Wednesday, July 05, 2006
(9:37 AM) | John Emerson:
Is Žižek a Nazi?
(Probably not, but he listens to the wrong operas -- and we all know what Wagner leads to. Musorgsky's operas, which have not been properly understood so far, are much to be preferred, for the reasons I give below).
Musorgsky's most gorgeous music is to be found in the choruses of his operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, but in the context of the operas as a whole, the choruses always have an ironic twist. In diametrical opposition to his contemporary Tchaikovsky (who was perhaps the first pop composer), Musorgsky aspired to realism and did not trust beauty. Musorgsky was personally associated with political progressives and the narodniks (populists), and the "Kuchka" school to which he belonged was slavophile, more or less, but the only label Musorgsky ever explicitly accepted was "realist".
His new, less artificial way of setting words to music, following Dargomyzhky's example and probably inspired by the progressive pamphleteer Chernyshevsky, was most notably seen in his unrecorded experimental opera The Wedding, and this has been the most-discussed aspect of his realism. However, I think that the realism of his librettos is much more striking. While Musorgsky had collaborators, he did extensive independent research for Khovanshchina, and had the final say in both librettos. One critic, Prince Mirsky, described Musorgsky as "the greatest Russian tragic poet of the period".
Musorgsky's was a sardonic national realism like Gogol's, verging on the grotesque. Musorgsky's nationalism, like much Russian nationalism, often had an odd flavor of hopelessness. Perhaps this is because Russia was an imperial oppressor and could not claim victimhood, so that an inward, self-flagellating turn was necessary: Our beloved homeland... Your oppression comes not from afar, no remote and evil foe (Khovanshchina, Act I, p. 62). Khovanshchina concludes with the self-immolation of the saintly but doomed Old Believers, and at the end of Boris we hear the Holy Fool's "Darkness blacker than night -- woe, woe, oh Rus" (Act IV, scene 3, p. 132). Musorgsky is not usually thought of as a poet of blackness, but if you pay attention to his librettos you can see that that's what he is.
Musorgsky used peasant themes more than any other Russian composer of that time, but his treatment of the common people, either as individuals or in ensemble, was neither optimistic nor edifying. In Musorgsky's two major operas, as Musorgsky's friend Stasov complained, only a handful of non-clergy commoners appear outside the choruses. In Boris, there were the peasant Mitiukha, the innkeeper, the two rogues Varlaam and Misail, and two policemen. In Khovanshchina, there were the drunken Kuzka, Golytsin's craven servant, and the bigoted Susannah. There is not an admirable character among them -- all are either thuggish, vindictive, corrupt, craven, or visibly stupid.
It's in the choruses, however, that Musorgsky's dark political vision can most clearly be seen. The glorious choral songs of mourning and praise at the beginning of Boris are very affecting, but the action tells us that the singers have all been coerced, and that they neither know nor care what they're singing about. Much the same can be said of the folkish songs of Marina's attendants in Boris and of Khovansky's peasant girls in Khovanshchina. (Oddly, both Khovansky and Marina reject the lovely songs that they are offered. Is this to be taken as evidence of their bad character -- or was Musorgsky obliquely telling us that he had himself grown a bit tired of folkishness?)
In Khovanshchina the Muscovite chorus enters singing a smutty nonsense chorus; later on they bully the clerk, cynically excusing themselves by saying "No need to be frightened, we're only peasants, poor and simple" (I, p. 56). In this opera the odious, brutal streltsy are also get long stretches of jolly music. Finally, at the end of Boris the populace descends into confused thuggishness, bullying the Holy Fool, the boyar Khrushchev, and the Jesuit priests, while at the same time praising the usurping False Dmitri -- a Catholic pawn -- under the mistaken impression that he is a staunch defender of Orthodoxy. (It is a general rule in both operas that the crowds don't really know what's going on and are controlled by blind impulse).
For Musorgsky realism came first, and he refused to offer false hope. With the possible exception of the offstage Peter the Great in Khovanshchina, there are no genuinely positive characters in either of his politically-themed operas. The big players are all terribly flawed: though they all purport to love Russia and perhaps really do, their acts are sly, dishonest and often vicious. The common people, meanwhile, are servile, blind, and brutish -- the sufferers and patients of history, but not in any sense the agents. As in Tolstoy, there are really no agents here: fatalism is pervasive, and both operas seem to portray a cyclic pattern or usurpation and murder (an unsuccessful one in the case of the Khovanskys). Yet the choruses, without being agents, are protagonists in Mussorgsky's operas, and not just mouthpieces for history or for the author: they represent suffering Russia. Their ability to produce beauty from wretchedness and servility is both a triumph of the human spirit, and an example of the dilemma of the powerless, socially-aware artist, dedicated both to art and to truth, who lives under a blind, unshakable government which will never listen.
After well over a century, Musorgsky has not yet found his audience. The generic opera audience loves pretty music in an exotic setting, and Musorgsky gives them that. (In his defense, it should be pointed out that the audiences of his time found the music harsh). But Musorgsky's best listeners probably have not heard him, because they despise escapism and prettiness -- just as Musorgsky did. His operas are precursors of contemporary anti-art, and Musorgsky (trapped in the "nightmare of history") was an early prophet of political despair. Like his monk Pimen, Musorgsky spoke to the future: "One day a hard-working monk will discover my painstaking, anonymous work.... and after wiping the centuries-old dust off the charters, will copy out my truthful narrations." (Act I, scene 1, p.51).