough. Quite understandably his feelings as author on the one hand, and the protestations of myopic and fanatic leaders on the other, quickly convinced him that only the public that gave him its approval was right. He had no reason to pay any heed to the critics, moved as they were by anger and envy, and infected with ideas of conformity and retrogression. Such a hastily accepted conclusion on Musorgsky’s part was a great and regretable mistake. Not only did it hamper the development of his talent and impede his inner striving for artistic self-perfection, but also it drew him away from his comrade composers, who, despite their sincere friendship for the author of Boris Godunov, could not praise this work for a perfection they did not see, as demanded by the leaders, since in many respects they genuinely and honestly agreed with the critics.
Therefore Musorgsky suddenly found himself outside the musical world, surrounded by people of every breed and color: artists, architects, university professors, civil servants, lawyers, all of them, needless to say, quite respectable people, but alas! not only were they not musicians, they knew absolutely nothing about music. [Yet] it was their opinion that Musorgsky accepted completely, and quite readily at that, since their judgments flattered his author’s vanity. In listening to what they were saying, Musorgsky came to believe that the public hailed him precisely for all those “novelties” and the musical radicalism he had shown in Boris: for “Ai, likhon’ko” [Oh, it’s dreadful], “Mitiukh, chego oryom?” [Mitiukh, why are we yelling?], “Turu, turu, petushok” [Tra la la, little rooster]; for all those unbelievable hostesses and Jesuits, for the tramps and Ivanushkys—the Holy Fools—with whom, at times, he would fill the stage, thus interrupting the course of his drama and violating its unity and continuity. In short, for supplementing the great and immortal work of Pushkin, which had no need of any such additions. That was precisely the reason why Musorgsky and I had many a heated argument and became estranged at that time. At that juncture I was a very staunch admirer of Pushkin, and I considered the distorting of his works an intolerable sacrilege. When N. N. Strakhov’s article appeared in the newspaper Grazhdanin [The citizen], as I recall, quite sternly and seriously chastizing Musorgsky for his “corrections” of Pushkin’s text of Godunov, despite my devotion to Musorgsky, I was in total agreement with him. But there was something very strange here: Musorgsky was particularly unable to bear any criticism of his text. He would quite readily talk about his music, without becoming upset, and very often agreed with the objections; but when the criticism bore on the text he had written, he was always irritated and never changed his mind. I should point out here that Pushkin was not particularly respected by the leaders, and, consequently, Musorgsky did not respect him much either. Even now I cannot quite fathom why he agreed to write an opera based on Pushkin’s story. Perhaps, had he not had the prospect of a totally independent rewording of the story with the insertion of the various episodes, such as the nanny’s fight with the parrot, or the tramps’ jeering the boyar, or the hanging of the Jesuits; perhaps, without all this additional rubbish, in the frame of mind in which he then found himself, Musorgsky would never have begun to write Boris.16 Incidentally, I am convinced that the great and solid success of his opera was only due to those scenes which were the most faithful to Pushkin’s drama, in which few or no corrections were made, and in which Musorgsky’s talent, relying on the great poet’s text, was able to unfold the Pushkin story in all its might and breadth. This was what Musorgsky, his friends, and comrades refused to understand. They liked the opera precisely because of the very things which had made the least impression on the majority of its listeners and which were, often quite rightly, the issues targeted by the critics. In short, there was a serious misunderstanding between Musorgsky and his public. He utterly misconstrued the meaning of their approval and was more than ever persuaded that courage overcame all obstacles. “We shall hold high our banner Be daring’ and shall not betray it,” Musorgsky wrote on the printed libretto of Boris Godunov that he gave me.
Soon, with the composition of the musical illustrations for Pictures from an Exhibition by the architect Hartmann, he reached the acme of that musical radicalism, to whose “new shores” and to whose “unfathomed depths” the admirers of his “Peepshows” and “Savishnas” had pushed him so diligently. In the music for these illustrations, as Musorgsky called them, he represented kittens, children, Baba Iaga in her wooden house on chicken legs, catacombs, gates, and even rattling carts. All this was not done jokingly, but “seriously.”17
There was no end to the enthusiasm shown by his devotees; but many of Musorgsky’s friends, on the other hand, and especially the comrade composers, were seriously puzzled and, listening to the “novelty,” shook their heads in bewilderment. Naturally, Musorgsky noticed their bewilderment and seemed to feel that he “had gone too far.” He set the illustrations aside without even trying to publish them. Musorgsky devoted himself exclusively to Khovanshchina.
