Interview with Stephen Walsh, author of Pushkin Prize 2014 shortlisted book 'Musogorsky and his Circle'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What inspired you to tackle a Russian subject?

It all comes from the fact that I wrote a couple of books about Stravinsky. My first career was  as a music journalist in the 1960s and 70s. I was commissioned to write a book about him, because I was known as someone sympathetic to twentieth century music. Just when I was finishing it, the Stravinsky archive in Basel opened for research. By then I had a university job and I went out there for fun during a year off to go through the archive. I realised there was a lot that had not been taken into account and I wrote a biography of him. I had to learn Russian, went there a few times, and got very much into Russian things. I learnt the language gradually, by translating the stuff I needed to read. I knew none at all when I was writing on the music. As a result of encountering a lot of Russian material in the manuscript, I started studying, took night classes and listened to tapes. 

Why did you decide to write about Musorgsky’s circle?

When Stravinsky was out of the way, it seemed really sensible to do something else with the Russian language I had acquired. The subject intrigued me and I felt it was something I could  do - a different kind of book, but which called for some of the same background knowledge and abilities. I always had a high opinion of Musorgsky. I knew his operas and songs. I also knew Stravinsky had a high opinion of him as a young man, although he came to be a bit wary of his technical failings. 

How influential was his circle on twentieth century music?

They, and especially Musorgsky, undoubtedly had an influence on others, most notably Debussy, one of the key figures of twentieth-century music. Shostakovich was powerfully influenced by Mussorgsky, which is very obvious, and most famously there was Stravinsky – there is no more influential twentieth century composer than him. 

Did you come across any unknown documents?

I did not do very much primary research, but mostly used published material, including a good deal in Russian. There is rather little in English on the kuchka, except on Musorgsky, and a lot of what there is on him is academic in character. There’s hardly anything in English on Borodin or Balakirev, and not all that much even on Rimsky-Korsakov. As for the Russian language material, the bulk of that is Soviet or post-Soviet, where you have to read between the lines. 

What was the greatest surprise for you in your research?

Looking in detail at Musorgsky’s music, I definitely changed my mind about the role of amateurism. He did what he did not because he didn’t know any better, but because he hadn’t had these things drummed into him, and it was not part of his nature. The idea that he couldn’t have harmonised something if he’d wanted to is ridiculous. He was a good musician, an excellent pianist, a talented singer. He wasn’t some hick from the backwoods. But he had not been through the Conservatoire mill. 

Isn’t it ironic Boris Godunov was written by someone without formal training?

In the end, Godunov is a brilliant piece of work, from a genius. Musorgsky had a natural theatrical talent. There’s an instinct for timing, portrayal of character, movement of people on stage. It’s absolutely riveting. If you stand back and look at it, you say it shouldn’t work. It’s messy, the scenes just stop without coming to a proper end. But it’s absolutely riveting – a long piece but one in which you are never bored. He finished it himself, and originally did his own orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov was a close friend, but he viewed Musorgsky’s efforts with a somewhat jaundiced eye. He re-orchestrated it and changed quite a few harmonies and rhythms. It’s good in its own way but not in Musorgsky’s way. Rimsky-Korsakov completely misunderstood him. I’m sure Musorgsky would have been appalled by the result.

Was there a specific Soviet interpretation of Musorgsky?

The Soviets were always keen on politicising things. They approved of Musorgsky because of his subject matter: Boris Godunov has a lot of popular, picaresque poor characters. There is no evidence he had left wing - or any - political views. But he was interested in the poor and destitute. For the Soviets, that was evidence of a progressive socialistic tendency. The Soviets were very conservative in their tastes. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Godunov was used until the 1970s. 

Was his circle anti-semitic?

Mussorgsky was a bit anti-semitic, though he didn’t talk about these things very much. Rimsky-Korsakov definitely was not. Balakirev, who became more and more Russian Orthodox, had an anti-semitic streak. There was a strain in their dealings with Anton Rubinstein who founded the Conservatoire. In attacking the Conservatoire idea as a foreign import, they portrayed Rubinstein as a foreigner  both because he was a Jew and because he was western trained. 

Would you have preferred a book including scores rather than just descriptions of the music? 

The publisher was pretty happy I didn’t include music examples. I feel it ought to be possible to write about music without them. Reading notation on the page is for most laymen like reading Greek or Chinese, and people get put off. One or two of my descriptions are slightly arcane by necessity. But mostly that’s not the case. A CD attached would be a good thing to do, but it adds to the cost. 

Do you have plans for another book? 

I have no firm plans yet. I retired from university in December so I am back on the streets, working freelance. I have one or two ideas but nothing concrete as yet.