Russian Art and Culture Editor Theodora Clarke speaks to Stephen Walsh about his new book ‘Musorgsky and his Circle, a Russian Musical Adventure’. Professor Walsh joined Cardiff University as a Senior Lecturer in Music. He is the author of a biography of Stravinsky and other books on Stravinsky, Bartók and Schumann. He is a former Observer music critic and a regularly contributes in Daily Telegraph,The Times, Financial Times, Independent and the BBC.
Theodora Clarke: What inspired you to write a new book on Mussorgsky and his circle?
Stephen Walsh: I’ve been teaching a Russian course at Cardiff University for several years and acquired lots of material. They are a very interesting group The Five or The Mighty Handful, as they are sometimes called. There wasn’t a single book out there which pulled them together as a group and discussed their relationship. They were not a proper ‘group’ but they did benefit from working together. The Five included Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Musorgsky, César Cui and Borodin. They had a guru figure called Vladimir Stasov who was an art historian but also musically trained. He had views on what Russian music ought to be. In the first half of the 19th century there was much agonising in literature and the art world (the Peredvizhniki) about how to present Russia in a cultural context. Stasov picked up on this questioning of what kind of art and literature would be appropriate for this new Russian identity. He considered what writers and painters were trying to do and thought of ways to promote a music that would sound and feel Russian.
I found this subject fascinating because Musorgsky became a very powerful, influential figure in 20th century music almost by accident because of the composers who admired him. Debussy was very influenced by Russian music that he came across while he was acting as tutor to Nadezhda von Meck, who was Tchaikovsky’s patroness in Russia in the early 1880s. Debussy picked up a lot of Russian music there; he was very fascinated by Musorgsky’s way of doing things and was influenced by him. So from that you can see a connection between Musorgsky and a whole swathe of 20th century composers, not directly but indirectly. Stravinsky was also influenced by Musorgsky, partly on his own but partly through his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, who was one of The Five as well, and a close friend of Musorgsky’s. So there’s a thread going through a lot of the stuff I knew and had done work on.
TC: You’ve written a major book on Stravinsky before and now you’re writing more about Russian music, but you’re a British academic. What first attracted you to write about Russian composers?
SW: I read about Stravinsky because I was commissioned to write a book on his music in the mid 1980s. In 1985 after I wrote that book, the Paul Sacher archive in Basel, Switzerland, which had bought up the Stravinsky papers, opened as an archive for academic research. Sacher was a Swiss conductor, he was very rich and he was commissioning a lot of work for his own orchestra. He then suddenly decided to become a collector and bought the Stravinsky papers and they were put into the archive. But I knew somebody who knew him and got into the place before it actually opened. I looked at the material there, and then I spent a year there on sabbatical. I realised there was a huge amount on Stravinsky which had not been taken account of in the standard books I’d read in order to write about his music. But I also realised that I had no Russian to read it, because a lot of it was correspondence in Russian. So I learnt the language and I got very fascinated by it. I wondered how it all came about. How does a professional composer, such as Stravinsky, emerge from this bunch of amateurs? That’s quite interesting, it’s a very Russian story. Because of the way in which Russian society was so rigid in its stratifications in the early 19th century and because the upper classes leaned so much to the West, especially in music; they had Italian composers, German teachers, German governesses etc. So they were related to the West in various ways; for example even Catherine the Great wasn’t even Russian but a German princess. So Russianness in music was a new thing which blossomed like the great 19th century Russian writers.
TC: It is interesting to consider the visual arts; you mentioned the Peredvizhniki and I was reminded of Slavic revival at Abramtsevo in the late19th century. What was going on in the music scene at this time? Was there a shared sense of how different forms of culture could present this new Russian identity?
