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Book Review: Musorgsky & His Circle

By (November 29, 2013) One Comment

Musorgsky & His Circle: A Russian Musical AdventureMusorgsky-and-his-Circle
by Stephen Walsh
Knopf, 2013

Stephen Walsh, the world’s greatest writer on the life and music of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, now turns his attention from a notoriously solitary genius of the 20th Century to a group of talented Russian composers in the 19th: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Musorgsky, who came to be known collectively as moguchaya kuchka, the Mighty Little Heap. Walsh’s new book, Musorgsky and His Circle, links the life stories of these five men – plus their various wives and friends and mentors – as an ultimately quite unexpectedly uplifting story of how friendship and shared passion can create an energy greater than the sum of its parts. Since Walsh is a very perceptive writer on the elusive ways of inspiration (you’d pretty much have to be, to write convincingly about Stravinsky), he’s excellent on how strange and electrifying that shared energy can be – and he has no illusions about its fragility:

Artistic circles, thought of as hives of creativity, rarely exist for more than brief periods, though they may survive much longer on a purely social level. As a rule they come together at times of shared artistic immaturity and when general ideas about the purpose of art or the forms of it ought to take predominate [sic] over the compelling urgency of individual work. Once the members of the circle get immersed in their own projects, the identity of the group will at best begin to blur, at worst become a source of tension and disagreement, of accusations of betrayal and disloyalty. Alas, the work of art is an unruly beast, deaf to the dictates of theory, ideology, even friendship; and the artist himself must either be its slave or become its victim.

His book, which is barely 400 pages but so densely researched it feels twice as hefty, has Musorgsky as its star, but Walsh still does an excellent job of capturing the very varied personalities that comprise the rest of the Heap – especially the harried Borodin, the only character in these pages who left me wanting to hear more, wanting even, outlandish hope, that Walsh might write a full-length biography of this criminally-underrated composer. As it is, the glimpses we get are all fascinating:

Borodin’s placid temperament was the one thing that enabled him to survive the circumstances of his working and married life for as long as he did. As a professor, he had to reconcile his research activities, like any modern university lecturer, with a heavy teaching load and a demanding administrative schedule. His wife, Yekaterina, charmed everyone she met and, according to Rimsky-Korsakov, “worshipped her husband’s [musical] talent.” But she did little to foster it. During her long absences in Moscow, visiting her mother or her doctors, her husband lived a bachelor life in St. Petersburg, trying his best to hold back the tidal waves of disorganization and overwork. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she would often have one or more relations to stay in their already dysfunctional flat.

But then, such a full-dress Borodin biography is unlikely, because Walsh is a pitiless estimator of the worth of his main characters, and he believes he’s picked his main main correctly. Magisterial summations like this one fill the pages of Musorgsky & His Circle, making it at once both a satisfying and an argument-starting reading experience:

From our distant point of view, we can distinguish the landmarks more clearly. They are not particularly numerous. Boris Gudonov stands out as a masterpiece by any reckoning, and a handful of other finished works by Musorgsky confirm the quality of his genius while hardly adding up to the rounded or consistent output of a great master. Borodin had a God-given talent, yet produced scarcely any completed work of the front rank: one symphony, a short tone poem, a pair of string quarters, and a few songs. Balakirev eventually wrote more, but only a single large-scale work, Tamara, plus two or three songs of unquestionable stature. Cui wrote a few operas and many salon pieces, all of which have faded – for the most part rightly. Only Rimsky-Korsakov produced what looks, on paper, like a respectable harvest of finished, high-quality music, most of which is still regularly played in Russia, though mostly unknown in the West.

Walsh is so evocative when describing the actual music created by these men that his book will win them new fans. And there’s something strangely pleasing about that.