Slav vs. suave on the opera stage

Musical giants Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky illustrate Russia's divided genius.

April 11, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Two great artists from the same time and country always invite comparison. This is as true in music as other fields. Thus we compare (as well as pair) Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, Wagner and Brahms, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and tantalize ourselves with desert- island thoughts about which of the two we would take, if we could only have one.

Such considerations were inspired this season by productions of the two greatest operas by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. In less than two months, there have been productions of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" (Washington Opera) and "Khovanshchina" (Metropolitan Opera) and Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" (Baltimore Opera) and "The Queen of Spades" (which is still being performed at the Met).

Russia -- as newspaper headlines tell us week after week -- may be the most divided place on earth. And no two artists symbolize these opposing forces better than Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. Alexander Herzen, the radical 19th-century thinker, once compared his country's opposing political camps -- the Slavophiles and the westernizers -- to Russia's imperial emblem, the two-headed eagle. Herzen said that each head looks in different directions, but he added that their heart beat as one.

There are certainly similarities between the Slavophile Mussorgsky and the westernizer Tchaikovsky, not the least of which is that both these politically conservative composers detested Herzen's radical politics.

Born only a year apart, each composer spent several years as a bureaucrat in the Russian civil service before choosing to devote himself to music. They were primarily vocal composers, for whom opera ranked in importance above other musical genres. That's where the similarities end.

The conventional and industrious Tchaikovsky left the legal profession to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he received the rigorous musical training in the Western tradition that helped him become his country's most famous full-time professional musician long before his death in 1893. Mussorgsky -- a rebel, an experimenter and an alcoholic -- remained an amateur, whose lack of formal training, combined with his contempt for musical traditions, contributed to his failure to achieve success.

He also hated Tchaikovsky, almost as much as Tchaikovsky hated him.

For Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and his music were "a disgrace [because he] played with art for purely personal ends."

But Tchaikovsky called Mussorgsky's music "vulgar and vile," adding that his rival was a "mere dilettante," whose operas demonstrated both his "wretched technique" and his "poverty of invention."

Tchaikovsky certainly had one thing Mussorgsky didn't: polish. His music -- which Mussorgsky didn't think was Russian enough -- sounds very Russian indeed. But his use of folk melodies is judicious, almost suave, though Russian folk music is, if anything, rough-hewn and dumpy. Charm and urbanity characterize nearly everything he wrote. It is no surprise that his favorite composer was Mozart.

If Tchaikovsky's subtly developed music honors tradition in its refinement, then Mussorgsky's tries to murder tradition. His musical aim -- in the composer's own words -- was "speaking out boldly, candidly, point-blank to men." Tchaikovsky's lyricism sings, Mussorgsky's speaks. His lyrical declamation reflects the intonations of Russian speech. But while his plain-speaking music is not conventionally beautiful, it has a brutal, sometimes barbarously vital, majesty.

Their sense of theater is as different as their music. While he called himself a musical realist, Tchaikovsky politely remained within the traditional boundaries of operatic conventions. Mussorgsky rudely tried to show "the truth of life, however bitter." Tchaikovsky's music looks fondly back at Mozart's; Mussorgsky's looks fearlessly forward to that of Shostakovich.

The limitations of Tchaikovsky's adherence to operatic conventions are betrayed by his crowd scenes, which use the chorus in a purely decorative way. Unless staged by a director as deft as the Met's Elijah Moshinsky, the mass scenes of "The Queen of Spades" easily become static. The overlong visit by the peasants in Act I of "Onegin" is even worse; unless considerably cut, it produces only tedium.

But the natural and dramatic crowd scenes of Mussorgsky are essential to his operas. The opening scene of "Boris," for example, reveals the chasm between the common people and the czar and his aristocratic entourage. That the crowd is pushed against the walls of the Kremlin and then forced to its knees suggests the differences and misunderstandings that divide rich and poor and predicts the opera's tragic denouement in mob violence. It is a scene that does not need a great director to convey the helplessness of the Russian people; Mussorgsky's meaning is unmistakable.

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