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With Friends Like These.....
Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-81) and the Mighty Five (1856-1870)

Maybe you've been wondering why there aren't any reality shows dedicated to classical composers. I have a theory: 1) because they're dead, and 2) nobody would be interested. But if it makes my colleagues feel any better, I would go on to suggest that people are only marginally more interested in the various subjects the current shows are supposed to be about. What they are really there to see is the backbiting and dysfunctional ego wars that go on between the people involved. So in a nod in that general direction, and with the glum prediction that this soon will be the most popular page on the whole website, Pianonoise dedicates this glimpse into the life of a famous composer to vicious gossiping among his so-called friends.

They were known as 'The Mighty Five.'  Or 'The Mighty handful.'  I think after this article you'll incline to the latter interpretation. Then there is always 'The Mighty Fistful,' my personal favorite.

At any rate, there were five of them. Russian composers all, from a time before the Petersburg (1861) and Moscow (1866) conservatories systematized musical education in Russia (or were in their infancies), or the Soviet State mechanized it. They met together to play their compositions for one another, give and receive opinions and criticism about their music, and perhaps get moral support.

Reading their letters to and about each other, though, it is hard to imagine much truth in that last phrase. For, like many people who are friendly enough to your face but willing to let fly with all kinds of rudeness behind your back, these composers were more than a little unkind to one another at times. They could also be effusive in their praise, even sometimes when the other composer was not in the room.

But you've never seen a composer cut down his peers with such efficiency as you will in this letter from the group's spiritual head, Dmitri Balakirev, to a fellow named Stasov, a music critic who was not a member of the group. Balakirev manages to cut the legs out from under three of the group's members in as many lines. Only Borodin is for some reason omitted (maybe he hadn't joined the group yet):

 "...please write me, I have no one but you.  I don't count Cui, he is a talent, but not a human being in a social sense; Mussorgsky is practically an idiot. R.-Korsakov is as yet a charming child, of great promise, but by the time he blossoms into full light, I will already be old and will be useless to him.  Besides you, I can find no one whom I need..."

You'll note that Balakirev isn't exactly condemning them all artistically, it's just personal. So far, anyway.

They were musical outsiders, and they all had plenty of practice taking criticism. The very term 'Mighty Five' was meant to be a slam by their critics, and the composers used it (when they used it at all) defiantly back. Already there was a conflict between the professionally educated and conservatory minded composers and those talented amateurs who didn't seem to fit the system. All five had day jobs. Borodin was a chemist, Mussorgsky worked for the civil service. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer, Cui was an army man. Balakirev appears to be the only professional musician among them, and he was their leader.

There was more to it than their lack of formal musical education. It wasn't simply a matter of those without learning trying to belittle those who had it. In the 19th century the conservatory system already become an attempt to teach mainly the music of Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart, good Germans all (more or less). Composers in other countries in the late 19th century had to make up their minds: did they want to sound like Germans or did they want to create a distinctive national sound in their work, capture the spirit of their own people, rather than imitate what had brought acclaim to foreigners?

The Mighty Five were dedicated to the cause of what they considered a distinctively Russian music. They simply weren't dedicated to unanimity with regard to how to get there. In fact they could be downright nasty about it. But I'm going to focus mainly on the group's criticism of one man, Modeste Mussorgsky. The comments about him can be found in a book called "Mussorgsky Reader; A Life of Modeste Petrovich Mussorgsky in Letters and Documents," which was edited and translated by Jay Leyda and Sergei Bertensson, without whom all of the materials in quotes in this article would be in Russian (which I don't read)! The book is mostly concerned with all things Mussorgsky, being a collection of letters sent to or from the composer, but the editors have included a few letters in which other members of the Mighty Five discussed the composer behind his back, and this is the interesting muck that I want to dredge up here.

Cesar Cui got to be the old man of the group. He outlived the others, and passed on in 1918, at 83, after a life of musical invective most famously remembered in his criticism of Rachmaninoff on the occasion of the premiere of the young composer's First Symphony which was so nasty it sent him into a depression. In it Cui spoke of a 'contest in hell for the most fiendish composition' which Rachmaninoff would easily win. But, as you'll see Cui spent a lifetime honing his verbal nastiness on all sorts of musical targets, including other members of The Five. We'll start mild and grow spicier:

"Modinka [in a language full of pet names this is one for Modeste Mussorgsky] is at my place weekly.  [his music is]... not devoid of good turns, harmonies, thoughts, but as a whole--it's rather ridiculous...In his work, of course, I don't believe."

