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10 July 2024

Discovering the real Modest Mussorgsky

Sweetened arrangements of his works ensured the Russian composer’s afterlife – but left him hiding in plain sight.

By Phil Hebblethwaite

In late 1877, at the height of his fame, Tchaikovsky was asked in a letter from his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, what he thought of a group of largely self-taught composers known as the Five, or, to give them their more Tarantino-esque title, the Mighty Handful. The Five were waning in influence by then, but they’d nonetheless moved music in Russia in a direction that Tchaikovsky hadn’t – towards a nationalist sound that cared little for the Austro-German tradition of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. He responded in early 1878 with typical acidity. “All the newest Petersburg composers are very gifted persons,” he began, “but they are all afflicted to the marrow with the worst sort of conceitedness and with a purely dilettantish confidence in their superiority over the rest of the musical world.”

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov got off lightest in the letter, mostly because Tchaikovsky believed he’d rid himself of the group’s “contempt for schooling, for classical music” by becoming a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The group’s leader, Mily Balakirev, a withdrawn figure by 1878, was called “a saintly prig”. Alexander Borodin’s technique was “so weak he cannot write a line without outside help”. César Cui was accused of being unable to compose other “than by improvising and picking out on the piano little themelets supplied with little chords”.

Modest Mussorgsky, the most radical composer in the Five, was cast off as “a spent force”, although Tchaikovsky did add: “In terms of talent he is, perhaps, higher than all of the preceding ones, but his is a narrow nature, devoid of any need for self-perfection, with a blind faith in the absurd theories of his circle and in his own genius. He has a low character, which relishes coarseness, uncouthness, and roughness… Yet, for all his ugliness, Mussorgsky does speak to us in a new language. It may not be beautiful, but it is fresh.”

What’s fascinating about the letter is the conflict you sense in Tchaikovsky’s words. There’s prejudice, but also disappointment. It reads as if he wanted the Five to mount a better challenge – to throw their adventures in finding a distinctly Russian music at the established order and have them stick better. Instead, in Tchaikovsky’s view, they’d become bogged down in dogma and the kind of petty infighting typical of revolutionary factions, scuppering their chances of making a splash abroad. Perhaps he had a point. In 1871, Borodin called Balakirev “despotic by nature”; a man who “cannot endure the slightest opposition to his tastes”. Cui, always better known as a critic than a composer, slated Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov on its premiere in 1874, calling it “an immature work, superb in parts, feeble in others”. A year later, Mussorgsky wrote, “The Mighty Handful has degenerated into soulless traitors.” His health went into sharp decline soon after, exacerbated not just by the breakdown of friendships that had been the mainstay of his adult life, but alcohol abuse and depression. He died in 1881 from a stroke at the age of 42, largely unknown outside of Russia.

The cultural transfiguration of Mussorgsky began after his death, albeit in clumsy fashion. Not only would it take 50 years for a complete edition of his music to be published, but many of his works were re-orchestrated by, in particular, Rimsky-Korsakov. Whether he was doing his former friend a service or disservice depends on your point of view. On the one hand, Rimsky-Korsakov’s sweetened arrangements of works like Boris Godunov and the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain ensured posthumous success for Mussorgsky; on the other, his weeding out of what he considered to be “technical feebleness” distracted from the composer’s intentions, hiding the real Mussorgsky in plain sight.

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Today, the original scores have become sacrosanct, but not always. Pictures at an Exhibition, a remarkably forward-thinking suite for solo piano in ten movements is mostly heard in a version transcribed for orchestra in 1922 by the French composer Maurice Ravel. The arrangement has long been a concert staple, and justly so, but to hear the original piano version is to get the truest sense of Mussorgsky’s inimitable spirit and flair. It still sounds like modern music, although the work was completed 150 years ago this summer.

