This is not only the first life-and-works on Musorgsky in English for over half a century but also the largest such study of the composer ever to have appeared outside Russia. Mussorgsky was one of the towering figures of nineteenth century Russian music - but also one of the most tragic. Largely an amateur with no systematic training in composition, he nevertheless emerged in his first opera, Boris Godunov, as a supreme musical dramatist, presenting here (and in certain of his piano pieces in Pictures at an Exhibition) some of the most startlingly original of all song composers, with a prodigious gift for uncovering the emotional content of a text. His failure to complete his two remaining operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair, before his premature death from alcohol poisoning is one of music's greatest tragedies.
The qualities of clarity and thoroughness familiar to readers of Professor Brown's earlier work are also in evidence here ... his style is straightforward and elegant without pretentiousness, apparently aimed at music lovers as much as those with a scholarly interest. (SEER)
... excellent monograph ... David Brown has done an excellent job in treating Musorgsky in such a lively and yet learned manner ... His magisterial study deserves to be purchased by many music lovers who will find the narrative fluent and the musical analysis approachable. It should also attract musicians and musical scholars who will also discover some new ideas, approaches and materials in its pages. (SEER)
... a no-holds barred biography ... Brown traces his entire output in a rich historical and social context. He ... gives us a new vision of the composer. (New York Times)
... the general reader and specialist alike will value the breadth, clear exposition and enthusiasm in Brown's discussion. (Geoffrey Norris, BBC Music Magazine)
The Best 'Musorgsky' for the General Reader2003/6/25
J Scott Morrison
David Brown's 'Musorgsky' appears in the Oxford University Press's 'The Master Musicians' series and replaces the older volume in that series started by M. D. Calvocoressi before his death in 1944 and finished by Gerald Abraham, published in 1946. There has been no major life-and-works of Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881) in English since then, although Richard Taruskin's scholarly 'Musorgsky,' intended for a narrower musicologically-informed audience, was published in 1992. This volume has musical examples and some reasonably detailed discussion of musical points in Musorgsky's works, but it is certainly not beyond the reach of the general reader. Musorgsky's life is detailed throughout the book but there is little that is gossipy or speculative. Much more attention is paid to the origin and development of Musorgsky's art, with a clear exposition of musical and psychological influences by such figures are Dargomizhky, Glinka, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Alexander Serov, Vladimir Stasov and others. The lengthy, often obscure and confusing chronology of 'Boris Godunov' is set out logically and lucidly; Brown's exposition of its difficult gestation certainly cleared up some of my confusion in this regard. There is a good deal of explanation of how and where Musorgky cannibalized earlier works, inserting whole passages in the works by which he is now primarily known. There is a fascinating discussion of how he slowly developed his musical 'fingerprints,' with examples. Several chapters are devoted to the composition of his numerous and still undervalued songs. And we get psychologically and musically insightful chapters on 'Night on Bald Mountain' (more properly 'St. John's Night on Bare Mountain') and 'Pictures at an Exhibition.' The sad story of the inability to complete 'Khovanshchina' and 'Sorochintsy Fair' is told, along with the related heart-breaking drama of Musorgky's decline and death. In Musorgsky's too-short life he wrote at least three undisputed popular masterpieces - 'Boris,' 'Night on Bare Mountain,' and 'Pictures'- and those who love these pieces, and others, owe it to themselves to become more familiar with the life of the man behind these favorites. This book provides the kind of framework that makes those works more alive for the listener. Recommended. Review by Scott Morrison
Brown delivers a glimpse into Musorgsky's troubled mind2006/5/10
When dealing with a composer whose works were so erratic and often incomplete, writing a combined biography and analysis of his works is not an easy task. Brown approaches this with sensible organization, alternating between chapters that detail Mussorgsky's life and focus on his individual compositions of important note. Significant amounts of the book are even devoted to the half-finished, aborted, or otherwise incomplete works of the composer. This is justified since these works provide some insight into Mussorgsky's compositional process, although it is sometimes presented at a level too dense for the amateur musician. Another area of focus is Mussorgsky's relationships in the "mighty handful" with specific members, and also to the RMS (Russian Music Society) and FMS (Free Music Society).
Brown's command of the English language is certainly nothing to dismiss as his diction and syntax are colorful, rich, and flowing. He often refers to Mussorgsky's compositional capacity as his "musical armory", a fitting metaphor perhaps to capture the essence of violence that often arises in Mussorgsky's works, as well as his hostility toward western music.