That was from a letter to Balakirev. In case that seemed too ambiguous he also wrote "this insane youngster is completely lost." Now that is the way to get ratings--telling it like it is. (Unless you have a sense of shame, or think in terms other than hyperbole.)

Balakirev was the leader of the group, and you don't get to be the leader of anything without being able to massage egos, spin your message, tell different people different things in private and public settings, and, well, just plain lie on occasion. Evidently he made Mussorgsky glow with admiration for him, apparently by being very supportive of him and his work, at least to his face. Here is the composer's testimony:

"I thank you friend for your warm speech, and doubly for your support. --Yes, this is the comradely way: to support, when necessary; and your warm words poured warmth over me, even though the air is hot.  Thanks!"

Unless, of course, Mussorgsky is trying to massage Balakirev's ego, too, or get points. He may not have been such an idiot after all.

It is not so difficult to imagine that Balakirev did, at times, praise Mussorgsky, and that he may have been genuine about it. And that, at other times, he was just as effusive in his put-downs. The stakes were high. The future of music in Russia was up for grabs! And then, there was that G-word. Let's call Stasov (an associate but not one of The Five) to the witness stand. Here he writes to someone who is also not part of the group:

"...you know that in originality and inventiveness Musoryanin outstrips everyone and is simply a genius.  Even your idealist Balakirev, against whose grain Musoryanin's realistic music goes, agrees with this..."

Ahh, genius. Is genius a synonym for impractical? Let's hear from Borodin, about one of Mussorgsky's works:  "[Mussorgsky's piece] is an extraordinarily curious and paradoxical thing, full of innovations and places of great humor, but as a whole...impossible in performance.  Besides, it bears marks of too hasty labor..."

Again praise mixed with criticism. Well, at least these reviews are mixed. When it came to damning the Germans, however, there were no two ways about it. But this is a very old group dynamic. Intramural sports must cease when confronted by the enemy without. Until then, we sharpen our claws on each other; then we unite and attack with full force. When Wagner's music came to town...well, let Stasov tell it:

"....Tonight "Lohengrin" will be played for the first time at the Petersburg opera.  Possibly part of the audience will like this brutal, heavy-handed music.  But we all do not believe that Wagner is a prophet:  we hold that he marks a retrogression from the music of Weber.  We find in him a lack of taste and measure, vulgarity, noisy scoring, no gift for the recitative, horrible modulations..."

Adds Rimsky-Korsakov: "Lohengrin called forth complete scorn from us, and an inexhaustible torrent of humor, ridicule and venomous caviling from Dargmomizhsky [a fellow Russian composer with similar views].

At the risk of piling on, we ought to give Mussorgsky himself a chance to show that how could wield a poison pen: "I am very doubtful about German vocal music in general and modern German music in particular. --German men and women sing like roosters, imagining that the more their mouths gape and the longer they hold their notes...the more feeling they show.....and for my taste the Germans...offer nothing attractive for me....These are a people, theoretical in music, too, who with nearly each step fall into abstraction." 

Once the Germans are gone of course, it is ok to commence inter-group sniping. Let's let Borodin have a word. The chemist is perhaps the kindliest toward Mussorgsky in general, but he has an interesting observation to make about two of the other composers in the group. Korsinka is a diminutive version of Rimksy-Korsakov, who became Mussorgsky's roommate. Here is an interesting tidbit if you know some history:

Borodin: "Modinka and Korsinka particularly, since they began to share a room, have both greatly developed.  They are diametrically opposed in musical qualities and methods: one seems to compliment the other.  Their influence on each other has been extremely helpful Modeste has improved the recitative and declamatory sides of Korsinka who has, in his turn, wiped out Modeste's tendency towards awkward originality, and has smoothed all his rough harmonic edges, his pretentiousness in orchestration, his lack of logic in the construction of musical form--in a word, he has made Modeste's things incomparably more musical."

This is exactly what Rimsky-Korsakov continued to do after Mussorgsky's relatively early death--to 'improve' Mussorgsky's music by re-writing it and re-orchestrating it. For a while many of the composer's most recognizable masterpieces were being played in versions that had actually been partially written by his friend--all in the name of getting rid of all the musical warts--I'm sure many listeners, given the chance, would write a lot of passages out of Beethoven, too, that they don't like or don't understand. But here is a professional doing the same thing.

