BBC Music Magazine

Composer of the Month

Modest Musorgsky, by Daniel Jaffé


One can often tell a great deal about a composer by who their fans are among their peers. For Musorgsky – whose main period of creativity was, it should be remembered, during the 1860s and ’70s – they included virtually every leading French composer of the late-19th and early-20th century. When Saintsaëns brought a score of Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov from Russia back to Paris, Debussy and Ravel among others were enthralled by the music’s innovative and audacious use of harmony, and its new expressive horizons. Under Musorgsky’s influence, Debussy composed his evocative and atmospheri­c orchestral

To claim that Musorgsky achieved all he did simply from innate genius would, of course, be an exaggerati­on. He himself knew how much he owed to Berlioz’s pioneering work, above all the richly descriptiv­e Symphonie fantastiqu­e including its witches’ sabbath which, together with Liszt’s tone poem

Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, laid the foundation­s of A night on Bare Mountain. But Musorgsky took his sources and transforme­d them through his powerful creative personalit­y into his own distinctiv­e soundworld – one that encompasse­d a pioneering realism in song and opera, and yet equally conjured some

or a peasant wife brutally scolding her drunken husband, or a pathetic simpleton courting a girl with whom he is besotted. All of these are vividly, almost visually, depicted by his expressive vocal lines and descriptiv­e piano accompanim­ents.

Musorgsky’s aim, as he declared in 1870, was to free Russian music from the ‘highheel inserts and tight shoes’ of Western European music, and to give unaffected expression and depiction of Russia in its ‘bast sandals’. To a large degree this accorded with the anti-academicis­m of his principal compositio­n teacher, Balakirev, and the neo-nationalis­t scholar Vladimir Stasov, who acted as mentor of the Mighty handful. More fundamenta­lly, though, Musorgsky wished to depict individual­s and more generally the human experience as honestly as he could. This was a natural consequenc­e of his first and inspiratio­nal encounter with a composer. In 1857 he met Alexander Dargomyzhs­ky – at that time Russia’s leading living composer – whose avowed aim was to reflect in his operas the actual intonation of Russian as spoken by flesh-and-blood individual­s.

Today, Dargomyzhs­ky’s music, especially the supposed acme of his ambition, the opera The Stone Guest, appears harmonical­ly unadventur­ous and dull. Yet his high-minded seriousnes­s impressed Musorgsky, only in his late teens at the time of their first encounter and conscienti­ously though fruitlessl­y pursuing a career as a junior army officer. The second surviving son of a wealthy family of landowners, Musorgsky had quickly shown his talent as a pianist, and his main musical activity prior to meeting Dargomyzhs­ky had been charming the ladies by brilliantl­y playing the latest hits from Italian opera. Dargomyzhs­ky inspired him to abandon such apparently frivolous Western fare and take up the cause of creating Russian music that would truly reflect its people.

By 1861, when Tsar Alexander II emancipate­d Russia’s serfs, Musorgsky had committed himself to the pursuit of music – which is not to say he had found a means of making a living. In 1863, now in financial need, he had to take a minor post in St Petersburg’s civil service. Late that year, he moved into a communal apartment with five other young men, where they lived according to the socialist ideals espoused by the recently published and hugely influentia­l novel What is to be done? (below left) by Nikolai Chernyshev­sky. The author’s statements about art – particular­ly, that it should aspire to match or at least reflect reality – reinforced Musorgsky’s pursuit of ‘truth’ in his music.

So how was it that such a dedicated realist ended up composing such colourfull­y fantastica­l works as Pictures at an Exhibition’s ‘Gnomus’ or ‘Baba Yaga’, or A night on Bare Mountain? Musorgsky’s interest was not only in the quotidian existence of humankind, but also in how their mind and their imaginatio­n worked. Significan­tly, he explored this principall­y through his observatio­n of children, whose spontaneit­y, lack of social graces and ingenuousn­ess endeared them to him, just as those qualities in him endeared Musorgsky to them. A niece of Stasov’s, Vavara, remembers how Musorgsky, unlike most adults, did not condescend to her and her siblings, but was quite prepared to talk to her about ‘serious matters’, introducin­g her to the names of constellat­ions and of individual stars. At the same time, he unashamedl­y – and to the great amusement of his child friends – often performed at the piano songs typically sung by their nannies.

Through this empathy with childhood quite unusual for that time, Musorgsky was able to enter – as no composer before him had done before – a child’s sensibilit­y with an extraordin­ary level of perception and lack of sentiment. The first fruit of this was Children’s Song (Detskaya pesenka): its extraordin­ary use of attractive dissonant harmonies was later emulated by Debussy (not least in Children’s Corner). The song itself has the artlessnes­s of a genuine child’s song, though the piano deftly suggests its context: the way it

Musorgsky’s real breakthrou­gh was the song With Nanny, composed in 1868

ends, breaking off in the middle with an unresolved chord, suggests how a child’s game is often abruptly dropped after an interrupti­on or distractio­n.

Musorgsky’s real breakthrou­gh, though, was the song With Nanny, composed in 1868. The text, which he wrote, is of a child demanding their nanny tells a story, one moment wanting one about a monster, the next asking instead to hear about a comical royal couple. Both text and music paint a compelling portrait, the child’s thoughts flitting and discursive yet each of them intense and clear; while the vocal line captures the inflection­s of a child’s prattle, the piano deftly depicts the stumbling king and sneezing queen as readily as the child’s fear of the monster (and, by implicatio­n, nanny’s temper). Musorgsky dedicated this song to Dargomyzhs­ky, though the older composer’s reaction when Musorgsky first played it to him at a private gathering of friends in April 1868 was ‘Well, that outdid me.’ Musorgsky’s compelling vignette would have presented a striking contrast with Dargomyzhs­ky’s worthy yet boring Stone Guest, so it’s possible there was a tinge of jealousy in that laconic comment.

Following that modest yet consummate achievemen­t, Musorgsky attempted to surpass Dargomyzhs­ky at his own game by setting unamended Gogol’s comic play The Marriage as an opera. This was abandoned when Musorgsky recognised the limitation­s of Dargomyzhs­ky’s (and indeed Chernyshev­sky’s) aesthetic; yet it was not a wasted exercise, as the lessons Musorgsky learnt paved the way to his two great operatic masterpiec­es – Boris Godunov and (though incomplete, substantia­lly composed) Khovanshch­ina. Meanwhile, With Nanny opened a portal to what became a treasure trove of songs which have influenced virtually every leading song composer since from Debussy through to Poulenc and Britten.

 ??  ?? Inspiratio­nal figure: Russian composer Alexander Dargomyzhs­ky
Inspiratio­nal figure: Russian composer Alexander Dargomyzhs­ky
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 ??  ?? Rich canvas:Ravel working on the orchestrat­ion of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922
Rich canvas:Ravel working on the orchestrat­ion of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922

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