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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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This study concerns a well-known and loved group of composers and others – less well-known – associated with them. Its distinguished author, Stephen Walsh, is known for an excellent two-volume biography of Igor Stravinsky and another volume, The Music of Stravinsky. The latter book is one I found particularly helpful in writing my own recent book, Neoclassical Music in America: Voices of Clarity and Restraint, about a very different musical group, the members of which were often referred to as the New England Stravinskians. Had I been able to see the following comment from the beginning of Walsh's Chapter 13, while writing about the neoclassicists, I would surely have quoted it, as it applies to both groups:

"Artistic circles, thought of as hives of creativity, rarely exist for more than brief periods… As a rule they come together at times of shared artistic immaturity and when general ideas about the purpose of art or the forms it ought to take predominate over the compelling urgency of individual work…. [Then] the identity of the group will at best begin to blur…"

The Russian group of composers, known in Russian as the kuchka, or the mighty handful, and in English usually as The Five (Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Cui and Balakirev) came together in Saint Petersburg, in the 1860s, at a time when there was no Conservatory or any established symphonic institutions there. They were all pretty much self-taught, except that some, notably Balakirev and Musorksky had learned to be brilliant pianists. (The latter was able to perform even when strongly under the influence of alcohol). Only Rimsky-Korsakoff, and that later in his career, as a professor, was known for his musical employment. The last-named began as a naval officer; Borodin had a doctorate in chemistry and worked in a hospital; Cui was an engineer of fortifications – but also a critic; Musorgsky came from landed gentry impoverished by the abolition of serfdom.

Early in his Chapter 24, Walsh concludes that "the only big thing these composers had ever held in common was that at a certain time, they had cleaved to one another as Russian musicians to whom Russia did not cater." And, in the penultimate chapter, "At bottom, the crude fact is that these interesting composers talked a lot but composed rather little; and often what they composed does not measure up to what they said about it. The basis of their interest lies nevertheless, of course, in the sheer brilliance of their finest works…" (407).

Not only were the members of the kuchka self-taught, but they, again with the exception of Rimsky-Korsakoff, were mostly uninterested in formal musical training (identified with the German musical tradition) as inimical to their creativity. They preferred inspiration from Russian folk music, and idolized Glinka. Their lack of formal training was a main reason for low esteem from critics, and something Rimsky-Korsakoff was at pains to correct.

Walsh has written his book for the general reader. It is not straight biography or history; he does provide strictly musical analysis, though not in an off-putting or overly technical way. What some readers may find at least initially off-putting is the length of some of the early chapters, which include a discussion of Glinka and the music of Anton Rubinstein and a few other figures, as well as the career and aesthetics of Vladimir Stasov. The last named was a non-musician (whom many readers will likely never have heard of) who became a central figure in the kuchka, notably for suggesting subjects for operas, and for the anti-academic orientation of the mighty handful. For readers eager to get on to the actual composing of Musorgsky and the others, let me suggest that they skip ahead to Chapter 7, with the understanding that they will need to go back later to learn about Stasov, who is important to the story.

Besides the long introductory sections, a characteristic of Walsh's organization is his dominantly chronological approach. His chapters generally deal with the activities of more than one composer, in a way that is almost like verbal counterpoint. Sometimes he switches from one character to another without missing a beat from one paragraph to the next, so close attention is called for.

One aspect of Musorgsky which stands out in Walsh's account is his malleability in the face of criticism. Musorgsky, in his desire to achieve a performance of his great work, Boris Godunov, thoroughly re-wrote it, adding female characters, deleting and adding scenes, and readily agreed to changes once production had begun – this in utter contrast to a composer like Schubert, who had rigidly stuck to what he had written regardless of consequences. Another facet of Musorgsky's character is his generosity, illustrated by the fact that that he served gratis as a piano accompanist for a great number of charitable enterprises in spite of his personal poverty. But his heavy drinking finally led to his early death at 42, leaving very much unfinished his opera Khovanshchina, which had its libretto by Stasov. After his death, first Rimsky-Korsakoff and then Shostakovich and others worked on it. Walsh does not discuss its performance history, but it has been recorded and performed in several venues.

As Walsh recounts, also left unfinished, in fact a disorganized mess, was Borodin's Prince Igor. Because of his extremely busy professional life, Borodin wrote different scenes at different times over a period of years. He lived into his sixties, but he too left his great work unfinished; but because of the magnificence of the music it has been presented, most recently, I believe, by the Metropolitan Opera, which streamed a live performance into cinemas around the world on March 1, 2014. The Polovtsian Dances from this opera have long been extremely popular. Both Borodin and Musorgsky completed a number of fine songs, as did the other composers considered. Borodin also managed to write two symphonies and two quartets; the second of each contains an exquisitely beautiful slow movement. The quartet movement served as a regular theme introduction to a Sunday morning program from Wisconsin Public Radio years ago.

Cui does not get much praise from any quarter for his compositions, but he was active as a music journalist. Balakirev's place among his associates was most notably his leadership, which he exercised to a fault, urging revisions on works in progress and sometimes later criticizing his previous "corrections." As a composer his most highly praised work was his symphonic poem Tamara. That is a work which took him many years of keeping it in his head before writing it down; fortunately he lived to do so, in spite of taking time out from music for many years – for ultra-religious reasons.

At the end of his book, Walsh considers briefly the work of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, all of whom were influenced by these composers.

There is much that is not well known in this book and I recommend it strongly. In the twenty-first century, few are inclined to hold these composers to old rules of harmony and counterpoint. Audiences, particularly, are eager to appreciate what these composers, with the abilities they were able to make brilliant use of, managed to accomplish.

Copyright © 2015 by R. James Tobin.

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