Could it be possible, people would ask me, that the success of Boris had nothing but harmful consequences for the development of Musorgsky’s talent? No, would be my answer. Although for a short while this success firmly sent Musorgsky along that erroneous path to which he had been directed by the people and circumstances surrounding him, at the same time it provided him with self-confidence and independence, and allowed him to free himself from external influences. Musorgsky, having come to believe in Boris, also came to believe in himself; and he was, as I have already said, a great artist. Little by little his nature began to emerge and his creativity went on to that phase in its development which Mr. Stasov in his article called decadent, and which, in my opinion, was the beginning of a new and fruitful period of creativity.
In the meantime, the musical circle known as the “Moguchaia Kuchka” [The Mighty Handful], dispersed completely. The meetings which had taken place in the private house in which I had met Musorgsky, and which had served as a rallying point for the members of the circle, came to an end. Besides, the enthusiasm and the youthful eagerness had had time to cool down. The springtime floods had receded, and that yearning to create a revolution in music at whatever cost, to say the “new word,” had given way to a more sober and serious outlook on art. M[ilii] A[lekseevich] Balakirev still remained totally aloof from the circle. The author of Ratcliff wrote Andzhelo [Angelo]. The author of Antar and Sadko was now composing formal quartets and symphonies and was reworking The Maid of Pskov, after having become a professor at the Conservatory. In short, I think I would not be mistaken were I to say that while Musorgsky, intoxicated with the success of his Boris and influenced by his worshippers, rushed on toward “new shores” and steadily lost the solid ground under his feet, his comrades, the composers, by contrast, turned themselves around and recognized that the study of the musical past was essential; sobered by this realization, they consciously embarked on the path which corresponded to their individual talents. If I am wrong, let those who are better informed correct me. In any case, I repeat, it was around that time that the “Mighty Handful” had disbanded. Its banner was held by Musorgsky alone; all the other members had left it and each pursued his own path; and I am deeply convinced, each of them made the right decision.
As for Musorgsky, from that time forward, he began to struggle inwardly with rather complex yearnings; this struggle, at various times and with differing vigor, often pushed him in totally opposite directions, depending on what was predominant at the given moment: the artist’s nature or the obtrusive purposes foisted upon him. Moreover, as time went by, the discrepancy between what Musorgsky was doing and what he was saying or writing to his “admirers” became more obvious. For instance, in November of 1875, reference to Saint-Saens, he wrote to Mr. Stasov, in what was for him unnaturally rude, artificial, and unusual language, the following lines, which are almost incomprehensible coming from a composer:
It’s not merely music, words, palette and chisel that we need—no, the devil take you, you liars, hypocrites e tutti quanti—give us living thoughts, have live conversations with people, on whatever subject you’ve chosen! You can’t fool us with pretty, sweet sounds: the lady luxuriously passes the box of bonbons to her dear friend, and that’s all.18
Without even mentioning the imitative crudeness and artificiality of his style (which was also meant to be the expression of “originality and strength”), one must comment on the total absence of any clear, definite meaning in these lines, which were carefully copied verbatim from the biographical article by Mr. Stasov. Who is implied by the word “we,” who does not need “music” [in music]? Who is sent to the devil, who are the liars and the hypocrites who arouse such an unnatural indignation in Musorgsky, and what was their falsehood and pretense? Finally, what does this “you can’t fool us with pretty, sweet sounds” mean? And what about this “lady with a box of bonbons”? All this is very obscure and confusing. One thing is clear though: there is no need for “music” in music nor is there a need for “beautiful sounds”; and what is more important, those lines showed an affected eagerness for a fight foreign to the real Musorgsky. In that fight, he was unwittingly his own worst enemy. At the time he wrote this to Mr. Stasov, he was composing Khovanshchina. He began to create passages of “music” and “beautiful sounds” which intruded into his opera, regardless of the many inconveniences represented by a topic chosen for God only knows what reason, a topic fit neither for an opera nor for a drama. This intrusion is seen in the enormous number of songs sung by the principals whenever a convenient or an inconvenient occasion arises. These songs are a detriment to the notorious “realism,” but on the other hand, they are, without a doubt, a great benefit to