Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure

spacer By Stephen Walsh
Alfred A. Knopf; 496 pp. $37.50

Books Musorgsky Circle lg 814

A reader seeking a straight-up biography of Modest Musorgsky (1839–81) might usefully look to Caryl Emerson's 1999 Life. Stephen Walsh sets out to provide something else — a study centered on Musorgsky and his unique output within the context of his time, its crucial aesthetic and political questions and the Russian Nationalist school to which his works are standardly ascribed. Especially after the Met's reinvigoration of Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor last seasonand the Mariinsky Theatre's systematic investigation of many operas by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, many listeners and operagoers will have some sense of some different aspects of the Nationalist School — regardless of whether or not they can name its other two key members, Mily Balakirev and César Cui. "The Five" — the moguchaya kuchka, which as Walsh notes is less accurately rendered as "Mighty Handful" than as "Mighty Little Heap" — has become a historical commonplace. The term derives from a marketing idea by the vital critic and public intellectual Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906), who coined it for an early concert that featured works by only two kuchkisty (Balakirev and Rimsky), alongside pieces by their principal predecessors and inspirational figures, Glinka and Dargomyzhsky. Stasov greatly influenced the course of Russian opera by, among other deeds, more or less forcing Khovanshchina, Prince Igor and Sadko into being. Yet despite Stasov's boosterism, none of these key figures trained to be musicians, and all pursued other professional goals and careers; the very idea of professionalization of music was in fact resisted by elements within the kuchka as being fundamentally Western, non-spiritual and thus un-Russian. The establishment of regular concert life, and of a Russian conservatory system, was only undertaken by the group's German-trained rival, Anton Rubenstein, and his efforts were accompanied by much abuse, some of it explicitly anti-Semitic. Rimsky, the most liberal-minded of the bunch, eventually bridged the gap, teaching himself what he then taught at the conservatory and eventually furnishing a basis for a school of performers and composers that has lasted until today.

In this very readable new volume, Walsh pursues an intelligent strategy formally. He focuses on, or at least begins each chapter with, a key event — a first meeting between musical or cultural figures (say Glinka and Balakirev); a European composer's visit to Russia (Liszt, Berlioz and Wagner proved major influences, their theories as well as their music in performance); a controversial article (such as some early pieces on Russian music as a whole by Anton Rubenstein that put him and some of the kuchkisty at odds for decades); or a particular soirée or concert. Having set the scene, he then complicates the discussion with details and further developments, so that each chapter takes up or revisits a cluster of themes and cultural tropes afloat in Russian music of the middle and late nineteenth century. The result is not, therefore, meant as an entirely linear study; but since the table of contents lists six or seven subthemes to every chapter, the reader can pursue particular questions or figures in different contexts.

Even with professional background in Russian Cultural History, I found many useful aperçus and clarifications along the way. I missed mention of Verdi and the Mariinsky's epochal 1862 premiere of La Forza del Destino, a work that left its traces on Boris Godunov. But Walsh explores many of the relevant central topics (Slavophile versus Westernizing tendencies; Russian Orientalism; genre-breaking) at stake in the great works of Musorgsky and of his quondam kindred spirits. One useful chapter, "History for the stage," explores the trend from the 1860s forward to present works for the dramatic stage — chiefly by Alexei Tolstoy, Alexander Ostrovsky and Lev Mey — inspired by pages from Russia's history. Under Stasov's encouragement, the kuchkist composers began crafting historical dramas in music. Rimsky's Pskovitianka (The Maid of Pskov), based on Mey's drama about Ivan the Terrible, started the trend, and the Pushkin-based Boris Godunov followed shortly thereafter, though it was not performed until 1874. 

As Walsh himself writes, he's dealing in synthesis from many English and Russian sources, notably the works of Richard Taruskin and Sergei Dianin. This rewarding book's final chapter, "The survivors," tracks Rimsky, Stasov, Balakirev and Cui into the twentieth century. It's ironic that the last — the kuchkist whose compositional achievements never amounted to much — survived the longest, past the October Revolution until 1918. spacer 


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