The story of Mussorgsky is indeed a tragedy. Not so much because of his difficult life and early death, but because of the resolute inability of people to understand and comprehend his work. People prefer music that is set out in a simple and accessible language, creating sounds that “caress the ear.” A deep understanding of music is usually reserved for seasoned professionals, for music can be a complex code that carries within it a huge amount of meanings, contained in compressed forms, in combinations of sounds. Therefore, a “happy fate” awaits those composers who clothe their thoughts and feelings in “accessible forms” of musical language. This does not mean that people better understand the harmonious and most popular Chopin and Tchaikovsky than the “mysterious” Mussorgsky or Stravinsky. But, that they prefer to listen to those sounds that caress the ear, without having to first process the musical meanings that the music of this or that serious composer carries.
During the composer’s lifetime and especially after his death, a false narrative rose around him, obscuring his true “face” and the meanings embedded in his music. This was due to a very poor understanding of his work even during his lifetime, and the period of his “public success”. He was “defined” by music critics as among the artists of the Russian national folk movement, mainly because of his “operatic repertoire” devoted to the events of Russian history, with “folklore” founding the musical language. There was also the matter of his work being in opposition to the musical school of the Europeans. His output was seen as a manifestation of the somewhat “wildly” new semi-professional Russian trend of newly independent musical creativity. This was facilitated by Mussorgsky’s membership in the circle of the Mighty Five, a united group of radical, but very capable, Russian nationalist composers.
On the surface, it seemed as though the storied narrative would stick, but in reality, the focus was broader and the outcome was to be completely different precisely because of the incredible genius and scale of Mussorgsky’s personality, which simply was not “understood” and fully appreciated in the musical world until recent times.
Mussorgsky was “a new type of man.” Metaphysically, his spirit was consistent with Beethoven’s restless spirit – a frantic Democrat and a fighter for justice. In Russian history, such a spirit was embodied in literary critics, politicians and cultural figures like Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, Herzen and the like – all restless natures seeking a “new order” and ways of building a new “just society”.
Such aspirations of his spirit led to the extraordinary purity of his thoughts, the whole of his physiognomy centered on the characteristics of, “purity of heart”. His highly original musical language was expressive of a wide variety of innovative artistic ideas and designs, despite the lack of a formal conservatory schooling in composition, such as that which was successfully mastered by composers of the traditional European genre, first and foremost such as Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov.
And a person with such bold and forward looking ideas of a futuristic nature, with the ability to incorporate them in music, is a rarity. Such people are born misfits of their time; they just seem to “pop up”, leaping from nature and out of synch with the time around them, often dooming them to obscurity and orphaning their work to some miscast box of incorrect notions – members of the “great misunderstood”. Bach shared to some extent this unfortunate fate – misperceived in his own time, his work vastly beyond the scope of his peers. More than two centuries would pass after his death before the way people would recognize Bach’s true persona – as a great German methodologist and technical innovator of musical art, rather than a traditional practitioner limited in scope to religious themes and strict polyphony. Over those intervening two hundred years, the view of his work by scholars would eventually evolve to the present view – today we recognize Bach as the creator and founder of the cosmos of all modern music, affecting even the development of modern thinking and civilization. Now he is no longer viewed simply as the author of various educational works aimed at developing the technical skills and abilities of various musical instruments.
In a similar way, only now do we sense the “second half of the Apple” in Mussorgsky’s music. Embedded within it, the eastern part of the development of the original Slavic branch of musical art expressed for the first time, adding to the cosmos the wild part of tribal man’s beginning, which without Mussorgsky, and later Stravinsky, would never have been part of serious musical expression. It could only vaguely “guess at” what, in our time, has become the most audacious expressions of the revolution in modern musical art, expressed through electronic music, especially by rock music of the late 20th century.
Mussorgsky, and because of him, Stravinsky, gave a picture of the pre-Christian essence of the Russian cosmos, expressing the barbarism of the primitive and wild states of the human soul in the extraordinary beauty of music. Mussorgsky was able to convey the life of the Russian people of preChristian and Christian periods. And also he perfectly conveyed the widest “panoramic pictures” of the contemporary Russian life and soul of that class of people, which Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, and others couldn’t express in music.
In the melody of his nostalgic opuses, Mussorgsky allows us to see and hear those strings of the human soul that so-called “classical music” did not even touch upon before him. The time for understanding the meanings and values of Mussorgsky’s music is still evolving. Characteristically, it was noted and “heard”, albeit at the subconscious level, by European jazz and rock musicians half a century ago, while the musicians of the “classical world” still retained the stereotype of this greatest Russian composer, formed during times of complete misunderstanding of one of the greatest Russian geniuses shared by his mediocre and limited contemporaries.