the music. It will suffice to enumerate the songs whose qualities I will not discuss here, since Khovanshchina is still unknown to the public,19 to understand what an outstanding, if not totally predominant, role they play in the opera. The following is the enumeration of the songs in the order in which they are sung: “Podoidu pod Ivan gorod” [I shall go to Ivangorod]; the Streltsy song “Goi, vy liudi ratnye” [Hey, you, men of armor]; the peasants’ song, “Zhila kuma” [There lived a godmother]; the song about the clerk, “Okh, ty, rodnaia Rus’” [O, thou, Russia, my dear homeland]; the song to the glory of Khovanskii, “Belomu lebediu put’ prostoren” [Make a wide path for our white swan]; and finally the songs of the Old Believers: (a) “Bozhe vsesil’nyi, otzheni slovesa lukavye ot nas” [God Almighty, deliver us from the snares of the Evil One], (b) “Pobedikhom, posramikhom” [We have defeated, we have shamed]; Marfa’s song “Iskhodila mladyoshen’ka” [The maiden wandered]; Shaklovityi’s song, “Akh, ty, v sud’bine zlochastnoi, rodnaia Rus’” [Oh, how wretched is your lot, Russia, my dear homeland]; the Streltsys’ song “Akh, ne bylo pechali” [Oh, we shan’t have a care in the world then]; Kuz’ka’s song about the gossip; the song of the peasant women at Khovanskii’s, “Vozle rechki, na luzhaike pozdno vecherom sidela” [By the river in a meadow, I was sitting late at night]; “Plyvyot, plyvyot lebyodushka, ladu, ladu” [The swan glides on the water, tra la la]; and finally in the last scene the Old Believers’ hymns before the mass self-immolation. The total come to twenty songs, some of which are repeated at different times during the opera. Moreover, in some parts of the opera, Musorgsky gave the words of his characters a pure song form which often did not correspond in the least with their content. All these songs and all these recitatives in song form, whatever their intrinsic merit, from an external and formal point of view were precisely the type of “music” that Musorgsky had rejected in his letter to Mr. Stasov, since the songs contained nothing but music, i.e., more or less “beautiful sounds.” They cannot contain “living thoughts” or “live conversations with people,” and therefore Musorgsky the composer, having filled his opera with “songs,” found himself in total contradiction with Musorgsky the author of the letter to Mr. Stasov, where with all his intellectual might he rejected Saint-Saens, “the music” and “the pretty, sweet sounds.” The whole point is that an artist’s spontaneity cannot be subordinate to intellect, especially when this intellect . . . And those passages where Musorgsky yearned to express living thoughts or faithfulness to his topic remain dark blemishes.
Not wishing to go into details since, as I have already said, the public does not yet know Khovanshchina, I can only make a general observation which, I am sure, will be acceptable to almost all those familiar with the topic of this opera: all the power, beauty, and merit of the opera are to be found in its songs. It must be said also that, contrary to his initial intention of representing Marfa the Old Believer as a sort of Potiphar’s wife (a very strange plan, not exactly consistent with the Russian folk theme), Musorgsky endowed Marfa with a profound lyricism, a delicate and feminine sensibility and a somewhat fantastic, magic, and even prophetic character, which of course was utterly foreign to the folk theme and particularly to the Old Believers. Nonetheless, characterizing her this way allowed him full play in musical creativity, and, moreover, due to the nature of musical creativity, he was able to embody it all in “beautiful sounds.” Is there any other explanation for the “Scene of Marfa’s witchcraft at the Golitsyn’s house” other than the compulsion to create these sounds? The scene is not only totally superfluous to the course of the drama but also obviously impractical and artificial. Nevertheless, because of its music, it is a part of the most beautiful and inspired moments in the entire opera. The same yearning for a pure, and I would even dare to say, an ideal, beauty explains Musorgsky’s effort to make Shaklovityi, contrary to historical fact, a man (even under the guise of a Jesuit or a Mephistofeles) who conceals the warm, passionate heart of a great patriot, grieving over the misfortunes of Russia. He is inspired in all his actions by a single desire: “Not to let Russia perish at the hands of evil mercenaries.” As, I repeat, it is precisely in these digressions from the initial plan for Khovanshchina (the narodnost’, the “realism,” and the “living thoughts”) that all the beauty and merit of the opera are to be found. They are songs which are truly unnecessary to the development of the drama, but they have been inserted in every act.
We hope that the opera, orchestrated by the skillful and talented hand of one of our modern composers who knew Musorgsky intimately, sooner or later will be put on stage. Let the music critics then decide if I was right or wrong in my opinion about Khovanshchina. But let’s leave judgments aside and go back to the facts.
