The Magazine

Immodest Ambition

Modest Musorgsky's achievement

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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To get married himself apparently never occurred to Musorgsky. In 1861 he confessed to a friend that he had at some point narrowly avoided hurtling into depravity -- and "if you must know, there was a woman involved." But all other evidence is that Musorgsky preferred to remain uninvolved. The quite lovely and talented Aleksandra Purgold, who sang Musorgsky's songs about as well as they could be sung, did everything she knew to get Musorgsky to fall in love with her. She never stood a chance. His passion was considerable, but it was directed to music, male friendship, and alcohol.

Music was always the best thing in his life. Writing his own entry for a musical dictionary in 1880, he set down nothing of his childhood except his precocious skill at the piano: "The acquaintance with the spirit of folk-life was the main impulse of musical improvisations before he had learned even the rudimentary rules of piano-playing." Taught first by his mother, he was playing Liszt at seven and by nine was performing for gatherings at his parents' house. Until he was eighteen, however, Musorgsky's brilliant musical gift was unchanneled. Then he was introduced to Milii Balakirev, and the meeting was a revelation: It was thrilling to discover such a creature as a Russian composer.

Balakirev, who was only three years older than Musorgsky but a far more accomplished musician, became mentor to the young officer and to three other embryonic notables: Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, known as The Five, or moguchaya kuchka, "the mighty little heap." For several years, the kuchkisty met to play piano reductions of works by contemporary European masters, with the four junior members submitting their own compositions for Balakirev's perusal. Impressing the master was not easy, and Musorgsky had an especially rough time. In 1863 Balakirev savaged his protege in a letter to Vladimir Stasov: "Musorgsky is practically an idiot."

In 1867, Musorgsky made the inevitable break from Balakirev -- and proved himself not an idiot at all. Balakirev insisted that Musorgsky make significant changes to Witches (now a classical staple under the title Night on Bald Mountain). Balakirev's Russian Musical Society would not perform the work without these changes. But Musorgsky refused, confident the piece was better than Balakirev thought. They remained friends, but Musorgsky's apprenticeship was over.

Henceforth Musorgsky knew what he wanted to do, and it did not trouble him that he was venturing into uncharted territory. At a time when St. Petersburg was agog for the hummable tunes of Italian opera, The Five were out to create unmistakably Russian music. So Musorgsky was not alone, but he was much bolder than the rest. Writing vocal music that captured not only the characteristic intonations of Russian speech but also the idiosyncrasies of individuals became his consuming task. He wrote Rimsky-Korsakov in 1868: "Whatever speech I hear, no matter who is speaking (or what the person is speaking about), my brain immediately sets to working out a musical exposition for this speech."

Early on, Musorgsky tried his hand at composing an opera dialogue based on Gogol's play Marriage (in which a bachelor decides to get married, wins a lady's hand with the help of a friend, and then jumps out a window to get away). "I'll say just this one thing," Musorgsky wrote. "If one completely renounces operatic tradition and visualizes musical dialogue on the stage as just ordinary conversation, then Marriage is an opera." It was an opera that he never finished.

Nor did he finish an opera based on Flaubert's Salammbo. Musorgsky was still relatively unseasoned, when he began work on Boris Godunov in 1868. Boris, it turned out, would be the only opera he would see through to the end. He completed a version in 1869, but the Imperial Theater Directorate turned it down because it lacked a prima donna role. Musorgsky made the additions and revised a good deal else besides. When the opera had its premiere in 1874, it was a great popular success.