Posts Tagged ‘conrad’

“The power of the black earth”: Mussorgsky’s “Khovanschina”

It’s a fairly uncontroversial contention that Verdi and Wagner were the two towering opera composers of the nineteenth century – especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even those allergic to either of these composers (and there are many who deeply dislike one or the other, or even both) will concede their importance. I certainly don’t dispute this, but there are times when I think the greatest operas of that era were neither by Verdi nor by Wagner, but by a Russian civil servant with no formal training in music – Modest Mussorgsky. And last night’s concert performance at the Proms of Khovanschina was as memorable an operatic evening as I think I have ever experienced.

Both Mussorgsky’s two major operas are problematic. Boris Godunov exists in two very different versions, which are usually conflated: this practice of conflation is understandable, as fixing on one or other of these versions necessitates the omission of some of the finest scenes in all opera; but a conflation is not what Mussorgsky himself ever envisaged, and it certainly weakens the drama. As for Khovanschina, it was left in a sadly unfinished state when, in 1881, Mussorgsky died aged only 42, as a consequence of severe alcoholism. The textual issues surrounding this opera are immense, and I am certainly no expert, but, from what I understand, Mussorgsky had orchestrated a few parts, left piano versions of most of the rest, but had left the endings of the second and fifth acts uncomposed.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his own version on Khovanschina, and re-orchestrated the whole of Boris Godunov, to make Mussorgsky’s own highly idiosyncratic orchestrations more palatable. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestrations are brilliant, and it is perhaps to be regretted that, in our authenticity-fixated times, they are going out of fashion. However, there is no doubt that these orchestrations, brilliant though they are, are not what Mussorgsky had himself intended; and, given that our ears have now become so accustomed to strange sounds and harmonies that Mussorgsky’s sound-world no longer seems particularly odd, there is no reason not to return to his original intentions in Boris Godunov. This leaves the problem of Khovanschina, which was left in such an incomplete state that we do not often know what Mussorgsky’s original intentions were. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov’s re-imagining of Mussorgsky no longer seems acceptable, what do we use?

Most performances nowadays use the version prepared in the late 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich, with whatever modification the conductor in question may see fit. And, it has to be said, Shostakovich’s version is quite splendid. However, this is not always the best solution either. Shostakovich was working in the era of Soviet Communism, after all, and belief in progress was not merely taken for granted, but routinely extolled. And, in this most political of operas, that puts a slant on matters that Mussorgsky himself would most likely not have gone along with. In a recording made of a live performance from the Vienna State Opera, conducted by Claudio Abbado (to my mind, one of the greatest recordings ever made of any music), Shostakovich’s version (judiciously edited) is used for the main part, but, for the final chorus, it is Stravinsky’s version that is preferred. Stravinsky’s quiet ending, which can be seen as imparting a mood either of serenity or, as Simon Morrison’s programme notes of last night’s Proms performance puts it, of “quiet desperation”, is very different from the thrilling blaze of sound that Shostakovich provides; and, maybe because I am so used to hearing Abbado’s recording, it is Stravinsky’s ending that seems to me just right. But Shostakovich’s ending is worth hearing as well: there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The problem with Khovanschina is not merely textual: there is the matter of the content also. Heaven knows how many times I have heard this opera (mainly in recordings, and, last night, for the first time ever, also live in concert) – I still cannot follow the damn thing. If anyone were to ask me to summarise the plot, I’d be all over the place. This is not because the plot is “silly” – as opera plots are supposed to be, according to a not-very-accurate cliché – but because it is so complex. Various characters seem to move in and out of the action, and it’s hard to say what exactly lies at the centre: indeed, it seems at times that there is no centre. It’s not really about a principal character, or even a group of principal characters: it is about an entire nation in the throes of upheaval – social, political, religious. The scale is as vast as can be imagined: epics don’t really come much more epic than this. Even Wagner’s Götterdämmerung only ends with the end of the world.