In the fall of 1874, Musorgsky and I decided to share rooms. At that time, he lived on Shpalernaia Street. I had rented the two adjacent rooms. The doors between our lodgings could be opened so that we had a small apartment in which to settle down. Every morning until noon (when Musorgsky left for work) and every evening were spent together, mainly at home. During the winter, Musorgsky made some progress on Khovanshchina. And in addition to the opera he also wrote a song “Zabytyi” [Forgotten] based on my verses, and a collection of songs entitled Bez solntsa [Sunless],20 based on verses which I had written one or two years earlier. I must emphasize that Musorgsky chose the poems himself, and his choice was not without a special significance. All five poems in the collection are purely lyrical; they have no images or pictures, their subjects are fleeting, emotional moods in Fet’s vein. (When I say Fet’s vein, let it be understood that I am not comparing myself to our great lyrical poet; if I dare to mention his name, it is only for the purpose of briefly and precisely identifying the character of the poems Musorgsky had chosen.) Musorgsky gave them a poetical, graceful musical form which pleased him a great deal.
“Many say,” he told me once, “that my only qualities are fluid form and humor. Well, we shall see what they say when I show them your poems. The only element I have here is feeling, and the result isn’t half bad.”
The result was indeed good, but not to the taste of the “worshippers,” who demanded a continuation and a repetition of “Peepshows,” and “Seminarians,” but Musorgsky was no longer capable of that style. His irritation with the critics of Boris provided me with an opportunity for suggesting that he resume work on a musical satire entitled “Rak” [The crab],21 and he did. But after writing four or five measures, he abandoned it. Several months later, while in the country, I wrote him a letter asking him about the fate of “Crab.” Among other things he wrote the following: “I had a good romp with “Peepshow,” enough of that! I can find more serious work to do.”22
Generally speaking, in 1875 Musorgsky was already becoming more and more independent. The formerly obedient steward of someone else’s orders had begun to set his own themes and tasks more consistent with his nature and talent. Khovanshchina began to acquire a shape totally unlike the one that had been initially conceived. Musorgsky decided that many of the projected episodes should be deleted. For example, the appearance on Red Square of a Lottery Wheel (?!), amid a lot of noise and uproar in the “folk” scene composed earlier, was now struck out. “The comic and humoristic” scenes in the German Settlement, with their parody of German music in a retrograde Mozartian style, also disappeared.23 They were replaced by the aforementioned elaboration of Marfa’s and Shaklovityi’s characters. Musorgsky wrote this latter role for Mel’nikov, and he wanted to provide the magnificent and full-scale voice of this artist with a wide musical range. In short, the period of “decline” had begun during which, according to Mr. Stasov’s article, Musorgsky’s talent started to weaken and, obviously, to ebb. Mr. Stasov’s acknowledgment of the “apparent change,” in my opinion, best corroborates what I previously said about the development of Musorgsky’s independence and his new freedom from the yoke of other people’s influence. The natural consequences of this emancipation was that the former “worshippers” and leaders were no longer able to sympathize with his altered direction, and they began to find his new works, “foggy, bizarre, disconnected, and even tasteless.” It could not have been otherwise: the people who considered “Peepshow” a chef-d’oeuvre of talent, sparkling wit, and fluidity of form, and Detskaia [The nursery], or “Kozly” [He-goats], “Zhuki” [Beetles], “Raki” [Crabs], and so forth, as strings of pearls and diamonds, i.e., compositions worthy of “complete symphonies and operas,” were not able to appreciate the new works. They were also incapable of understanding Shaklovityi’s and Marfa’s arias, or the album Sunless, or the nonprogrammatic piano pieces,24 to which Musorgsky again addressed himself stoward the end of his life. Nor could they accept the best passages of The Fair at Sorochintsy, which Musorgsky had begun,25 which was also filled with clear, simple, and gentle poetry. This internal, spiritual world, a world of pure poetry to which Musorgsky was irrepressibly drawn by his artistic nature, must have indeed seemed to those accustomed to the clarity and form of “The He-Goat” and “The Beetle,” as something particularly foggy, bizarre, and tasteless. At first, having noticed the change in Musorgsky, they were upset; but when their distress had no effect, and when Musorgsky not only failed to reform but proceeded ahead on this path, and even completely divorced himself from them, their distress turned into wrath; he was given up as being hopeless and he was looked on as “lost.” He was indeed “lost,” but certainly not in the sense understood by his friends from earlier times. Musorgsky’s health, for a reason which had nothing to do with music, or work, or theatrical direction, was destroyed in the end. His weakened physique was simply unable to cope with the physical ailment which had stricken him. In 1879, when I came back to Petersburg, after spending more than two years in the country, I already found him physically weakened and ailing, and during those two years Musorgsky had lived . . .
