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Book Review

Musorgsky & His Circle

Musorgsky & His Circle by Walsh

A Russian Musical Adventure

Stephen Walsh
Knopf. 2013. 496 pp.
Illustrations (B&W), notes, bibliography, index
ISBN-10: 0385353855
ISBN-13: 978-0385353854 (hardcover)
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Time's wingéd chariot.

At least four of the composers in the Russian Mighty Five, generally known as the kuchka, wrote some of the best-loved pieces in classical music, including: Mily Balakirev's Symphony #1, Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, Alexander Borodin's Polovtsian Dances, and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The fifth member and musically the most conventionally-minded of them, César Cui, has completely disappeared from concert programming, although virtuosi occasionally trot out some of his smaller works as encores. This book fills a real need. I've read for years about individual composers in the group and of course their contacts with other members. However, other than a wish to write "real" Russian music, the principles that brought them together as a group remained unknown to people other than scholars.

Significantly, the group began with the friendship between Vladimir Stasov and Balakirev. Neither one of them had formal training in musical composition. Stasov was mainly a critic and a historian, Balakirev a phenomenal pianist and musical genius. Both of them suspected formal training as "German" (or "Jewish," most of the kuchka were anti-Semites, with Rimsky the only political liberal among them) which repressed the genuine Russian artistic spirit into bland imitation of foreign models. However, they had at the beginning no clear idea of how to achieve genuine Russian spirit. Note that this isn't, strictly speaking, nationalism, a commitment to a political entity. Rather we have entered the realms of mysticism. Those who claim they can tell "Russian" or "Jewish" when they encounter it are usually wrong. At this point, institutions at which a Russian could study music had just gotten started with the Russian Musical Society forming a conservatory headed by Anton Rubinstein (German name and a Jew!) in St. Petersburg. Balakirev and Stasov set their faces against it. In its stead, Balakirev strongly advocated the study of the scores of "worthwhile" masters, a sound idea, even though in his case it often led to rather eccentric judgments of what scores merited such study.

In a way, they were lucky, in that they attracted over the years at least three great composers to their circle: Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin. Even Tchaikovsky showed up with his Symphony #1 "Winter Dreams," which the kuchka immediately loved. Incidentally, I spell "Mussorgsky" with "ss" instead of "s," the way Walsh has it. Of course, the Russian Cyrillic alphabet differs from our Roman. Every few years, Russian scholars decide that the current system of transliteration no longer suffices and so change the rules. I grew up with "Mussorgsky." It seems to me the standard in English, and I'll keep to it as a courtesy to myself and to you, dear reader, despite scholarly trend. After all, in a few years, the rules may well change again.

In a way, it didn't really matter what either Balakirev or Stasov believed, because both of them were hardly ever consistent, and in any case each member went his own way. Walsh points out that their animus against composers like Alexander Serov and Rubinstein arose from personal friction or ambition, rather than theory. Nevertheless, as I've said, all members desired to write "Russian" music, not merely music that Russians happened to write. They found a model in Glinka's operas A Life for the Tsar (also known as Ivan Susanin) and Ruslan and Lyudmila. They overlooked the inconvenient facts that Glinka actually had some formal training and modeled these works mostly on the Italian operatic idiom, an observation also made by Stravinsky in one of the Craft collaborations. It remained with the members of the kuchka to forge their Russian idiom, with varying degrees of success. Balakirev hit upon it quite early. Cui – as Walsh points out, the most conventionally-minded of the group – never did.