SW: Well these composers were friends with some of the Peredvizhniki and they were influenced by each other. The only problem for composers was how you fashioned this Russian identity. Of course for an artist it’s obvious. If you want to show Russian society and be a Russian, nationalist painter then you go out there and you paint the landscape and the people. That’s what Perov did. Or you paint those religious processions, which is what Repin did. Or you paint all sorts of Russian phenomena. For musicians it’s not at all easy. If you’re writing symphonic music or chamber music, what do you do? How do you do it? They did evolve different ways of doing this, but Musorgsky was the one who really found methods to do so with the Russian language and Russian way of life. He produced a style which was totally un-classical and highly new in many ways: technically and aesthetically new. And that’s why it so intrigued composers at the end of the century like Debussy, who were looking for ways of breaking away from what the Germans did.
TC: What would you say was the greatest contribution that Musorgsky made as a composer to music?
SW: Well Boris Godunov is the most prominent for his portraiture of the Russian people, the way he made them speak and sing. He did, in an earlier work, use a play by Gogol called The Marriage, as a way of wrapping music around the words. But he got rather bored with that because it was too limiting. He used that method to some extent in Boris Godunov but much more freely. Of course he was a dramatic genius. He just had an instinct for the stage and knew how to move characters around the stage, how to portray them psychologically. He used this mapping of the music and text in a very free way, and I don’t think anybody had done that before in quite that way. He allowed a musical style and aesthetics of style to evolve through this way of thinking. He was interested in portraying characters, episodes, incidents in song and opera in as vivid a way as possible by means of this technique. The result was something totally new. He became much more free and easy in his use of harmony. He didn’t worry about the rules, because he used the harmony as a colouristic device to make the scene more vivid.
TC: There are so many famous great composers that Russia has produced. Why do you think that as a country they have produced such a huge amount of musical talent?
SW: I suppose it’s a big country with a great artistic tradition. There was a lot of tension, a lot of up-thrust from below in so many instances. For example Peter the Great’s repression of the Orthodox Church, which was such a powerful institution and remains for Russians a defining thing. This was something that had been repressed in the name of internationalism. That is the Orthodox Church had to be kept down so that Russia could look West. So the Orthodox Church became identified in the 19th century with being Russian; the Slavophiles were essentially devout Orthodox. They were brought up that way and they wanted to go back to that way. The peasants they saw were the devout Orthodox community whose interests were being more or less pushed aside. So you could see what a force that was and what a big idea that was. But I don’t think the quantity of talent for the size of the country is surprising; Germany, Italy, France and Britain were obviously much smaller. But the sudden emergence I think is because of this pressure from below.
TC: You mentioned doing research in the archives in Switzerland for your Stravinsky book. For this new book on Musorgsky and his circle did you have to engage with much primary material?
SW: No, it was not really a primary material kind of book. Soviet scholars knew all the material, for example, the correspondence between Stasov and the composers, which is very revealing and interesting. It was all published in Russian but never translated into English. It’s a rather bulky correspondence but extremely informative and interesting.
TC: Does your book include for the first time English translations for some of those?
SW: It does include translations as part of the text. Mussorgsky’s letters have all been published in English translation. But there’s been no systematic publication of the other correspondence in English, and I used a lot of the original Russian material to help paint what I hope is a somewhat new picture for a western readership. It’s important to relate to these characters through correspondence. So I was often reading very old published material or Soviet published material. There is a lot, for example, on Musorgsky’s early life, which only exists in Russian and is very detailed and informative.
TC: What really struck me about the book was that none of the five composers were academically trained. How important do you think it was for their success that they didn’t have that traditional training?
SW: I think it did help. There is a theory that some of the crazy things they did was due to the fact that they didn’t know what to do. But I don’t think that makes sense because actually the technical stuff is not very difficult if you’re a musician. If Musorgsky had wanted to follow the technical rules of harmony he could have done it. In fact if you listen to enough music and you’re a musician you do it instinctively, you don’t need to think about it. He knew he wanted to do something different and I think that the fact that he wasn’t academically trained helped him to do it in an unselfconscious way. Musorgsky was never afraid of what other people thought.
To buy the book please visit: http://www.amazon.in/Musorgsky-His-Circle-Stephen-Walsh/dp/0571245625