Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1993.
Summary for the Busy Executive: An academic biography, illuminating odd
corners of the 19th Century.
Musorgsky wrote comparatively little in his brief life, although at least
five visionary masterpieces. He had both the advantages and disadvantages
of the autodidact, including a raging ego and a defensive insecurity.
Yet for me, Modern music begins with Musorgsky, a musical mind so far
ahead of his contemporaries that almost none - even among his most
sympathetic friends - really understood what he was up to. In many ways,
we still live with the consequences of their misapprehension.
The pronouncements and "scholarship" of Soviet musicologists, many of
whom (Pavel Lamm a remarkable exception) had to follow the dictates of
Stalinist ideology, haven't helped. Then again, history was seldom just
history in either Tsarist or Soviet Russia. It has a long record of
catering to political pressures and advancing political factional goals.
Taruskin's book wants to filter the babble from the received wisdom about
the composer - appropriated as "representative" by reactionaries and
radicals alike - and aims for a "true portrait" of the artist and his
Consider yourself warned, however. This isn't a book for the faint of
heart. It bristles with musical examples, and Taruskin really packs his
prose. Nevertheless, like his book on Stravinsky, this one tells you
a lot about the music, both in and of itself and as part of cultural
history. Taruskin creates a new image of the composer by a close
examination of scores and letters. If nothing else, he establishes basic
facts. He amply repays a reader's effort.
Taruskin begins with a few explanatory notes on the conventions he
followed on transliteration, old style and new style Russian dates, the
pronunciation of the composer's name, and what exactly is a kuchka anyway?
Musorgsky belonged for a number of years to a group of nationalist Russian
composers known as moguchaya kuchka, the Mighty Handful, in the usual
translation. But the term more closely approximates a social, "clubbable"
group - a bunch, if you will, as in the phrase "the lunch bunch." Much
of our traditional transliteration derives from French. Taruskin seems
to work for a one-to-one (as much as possible) correspondence between
the Cyrillic and Roman symbols: hence, "Musorgsky," rather than "Moussorgsky"
or even (as I'm used to) "Mussorgsky." Musorgsky was born "Musorsky,"
minus the "g," and one accents the name on the first, rather than on the
second syllable. Also my Favorite Fun Fact in the entire book comes
from this section. MUsor means, roughly, "garbage." In slang, it can
mean something equivalent to "boogers." "Snotsky" represents a perfectly
valid Englishing of the name. Musorsky was quite aware of the derision
his name could cause and, as his standing as a composer grew, added the
now-familiar "g." In the Seventies, certain Soviet writers, following
the incorrect Western pronunciation, shifted the accent to the second
syllable to derive a false etymology with the word muSUgr (artist,
From here, Taruskin lays out eight chapters on the following topics:
* How Musorgsky handled folk elements, as exemplified by the early song
* The theoretical background of Russian musical "realism," Musorgsky's
acquaintance with the relevant aesthetic arguments, and his application
of the principles to his unfinished opera The Marriage
* Opera composer A. N. Serov's influence on Musorgsky's Sorochintsi
* The attraction of the Time of Troubles (Ivan the Terrible and his
immediate successors) to Russian playwrights and composers of the
1860s, as seen in Rimsky-Korsakov's Pskovityanka (Maid of Pskov)
and Musorgsky's Boris Godunov
* Why Musorgsky revised Boris Godunov, the nature of the revisions,
and some of the principles by which one can establish a true text of
* A brief history of the "Slava" tune, used by Musorgsky in Boris
Godunov's coronation scene
* Musorgsky's treatment of The People and his ambiguous view of
Peter the Great in Khovanshchina
* The evolution of Musorgsky's melodic and operatic style, as seen
in Sorochintsi Fair
* Finally, Taruskin considers the changes glasnost' brings to
Musorgsky criticism, both for Russian and for international scholars.
From this rich mix, a new Musorgsky emerges, practically steam-cleaned
of Romantic and Soviet Schmutz. Hardly an artistic naif, he was instead
a conscious intellectual, given to analyzing (perhaps even over-analyzing)
the direction of his art. Early on, he came to see the limitations of
"musical realism" and moved toward conventional, even Italianate song
structures, beginning with the second version of Boris. Indeed, that
version came about not just because the opera house rejected the first
version, but because Musorgsky genuinely thought the changes necessary.
He went much further in his revisions than the demands made by the opera
The following fact emerges most strongly. Because Musorgsky began late
and died young, almost all his scores fall under the heading of "early
works." Khovanshchina and Sorochintsi Fair herald a significant change
in style, and Musorgsky never lived to finish either. Also, Taruskin
doesn't paper over the less-than-savory aspects of the composer's
personality, notably the anti-Semitism which he shared with every other
member of the kuchka except for Rimsky-Korsakov. Not content with merely
making and substantiating the charge, Taruskin also shows how anti-Semitism
turns up in Musorgsky's music - resoundingly in Sorochintsi Fair, more
ambiguously in Pictures at an Exhibition.
Taruskin writes neither a full biography nor a comprehensive analytical
study. He focuses on important and promising areas of exploration and
mines them for all they're worth. The early essays go heavy on musical
detail, the later ones on cultural history. It all takes a bit of
stamina, but your persistence will reward you.
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