They all struggled. Balakirev, for example, had to resort to conventional European models in matters of form. After a decades-long creative silence, he began writing again in an environment that had moved beyond him. Mussorgsky wrote at least four aborted operas before he hit on Boris Godunov. However, the ease with which distraction kept them from composing plagued almost all of them. Mussorgsky was easily diverted, most of the time with no good excuse. His later alcoholism didn't help, although even then he managed to compose some of his greatest work. He died at 42, with his operas Khovanshchina and Sorochinsky Fair unfinished. Borodin was saddled with two other careers – academic and research chemist – and with a neurotic wife who demanded his free time. Almost the only periods when he could compose were during summer vacations (and not always then) and during bouts of illness which confined him to bed. As a result, he never completed either his Third Symphony or his masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor. He died, age 53, after a series of heart attacks, most likely brought on by overwork. Rimsky-Korsakov felt keenly a lack of technical knowledge, which the rest of the kuchka couldn't give him, although by this point he had written at least one symphony. At his appointment to the St. Petersburg Conservatory (which Stasov and Balakirev rejoiced over, since they now had "their" man in an influential position), he embarked on a rigorous study of counterpoint and of the capabilities of the standard instruments, in large part to be able to answer student questions and to avoid the embarrassment of having a student know more about mechanics than he himself did. However, the angel of distraction passed over Rimsky, who despite a naval and later an academic career kept steady musical work habits. He and Cui have, by far, the largest output of the five, but Cui's musical quality doesn't touch Rimsky's. Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Borodin ran out of time. Walsh points out again and again that the work habits conservatory training would have likely instilled in these men might have helped them through their creative blocks.

The kuchka members began, as most composers do, by improvising at the piano. This generally results in miniatures, like songs or piano bon-bons. How do you get from here to larger works? Generally, you either sweat out every additional bar, or you bite the bullet and submit to formal training. Balakirev, as we have seen, loathed the pursuit of conventional technique, and he managed to bully, at least for a time, the other members into staying away from instructors other than him. Indeed, he functioned as the primary musical pedagogue of the group. Rimsky, for example, would submit a score to him. Balakirev would sit with him and go over the work bar by bar, usually saying this one was good, that one bad, and so on. Balakirev hadn't the expertise or the tools to criticize a work as an architectural whole, which conservatory training would have given him. Rimsky thus wrote two symphonies without really knowing what a symphony was. Furthermore, Balakirev would sulk if you didn't take his suggestions. Tchaikovsky stopped attending kuchka gatherings when he refused to change the ending of his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture and when he realized fairly early that he knew more technically about composing than any member of the group. Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky had begun to go their own way. They also concentrated on writing operas, a genre Balakirev disliked. The meetings of the kuchka dwindled. One member or another stayed away for long periods. Balakirev had lost influence not only within the group but outside it. He was dismissed from musical posts he had held and went into a long depression, becoming ever more reclusive and finally entering an extreme religious phase, to Stasov's dismay. He emerged from his seclusion only decades later.

In a certain sense, the kuchka had no lasting musical influence within Russia and so, by their own standards, failed. Glazunov was the last good composer writing according to its principles. Within Russia, his students and fellow conservatory professors came to view him as an anachronism, and he left Russia for France in 1928 for reasons of "ill health." However, they had great influence outside Russia. Igor Stravinsky, who had studied with Rimsky privately, in his way carried on both Glinka and the kuchka. French composers viewed Mussorgsky as a precursor of Modernism, rather than as musically naïve or actually crazy, and adopted many of his innovations. Rimsky's reputation suffered most. Scholars excoriated him for his "corrections" of Boris (although this kept the work on the stage for many decades after Rimsky's death) and Khovanshchina, and banished him to the minors without hearing most of his finest work.

Stephen Walsh, the author of three of the best studies of Stravinsky, has here written a book for intelligent general readers. There's no musical type or jargon. He not only constructs a clear narrative of the lives of six major figures and manages to bring in a host of minor players, but he also deals with relevant aesthetic and musical issues. He writes with a lively prose, and the book moves along, not exactly quickly, but with a sure sense of pace and forward motion. Few musical books are this good. The production is first-rate, with extensive endnotes (I like endnotes; sue me), an extensive bibliography, and a helpful index. It was a pleasure to read.

Copyright © 2014 by Steve Schwartz.