Phonograph Monthly Review, Vol. 5, No. 8 (1931-05)

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230 The Phonograph Monthly Review Mussorgsky — After Fifty Years By NICOLAS SLONIMSKY The most potent influence in the modern trend toward simplicity and directness W HEN Mussorgsky died fifty years ago, his surviving friends faced the immedi- ate problem of disposing of his corpse— it could not be left in the hospital room where death came—and the less urgent problem of disposing of his manuscripts, full of incoherent harmonies, bad counterpoint and worse orchestration. If the corpse could not be revived, the manuscripts could. Rimsky-Korsakov undertook the delicate task of lending life to Mussorgsky’s mortal music. He wisely foresaw the possible condemnation of his love’s labor as pedantic emasculation, and was careful enough to deposit the manuscripts at the St. Petersburg Public Library, so that “if fifty years from now Mussorgsky’s music still lives, an archeologically correct edition could be made!” Little did he realize that fifty years thence Mus- sorgsky’s awkward harmonies, bad counterpoint and drab orchestration would bear more signifi- cance than many a fashionably brilliant composi- tion! Not only has Mussorgsky survived the crucial test of half-a-century, but he proved to be the greatest influence in modern music. Ostensibly, he was a member of the Russian National School, one of the Mighty Five, as Mussorgsky Rimsky- Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui, were grandiloquently appellated. Historically, however, his music has assumed an international aspect, in- fluencing Debussy in France, De Falla in Spain. The paradox of all “local” art, be it Dickens’ provincialisms, Lewis Carroll’s infantilisms, or Walt Whitman’s Americanisms, is that, at its greatest, it becomes universal through being supremely local. Mussorgsky built a splendid, in- trinsically musical, system of diatonic harmony. He redeemed modal style and established its limit- ed usefulness. He was a composer of applied music, the music of opera and human song, and his purpose was to create music of immediate effec- tiveness, understood by one and all. This is the psychological explanation of his diatonic construc- tions, lack of contrapuntal ingenuity, absence of sophisticated brilliance. This is also the secret of Mussorgsky’s revived glory, hidden in the modern desire to break away from complexity and to return to elementary appreciation of musical values as psychological impulses. Modeste Mussorgsky If we tabulate musical virtues and sins according to their psychological indices, we will find the reason of so many historic vacillations, from com- plexity to simplicity and vice versa. Tendency toward Tendency towards complexity simplicity Counterpoint Harmony Chromatic structure Diatonic structure Interplay of tone-colors Reticent scoring Absolute music Applied music In the light of these parallels, Wagner is the natural antithesis to Mussorgsky, and Mussorgsky is a natural ally to Verdi! This approximation appears preposterous at first sight—Verdi who created the “unintentionally humorous” school of opera does not seem to have anything in common with the creator of realistic operatic speech; while Wagner, as protagonist of music drama, should be the nearest of kin to the equally national Russian master. But we are here considering musical, not dramatic, values, and, tested from an intrinsically musical point of view, Mussorgsky comes nearer to Verdi than to Wagner. That’s why the Wag- nerian treatment to which Rimsky-Korsakov sub- mitted some of Mussorgsky’s unpolished works, was an error of style. Wagner, in his desire to accomplish a perfect fusion of words and tones, was inexorably led to the complexity of absolute music, while Mussorgsky and Verdi, one realisti- cally, the other artificially, created a living music of melody and harmony. Mussorgsky’s counter- point never exceeds the capacity of immediate per-