The Magazine

Immodest Ambition

Modest Musorgsky's achievement

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Music and drink have long been companions; some awfully good tunes have celebrated the pleasures of getting gloriously hammered. The title character of Mozart's Don Giovanni announces himself ready to go all night in his champagne aria, "Finch'an dal vino," which tears along like a raging erotic fire and ends with the villain's boasting that by morning he will have added ten women to his list of sexual conquests. The most striking melody from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is Turiddu's drinking song, "Viva il vino spumeggiante" ("Here's to sparkling wine"). "Libiamo" ("Let's drink") in Verdi's La Traviata has the heady lilt of party talk -- when everyone is slightly more tipsy than he realizes.

So there is a lot to be said for drinking music. Musicians who drink, however, are another thing, as the alcoholic squalor that beset Modest Musorgsky makes clear. Musorgsky (1839-1881) composed the supreme Russian opera, Boris Godunov. But he spent a significant part of his life laid out cold by drink, until it laid him out for good at the age of forty-two.

History has made an exemplary figure of Musorgsky, a questionable honor. Seized upon by contemporary critics -- and later by Soviet and post-Soviet interpreters, too -- his life and his music have been bent to fit whatever fable of the Russian artist-soul has happened to be in vogue. Now Caryl Emerson, a professor of Slavic literature at Princeton, has written a sensible biography that cuts through the misconception encasing Musorgsky. The Life of Musorgsky, one of ten volumes published so far in the Cambridge University Press series of "musical lives," is a physically slender but intellectually weighty book, especially rich in detail about the cultural background of the composer's ruinous life and remarkable art.

Musorgsky was born into a noble family of somewhat dubious lineage: His grandmother was a serf who bore her master a bastard son, then married another serf. Later, as a widow, she returned to her master, finally marrying him when their son, Pyotr, Musorgsky's father, was twenty-two. Soviet critics were fond of crediting Musorgsky's peasant blood for his distinctively Russian musical genius, in particular his sensitivity to native speech and his defiance of Western harmonics. Stalinist genetics aside, Emerson suggests that Musorgsky's grandmother, who helped to raise the boy, acquainted him with local folk traditions, including the music he would later recall as formative: "festivities, work songs, the Russian Orthodox chants intoned in local church services."

In 1849, Pyotr Musorgsky sent Modest and his elder brother, Filaret, to boarding school in St. Petersburg; three years there, four more in a military academy, and Musorgsky became an officer in the Imperial Guards. He liked the way he looked in the uniform and cultivated a manner of formidable elegance. But the soldiering life, which in peacetime consisted largely of cards, horses, whores, and duels, did not suit him, and he resigned in 1858.

Musorgsky lived off a modest income from inherited property until 1861. But the emancipation of the serfs bit deeply into the estate's profits, and he was compelled to find a day job in the imperial bureaucracy -- "to feed and pamper my delicate body." First in the Central Engineering Authority and then in the forestry department, Musorgsky worked as a clerk for fifteen years. The jobs were long on tedium and short on pay.

Musorgsky never established a proper adult household. After the army, he lived with his mother, who attended to the practical matters that were too much for the feckless young man. Nikolai Chernyshevsky's popular novel What is to be Done?, an idyllic depiction of life in a commune, inspired Musorgsky to set up housekeeping with five male companions. That arrangement lasted for two years, until Filaret Musorgsky, worried that his brother was drinking too much, convinced Modest to move in with him and his wife. Modest stayed for three years. Subsequently, Musorgsky was to live with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, until his fellow composer left to get married, and then with Count Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, until the poet also left to get married.