I recently finished reading Orlando Figes’ “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia.” It is equally as dense and thorough as it is fascinating and insightful. Never before have I encountered history as detailed as this examined through the lens of the arts and literature. One should not be surprised at all to know that a lot about Russian history can be gleaned from Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Stravinsky, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, et al, and in ways that simply don’t come across by reading a simple historian’s guide to insert-location-here.
Russia is a culture of endless inner struggles. The 20th century alone saw them transition from monarchy to Socialist state to democracy (though linking Vladimir Putin with democracy seems a bit like linking Lady Gaga with normal). Historically, they have fought a constant internal battle of east vs. west, with St. Petersburg and Moscow serving as the symbols of these powerful “who are we?” sentiments. Russia has been ruled by some of the most famous (and infamous) figures throughout time, from the descendants of Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde to Boris Godunov to Peter and Catherine (they’re GRRRRRRREAT!) to Lenin and Stalin.
For me, though, the most interesting dichotomy is the historical relationship between the peasant serfs and the gentry upper classes. After the war of 1812, when gentleman and peasant fought side-by-side and gained an understanding of one another’s cultures, the movement to emancipate serfs gained steam. With it, a sort of peasant “worship” began. Figures like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky began espousing the virtues of the peasantry, noting how simple and pious, humble and familial they were. Stories like Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka were gobbled up by the Russian upper crust, and many were consumed with a desire to live like a peasant (Tolstoy eventually did, insofar as it enabled him to bone peasant chicks on his estate). Dostoevsky’s opinion on the peasantry ended up shifting radically during his time in a prison camp, however. He witnessed all manner of cruelty and abuse among the peasants, including beatings and rapes, and a disturbing lack of remorse or introspection. The myth of the noble peasant, to some degree, was shattered.
Into this context steps a composer who has vexed me personally for as long as I can remember: Modest Mussorgsky. In many ways he is the human embodiment of the contradictions of Russia.
No composer’s output in Russia (and maybe anywhere) is more associated with the peasant class, yet Mussorgsky’s family was one of the wealthiest land-owning families in Pskov. Some of his most famous works are based on the stories of Russia’s greatest authors and poets (Night on Bald Mountain, Boris Godunov, the unfinished Sorochintsy Fair), yet his mature style itself was heavily influenced by the revolutionary writings of the materialist philosopher Chernyshevsky (“form and content are opposites”).
But the greatest difficulty in the appraisal of Mussorgsky is trying to balance the truly and uniquely Russian individuality of his musical approach with the fact that almost no one would give a shit about it were it not for the revisions and re-orchestrations of composers who were firmly entrenched in the “western” musical style favored in St. Petersburg. He seems to be someone with immense creative impulse, but lacking the tools and techniques to channel that creativity into a workable sound concept. The original Night on Bald Mountain, for example, sounds to me like something that was written for a musical composition contest…at a high school…in Indiana.
And yet, one simply cannot deny that the spark of greatness lies within Mussorgsky’s music. Why else would no less than Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and in a different way Ravel all seek to render his compositions suitable for performance (in the paradigm in which they were operating, anyway)? I don’t think those guys are THAT nice.
The truth is, history tends to give us the benefit of an endless filtration system, constantly sifting through all that has come before us and attempting to preserve that which ought to carry on (as best we can know it…how Bach dwelt in obscurity for that long is anybody’s guess). And Mussorgsky, even with a relatively limited output, has managed to hold up well. Boris Godunov, though revised at various times by both Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, is now generally performed in Mussorgsky’s own final revision. Pictures at an Exhibition remains a fixture of the piano repertoire, and one of the 30 or so most popular orchestral works in Ravel’s orchestration. Khovanschina, which was nearly completed in piano score and completed and orchestrated by Shostakovich (eventually), is in the operatic repertoire. And Songs and Dances of Death remains standard fare as well.
They say you can learn a lot about a man by the company he keeps. Well, Mussorgsky keeps some pretty heady musical company. In the end, that might be his greatest legacy. That so many amazingly gifted musicians have gone to such great lengths to realize Mussorgsky’s conceptions as best they can resonates as forcefully as Mussorgsky’s conceptions themselves.