With the ironical forename Modest, Mussorgsky comes across in his times as being the most sudden and violent user of music in his compositions.
He seems to be the first to me, of the composers who bore names like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich; musicians whose music violently parades the turmoil of the 20th century in tone paintings.
Mussorgsky is a composer who challenges a listener to ask his/herself again what music in fact might be. When one considers that Brahms, Wagner, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, and many great names were near musical contemporaries of Mussorgsky, one has to admit that Mussorgsky appears to be a world away from any and all of these Illustrissimi – and that that world away is ahead of time rather than beyond or behind it.
Of course Beethoven was the guy who broke the ‘sound barrier’; which breakage over a course of years allowed these Russians to be as they were, and to be led, at least in chronological time, if perhaps one would put in a caveat about quality, by the music of Mussorgsky.
I make no such caveat: Mussorgsky was a genuine rule breaker, a musician of the first rank; one who wrote so little music, but whose music achieved so much.
The Russians name their National Opera to be ‘Boris Godunov’ – not merely perhaps for its splendid setting in the palace of the Tsar himself in all his glory; and the acres of pomp and ceremony, consequence and circumstance the work exudes from out of the grandeur of Russian Royalty – but yet, ‘Boris’ is their National Opera because the music is – what? Quintessentially Russian? Yes. Solemn, gargantuan, powerful, glorious, wild and stirring? Yes. But also this is music so characteristic of the music written by Mussorgsky that it appears to be unique to him in style and timbre, tone, colour and performance.
Maybe he was the first composer to welcome and embrace what might be called The Modern – the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of William Blake, seen in that wild industrial terror of the night express engine red lights aglow, bearing down on its destination, pouring black smokes, soot mingling with steam, and atrocious noises of wheezings, all the while with rails screeching and ground trembling to earthbound thunders. Never before, not even amongst Homer’s host of Achaeans, who moved like the waters of the sea and roared and shivered like wind across the forests, never before had such brute power, and mechanical brute power to boot, been seen and heard and suffered in the plain man’s home in bed at nights as the shutters shook and the room’s ornaments rattled. This indeed was The Shock of the New.
There’s nothing not robust about Mussorgsky’s music; nothing out of place with pistons pounding and metal rattling and a violent raucous outrage of upheaval.
He indeed made music out of outrage. The chords in the heavy brass which tear and sear from one place to the next surprising other place on the staves, and which are experienced as ‘shocking joy’ by a listener to ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’; this brass bellows; it brays and crows, it wrestles and twists, and throws you down on the mat for a fall exhilaratingly exasperated.
The thinner trumpets or cornets of the portrait of the women bustling in the marketplace, a staccato like firing off of a Gatling gun going at a great rate electrifyingly; almost forcing itself upon a listener saying: ‘You talkin’ to me?!!” bullying the ear to dare to say it’s not music; and the bully is right, the music is there and sounds grandly all around you.
With his ‘power-dressed’ Modern music comes Mussorgsky’s characteristic trait of never being able to be second-guessed whereabouts he is taking you next. Every note or chord change, which is every note or chord, comes in like a drunken unruly pressgang to hijack your expectations; almost tearing one’s apprehension into vast distances; here, then here, then over there, so that the effects are massively expansive and so liberating.
Just as Dostoyevsky makes enormous capital in his ‘Crime and Punishment’ out of the squalors and the miserable lives of people roaming the streets, housed in horrid tenements in St Petersburg; making of this ‘detritus of humanity’ a solemn and compassionate grief for humankind in general; so Mussorgsky seems to have ransacked contemporary upheavals in Russian politics, in industrialisation (in so far as this occurred in his times in Russia), and the noises and noisomeness of everyday wretched city living; all this amounting to that bombardment of a galimauphery of cacophony which any person in the developed world today meets head-on in every high street; and Mussorgsky makes his weighty powerful and sonorous music out of this wreckage.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”
It’s not dainty. It’s not Boccherini. It is an expression of power as much as, or better than, is the Flatiron or the Shard. It revels in the power of musical instruments to overpower a listener – not to ravish with sweetness and light – but rather calling to the wilder, more abandoned elements in a person which civilization, pace Freud, is said to have repressed. And is this barbarism not the nub of our present raft of nightly entertainments we indulge right now in the 21st century global debauch? The movies; the music; the painting and pictorial art; the architecture; the fierce primitive fantasy war/horror/ novels like Game of Thrones or The Last Kingdom
Mussorgsky has strong appeal; he is like those eagles who take up Frodo and Gandalf off the fiery mountain after Gollum and The Ring have been destroyed; soaring away and a backdrop of Mordor, for authentic threat and turmoil. He makes out of a sound chaos, a sound disruption, a sound outrage, which comes packaged with Modern life; he makes them musical forms and intriguing hardly-harmonic juxtapositions, just as if he sees, in this aural garbage of raw material, a way to bring forth a salty bitter sweetness out of the strong?
I do believe Stravinsky would have been hard pressed to get the start in his musical life which he did achieve, had Mussorgsky never lived or had chosen not to write music. Stravinsky has more strings to his bow I think; but many of those strings were first pulled and tested by Mussorgsky. That robustness not to care about whom he might offend; nor about how downright primitive-sounding he chose to sound; that willingness to use brashness and heavy turmoil and racket as valid musical content; this all came from Mussorgsky.
I said above it began with Beethoven; and it did. The colossal sounds and their apparent chaotic battery of delivery; which Beethoven innovated in the piano sonatas and the later symphonies in particular, had been heard nowhere else before his mastery had made them content for music. It is as though men like Beethoven and Mussorgsky would have had a sickness proliferating inside their inmost selves had they not have found ways to pass that sickness from themselves by refining it into scintillating musical power. A daemon which destroys unless exorcised, expressed, triumphed over and framed into art.
And just as one is able to see Mussorgsky and his music as a prototype in part for Stravinsky’s; so one can see Stravinsky as prototype in part for Prokofiev; and the ballet Romeo and Juliet clearly uses musical constructions and sound colours, shifts and harmonies which arise out of the composer’s appreciation of Stravinsky’s ballets.
In all these composers is prominently present to a lesser and greater degree that essential character of sudden unlikely shifts of tempo, time signature; instrument, and instrument combinations, from soft and intriguing codas to raucous and overpowering percussions in one easy leap; or plain and simple phrasings developed mercilessly into myriad colourful tangles of idiosyncratic fusions and diffusions.
One cannot help but think that that bloody and vigorously attritional twentieth century; its wars and ideologies, disasters and social upheavals, many performed in the name of a yet still elusive ‘progress’ was a century apposite and appropriate for such works by such composers to have been created. Only able to use the materials provided them by their times, composers like other artists reflect perhaps the turmoils of the times; spinning straw into gold, mining human misery for that occluded diamond brilliant secluded amongst the heaps of ravaged dross?
Perhaps this is why art is human succour in times of distress or pensiveness? A sea-change in circumstance; making gaudy glories out of wretchedness? Metempsychosis. Transfiguration. Metanoia.
Perhaps Plato was correct to have banished arts from his Commonwealth; had his been indeed The Ideal State then not only would art not have been needed, but there would have been no materials available conducive to the making of art?