His Life and Works
New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.
Summary for the Busy Executive: Cluttered.
David Brown has specialized in 19th-century Russian music, producing
among other things the standard biography, in four volumes, of Tchaikovsky
and a pretty good one-volume introductory cut-down. Here, he takes
on the Tchaikovsky's equal, though opposite, Mussorgsky - or, as Brown
spells it according to the latest academic fashion, Musorgsky. Mussorgsky
died young, his output comparatively meager. Practically every work he
wrote falls into the category of either juvenilia or early. But his
assurance, his breathtaking originality almost from the get-go, the
powerful mixture of genius and immaturity, and his inability to repeat
himself artistically guarantees his place as one of the great composers
of the Nineteenth Century and a progenitor of Modernism.
I wish I could call Brown's book a success. Brown has done what I thought
impossible: he has managed to make Mussorgsky boring. Of his Tchaikovsky:
The Man and His Music I complained about the lack of technical information
as well as about the lack of any substantive discussion of the originality
of Tchaikovsky's achievement. Here, Brown gives us plenty of technical
detail, but his argument gets lost. In short, we get pounded with detail
for apparently no reason. Yes, the Pretender's love music in Boris
Godunov lies in the key of E, but so what? Why does this matter? What
does the key tell us about the drama or about Mussorgsky's structural
In his introduction, Brown mentions Richard Taruskin's Musorgsky: Eight
Essays and an Epilogue, which I reviewed recently, and notes that he has
disagreements. Apparently these arguments mean more to specialists than
they do to me, since I really didn't find all much out of synch with my
memory of the Taruskin. However, Taruskin argues better and more pointedly
than Brown. I learned a lot more about Russian music in general and
Mussorgsky in particular from Taruskin's book, even though the essays
covered smaller ground. Brown's prose wanders all over the place. He
mentions and even cites in musical type differences between the first
and second versions of Boris Godunov, but, beyond the usual (lack of
female roles and so on), leaves open the question as to why the composer
revised. It tired me so that I could read no more than five pages at a
stretch. Part of this, I'm convinced, arises from the lack of an
argumentative spine running through the book. Brown bogs us down, again,
for no reason.
I happen to know Mussorgsky's music in great detail. Boris is one of
my three favorite operas, and I can hum long sections of it at a stretch.
I once spent a year learning Pictures at an Exhibition on piano (I still
couldn't play it), and I've sung the Songs and Dances of Death. Brown
often cites score numbers without putting in a musical citation. I have
no idea what this means to people with no scores or no recording. On
the other hand, Brown doesn't address scholars or specialists, either,
who presumably already know all this stuff.
Of all Mussorgsky's music, Brown does best on the songs, especially the
Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death cycles. Perhaps his heart lies
closest to these. The operas and Pictures fare less well.
Brown never really gets beyond chronology in his discussions of either
Mussorgsky's life or his work. When I read, I don't want just facts.
I want an argument, a thesis based on the facts -- something that takes
the messy details of daily life and gives them pattern and meaning. I
wish I could have found one. The one insight I gleaned was the centrality
of Mussorgsky's songs to the bulk of his work, and I had to work hard
for it myself, connecting one set of Brown's facts to another. I wish
the book had been better at this. Furthermore, accounts of Mussorgsky's
life are handicapped by the fact that we don't know all that much about
it. Months go by without any documentation of what the composer may
have been up to, and this state of affairs worsens the closer we get to
Mussorgsky's death (which, ironically, is surprisingly well documented).
One assumes that the composer was busy drinking himself to death or
composing. Most of what we have convinced ourselves we know of Mussorgsky's
life comes down to inference. Brown neither goes beyond the facts nor
provides much insight into the composer's personality. He contents
himself with reciting "just the facts." Obviously, Mussorgsky had demons.
Unfortunately, Brown won't satisfy your curiosity beyond noting the
composer's severe alcoholism.
In short, the book is hardly worth the trouble.
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