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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky


Musical innovator, nationalist renegade and compulsive alcoholic, Modest Mussorgsky was a complex, troubled man. His work was central to the development of a Russian musical style, yet also distinct from that of his contemporaries. He strove to represent the rhythmic complexities of his country’s language and folk traditions. The result is music that is irregular, unpredictable and uncompromisingly earthy. Other composers admired his work but considered it poorly crafted, leading to numerous revisions in the years following his death. The apparent lack of order in Mussorgsky’s music stemmed from his notoriously undisciplined approach to composition. Finding an effective structure for his works was a recurring problem, as was completing them. Of the six operatic projects he began, Boris Godunov was the only one he completed. ‘Maybe I’m afraid of technique because I am poor at it’, Mussorgsky once speculated. But this is surely too harsh. Russian musicologist Boris Asaf’yev offered a more considered view that ‘the technique Mussorgsky required in order to achieve his ends had simply not yet come into being.’ Mussorgsky’s friend Rimsky-Korsakov was the most significant reviser of his work. He ironed out what he saw as the music’s ‘rough edges’, most notably in Boris Godunov and A Night on the Bare Mountain. For years the only way to hear Mussorgsky’s major works was via these well-intentioned revisions. ‘Nikolai has made Modest’s things incomparably more musical’, Borodin reported enthusiastically at the time. The raw primitivism of Mussorgsky’s originals has made something of a comeback in recent years. Yet we should still be grateful to Rimsky-Korsakov for rescuing what exists of the unfinished operas Khovanshchina and Sorochinsky Fair from musical oblivion. Despite Mussorgsky’s difficulties in adult life, it was clear from his childhood that he possessed a phenomenal talent. He began formal lessons with his pianist mother aged six, yet within just three years he had already mastered one of John Field’s technically demanding concertos. Following the family’s move to St Petersburg from provincial Karevo, Mussorgsky looked set to develop his potential. But at the crucial moment when he should have embarked on his advanced training, his father stepped in and insisted he continue the family’s military tradition. Aged 13, Mussorgsky was packed off to the Imperial Guard’s cadet school. He graduated four years later having gained little more than a lifelong predilection for alcohol. In 1856 he joined the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment. The same year he met the 22-year-old scientist Alexander Borodin, who was pursuing a parallel composing career in his spare time. Through Borodin, Mussorgsky came into contact with Russia’s most celebrated composer of the day, Alexander Dargomyzhsky. He was also introduced to the composer Mily Balakirev, who immediately began trying to fill the holes in Mussorgsky’s musical education. The relationship began well, but was soon strained by Mussorgsky’s impatience and his refusal to conform to Balakirev’s dictatorial demands. When things reached breaking point, Balakirev dismissed his unruly pupil as ‘almost an idiot’. Mussorgsky decided to continue alone. He took a low-paid job as a clerk and began formulating his own unique musical style based on the rhythms of the Russian language. Until then, Mussorgsky had produced very little: a series of attractive piano miniatures, some songs, and sketches for an opera based on Flaubert’s Salammbô. But from 1867 he went into creative overdrive. The first result was his orchestral masterpiece, A Night on the Bare Mountain. For music of this period only that of Berlioz rivals its sheer audacity and uncompromising invention. But it proved too much for Balakirev, who refused point blank to conduct it. Undeterred, Mussorgsky now set to work on two back-to-back operatic projects. His adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Marriage only got as far as the end of Act 1 before he turned his attention to Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. At last Mussorgsky had found the ideal subject with which to explore the Russian psyche through his music. The result was his greatest masterwork, one in which he ‘viewed the people as one giant being, inspired by one idea’. Now it was Rimsky-Korsakov’s turn to wade in. He was bemused by Mussorgsky’s ‘absurd, disconnected harmonies, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulations, sometimes a depressing lack of them’. After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov set about ‘correcting’ many of his scores, adding greater sophistication but also making the music more conventional. Mussorgsky never mastered the art of organic development, which is crucial to large-scale musical forms. Wisely then, he chose to structure his other great masterpiece as a piano suite made up of many small movements. Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), despite the brevity of its constituent parts, is a huge and imposing cycle for solo piano. It was written as a memorial to his close friend, the painter Viktor Hartmann, who had recently died at a young age. Every now and then we hear the composer strolling from one picture to another with the recurring Promenade theme. From the bustling scene of French women quarrelling in The Market Place at Limoges, to The Great Gate of Kiev’s panoply of cascading bells, Mussorgsky’s inspiration doesn’t falter for a second. Just as he appeared to be discovering his true metier, the epileptic seizures and alcoholic rages that had been gathering in intensity for some years began spiralling out of control. Two further operas – Sorochinsky Fair and Khovanshchina – were abandoned. In desperation he announced in February 1881 ‘there is nothing left for me but to go and beg in the streets’. Ilya Repin painted an astonishing portrait of Mussorgsky at this time, in which the bloated, alcohol-sodden composer is captured in all his incorrigible glory. He died soon after, aged only 42, his wrecked body finally caving in due to massive heart failure. Mussorgsky left behind a unique catalogue of works, with a few undisputed masterpieces, many more distinctive but flawed compositions, and some tantalising fragments of frustratingly incomplete projects. The Romantic ideal of direct and deep expression is often magnificently realised, and always in an unmistakably Russian voice. Mussorgsky once declared that ‘my business is to portray the soul of man in all its profundity’. In that important respect his music remains inimitable.

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