The historical upheavals depicted in this opera took place in the late 17th century, when the young Czar Peter, later known as “Peter the Great”, ruthlessly consolidated his power. The political landscape of the time was hugely convoluted, with various factions fighting each other for power with untrammelled brutality. There were various factions of the aristocracy – princes and boyars; there were the modernisers, who looked towards the West; there were the Old Believers, the faction of the Russian Orthodox Church who bitterly opposed the church reforms of the mid-17th century, and maintained their adherence to the old rituals and practices. There were, nominally, two Czars – the young Peter, and his half-brother Ivan, who appeared to have had what, in modern parlance, we’d describe as “learning difficulties”. Since both were essentially children, Ivan’s sister, Sophia, acted as Regent. With the various factions contending against each other, and, sometimes, amongst themselves, the nation was in utter turmoil: violence and brutality were everyday things, hardly worthy to be commented upon. It was out of this turmoil that Peter, the liberal reformer, emerged with absolute power, and created what in Mussorgsky’s time would have been recognised as “modern Russia”. A triumph of Enlightenment, some may say. And, indeed, that is the impression one might get from the famous prelude, depicting dawn over the River Moscow – the emergence of light to banish the darkness.

But if only things were that simple. Mussorgsky, unlike Vladimir Stasov (who had helped him put together the libretto from historical sources), did not believe in progress. The liberal progressive, Peter the Great, who had dragged feudal Russia kicking and screaming into modern times, had, after all, used the most ruthless and cruel of means to achieve his ends: his liberalism had cost the nation uncountable lives and immense suffering. In the earlier Boris Godunov, the Fool – the Holy Fool – had famously lamented that whoever rules, whoever has power, the people go on suffering: mere dumb, animal suffering, and nothing more. And this seems to have been Mussorgsky’s view also, although, given the unfinished state of Khovanschina, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what Mussorgsky himself thought of these matters.

But we have a guide, I think, in a letter Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov while putting the libretto together. This letter is quoted in just about every piece of writing I have come across on Khovanschina, so I might as well quote it too:

The power of the black earth will manifest itself when you plough it to the very bottom. It is possible to plough the black earth with tools wrought of alien materials. And at the end of the 17th century they ploughed Mother Russia with just such tools, so that she did not immediately realise what they were ploughing with, and, like the black earth, she opened up and began to breathe. And she, our beloved, received the various state bureaucrats, who never gave her, the long-suffering one, time to collect herself and to think, “Where are you pushing me?” The ignorant and confused were executed: force! … But the times are out of joint: the state bureaucrats are not letting the black earth breathe.

“We’ve gone forward” – you lie! We haven’t moved! Paper, books have gone forward! – we haven’t moved. So long as the people cannot verify with their own eyes what is being cooked out of them – until then, we haven’t moved! Public benefactors of every kind will seek to glorify themselves, with buttress their glory with documents, but people groan and, so as not to groan, they drink like the devil, and groan worse than ever: we haven’t moved!

 

  • (I have quoted this from the programme notes from last night’s concert. Since no translator is credited, I assume that the writer of the notes, Prof. Simon Morrison, has translated this himself.)

 

Mussorgsky’s image is perhaps a bit laboured, and his articulation clumsy, but what he is saying seems clear enough: Russia has its own deeply rooted traditions (symbolised by the “black earth”), and foreign ideas (“tools wrought of foreign materials”) implemented by force will not better the people’s lot: whatever happens, the people, as predicted by the Holy Fool in Boris Godunov, will go on suffering.

This is far from Stasov’s faith in progress. And indeed, this is a hard and bitter pill to swallow for someone like myself, believing firmly as I do that certain principles – human rights, freedom, democracy, and so on – are of universal value. But can these values that we may consider “universal” be imposed upon a recalcitrant people, emotionally wedded to their own traditions? Can it be done without “force”? And even more pressing perhaps than the question “Can it be done” is “Should it be done?” If works of art pose difficult and troubling questions, I know of none that is more difficult and more troubling than this.

Mussorgsky, like Conrad, seemed to have had no faith in any political solution. In Nostromo, Conrad rejected one by one all possible political solutions: all are found wanting; all are corrupt, or become corrupted; and those that become corrupted do so because corruption lies latent in the very foundations. So where are we to turn? In Under Western Eyes, written some eight years after Nostromo, Conrad faces precisely this question. There, the protagonist, Razumov, becomes embroiled in political and moral complications despite his best efforts to keep aloof from it all; and he declares to Privy Councillor Mikulin his intention to “retire”. Privy Councillor Mikulin’s response is as simple as it is unanswerable:

“Where to?” asked Councillor Mikulin softly.

One has to stand somewhere. But where?

