Today is the birthday (1839) of Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (Модест Петрович Мусоргский), a Russian composer, one of the group known as “The Five” — Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin (Borodin post here). He was an innovator of Russian music in the Romantic period who strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music.
Many of his works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other nationalist themes. Such works include the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. For many years Mussorgsky’s works were known mainly in versions revised or completed by other composers. Many of his most important compositions have recently come into their own in their original forms, and some of the original scores are now also available.
Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Toropets, Pskov Governorate, Imperial Russia, 400 km (250 mi) south of Saint Petersburg. His wealthy, land-owning family, the noble family of Mussorgsky, is reputedly descended from the first Ruthenian ruler, Rurik, through the sovereign princes of Smolensk. At age six Mussorgsky began receiving piano lessons from his mother, herself a trained pianist. His progress was sufficiently rapid that three years later he was able to perform a John Field concerto and works by Franz Liszt for family and friends. At 10, he and his brother were taken to Saint Petersburg to study at the elite Peterschule (St. Peter’s School). While there, Modest studied the piano with the noted Anton Gerke. In 1852, the 12-year-old Mussorgsky published a piano piece titled “Porte-enseigne Polka” at his father’s expense.
Mussorgsky’s parents planned the move to Saint Petersburg so that both their sons would renew the family tradition of military service. To this end, Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School of the Guards at age 13. His skills as a pianist made him much in demand by fellow-cadets; for them he would play dances interspersed with his own improvisations. In 1856 Mussorgsky – who had developed a strong interest in history and studied German philosophy – successfully graduated from the Cadet School. Following family tradition he received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard.
In October 1856 the 17-year-old Mussorgsky met the 22-year-old Alexander Borodin while both men served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg. The two were soon on good terms. More portentous was Mussorgsky’s introduction that winter to Alexander Dargomyzhsky, at that time the most important Russian composer after Mikhail Glinka. Dargomyzhsky was impressed with Mussorgsky’s piano skills. As a result, Mussorgsky became a fixture at Dargomyzhsky’s soirées. Over the next two years at Dargomyzhsky’s, Mussorgsky met several figures of importance in Russia’s cultural life, among them Vladimir Stasov, César Cui (a fellow officer), and Mily Balakirev. Balakirev had an especially strong impact. Within days he took it upon himself to help shape Mussorgsky’s fate as a composer. He recalled to Stasov, “Because I am not a theorist, I could not teach him harmony (as, for instance Rimsky-Korsakov now teaches it), but I explained to him the form of compositions, and to do this we played through both Beethoven symphonies [as piano duets] and much else (Schumann, Schubert, Glinka, and others), analyzing the form.” Up to this point Mussorgsky had known nothing but piano music; his knowledge of more radical recent music was virtually non-existent. Balakirev started filling these gaps in Mussorgsky’s knowledge.
In 1858, within a few months of beginning his studies with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to devote himself entirely to music. He also suffered a painful crisis at this time. This may have had a spiritual component (in a letter to Balakirev the young man referred to “mysticism and cynical thoughts about the Deity”), but its exact nature will probably never be known. In 1859, the 20-year-old gained valuable theatrical experience by assisting in a production of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar on the Glebovo estate of a former singer and her wealthy husband; he also met Konstantin Lyadov (father of Anatoly Lyadov) and enjoyed a formative visit to Moscow – after which he professed a love of “everything Russian.”
In spite of this epiphany, Mussorgsky’s music still leaned more toward foreign models; a four-hand piano sonata which he produced in 1860 contains his only movement in sonata form. Nor is any ‘nationalistic’ impulse easily discernible in the incidental music for Serov’s play Oedipus in Athens, on which he worked between the ages of 19 and 22 (and then abandoned unfinished), or in the Intermezzo in modo classico for piano solo (revised and orchestrated in 1867). The latter was the only important piece he composed between December 1860 and August 1863: the reasons for this probably lie in the painful re-emergence of his subjective crisis in 1860 and the purely objective difficulties which resulted from the emancipation of the serfs the following year – as a result of which the family was deprived of half its estate, and Mussorgsky had to spend a good deal of time in Karevo unsuccessfully attempting to stave off their looming impoverishment.