The biographical portions of the book are densely pocked with excerpts from letters and memoirs belonging to the most influential people in Mussorgsky's life, and Mussorgsky himself. Brown sometimes acts merely as a guide to weave all of these observations and discourses together to give the reader an accurate characterization of the composer. Of course, a near inexhaustible amount of documents could probably be relevantly cited, and it is Brown's job to attempt to extract what is important and create an unbiased recollection. There is one thing in particular that seems to be suspiciously highlighted in the later years of Mussorgsky's life, and that is his relationship with Cesar Cui. The latter composer seems to recognize his inferiority to the other members of the kuchka as the years wane on, and he particularly seems to react hostilely toward Mussorgsky. Brown cites his criticisms increasingly and also Mussorgsky's reactions, which tend toward anger and insult. It seems strange that these two that share such brotherhood in their musical circle would lash out with such negativism. Brown even notes that Cui's criticism continues near into Mussorgsky's death, almost suggesting some form of the mythical Mozart-Sallieri relationship. Perhaps Brown subconsciously wished to add a bit more tension to his biography (which, as a biography - often lacks the interest of fiction), and he certainly succeeds in portraying Cui as the villain in Mussorgsky's life
One shortcoming I see is the failure of the book to explain Mussorgsky's knowledge of music theory. Brown uses vague adjectives such as "uneducated, intuitive, unrefined" etc. to define Mussorgsky's compositional finesse, but rarely goes into any more detail. It is difficult to tell how Mussorgsky thought when he composed. Did he have knowledge of chord theory and progression, so that he could explain and "break down" his music rather than just let it flow from his mind in chaos? Did he discover these things through his own intuitiveness but with a flare of originality? It becomes apparent that Mussorgsky begins to revel in his own ignorance of western music theory, idealizing the "natural" composer as the superior filter for music.
Lastly, either due to a lack of evidence or because Brown considered it irrelevant, Mussorgsky's mental illness is largely left ambiguous. A few letters give strange metaphorical accounts of Mussorgsky's bouts of mental anguish, but they fail to list any real symptoms. I would consider the mental condition of a composer to be the primary factor contributing to the music he wrote. The book should have an appendix if not a chapter at lease speculating what the causes or true symptoms of Mussorgsky's periodic mental distress were.
In its entirety, the book succeeds in giving the reader a strong foundation of Mussorgsky as a composer. Brown highlights his relationships with other Russian composers and musicians of the time, his financial and residential situations, his musical revelations and awakenings (as shown by his letters), and the context in which each of his works, completed or not, arise.
AN EXCELLENT BIOGRAPHY OF THIS LITTLE-KNOWN COMPOSER2012/9/12
Steven H Propp
David Brown is the retired Professor of Musicology at the University of Southhampton, and author of Mikhail Glinka: A Biographical and Critical Study (Da Capo Press music reprint series) and Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music.
He records, "It is a notorious fact that the addiction to alcohol that was finally to destroy Musorgsky had its beginning in the four years he spent at the Schools for Guards' Cadets... they point implacably to a situation in which any sensitive boy would have had phases of unutterable misery from which alcohol would have provided the swiftest and most ready means of temporary escape..." (Pg. 5) Later, his friend Borodin noted, "Almost daily he sits in the Maly Yaroslavets restaurant... and gets drunk, sometimes till he's insensible." (Pg. 225)
He observes, "Musorgsky's sexuality has long been a subject for speculation---and such, in the absence of much hard evidence, it is likely to remain." (Pg. 24)
He notes, "yet Boris [Gudunov], unquestionably Musorgsky's greatest work, also provided him with his greatest public triumph. It was also the watershed in his life." (Pg. 228) Sadly, about 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' "There is no record of it ever receiving public performance during Musorgsky's lifetime." (Pg. 231)
In his final illness, alcohol (which had been forbidden to him, but which he obtained by bribing an orderly at the Hospital) caused his final collapse; "Now that the end was imminent, it was decided he must settle all his affairs, and he assigned all his royalty and publishing rights, both present and future, to to Filippov, assessing them at 2000 roubles. In all other regards, Musorgsky died a pauper." (Pg. 358)
This is an excellent book about a composer who is often shrouded in mystery.