Mussorgsky’s opera ends spectacularly with the Old Believers declaring quite unambiguously where they stand: they immolate themselves en masse. This was no invention on Mussorgsky’s part: many Old Believers, in shockingly large numbers, had done just this after their sect had been proscribed. From our enlightened liberal viewpoint, we may look on this with horror, as we do on any mass suicide of religious cults (e.g. the horrific incident of mass-suicide in Jonestown). And indeed, it is horrific: it cannot be anything other than horrific. But this is the Old Believers’ answer to Mikulin’s seemingly innocent question: “Where to?” The Old Believers choose eternity rather than the corrupted here-and-now, and, unlike enlightened liberals like ourselves, they had the strength of their faith to embrace their choice.

I find it frankly difficult to know what to make of this ending. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung – which received its first performance while Mussorgsky was still busy at work on Khovanschina – had also ended with an act of self-immolation: there, Brünnhilde threw herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and this act of sacrifice destroyed the entire world, and brought down heaven itself;  and then,  after the destruction of this inevitably corrupt and irredeemably compromised world, the work ended with a radiant reprise of a theme we had heard in Die Walküre, an earlier work in the Ring Cycle – a beautiful theme representing hope that a new world, free from the corruption both of humans and of gods, may be able to rise again from the ashes. But the libretto Mussorgsky left behind offers no comparable cosmic vision: he is dealing with history, not creating mythology, as Wagner had done. And it isn’t easy to figure out how Mussorgsky would have finished it. Shostakovich’s ending offers us splendid spectacle (this is the ending conductor Semyon Bychkov used in the Proms concert last night, although he stripped out the Dawn theme from the start of the opera that Shostakovich brought back at the very end); and, undeniably thrilling though this ending is, I remain unconvinced that it offers an adequate resolution to what had gone before. In Stravinsky’s ending, the chants of the Old Believers merely fade away into silence, and we are left to make of that what we will.

Whatever text we use, whatever pick’n’mix approach we may take regarding the various orchestrations, Khovanschina, vast and unwieldy though it is, is a masterpiece. This, and Boris Godunov, are, for me at least, among the highest of peaks in the operatic repertoire. Music criticism is not my line, and proper reviews by proper music critics can, I am sure, be found at the touch of a search engine, but the performance I heard last night, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra hugely expanded, with no less than three different choirs joining forces (the people, as represented by these choirs, are perhaps the most important protagonists of all in this opera), and a cast of soloists one really can’t imagine being improved upon, offered a musical and dramatic experience of exceptional quality.  If you are reading this post within 29 days of my posting it, and have some four and a half hours to spare, I can warmly recommend hearing the broadcast of the performance on the BBC website.

Repin-portrait-of-the-composer-modest-mussorgsky-1881

Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin, courtesy State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Mussorgsky himself, of course, died untimely, with Khovanschina in a sadly incomplete state. A few days before he died, Ilya Repin painted a famous portrait of him. It is a striking image. At one level, we may think of it as comic: with that madly unkempt hair and beard, and the glazed expression of the eyes, it is hard to imagine anyone looking more drunk, and drunks are always good for a laugh. But it is also a deeply tragic portrait: it is the portrait of a visionary, a dramatist and a composer of genius, but sunk to a state that he could not help sinking to. The portrait itself, I think, is a masterpiece: it is painted with a realism and unsentimentality that is almost brutal, but also with an immense compassion.

That we can hear at all Mussorgsky’s great uncompleted work is something of a miracle. We owe an immense debt of thanks, first of all to Rimsky-Korsakov for helping keep Khovanschina in the repertoire for so many decades, and to Stravinsky and to Shostakovich for presenting to us at least something of what Mussorgsky himself might have gone on to achieve.

It was a dark and stormy night

Well, it was a dark and stormy night last Sunday. Not, perhaps, quite as stormy as had been forecast, but stormy enough. In the context of natural disasters worldwide, five fatalities in the entire country may not seem like much, but I doubt the grieving families of those five would agree.

We had to drive down from Lancashire that Sunday, and, since they couldn’t forecast with any certainty whether the storm would begin on Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning, we tried to get back home as early as we could, to be on the safe side. And, once home, it was but a matter of waiting. It could be that the winds would be so violent as to carry away our very roofs; but since there was little we could do about it even if it did, it seemed best merely to pour ourselves a civilised drink, and wait.

