Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Russian Song: Modest Mussorgsky

This month we have been looking at popular vocal music in various countries during the 19th and 20th centuries. This week, let’s go to Russia and look at the songs of Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881).

Mussorgsky lived a relatively short and unstable life with few of his works left incomplete at the time of his death. One of his greatest achievements during his lifetime, however, was his vocal works including both operas and songs. A member of the Mighty Five, Mussorgsky was known to write for voice in a way that was lyrical but also true to Russian speech inflections. The Mighty Five was a group of Russian composers during the 19th century who aimed to find a true Russian music. In addition to Mussorgsky, the group included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui. Mussorgsky spent part of his life studying with the group’s leader, Mily Balakirev.

Mussorgsky was likely familiar with German and French song composers but he tended to draw inspiration from Russian folk song. He also had a great selection of poetry at his disposal from prolific Russian poets including Alexander Pushkin and A.K. Tolstoy. Overall, his songs demand a high level of musicality and emotional delivery and include irregular rhythms, harmonies, and melodies. Below you will find an example of one of his songs for which he wrote the music and the text, “Svetik Savishna.” This piece is based on something Mussorgsky allegedly witnessed in a small village—a village idiot professing his love to a beautiful young girl. You can hear his desperation as he pleads with the girl in the breathless stream of notes that the singer performs without any rests! Mussorgsky emphasizes the voice over the piano in this example, the accompaniment containing simple, drone-like chords.

Radiant Savishna, my bright falcon,
Love me, witless as I am;
Come, caress this luckless fellow!
Oh, my falcon, my bright falcon,
Darling Savishna, radiant vanovna,
Do not spurn this poor destitute fellow,
Though ill-fortune be his lot!
From birth I’ve caused folk much merriment,
They get fun and amusement out of me!
They say, Savishna, I’m feeble-minded,
call me-listen-‘Holy Vanya,’
Darling Savishna, radiant vanovna,
They kick holy Vanya,
They give me food and then honour me with a clout
on the head.
But festivals when they dress in their finery,
And deck themselves in scarlet ribbons,
They give poor Vanya only a crust of bread,
So as not to forget holy Vanya.
Darling Savishna, my bright falcon,
Love me, for all my ugliness;
Come, caress this lonely fellow!
I love you more than I can say,

Darling Savishna, believe me or not, Radiant Savishna! 

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