By this time, Mussorgsky had freed himself from the influence of Balakirev and was largely teaching himself. In 1863 he began an opera – Salammbô – on which he worked between 1863 and 1866 before losing interest in the project. During this period he had returned to Saint Petersburg and was supporting himself as a low-grade civil-servant while living in a six-man “commune”. In a heady artistic and intellectual atmosphere, he read and discussed a wide range of modern artistic and scientific ideas – including those of the provocative writer Chernyshevsky, known for the bold assertion that, in art, “form and content are opposites”. Under such influences he came more and more to embrace the rather enigmatic ideal of artistic realism: the responsibility to depict life “as it is truly lived.” “Real life” affected Mussorgsky painfully in 1865, when his mother died. It was at this point that the composer had his first serious bout of alcoholicism. The 26-year-old was, however, on the point of writing his first realistic songs including “Hopak” and “Darling Savishna” (or, “Love Song of an Idiot), both of them composed in 1866 and among his first “realist” publications the following year. 1867 was also the year in which he finished the original orchestral version of his Night on Bald Mountain (which, however, Balakirev criticized and refused to conduct, with the result that it was never performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime).
Mussorgsky’s career as a civil servant was by no means stable or secure: though he was assigned to various posts and even received a promotion in these early years, in 1867 he was declared ‘supernumerary’ – remaining ‘in service’ but receiving no wages. Decisive developments were occurring in his artistic life, however. Although it was in 1867 that Stasov first referred to the ‘kuchka’ (‘The Five’) of Russian composers loosely grouped around Balakirev, Mussorgsky was by then ceasing to seek Balakirev’s approval and was moving closer to the older Alexander Dargomyzhsky .
Since 1866 Dargomïzhsky had been working on his opera The Stone Guest, a version of the Don Juan story with a Pushkin text that he declared would be set “just as it stands, so that the inner truth of the text should not be distorted”, and in a manner that abolished the ‘unrealistic’ division between aria and recitative in favor of a continuous mode of syllabic but lyrically heightened declamation somewhere between the two.
Under the influence of this work (and the ideas of Georg Gottfried Gervinus, according to whom “the highest natural object of musical imitation is emotion, and the method of imitating emotion is to mimic speech”), Mussorgsky in 1868 rapidly set the first eleven scenes of Nikolai Gogol’s The Marriage (Zhenitba), with his priority being to render into music the natural accents and patterns of the play’s naturalistic and deliberately humdrum dialogue. This work marked an extreme position in Mussorgsky’s pursuit of naturalistic word-setting: he abandoned it after reaching the end of his ‘Act 1’ and though its characteristically ‘Mussorgskyian’ declamation is to be heard in all his later vocal music, the naturalistic mode of vocal writing more and more became formulaic.
A few months after abandoning Zhenitba, the 29-year-old Mussorgsky was encouraged to write an opera on the story of Boris Godunov. This he did, assembling and shaping a text from Pushkin’s play and Karamzin’s history. He completed the large-scale score the following year while living with friends and working for the Forestry Department. In 1871, however, the finished opera was rejected for theatrical performance, apparently because of its lack of any ‘prima donna’ role. Mussorgsky set to work producing a revised and enlarged second version. During the next year, which he spent sharing rooms with Rimsky-Korsakov, he made changes that went beyond those requested by the theatre. In this version the opera was accepted, probably in May 1872, and three excerpts were staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1873.
From this peak a pattern of decline becomes increasingly apparent. Already the Balakirev circle was disintegrating. Mussorgsky was especially bitter about this. He wrote to Vladimir Stasov, “The Mighty Handful has degenerated into soulless traitors.” In drifting away from his old friends, Mussorgsky had been seen to fall victim to ‘fits of madness’ that could well have been alcoholism-related. His friend Viktor Hartmann had died, and his relative and recent roommate Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov (who furnished the poems for the song-cycle Sunless and would go on to provide those for the Songs and Dances of Death) had moved away to get married. While alcoholism was Mussorgsky’s personal problem, it was also a behavior pattern considered typical for those of Mussorgsky’s generation who wanted to oppose the establishment and protest through extreme forms of behavior. One contemporary notes, “an intense worship of Bacchus was considered to be almost obligatory for a writer of that period. It was a showing off, a ‘pose,’ for the best people of the [eighteen-]sixties.” Another writes, “Talented people in Russia who love the simple folk cannot but drink. Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg tavern of low repute, the Maly Yaroslavets, accompanied by other bohemian dropouts. He and his fellow drinkers idealized their alcoholism, perhaps seeing it as ethical and aesthetic opposition. This bravado, however, led to little more than isolation and eventual self-destruction.”