I have never quite decided whether ghost stories are most effective when read in the unearthly silence of a preternaturally still night, or in the tempestuous turbulence of a violent storm, with the wind is howling outside like the voices of the dead. Either way, sitting in my armchair with a dram in hand, a ghost story seemed like a good idea. Hopefully, I thought, the storm would begin while I was reading. But no – I finished the story, the clock ticked away, and still, all I could discern outside was a mild breeze. I couldn’t stay up all night, I thought to myself: I had to get up for work the next morning. And with that, I retired to bed, thinking – as one does – of the various storms I had encountered in books.

Strangely enough, storms are not so common in ghost stories as one might think. At least, the only one I could think of off the top of my head was the high wind that blows up in M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Perhaps writers of ghost stories feel it is too hackneyed a device – that its use would appear so contrived an artifice that disbelief would become difficult to suspend. But even when we move away from the genres of the ghost story or the horror story – the former being, of course, but a subset of the latter – storms are not used in fiction as much as one may think. I lay awake that night trying to think of the various storms in fiction. The most famous fictional storm, I’d guess, would be the one that occurs in the third act of King Lear, but even here, Lear assures us, it is the tempest in his mind that affects him more. It is also the tempest in Prospero’s mind that seems to provide the title of Shakespeare’s late play: the actual physical tempest, seen only in the brief first scene, is no more than a plot device to shipwreck various people on to Prospero’s island; and, once that tempest has served its purpose, there follows a stillness so profound that even dramatic tension, it seems to me, vanishes. In what follows, we have some of the most beautiful blank verse that even Shakespeare ever wrote; but unlike the blank verse in his earlier plays, this blank verse is not dramatic, let alone tempestuous. It is a work of extraordinary beauty, but as drama, I must confess I continue to find it puzzling.

Of course, Shakespeare had used the storm as a plot device before: to bring characters into a strange and unknown land, a storm is about as good a plot device as there is – from the early The Comedy of Errors to the late The Tempest, taking in Twelfth Night on the way. There is good precedence for this – from Odysseus in The Odyssey to Sinbad the Sailor in A Thousand and One Nights.

There is a storm and shipwreck in the third act of The Winter’s Tale also, but here, it seems more than a mere plot device: it seems, rather, a measure of divine anger in the face of man, proud man, dressed in his little brief authority, playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven. For there is something about storms, something about the helplessness to which the forces of nature reduce even the most civilised and seemingly secure of humans, that suggests divine wrath. As with Lear or Prospero, a storm may reflect the tempest in our own minds; it may serve also to remind us of the precarious nature of our very souls, balanced so finely between the heaven and hell of our own making. It is through a snowstorm that Ivan Karamazov, his soul tormented, staggers back to his room, where he meets with the Devil in the guise of a shabbily-dressed gentleman; and, as the Devil goads him further into the abyss of insanity, the blizzard outside intensifies. And it is in a snowstorm also that Vronsky, on a railway platform somewhere between Moscow and Petersburg, declares his love to Anna:

“I didn’t know you were travelling. Why are you here?” she said, letting fall the hand which had been about to grasp the handrail. And her face radiated irrepressible joy and animation.

“Why am I here?” he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. “You know I am travelling in order to be where you are,” he said. “I cannot do otherwise.”

At that very moment the wind, as if it had overcome an obstacle, showered down the snow from the carriage roofs and rattled a loose sheet of iron while, somewhere ahead, the deep whistle of the engine gave a mournful and gloomy wail, All the terror of the storm struck her now with even greater splendour.

[From Anna Karenina, translated by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes]

And in that one scene, the entire human tragedy of Anna and of Vronsky – the terror and the even greater splendour of it all – seems encapsulated: the rattling of that loose sheet or iron has only just begun. Vronsky cannot do otherwise. None of the characters in this novel can do otherwise: they all seem driven by forces they cannot even begin to understand, forces as irresistible as the storm itself.

Storms feature frequently in the poetry of Tagore – hardly surprising given that he hailed from a land lashed annually by the monsoon. It features prominently also in Bubhuthibhushan Banerji’s Pather Panchali (and also, of course, in Satyajit Ray’s film version). The depiction of the storm is impressive enough in the translation by T. W. Clark and by Tarapada Mukherji: in the original, it is a thing of wonder. That this wonderful novel seems to little-known outside the Bengali-speaking world I find unaccountable and saddening in about equal measure.

