Modest Mussorgsky and his Sunless Song Cycle
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was one of the biggest innovators in Russian music during the Romantic Period. Constantly striving to achieve a distinctive Russian musical identity, he never once hesitated to defy the orthodox qualities and trends of western music. Born March 21, 1839, into a wealthy family living in Karevo, Russia, it was not long before Mussorgsky discovered his love for music. He began playing piano at the age of 6 and showed promising development. However, he was obliged to take on the family tradition of serving in the military, and was sent to cadet school when he was 13. After 4 years, he successfully graduated and was sent to serve at a military hospital in Saint Peterburg. Here, he became close with several other composers including Mily Balakirev, who heavily influenced Mussorgsky to learn more about music. The two worked together over the next few years developing his musical intelligence. After only several months, in 1858, Mussorgsky suffered from an emotional crisis, forcing him to resign from his commission, and devote his time entirely to music composition. He began to develop as a composer but was unfortunately preoccupied as his family’s fortune began to dwindle. He was forced to accept a low-level civil service position in order to help manage his family’s estate. In 1863, Mussorgsky returned to Saint Petersburg and began composing his first opera. During this time, he was exposed to a heavily creative and intellectual atmosphere where a variety of artistic and scientific ideas were brought to his attention. He soon came to embrace the ideal known as musical realism. With this mind set, Mussorgsky sought to depict life through music as it was truly lived. He rejected the repetition of symmetrical musical forms just as life itself is completely unpredictable. His style came to be known as erratic and exhibited a raw sense of individuality. Unfortunately, this concept of ‘real life’ hit him especially hard when his mother passed away in 1865. This was a profound moment in Mussorgsky’s life, one that may have pushed him into the downward spiral saturated with alcohol, depression, and hopelessness that would eventually follow. By the late 1860’s, his music had circulated well enough to earn him the right of being grouped with Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsavok, and Borodin as a part of Russia’s “Mighty Handful”. However, he had yet to compose a successful opera. In Autumn of 1868, after abandoning his two previous attempts at Salammbo and Marriage, Vladimir Nikosky suggested that he compose an opera for Alexander Pushkin’s drama, Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky gladly accepted the challenged and began almost immediately. Despite the opera being rejected by the State Censor (arguably not once but twice), nearly 6 years later, his masterpiece was ready to be shared with the world. The premier took place January 27, 1874, but to his dismay, it received a number of hostile and negative reactions. Even his good friend and fellow “Mighty Hand” member, César Cui, was unimpressed and proceeded to minimize his accomplishment with a scathing review describing it as an “immature work”, and that it “trespassed against the conventional musical grammar of the time”. Mussorgsky was deeply impacted by the public reaction. It nearly destroyed his self-confidence, and summoned what I believe to be the dark and pessimistic force that inspired his song cycle entitled “Bez Solnsta”.
Literally meaning “sunless”, or “without sun”, Bez Soinsta was a series of 6 songs Mussorgsky composed to accompany a variety of poems written by his close friend and part-time roommate, Arseni Golenishchev-Kutuzov. As the name implies, the overall mood of Sunless is rather bleak. Its music and lyrics especially evoke a continuous feeling of loneliness, hopelessness, insomnia, and boredom. From a psychological standpoint, one could say that this entire song cycle is a direct representation of the...
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