Professor Stephen Walsh of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom gave a short lecture on the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky at a musicology colloquium in Slosberg Music Center on Wednesday, Oct. 15.
With a speciality concentration in Russian composers, Walsh has written many books and essays about subjects in his field, predominantly Stravinsky. His most recent book is called “Mussorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure,” which made up the bulk of his talk on Wednesday.
Walsh started his lecture with a brief history of Russia, because, as he said, “You can’t understand anything … without knowledge of the history.” He quickly educated the audience about the reign of Czar Peter the First of Russia in the 1700s, whose main mission was to bring Russia out of its stagnancy and modernize the country in the style of the West. One of his main contributions to Russia was to create St. Petersburg, which has a much better location in the country to be an international city than Moscow.
He later spoke about how the two main philosophical positions of the 1800s had a huge impact on Russian music. These two ideas were to westernize Russia or to restore Russia to its original character from before Peter the Great’s time. Members of this second group were called “Slavophiles.” One of the main goals for both parties in reforming Russia was to abolish serfdom. This was an especially poignant issue because more than 90 percent of the population were serfs.
During that time, Vladimir Stasov became a huge figure in the development of new Russian music. He was originally an art historian, but he was also an fervent Slavophile and had influence in all areas of Russian culture. Another factor that affected Russian musical compositions is that this time was after the defeat of the French in 1812, and there were strong nationalistic feelings in Russia. Stasov and his followers believed that new Russian music should have Russian subject matter. It should explore the “oriental side” of Russia and go against German conservatoire teaching. These influences carried into other cultural areas such as art. Walsh gave an example of the Russian artists the Wanderers, a group that had not been accepted into traditional Russian art schools because of their progressive ideas of art. They mainly depicted the Russian poor, who were not considered an appropriate artistic subject at the time.
Walsh explained that the Russian composers of the time spent a lot of time composing and editing their works together at salon meetings. They had to be careful about this because all texts were subject to censorship by the Russian government, and subjects about current political leaders were banned. Russian composers could not get much music published because of this censorship, so they were forced to take other jobs to make ends meet. For this reason they did not have much time to compose. He explained that this is why this group “was not very good at finishing works.” Many of the composers of the era have lots of unfinished compositions and operas because they either did not have time to finish them or, as Professor Walsh suggested, their fellow composers might have told them “to throw it in the bin because they thought it was a load of tosh.”
The main focus of Walsh’s presentation after his brief historical review was the music of Mussorgsky. He saidthat Mussorgsky experimented with direct text-to-music composition, where he tried to match music and lyrics to the Russian style of speech at the time. Therefore, the rhythm of the music was dictated by the text and mimics the speech patterns of Russian peasants. This is especially prevalent in his first opera, in which he exactly mimics Russian speech patterns by setting the text of Gogol’s “The Marriage” to music. This was one of four operas that he did not finish.
Mussorgsky finished one opera, “Boris Godunov,” based on a work by Pushkin. “Boris Godunov” tells the story of Czar Boris, a man who murdered the rightful heir to the throne to become the czar. According to Walsh, “Boris” aptly portrays Boris’ torment because of his guilt and gives a very accurate portrait of the Russian people. This was Mussorgsky’s main goal, to capture the idea of being Russian in his music.
Walsh explained that Mussorgsky was also skilled at vignette and dramatic work, where he turned real-life visions of artistic scenes into songs. He presented one example of this in a song he wrote called “The Nursery.” He portrays a young child teasing his nurse by asking her to tell him a scary story. He quite accurately represents the tone and rhythm of the child’s voice in the composition of the music.
Overall, Walsh was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic he presented, and gave very helpful background information to guide his audience in following his argument. The examples he gave aptly supported his thesis, and the audience left a more educated group.