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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 8:49 pm - Khovanshchina
Last July 11th I took in the Kirovís masterful production Khovanshchina at the Met. This Moussorsky opera was presented in the Shostakovitch orchestration of Moussorskyís vocal score and libretto, the timbre of the music very different than the Rimsky Korsakoff edition we are accustomed to in New York.
It includes scenes Rimsky Korsakoff didnít include in his truncated version; it has a general lean and open orchestral sound more in line with Moussorskyís intents. As usual the Kirov production was impeccable. The orchestra was superb, Valery Gurgiev is wonderfully intimate with the passionate virtues of this music, the sets by Fyodor Fyodorovsky very fancifully evocative of old Russia. The Kirov really has a corner on this kind of music; it isnít afraid to do Verdi either.
Listening to this more compete Shostakovitch venison of Khovanshchina with its careful attention to Moussorskyís continual use of open fifths and occasional surprising odd notes not in the scale, all these ďcorrectedĒ by Rimsky Korsakoff in the version we are accustomed to, one becomes very aware of Moussorskyís folk-like solutions to what he deemed a proper musical language for opera and song rooted in Russian populism is to make melody and harmony from Orthodox church music and bucolic folk song.
Itís a choice made as well by Verdi and Virgil Thomson in different cultures. When we talk of an absolute set of idees recus in music we usually mean German pedagogical procedures of harmony and counterpoint claiming to be universal, most of which actually come out of another parochial realm: local dances, Lutheran chorales.
Plainly the harvests of such a nationalist direction as Moussorsky took are going to appeal differently to the locals than they are to the world. We Americans are never going to hear Khovanshchina as Russians do. Itís not going to touch off primal feelings of daily life in Tucumcari or New York with us.
It will seem exotic when Moussorsky meant the music to rise out of our ordinary life. The Persian Dances in Khovanshchina arenít going to seem any more foreign to us than the rest of his sonic palette. It changes our perspective because our notions of the banalities at our bottom and the savage foreignness beyond us are different.
Since Moussorsky was often his own librettist, though he dedi set word for word the first act of The Marriage of Gogol, beyond that we can experience Khovanshchina as a set of very personal executions of an idiosyncratic idea, we must as well be content with listening to different musicians of genius orchestrating much of his work.
I never found Moussorskyís own orchestration of Boris Godunov other than perceive; other versions have something too. Moussorsky never orchestrated Khovanshchina at all; he left a vocal score. Since in life he tended to perform his operas on the piano, singing all the voices, weíre lucky we have what he have.
One can't help thinking as one listens to Khovanshchina that this is not brainless entertainment, if such things exist at all, but an initiation to Russians and perhaps some other people to examine Russian history, all history, the nature, not merely the Russian soul but the larger arena of the human heart. Like the Eddas this opera portrays the spirit envenomed by mistrust, petty hungers, a partiality for pride, injury and nearly every other vice.
Moussorsky also gives us three varieties of Christian sects, Old Believers, Orthodox and Lutherans, all vying for power, along with the various other groups, the Boyari barons, the centra regime of the Tsar, the Strelsky militants, some mention of Tartars, Turks, Lithuanians and other foreigners never far away, always ready in the margins and shadows to rob and wreak mayhem. The real victim at all times in this endless political nightmare is the Russian people.
Moussorsky seems to regard Peter the Great, the monarch who centralized Russia and crushed the Boyari much as other kings did other local princes in other places, as no better than anybody else in this realm of wickedness. Itís plain he doesnít expect Peter to be any better or different than anybody else. Since he was himself living under notably inept czarist rule his commentary is both resonant to his present and prophetic of what for him was the immediate Russian future.
The three great 19th century Russian geniuses of opera, Glinka, Moussorsky and Rimsky Korsakoff were the Obscenities of that country, demanding that their audiences come away from their theatre with some dour reflections on their country and themselves. Somewhat at a remove from these gadflies, Tchaikovsky offered Evgeny Onegin and Mazeppa as examples of the genre of national historical and psychological inquiry. There was also more cosmopolitan music in that age, the best of which was campsite by Anton Rubinstein.
These national meditations wee equally the intent of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Goncharov, Gogol and also critics like Belsky, Our equivalents in America to this communal national achievement in Russia are lamentably few; but one would include Dos Passosí USA, Gone With The Wind, Ginsbergís Howl but no operas, no musical theatre whatsoever.
Obviously these Russian artists value large capacities for refection in their Art, American Art on the evidence seems largely less interested in such direct Aeschylean intents. If one hears any of the African operas in our raucous mausoleums for them done at any time, one is struck after listening to Moussorsky most of all by their lack even of a musical language to express national ideas if they ever had any.
As close as we come to the achievements of Khovanshchina is American musical comedy with amusing plots and laughs always guising they are tales almost always the vertigo of about having money or the desperate harvests of lacking it.
Although he can be sardonically funny and create compels swaggering characters who are oddly sympathetic, Moussorsky isnít in his aesthetic involved in being indirect about anything. Khovanshchina is both at bottom and on the surface about personal betrayal: the worst of the many sins in Dante.
Scene Two traces its resonances of ultimate perfidy and injuriousness in the treachery of a love vow of a high Russian prince to a young maiden. The evil is in the soul of the personae as well as a poetical verity. Act Two has another great prince order a woman drowned because she has pity on him and tells him the truth. He does so out of vanity. He doesn't like that this woman may know his weaknesses or baleful destiny.