For a time Mussorgsky was able to maintain his creative output: his compositions from 1874 include Sunless, the Khovanschina Prelude, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (in memory of Hartmann). He also began work on another opera based on Gogol, The Fair at Sorochyntsi (for which he produced another choral version of Night on Bald Mountain).
In the years that followed, Mussorgsky’s decline became increasingly steep. Although now part of a new circle of eminent people that included singers, medical professionals, and actors, he was increasingly unable to resist drinking, and a succession of deaths among his closest associates caused him great pain. At times, however, his alcoholism would seem to be in check, and among the most powerful works composed during his last 6 years are the four Songs and Dances of Death. His civil service career was made more precarious by his frequent ‘illnesses’ and absences, and he was fortunate to obtain a transfer to a post (in the Office of Government Control) where his music-loving superior treated him with great leniency – in 1879 even allowing him to spend 3 months touring 12 cities as a singer’s accompanist.
The decline could not be halted, however. In 1880 he was finally dismissed from government service. Aware of his destitution, one group of friends organized a stipend designed to support the completion of Khovanschina; another group organized a similar fund to pay him to complete The Fair at Sorochyntsi. However, neither work was completed (although Khovanschina, in piano score with only two numbers uncomposed, came close to being finished).
In early 1881 a desperate Mussorgsky declared to a friend that there was ‘nothing left but begging’ and suffered four seizures in rapid succession. Though he found a comfortable room in a good hospital – and for several weeks even appeared to be rallying – the situation was hopeless. Repin painted the famous red-nosed portrait in what were to be the last days of the composer’s life: a week after his 42nd birthday, he was dead. He was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.
Mussorgsky’s works, while strikingly novel, are stylistically Romantic and draw heavily on Russian musical themes. He has been the inspiration for many Russian composers, including most notably Dmitri Shostakovich (in his late symphonies) and Sergei Prokofiev (in his operas).
Contemporary opinions of Mussorgsky as a composer and person varied from positive to ambiguous to negative. Mussorgsky’s eventual supporters, Stasov and Balakirev, initially registered strongly negative impressions of the composer. Stasov wrote Balakirev, in an 1863 letter, “I have no use whatever for Mussorgsky. All in him is flabby and dull. He is, I think, a perfect idiot. Were he left to his own devices and no longer under your strict supervision, he would soon run to seed as all the others have done. There is nothing in him.” Balakirev replied: “Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot.”
Mixed impressions are recorded by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, colleagues of Mussorgsky who, unlike him, made their living as composers. Both praised his talent while expressing disappointment with his technique. About Mussorgsky’s scores Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “They were very defective, teeming with clumsy, disconnected harmonies, shocking part-writing, amazingly illogical modulations or intolerably long stretches without ever a modulation, and bad scoring. …what is needed is an edition for practical and artistic purposes, suitable for performances and for those who wish to admire Mussorgsky’s genius, not to study his idiosyncrasies and sins against art.”
Rimsky-Korsakov’s own editions of Mussorgsky’s works met with some criticism of their own. Rimsky-Korsakov’s student, Anatoly Lyadov, found them to be weak, saying “It is easy enough to correct Mussorgsky’s irregularities. The only trouble is that when this is done, the character and originality of the music are done away with, and the composer’s individuality vanishes.” A very strange sentiment — essentially saying that Mussorgsky’s writing is all wrong, but if you make it “right” it is no good. My advice would be to leave it alone, then.
Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck was also critical of Mussorgsky: “Mussorgsky you very rightly call a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the [other members of The Five], but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness…. He flaunts … his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.”
Western perceptions of Mussorgsky changed with the European premiere of Boris Godunov in 1908. Before the premiere, he was regarded as an eccentric in the west. Critic Edward Dannreuther, wrote, in the 1905 edition of The Oxford History of Music, “Mussorgsky, in his vocal efforts, appears willfully eccentric. His style impresses the Western ear as barbarously ugly.”However, after the premiere, views on Mussorgsky’s music changed drastically. Gerald Abraham, a musicologist, and an authority on Mussorgsky said, “As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture.”
I wish I had the time and space to provide a proper appreciation of Pictures at an Exhibition. I have known the piece since I was a young teen and have always loved its rich complexity and evocative movements. It has 10 separate movements sporadically interspersed with an interlude that is initially called “Promenade” but unmarked in the rest of the score. The simple idea is that Mussorgsky (or some viewer) is walking around an exhibit of 10 paintings (Promenade), and when he stops in front of a piece the music changes to become a tonal depiction of the image. Then there is another promenade as he walks to the next painting. Here’s what I did not know about the piece as a teen but which is self evident if I lay out the piece as I do below. First, the exhibition is not a random assortment of paintings but, rather, 11 paintings by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, to memorialize him. Several are still extant and I attach them in the appropriate places. The two for movement 6 were owned by Mussorgsky.
Second, there is not a simple alternation of promenade, painting, promenade, painting . . . etc. In several spots Mussorgsky moves from one painting to the next without interlude. Third, you will see that, with one exception, the promenade motif is not a simple restatement each time. Time signatures and keys change (as do tempo markings which I have omitted for the sake of simplicity – they get complicated). It is as if Mussorgsky is showing that with each new painting his mood changes as he leaves to go to the next. (Occasionally, too, there are echoes of the Promenade within the formal movements).
Key: B-flat major
Meter: originally 11/4. Published editions alternate 5/4 and 6/4.
No. 1 “Gnomus”
(Latin, The Gnome):
[Untitled] (Interlude, Promenade theme)
Meter: alternating 5/4 and 6/4
No. 2 “Il vecchio castello”
(Italian, The Old Castle):
[Untitled] (Interlude, Promenade theme)
Key: B major.
Meter: alternating 5/4 and 6/4
No. 3 “Tuileries” (Dispute d’enfants après jeux)
(French, Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play))
No. 4 “Byd?o”(Polish, Cattle)
[Untitled] (Interlude, Promenade theme)
Key: D minor
Meter: alternating 5/4, 6/4, 7/4
No. 5 ” Балет невылупившихся птенцов” [Balet nevylupivshikhsya ptentsov]
(Russian, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks)
No. 6 “Samuel” Goldenberg und “Schmuÿle”
(Yiddish, Samuel Goldenberg and Pauper)
Key: B-flat major.
Meter: originally 11/4. Published editions alternate 5/4 and 6/4.
A nearly bar-for-bar restatement of the opening promenade. Differences are slight: the second half is a little condensed and the block chords voiced more fully. Structurally the movement acts as a restart, giving listeners another hearing of the opening material before elements from the first half are developed in the second half.
Many arrangements, including Ravel’s orchestral version, omit this movement.
No. 7 “Limoges”, le marché (La grande nouvelle)
(French, The Market at Limoges (The Great News))
No. 8 “Catacombæ” (Sepulcrum romanum) and “Con mortuis in lingua mortua”
(Latin, The Catacombs (Roman sepulcher)) and (Latin, With the Dead in a Dead Language)
Note: The correct Latin would be Cum mortuis.
The movement is in two distinct parts. Its two sections consist of a nearly static largo made up of a sequence of block chords, with elegiac lines adding a touch of melancholy, and a more flowing, gloomy andante section that introduces the Promenade theme into the scene.
No. 9 Избушка на курьих ножках (Баба-Яга) [Izbushka na kuryikh nozhkakh (Baba-Yagá)]
(Russian, The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yagá))
No. 10 Богатырские ворота (В стольном городе во Киеве) [Bogatyrskiye vorota (V stolnom gorode Kiyeve)
(Russian: The Bogatyr Gates (in the Capital in Kiev))
Without question this is my favorite piano suite, bar none. I listen to it sparingly because I find it exhausting. Like any masterwork there are always hidden treasures to discover.
