Artistic Struggle the 19th Century Russian Way

Stephen Walsh finds the human drama in Musorgsky and His Circle, the story of "a commando unit of Russian composers forcing themselves on the attention of an unsuspecting world."

A sidebar of musical history comes to messy and engaging life with the arrival of Stephen Walsh’s new history Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure. Formidably learned yet accessible, it’s the story of five composers — Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Musorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov — who found one another in St. Petersburg in the 1860s and collectively resolved to create a new, distinctively Russian music that wouldn’t be beholden to the prevailing Austro-German models. In the West, posterity has come to know these men as “the Five”, but in Russian they’re referred to as moguchaya kuchka, endearingly translated by Walsh as “the mighty little heap”.

As this book demonstrates, if today we think of the kuchka as a cohesive entity, that’s due largely to the initial advocacy of their “intellectual guru”, a critic and art historian by the name of Vladmir Stasov, who was clearly invested in the idea of “a commando unit of Russian composers forcing themselves on the attention of an unsuspecting world.” The portrayal here of Stasov, an industrious polymath whose youthful exploits will have you questioning your own time-management skills, is an early highlight of Musorgsky and His Circle that establishes Walsh’s gift for dramatizing cultural history through individual lives.

The author leaves no doubt that the kuchka had their work cut out for them. Aside from two anomalous operas written by Mikhail Glinka in the 1830s and ’40s, virtually no Russian classical tradition existed when the five men came together, to the extent that “there were still, in 1855, no established concert series or symphony orchestras anywhere in Russia”.

More than that, the group had to solve the problem that has confronted artists since time immemorial — how to earn a living — before they could start to realize their ambitions. We don’t normally think of 19th century musical greats as the kind of people who had to hold down day jobs, so it’s eye-opening to learn that Rimsky-Korsakov began his career as a naval officer, regularly putting out to sea; Cui was a military engineer, specializing in fortifications, who taught at three of St. Petersburg’s military academies; while Borodin spent his whole adult life as a research chemist and university professor.

Perhaps most debilitating of all, Musorgsky had to earn his keep as a clerk in various government ministries after his family’s fortunes were decimated by the liberation of the serfs in 1861. (Since the dismal clerking milieu is familiar to us from various ink-stained wretches in stories by Gogol and Dostoyevsky, it doesn’t come as a surprise when Musorgsky starts hitting the bottle, later in life).

There was one more hurdle the kuchka had to overcome too, which was their own bad habits. This is the element that gives Walsh’s story a lot of its human interest; in particular, if you’ve ever labored to get any kind of creative project off the ground, you’ll be fascinated by his account of the agonizingly slow process by which these men became composers. From this portrait, it seems clear that the group’s originality (and they were to a large extent self-taught) was inextricably bound up with their erratic, even wayward working methods: pieces were regularly started in the middle or near the end and then set aside for months or years before being taken up again for a few bars, say, or the rest of an act or movement. Musorgsky came to refer to this tendency as rasseyannost’, “distractability”, a term that explains why so many unfinished compositions fill the kuchka oeuvre like the half-assembled motor vehicles that spread across certain rural front yards. (Rasseyannost’ is also a concept that will undoubtedly be useful to 21st century souls who find the Internet perpetually luring them away from whatever they should be working on.)

Yet somehow, as the 1860s give way to the 1870s, the famous works start to get written. It’s not a long list, and includes acknowledged masterpieces alongside pieces with a more tenuous hold in the repertory, but cumulatively it would ensure the Five their place in musical history. Musorgsky follows the tone poem, St. John’s Night on the Bald Mountain with the two versions (1869 and 1872) of his opera Boris Godunov, Borodin’s First Symphony sees the light of day, and Balakirev grinds out Tamara, a tone poem that would have an unmistakable influence on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, two decades later. Rimsky himself, meanwhile, joins the staff of the St. Petersburg Conservatory — where, eventually, he’ll become a master of orchestration much given to tidying and polishing his colleagues’ incomplete works after their deaths.

(Walsh mostly sidesteps the question of whether, or how much, Rimsky’s completions of various Musorgsky scores improve on the originals. The book would benefit from an appendix treating the subject in greater detail, since the growing, and quite recent, preference for unadulterated Musorgsky is a noteworthy instance of changing tastes in the traditionally staid world of classical music.)

As someone with only a layperson’s understanding of music, I’ll admit I struggled with passages in Musorgsky and His Circle. References to crotchets, quavers, and Dorian mode sent me reaching for my copy of Miles Hoffman’s NPR Classical Music Companion, where, mercifully, enlightenment was regularly to be found. On the other hand, readers won’t need any musical background to appreciate Walsh’s lucid accounts of how the kuchka‘s operas reached the stage; he writes briskly and authoritatively about the kinds of cuts, compromises, and rejiggerings that are necessary to make intractable dramatic material ready for the boards. (The increasingly daffy plots of some of these operas, with their plaintive maidens, sorcerers, and barbarian tribes, are a treat to read about in and of themselves.)

To cite one example, Walsh’s patient explication of the path that led Musorgsky to the breakthroughs of Boris Godunov is a valuable attempt to reconstruct an artist’s process. Determined to write “music that would come as close as possible to a simulacrum of everyday speech”, Musorgsky toiled fruitlessly on an opera called Marriage that was hobbled by his too-literal insistence on that idea — all he ended up with, in Walsh’s words, was “musicalized speech”, which was “clinical rather than arresting”. Yet a year later, once he adopted a more flexible approach to setting the music naturalistically, Boris‘s innovations came to the composer all but unconsciously. Walsh writes:

Here music is in its element, but it has to act as music; it can’t just sit back and let the words tell it what to do. It has to peer into the characters and situations, and light up hidden areas of feeling where words, with all their power, fall short.

That passage doubles, incidentally, as a good thumbnail account of opera’s essential appeal, of how the combination of words and music does things that neither component can achieve on its own.

The treatment here of Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death (1875-77), a cycle for voice and piano, is another of the book’s high points. In Walsh’s persuasive reading, these “six-minute pocket dramas” — four vignettes in which the Grim Reaper attends on four very different victims — are another instance of the composer’s theatrical genius, only transferred from the widescreen operatic canvas onto “the miniature scale of the song”. And by drawing a straight line between Songs and Dances of Death and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 (from 1969!), which he sees as the cycle’s one true successor, Walsh suddenly opens a way into the Shostakovich symphony, which had always struck this listener as a forbiddingly glum, gnarly piece of work.

You might think that Musorgsky and His Circle would conclude on a melancholy note, with Musorgsky himself dead of alcohol-related causes one week after his 42nd birthday and the rest of the kuchka increasingly dispersed for the remainder of their own lifetimes. But Walsh closes with not only a ringing reminder of the Five’s legacy — “some of the most powerfully original and brilliantly executed works by any nineteenth-century composer” — but also a careful consideration of their influence on Debussy, Ravel, and, arguably the most important of all, Stravinsky.

Walsh’s previous work was a massive two-volume biography of Stravinsky, and by ending with a flash-forward to the incomparable Igor Fyodorovich (who was after all mentored by Rimsky-Korsakov) he reminds us that, mighty as the Mighty Little Heap were, even greater glories still lay ahead for Russian music.

RATING 8 / 10