This brings up an interesting question regarding our intrepid composer. He was an outsider, not educated in a music school; lacking much formal training, he relied mainly on himself. Many persons so educated do not have any great love for those educated by others. But Mussorgsky does not seem to have simply expressed the easy disdain of the autodidact for the scholastically-trained. He had the guts to confront a tough question. He may have escaped the conformist mold, and the narrow thinking of many academically inclined composers, but was the price lack of technical proficiency? Was he clumsy AND original? Could he have had the best of both worlds?

Rimsky thought so, which was why he so heavily 'edited' the composer's works after his death (and before, apparently) to get rid of that awkward originality Borodin deplored. And he has been heavily criticized for it since, especially by those who would like to make sure the composer's own voice pokes through occasionally, even if the modulations aren't as smooth or typical of the period. There is plenty of typical to go around anyway. But Let us give our defendant Modinka a few words. In just a few lines, he will accuse himself, and then defend himself from the ravages of practicing excess attention to technical matters while leaving other things at the door:

 "Maybe I'm afraid of technique because I'm poor at it?" he begins in a letter, then decides to make technique less of an aweful potentate: "[these composer's] brains are limited; so what use is this sounds of worlds, or rather world of sounds!...It isn't symphonies I object to, but symphonists--incorrigible conservatives.  So do not tell me, dear generalissime [Stastov], why our musicians chatter more often about technique, than about aims and historical tasks--because, this derives from that."

While we are dealing with assumptions--that technique is your friend, or your enemy, depending on whether you are 'educated', or that originality means your music betrays a lack of sophistication, let's throw in another--that of the lone genius, the man who, going his own way, mines a rich vein of inspiration that all the small-minded pedants could never hope to discover because they are too busy trying to imitate one another. Perhaps Ms. Ivanova, a patroness of the group, whose home once served as a meeting place for the five, had this in mind when she launched the G-bomb in Mussorgsky's direction and caused him to do a little self-examination:

"The other day I received a most charming epistle from Ludmilla Ivanova, but I must express a reservation about it.  Speaking of my talent our little dove added a word which would lead my humble self to Olympus.  --It's no use to climb the hill--I'm lazy and I fear fatigue. I don't understand the word genius.....I have done my work and what happens later is in the hands of the authorities....Once, before my departure, the little dove threw this word in my face (I shuddered) and now she has written it....I am not a malicious sort, and there is no reason to punish me....Why force a man to depend on the garnishes of a creative full-dress uniform?"

You don't find that kind of staggering praise from the other musicians! Usually they play some variation on what a nice fellow he was and then--well, you'll like how this one ends. It is an observation by soprano Yulia Platonova, who encountered Mussorgsky at a musical evening once:

"Mussorgsky, with whom I became acquainted at my house...captivated all with his extraordinary sympathy; to become acquainted with him meant to love him--even hardened enemies of the new Russian school, of which Mussorgsky was a representative, were involuntarily conquered by his charm, saying: "What a sympathetic man, it's a pity that he has gone astray musically."

Isn't that sweet? All of those composers and musicians putting up with his musical deficiencies like that? And within the circle love and support continued to thrive, particularly after it was time to part ways and the members wanted to remember only the happy moments and pretend the rest of that stuff never happened. Anybody who has ever been in a contentious artistic enterprise is familiar with how this works: afterwards it is time to forgot how you wanted to tear each other's throats out at the time, bask in the warm glow of success, and long to do it all over again. Here is Borodin, at the time that Balakirev, the group's leader, is leaving:

"And in all the relations within our circle there's not a shadow of envy, conceit or selfishness;--each is made sincerely happy by the smallest success of the other.  There are the warmest of relations..."

To which Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov  can only add their amen chorus, quoting Stasov:

"How good it all was!" (Actually, I think this is in reference to a particular musical evening but my notes are disorganized; it is no less truthful that the above; let it stand).

It will be a nice thing to close with the words of Mussorgsky himself, summing up the experiences of The Five, and being, shall we say, far more realistic about its proceedings:

 "Little Dove of ours, Ludmilla Ivanovna, [the lady who called him a genius] Five years ago you realized your blessed wish to gather together a Russian musical circle in your home. You have been a witness of heated doings, occasional struggles, aspirations, and again struggle, of the circle's members and your heart always responded in a lively way to these struggles, aspirations and heated doings.  Much good has been accomplished...."

Mussorgsky wanted to be a 'realistic' composer, and it is refreshing to find him, at least occasionally, a realistic man as well.



The Mussorgsky Reader; A Life of Modeste Petrovich Mussorgsky in Letters and Documents. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda and Sergei Bertensson.


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