Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure

  • By Stephen Walsh
  • Knopf
  • 496 pp.
  • Reviewed by Carolyn Sienkiewicz
  • January 31, 2014

In the 19th century, a group of five Russian composers sought to create a national musical identity.

Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure

Before you begin, please adjust your brain to British English mode because spelling in this review will adhere to that used by the author, Stephen Walsh, a professor of music at Cardiff University in Wales. When reading this book, be prepared for British names of musical notation rather than American. Hence, a quarter-note becomes a crotchet, a sixteenth-note becomes a semiquaver, and so forth.

Now that you are ready, I invite you to immerse yourself in the waters of this hearty, in-depth book, so dense with its 28 pages of footnotes and bibliography that only a high-earth-orbit view can be given in this short review. The water is a bit chilly, but more on that later.

In spite of the title, this is neither a biography nor an academic analysis of Musorgsky’s works. The book covers a group of Russian composers in the latter half of the 19th century who worked together in St. Petersburg so regularly they came to be known as the moguchaya kuchka — variously translated as the Mighty Little Heap, the Mighty Handful or just the Five. Included are César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Musorgsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and the true ring-leader, Mily Balakirev. In fact, when these composers are referred to as a circle, it is as Balakirev’s circle, for he was the hub and his the overriding opinion regarding whether or not compositions were admirable.

The kuchka strived to create a national musical identity, one that particularly rejected Western conventions. Self-taught composers, they had an “abiding distaste for academic learning and systematic study” and rejected the idea or value of the music conservatory.

That is understandable. When Balakirev arrived in St. Petersburg in 1855, it had no conservatory and there were “no established concert series or symphony orchestras anywhere in Russia.” It wasn’t until 1859 that the Russian Musical Society was formed and a series of 10 symphonic concerts was performed in the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobles.

Even so, without an infrastructure, these composers, all earning their keep in other professions, managed to flow and ebb, in and out of touch over the years, forming their own sensibilities and bringing their work to the circle (along with whatever other music-loving friends and colleagues were around) for criticism, development and enough bodies to get a chance to hear performed what they had written. As an after-work means of learning some of the skills of music composition this was a fine opportunity, but as with many shared critique environments, it had its limitations. Balakirev tended to rule the roost, and the group not only stifled one another’s voices, but members made themselves conform to what they knew the others expected. It was a brutal, ugly world of carping and biting criticism as everyone tried to claw his way to the top, to leave his mark.

Meanwhile, outside the circle, pianist Anton Rubinstein had founded the Free Music School in St. Petersburg in 1862. Pyotr Tchaikovsky (in case you’ve wondered where he’s been while all of this was going on), one of the first graduates of this new conservatory, left for Moscow to teach in its new conservatory early in 1866 and  “thus avoided close contact with the Balakirev circle at a time when he might easily have fallen under their influence.”

Musorgsky is notable for his raw, muscular, nearly terrifying originality. But without the desire to learn basic composition techniques, without the infrastructure and support needed to enable him (and the others) the time, energy, training and opportunities for performance, much, though certainly not all, of his music languished, unfinished — as did that of his comrades. His first fully orchestrated piece of any substantial length (at 12 minutes), the symphonic poem “Night on Bald Mountain,” probably remains his best known piece, though the one we hear in the concert hall is Rimsky-Korsakov’s radical re-composition of Musorgsky’s1867 score, plus parts of two later versions that Musorgsky never completed.

As the author notes, “when Musorgksy’s own original score was performed for the first time in the 1970s, the general reaction was that Rimsky-Korsakov’s judgment had not been far wrong.” I would agree. If you listen to  Musorgsky’s version here and then Rimsky-Korsakov’s, you can hear the difference in the rawness and power of Musorgsky versus the nuance and finer polish of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Rimsky-Korsakov was the most natural talent of the five. In 1871, when he was only 27, he was appointed professor of practical composition and instrumentation, and orchestra conductor at the Free Music School. He immediately found himself having great difficulty explaining and demonstrating musical procedures and methods because of his ignorance of the most basic theoretical terminology and the logical structure of grammar and form. The experience spurred him to study and acquire the technique needed to stay ahead of his students. Indeed, he went on to become such a hard-working editor and orchestrator of others’ works that it surely hindered his own creative production.  Even so, he left behind a large body of mature work, highlighted by the beloved “Scheherazade” and “Capriccio espagnol.”

Walsh says he aimed to produce a “musically literate general study that is both scholarly and readable.” It is a big, messy job to cover the lives of these five composers, working together and apart, plus interweave the other myriad influences on their lives. Though Walsh set himself a laudable goal, his narrative style does not often engage or connect the reader with the men being written about. I know that Walsh is a music critic and musicologist, but I frequently found myself wanting to defend these kuchkists from his “music critic” voice — his constant judging of the composers’ works, their lack of productivity, their lives. By the end I felt I was standing alone in the chilly in-depth waters, left to find for myself what empathy for them I could.

Under the circumstances, it’s almost miraculous that these men created the wondrous works they did. The astounding originality of Musorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” his famous opera “Boris Godunov” and a later unfinished opera, “Khovanshchina” (completed, revised and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov), are all works that will never fade from the canon.

A narrative weakness is a confusing historic timeline that sloshes back and forth. And in the detailed discussion of certain pieces, it would have helped at times to see the point being made illustrated with a score excerpt. As an example, in the discussion of “Night on Bald Mountain,” when calling out “the wild staccato countertheme at bar 13 of the original (bar 12 in Rimsky)” or “the ... second theme at figure 4 in the original score, letter B in the Rimsky-Korsakov version,” it would really help to see it, not just read about it.

Still, I’m glad Mr. Walsh produced this book. As a musician and reader who enjoys big books that expand my knowledge of the music world, I came away from this book having learned a lot. Many readers won’t have the patience to wade through it, but if you’re serious about music it deserves a space on your bookshelf.


Carolyn Sienkiewicz is a freelance writer and guest co-principal oboe with the American Balalaika Symphony this season.


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