It’s not just the constant tinkering with his pieces by others that has led Mussorgsky to become a slippery, misunderstood figure in the history of music. He was a procrastinator who left many works unfinished and he’s cursed, too, by an unforgettable portrait painted by his friend Ilya Repin shortly before the composer died. He’s pictured bloated from years of alcohol addiction; his nose is bulbous, his hair unkempt and wild. In all but his soft blue eyes, it’s a vision of human wreckage that forms a stark contrast to Borodin’s description of the man he met 25 years earlier. Both were in the army and serving as duty officers at a military hospital. “Mussorgsky was at that time a very callow, most elegant, perfectly contrived little officer: brand-new, close-fitting uniform, toes well turned out, hair well-oiled and carefully smoothed out, hand shapely and well cared for,” he later wrote. “His manners were polished and aristocratic. He spoke through his teeth, and his carefully chosen words were interspersed with French phrases and rather laboured.”

It was 1856 and Mussorgsky was 17. He’d grown up in a land-owning family and taken piano lessons as a child. A career in the military would have been expected of a boy from his background, but there was also no clear path ahead for an aspiring musician in Russia at the time, nor a clear identity to Russian music – with one notable exception: Mikhail Glinka’s pioneering interpolation of folk music in two landmark operas, A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842). The first music school in the country, the St Petersburg Conservatory, was set up by the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein in 1862. “Russia has almost no artist-musicians in the exact sense of this term,” he bemoaned. “This is because our government has not given the same privileges to the art of music that are enjoyed by the other arts, such as painting, sculpture, etc.”

The conservatory offered the likes of Tchaikovsky a formal education in Western art music, with the aim of producing musicians who could compete internationally. The Five, when they got together in the 1860s, sought to pick up on the nationalist spirit in Glinka’s operas and also the music of Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who acted as an elder, associated member of the group. A proudly amateur motley crew, some working part time (Mussorgsky was a civil servant; Borodin a chemist), they sought what they called “truth in music” – something bottom-up, manifestly of the Russian people, and free from the strictures of established academia. Inspiration was key, not rules. They were routinely mocked, not just by Tchaikovsky, but ultimately effective. When Howard Goodall and Suzy Klein included Pictures at an Exhibition in their series for BBC Radio 3, The Story of Music in Fifty Pieces, Goodall noted: “What Tchaikovsky writes, great as it is, could have been written in any other city in Europe. Mussorgsky is the beginning of a movement that makes Russian music sound different.”

Pictures at an Exhibition amounts to an almost-accidental work, written by Mussorgsky at a time of despair. In August 1873, he lost his close friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist, to an aneurysm. The following spring, Mussorgsky attended a retrospective of Hartmann’s drawings and paintings in St Petersburg, and was deeply moved. In June, in a three-work burst of creativity, he parked a project he was already working on – a song cycle with the telling title Sunless – and composed a musical tour of the Hartmann exhibition that’s both abstract and literal. It begins with a “Promenade” – a theme inspired by Russian folk music that’s repeated, with variations, throughout the work as Mussorgsky walks between the artworks, stopping to offer sonic interpretations, before moving on. So, in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”, we hear how he sees a costume design for a ballet. More ominously, three shaded figures in the Paris catacombs become the inspiration for “Catacombs (Roman Tomb)”. The majestic final movement, “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kyiv)”, is a wide-open impression of Hartmann’s design for the Great Gate of Kyiv.

“Mussorgsky summons up a picture of pre-Muscovite Russia, perhaps the true Russia that lies in the past but he believes is still alive among the people,” wrote James Naughtie of the piece in his book The Making of Music. There’s nostalgia here, but the music also feels exquisitely uninhibited and improvisational, foreseeing the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, both of whom became fans. “He is unique and will remain so because his art is spontaneous and free from arid formula,” wrote Debussy. “Never has a more refined sensibility been conveyed by such simple means; it is like the art of an enquiring savage discovering music step by step through his emotions.”

Although Pictures at an Exhibition wasn’t published or performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime, we can guess that he knew its time would come. It was future music from a composer who said of himself: “The artist believes in the future because he lives in the future.”

[See also: The young prole rebels of Dexys Midnight Runners]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change