Moussorsky is kinder to popular religion of all kinds; it at least is theoretically humanist, offering humans a theater however clumsy for wrestling with vice. It say something about freedom and its legitimate franchises that all Russian forms of Art until Stalinís era were able legitimately to take up such uncomfortable subjects.
In the days of the Czar if Turgenev had to flee the response of the government to his tales after he did them, at least like so many Russians after him he could embrace with some melancholy his commodious if not nurturing exile.
This dark opera of Moussorskyís ends with the massacre of the Old Believers by Peter the Great. Moussorsky in all cases is carefully to spread the tale of evil over the stage in multiple forms; his version of history is hardly a good guys and bad guys story. There is a reiterated irony in characters saying during this opera that these are dark moments for Russia. The audience Moussorsky expected to see Khovanshchina would naturally reflect that their own times werenít any different.
Itís easy to take up Moussorsky in a sort of quasi-Marxian way, so to speak, as he meant Russia or the world to view him: a national prophet or gadfly Ibsenite. Criticism can handle opinion very well. Itís why we teach Art in our schools as a series of attitudes or feelings. Itís not true but it makes the teacherís work easy.
Itís much more slippery to explore the essential neutrality of any aesthetic or social opinion, the murk of the mechanics of the talent of a genius or the lack of it in a hack. Thereís nothing inherent in Moussorskyís choices that are guaranteed to be inspiring for Moussorsky or anybody else; anybody could have had the same opinions and intents as Moussorsky and turned out oodles of trash.
Talent, not feelings or opinion, is what motivated men like Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Stowkowski and others to help Moussorsky where he was weak. Most impressive and mysterious in Khovanshchina is Moussorskyís ability to take materials used in other ways in folk music or as sacred discourse by Gretchinoff to create beautiful and startling music extending in an unflagging way to enthrall listeners for about four hours.
One can analyze the ingenuity of his craft in making a national musical language from ordinary materials; such inquiries donít tell us much beyond affirming that Moussorsky was among a species mostly a gaggle of churls notably intelligent.
One has the idea that his achievement was created out of a kind of deliberate extended enthusiasm. We have many people as avid and intense among us with no artistic abilities whatsoever.
A gift like Moussorskyís reminds us that sometimes like a turtle basking in the sun we can do is admire what we donít understand. We are a specialized species; some of us can do what others can't. If they are generous about their talents as Moussorsky is we can in the opera house bury our bafflement at his achievement for awhile in our passing amusement.
Khovanshchina raises some intriguing questions about high and low Art that are in another direction from its obvious intents: its value as an instrument for a Ibsenite look at Russian national history or its populist humanism. I wonder though I have been often told otherwise by the best of pundits whether there is really a difference between high and low Art. Many of these august people have been German. They all come from a culture that has at its nub a faith system of natural or unnatural equality. Of course some people as Hesiod says work and others haply donít. Some, as Hesiod implies, seem to live more like gods than others. Do they listen to different music in their moments of leisure?
Itís hard to say historically what popular Art has been up until the end of the 18th century because very little of this mostly illiterate world, not overly concerned with the values of historians, has tried to save any of it. It seems unlike that tribal peoples listen to different musical forms when they are chiefs. High and low Art would be if it exists at all a function of the sheer size as well as class distinctions of nations and empires.
In the scant evidence we have of both supposed genres I think it would be hard to make a case for the very existence of high Art outside of very special cases. Certainly much of the music of Haydn and Mozart is high Art; it could not be analyzed fully as a gloss on dances and chorales. One could say the same of Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner, Franck, Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, perhaps not as much of all but late Stravinsky. Apparently what we call high Art is a taste of people in empires with some affluence and leisure expanding the possibilities of culture generally. In other words, high Art is an option of people with easy and steady access to money.
Therefore we arenít talking about a qualitative difference in aesthetics or temperament in humanity but a tactical access from fortune to great quantities of time and enough income to produce that luxurious theatre of extension among human possibilities. Thereís no inherent natural inequality in this idea.
If many happens to be in Esterhazy and by dint of luck have a few coins to spare at least a few are apt among their feasts and revels to take in or even produce high Art; it one is playing the one stringed cello on the Mongolian plain one might do well to produce low Art if one wants to survive for at least till dawn among the shuffling and shadowy itinerants enduring its bare and cold nights.
High Art in this view would be an extension of the possibilities of design impossible in low Art only because of lack of means and time. Therefore it isnít inherent in a populist stance such as Moussorsky took that one make a musical language out of low Art, a world in which common people were not different than princes, yet in this season much more in a hurry, lacking in leisure, economically desperate.
I am suggesting that a polarized politicks in Russia that was as much a harvest of the lack of a large middle class as anything else inspired the Five including Moussorsky to look for a shorthand of primal resonances at the bottom when they might have also existed elsewhere.
After all in the United States composers like Scott Joplin, James P, Johnson and Duke Ellington monied from the simple and low over time to the complex and high personally as did jazz generally in the bop era and beyond. Had a similar low Art developed in Russia it possibly would have had a parallel evolution.
In that case Moussorsky is offering us not a proto-Stalinist faith system in which only folk-based materials are worthy of a respectable musical language but an assay that at a certain time and place sources from the bottom work well as an implead stance for a general philosophic humanism.
The danger in taking up populism in a narrow way is that its limitations, inherent in all classes and causes, are liable to make oneís once pious opinions and language an odium when the reason one took them up in the first place has long perished and has been forgotten.
We certainly arenít at that point yet in or human history as we listen to Khovanshchina. We are in fact right with Moussorsky in our hope that the whole human race can escape tyranny and poverty, even if the resonances of his Russian musical language half escape us.
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