Perhaps the most terrifying and elemental of storms occur in the various sea stories of Joseph Conrad – Youth, Typhoon, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’. The storm in Moby-Dick, where the lightning sets fire to the tops of the mast to make them resemble giant candles, is also magnificent. Perhaps it is not to be wondered at that writers who have experienced storms at sea should be able to present them in all their terror: no-one can be so vulnerable to the brute power of a storm as those at sea.

There was also a most impressive storm in Pasternak’s  Doctor Zhivago, I seemed to remember, that is presented as a sort of harbinger of the revolution that was to come. But I couldn’t remember exactly where in the novel this occurs, as, by this time, tired of waiting for the wind to howl outside like the voices of the dead, I was already half-asleep. And next morning, my thoughts were far from the elemental upheavals in Conrad, from Ivan Karamazov sinking into madness, from Lear and Prospero enduring tempests in the mind, or from Anna and Vronsky driven to their doom by tempestuous forces they cannot even begin to understand: my first thought on waking was to check that the tiles on our roof were still in place.

Ah – what mundane lives we lead!

The joys of being miserable

How is it that we can witness some three hours of so of the utmost human misery that is King Lear, and still come out of the experience feeling exhilarated? Perhaps Orwell was right: in tragedy, we see human beings destroyed, but nonetheless feel that humanity is nobler than the forces that have defeated it. But, in the works especially of the last couple of hundred years or so, even the consolation of our essential nobility has been stripped away. Flaubert, in his works, presented an utter nothingess at the heart of our very existence, and refused to offer consolation: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as stupid and as pointless as that she rebels against; Frédéric Moreau remains as irredeemably mediocre and as unremarkable as ever; and even Félicité’s spiritual ecstasy is focussed upon nothing more exalted than a stuffed parrot that is already falling apart at the seams. Conrad merely saw darkness at the heart of everything; Kafka’s protagonist, when he finally has the knife twisted into his heart, hears before he dies the words “Like a dog”: our shame must outlive us; indeed, pace Larkin (who was actually quite an optimist in this respect), it is the only part of us that does outlive us.

Not very cheery, this modern literature lark, is it? Tragedians of the past told us that we were essentially noble: even if we have our eyes gouged out and even if we run stark staring mad on the blasted heath – as you do – we are still essentially noble, nobler than the forces that destroy us.  But the moderns won’t grant us even that. Between being born on the edge of the grave and falling in, Beckett tells us, there is nothing in that brief interim to make it worthwhile.

So, the obvious thing to do is to turn away from all this. All these Flauberts and Conrads and Kafkas and Becketts  – who needs ‘em? Why not, instead, feel good with some feelgood pieces of fluff? A West End musical? A Hollywood romcom? 

I generally have nothing against feelgood pieces of fluff, but ultimately, they don’t really satisfy. Not me, at any rate. Sooner or later, I know I’ll have to turn back to these Flauberts and Becketts for some sort of deeper satisfaction. But I’m damned if I can even begin to understand what sort of deeper satisfaction it is that I get from these works – works that tell us how utterly stupid, trivial and insignificant we are in every way. 

But there must for all that, be something there that satisfies. How else can I explain my actually reading and re-reading the likes of Flaubert and Conrad of my own free will? How can I account for these works satisfying me more deeply and more completely than even the goodest-feeling of feelgoods? I don’t know that I have an answer to this, but perhaps there is a clue in these lines I came across recently: 

When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit.

– Seamus Heaney 

That boy Seamus does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

I’m not sure where Seamus Heaney said that: I found it quoted in Colm Toibin’s review in The Guardian of Heaney’s new collection Human Chain. But it struck a chord. When a form generates itself, Heaney says, it is already on the side of life. Even when the artist imparts a vision of life that is irredeemably bleak, the work is, nonetheless, on the side of life. Any art that is worth the candle is on the side of life, whether it likes it or not. 

That does not provide a consolation: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. It says “bollocks” to the universe, that huge chunk of ironmongery against which we are all, apparently, insignificant. So, even when Flaubert tells us of the insignificance of Emma Bovary, even when Kafka tells us of the death “like a dog” of Josef K, they are contradicting what they are saying by the way they are saying it: they are protesting against the necessity, they are rebelling against the limits, even while depicting these same necessities and limits. And this protest, this rebellion, satisfies. 

I am reminded of some lines by another rather good Irish poet:

 All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

Somehow, I don’t think Yeats had “feelgood” in mind when talking about “gaiety”.