Pictures at an Exhibition has been arranged for orchestra dozens of times by the likes of Henry Wood, Leopold Stokowski, and, of course, Maurice Ravel whose orchestral score is perhaps the best known of all (video at the end of this post). As far as I can tell – I have not been exhaustive – all these arrangements take liberties with the piano score, usually omitting sections. Ravel, as noted for example, omits the restatement of the Promenade. No idea why.
Because each of the pieces in the suite can stand alone they are often played individually , and on a bewildering array of instruments in all genres imaginable – Duke Ellington with a big band sound, Emerson, Lake & Palmer as progressive rock, and Segovia for classical guitar, to name a few. Here’s an ethereal version of movements 2 and 5 for glass harp duet.
To celebrate Mussorgsky I have chosen shchi (щи), a traditional Russian soup known since at least the 9th century, soon after cabbage was introduced from Byzantium. Its popularity in Russia originates from several factors. Shchi is relatively easy to prepare; it can be cooked with or without various types of meat that makes it compatible with different religions; and it can be frozen and carried as a solid on a trip to be cut up when needed. Finally, it was noticed that most people do not get sick of shchi and can eat it daily. This property is referenced in the Russian saying: “Pодной отец надоест, а щи – никогда!” (Rodnoi otets nadoyest, a shchi—nikogda! “One may become fed up with one’s own father, but never with shchi!”). As a result, by the 10th century shchi became a staple food of Russia, and another popular saying sprang from this fact: “Щи да каша — пища наша” (Shchi da kasha — pishcha nasha “Shchi and kasha are our food”). The major components of shchi were originally cabbage, meat (beef, pork, lamb, or poultry), mushrooms, flour, and spices (based on onion and garlic). Cabbage and meat were cooked separately and Smetana (very heavy sour cream) was added as a garnish before serving with rye bread.
The ingredients of shchi gradually changed. Flour, which was added in early times to increase the soup’s caloric value, was excluded for the sake of finer taste. The spice mixture was enriched with black pepper and bay leaf, which were imported to Russia around the 15th century, also from Byzantium. Sometimes fish was used in place of meat, and carrot and parsley could be added to the vegetables. Beef was the most popular meat for shchi in Russia, while pork was more common in Ukraine. The water to cabbage ratio varied and whereas early shchi were often so viscous that a spoon could stand in it, more diluted preparations were adopted later. Nowadays soup ingredients include: meat (mainly pork), cabbage, potato, tomato, carrot, onion (some people like to make an obzharka (обжарка) by roasting the carrot with onion before adding it to the soup) and spices (pepper, salt and parsley). It is very common to make the soup 1 or 2 days ahead of time to let the flavors marry before serving.
8 cups beef stock
1 ½ lbs green cabbage, cored and finely shredded
4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 small radishes, washed and sliced thin
1 leek (white half only), sliced in thin rings
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon caraway seed
2 tablespoons sour cream (or Smetana, per bowl)
1 teaspoon fresh dill (per bowl)
1 teaspoon parsley (per bowl)
Melt the butter in a large pot or pan. Add garlic, onion, radish, leek and carrot. Saute on high heat approximately 5-10 minutes until vegetables have softened.
Add beef stock (vegetable stock or water) and bring to a boil.
Add green cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and caraway seed.
Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for approximately one hour or until all vegetables are done, stirring occasionally.
Remove and discard bay leaves.
Finely chop dill and/or parsley.
Either refrigerate for 1 to 2 days or ladle into bowls. Add a dollop of sour cream (or smetana) on top and sprinkle with chopped dill and/or parsley.
Serve with a dark rustic bread such as pumpernickel or rye bread optionally spread with butter.
Ideally, refrigerate after cooling and wait 1-2 days to serve as shchi is usually allowed to “cure” for a short time. In my opinion, it tastes great fresh or re-heated. It can also be served cold.