Skip to Content

Lead book review

Why do we pounce on Wagner's anti-Semitism, and ignore that of the Russian composers?

Stephen Walsh's Mussorgsky and His Circle takes a look at the passionate, patriotic musicians of 19th century Russia

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

9 November 2013

9:00 AM

Musorgsky and His Circle Stephen Walsh

Faber, pp.469, £30

Before ‘nationalism’ became a dirty word, it was the inspiration for all sorts of idealistic and reform-minded people. This was never more true than in the history of music. Clearly, subsequent events have discredited some of those 19th-century ideals. It is striking, however, that we have become uncomfortable with Wagner’s German nationalism while continuing to regard Smetana’s Czech nationalism as an admirable, even inspiring quality. At times one feels that some musical nationalists are given too easy a ride — as if what happened in the opera house couldn’t conceivably affect anything outside it.

A notable instance is the case of the remarkable group of composers which gathered in 1850s Russia around Mily Balakirev and were forever afterwards referred to as ‘the Five’, or ‘the Mighty Handful’. Though there had been some interest in Russian folk music previously (Glinka had already written a couple of heroic operas, A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Ludmila), Balakirev’s circle was the first to create a sort of music specifically and exclusively Russian.

Of this group of five, César Cui has the least to be said for him, being a composer of four-square salon music of no great polish. But the other four are fascinating. Balakirev himself was chronically unable to write anything down, so his influence was largely confined to a few marvellous songs, solo piano pieces and performances on the piano of forthcoming orchestral works. Then there was Alexander Borodin, a chemistry professor with a demanding, insomniac wife. His was a beautiful natural talent though he was unable ever to finish anything. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov astonished his audience by appearing at his first symphony in full uniform — he was a naval officer — and his belief in discipline and accuracy ultimately separated him from the rest of the group. Soon he had taken on a professorship of composition and was writing deadly dull fugues. That sort of thing was poison to the last and greatest of the group, Modest Musorgsky, whose work, both driven and inhibited by drink, a lack of training and sheer overwhelming inspiration, would be ‘corrected’ and not heard as intended for decades to come.

Together they produced a ramshackle, incomplete set of musical offerings. Most of them loathed the idea of academic study and relied a great deal on passionate inspiration. When Balakirev’s tone poem Tamara was finally written down and performed, it proved the masterpiece everyone was waiting for. Musorgsky left any number of operas in a provisional state; Borodin’s sublime Prince Igor exists as a sort of pack of arias and ensembles which subsequent editors have tried to make orderly sense of. Only Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov were disciplined, but with a whiff of dullness about them (compare the tedium of Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous Sheherezade with the electrifying Tamara, which it comprehensively fillets for material).

What was driving these men? The idea of what Russia might become was in everyone’s mind and underlies most of their great novels of the time. In the case of the Five, a strong oriental tendency runs through much of their work. It is present in Sheherezade, obviously, but also in Balakirev’s famously demanding piano piece ‘Islamey’ and in Borodin’s Polovtsian dances. Much of this was connected to Russia’s ambitions in central Asia and the Great Game, some orientalist pieces being specifically written for a planned concert in 1870 to celebrate Alexander II’s silver jubilee and to commemorate various triumphs of the reign. The writer Vladimir Stasov had long been arguing that Russia was essentially oriental, and that its destiny lay in unannexed regions of Asia.


But apart from imperialism, there was also a discernibly strong vein of anti-Semitism in the group, often focussed on the international virtuoso Anton Rubinstein. Glinka complained that ‘the yid Rubinstein’ had talked about A Life for the Tsar in Germany, and references to ‘Yankel’, Gogol’s Jewish moneylender, were flung about when Rubinstein was appointed head of the new Russian conservatory. The Five allowed this sort of thing to creep into their music, with renderings of ‘Hebrew Songs’ that are sometimes picturesque, sometimes even sympathetic, but often genuinely poisonous. It is a mystery to me how sensitive some critics can be to any anti-Semitic sounds in the first act of Wagner’s Siegfried while ignoring the vile diatribe contained in the ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ movement in Musorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition.

Stephen Walsh wrote a splendid life of Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil, and in this superb study of the Five and their milieu he manages delicately to suggest some of the consequences of the attitudes that were hardening around them. Ideas of artistic correctness —  of what was considered acceptable or not—   led in the end to the cowering apparatchiks who nearly sent Shostakovich to the Gulag.
The problem lay fundamentally in the suffocating institutions at the centre of Tsarist — and, later, Soviet — life.

A conservatory-trained composer would always be orthodox but dull
(Rimsky-Korsakov, currently rather fashionable, comes in for quite a kicking here). But outside that training, there was no discipline, and we have the danger of the chaotic creative processes of Musorgsky, Balakirev and Borodin. Tchaikovsky said of Borodin that his technique was so weak that ‘he can’t compose a single line without somebody’s help’, and that Musorgsky ‘botches any old how, blindly trusting in the infallibility of his genius’.

The answer was Tchaikovsky’s own disciplined but impassioned work; and perhaps the future of Russian music would always lie in people like Tchaikovsky, Skryabin and Stravinsky, who married the discipline of conservatory working practices with the chaos and fury of Musorgsky’s spirit. On their own, neither of these qualities would be quite enough.

Walsh’s book covers a great deal of ground, unearthing some real rarities from the loose milieu and a lot of faintly nutty polemics. Considering their fame, there is not a huge bibliography about the Five, but Walsh takes on a lot of it — and denies for example, the well-established belief that Musorgsky was homosexual (still, you reflect, that such unhappiness had to come from somewhere).

The book labours, however, under an apparent condition of publishers about studies of music these days; they must not contain music examples. Walsh has sneaked one through, but a few more would have made his argument easier to follow. It is absurd to replace a well-chosen music example with writing like this:

The chord is an augmented sixth (German form) which is like a dominant seventh with a different resolution or exit …. Read as a sixth chord, it resolves back to D major, with the pedal D acting not as the leading note of E-flat but as a D-major anchor.

If you can’t read music, this sort of verbal description is not going to mean anything to you; and in fact Walsh apologises for not using ‘bearable language’. But even if you can read music, it’s still impenetrable. There is a reason why musical notation was invented, and it’s because verbal accounts are hard to follow and ambiguous. What resolution? Which D?

This is a pity, because with the rise of e-books, the whole thing is unnecessary; rather than such verbal description, or a potentially unreadable piece of music notation, the reader could click on a sentence and hear the example. But no publisher seems keen to take that obvious and easy step at a time when untutored enthusiasm for music is at its height.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £23.95. Tel: 08430 600033


Show comments
Close