While I was living in Petersburg, it was a rare day when Musorgsky did not come to see me; once there, he would play and sing all evening although he was composing less and . . .
As a result of this affliction, which finally took him to his grave, in the last two years of his life, he had almost ceased to compose. But what he did write clearly demonstrated that there was no decline in his talent. Quite the contrary, his works from this last period bore an imprint of maturity and profundity he had never achieved earlier. Among the works from this period one finds scenes from the last act of Khovanshchina and from the first act of The Fair at Sorochintsy. The very fact that Musorgsky, before finishing one opera had begun work on a second one, plainly demonstrated that his creative power was far from diminished; it was in search of a more apt and fertile subject than Khovanshchina. In The Fair at Sorochintsy, in addition to all its other merits, what had attracted Musorgsky was its touch of the fantastic contained in the stories about the red svitka [a Ukranian garment] and its sale. Musorgsky was more and more attracted by fantasy, to the point that several times he told me most seriously that once Khovanshchina and The Fair at Sorochintsy were finished, he intended to start a purely fantastic opera, but that he had not decided yet between two subjects: the legend of “Vii” or the legend of “Savva Grudtsyn,”26 the Russian Faust, as he called him. One musical attempt in that vein had been “Poklonenie chyornomu kozlu” [Worship of the black he-goat] in “Mlada,”27 an attempt made considerably earlier, in 1875. “Chetyre pesni smerti” [Four songs of death] and finally “Stsena koldovstva” [Witchcraft scene] in Khovanshchina came later. Musorgsky was extremely satisfied with all these ventures.
These endeavors were not destined to be fully realized, but their very manifestation is a clear indication of the direction Musorgsky was taking at the end of his life. Even on his deathbed, just a few days before the end, hoping for recovery, Musorgsky told me about his desire to start something important, something prominent.
“And you know,” he added, “I would like to do something totally new, something that I have not touched before; I would like to take a rest from history, and generally from all this ‘prosiness,’ which won’t let you catch a breath.”
Holding back my tears with difficulty, I expressed my approval.
“And I am going to tell you something else,” continued Musorgsky, “up till now, you and I have been busying ourselves with trifles. Let’s work together on something big; you can write a fantastic drama, and I will put it to music in such a way that not a word will be changed, just as Dargomyzhsky did with The Stone Guest. Bur, shush, don’t say anything to anybody. For the time being, let’s keep it a secret.”
Three days after this conversation, Musorgsky passed away.28
These fragmentary details that I have presented in my brief recollections do not contain one-tenth of all I could have written about Musorgsky. But, as I said at the beginning, biography and testimonies about remarkable men cannot and should not be hastily written immediately following their deaths. On one hand, the inadequacy of the sources, and on the other hand, the impossibility of making a totally objective classification and analysis of the information means that such endeavors can never be successful; they never achieve their goal, which is the total elucidation of the personality of which one writes. In the present article, I only wished to rectify some inaccuracies in the prejudiced views contained in the biographical essay by Mr. Stasov. I wanted to demonstrate that the period of Musorgsky’s creativity, which, according to Mr. Stasov, was the most brilliant one, was in reality a transitional period, if I may say so, in which Musorgsky’s talent was hampered by the dead weight of theories and tendencies foreign to his nature—burdens, which toward the end of his life, he was more and more able to cast aside. Furthermore, I wanted to make clear that Musorgsky’s nature constantly drew him toward a pure, ideal poetry and beauty, toward a spiritual, perfect world, the only place an artist can find true gratification and peace of mind.
Musorgsky’s great misfortune was that during the time when his talent was developing, he found neither in the time nor in the milieu in which chance had placed him, that guidance and support so necessary to a young talent. Glinka had found such support in the spirit of the forties, in a society in which musical circles such as that of the Counts Viel’gorskii could exist.29 Had Musorgsky been born twenty years earlier, or perhaps, twenty years later, his name would be there, alongside the most illustrious names of European composers.
July 25, 1888. Village of Shubino
But fate placed Musorgsky in different circumstances, in which his enormous and original talent, unarmed by the power of knowledge, mistakenly directed, and condemned to a long and difficult struggle, had no time to develop in all its magnificence and force. It barely hinted to his contemporaries and posterity what Musorgsky should have been and what he could have achieved under different social circumstances.