Friday, January 23, 2015

Mussorgsky - The Seminarist

Modest Mussorgsky, one of the great natural musicians of the 19th century,  died of alcohol-induced epilepsy in 1881 at the age of 42. He began his early adult life as an officer in the Russian military, but after serving only a year or two resigned his commission and began to devote himself to music. Mussorgsky had been a child prodigy on the piano, but his technical training in musical theory, harmony and counterpoint was sparse.

Mussorgsky planned and began many more compositions than he ever finished. He either planned or began eleven operas, but he completed only one, the well-known Boris Godunov, that for many years was only heard in Rimsky-Korsakov's version done after Mussorgsky's death.  He wrote many pieces for piano solo and his best-known work Pictures At An Exhibition is more well known in the orchestration done by Ravel than the original piano version.

One area of composition in which he excelled was songs for voice and piano, of which he wrote over 70 examples. He was the first great song composer that integrated the inflection and stress of the Russian language with music.  He wrote his first songs while still a teenager, but it wasn't until 1866 that he became adept as a composer of unique songs in and for the Russian language.

He wrote The Seminarist in 1867 and it is set to Mussorgsky's own words. It is a comic song that deals with a young seminary student's ardor for a priest's daughter. The song begins with monotonous chanting of Latin nouns, an exercise seminary students were put through to teach them Latin. This chanting of Latin nouns occurs throughout the song, and interspersed with the chants are the amorous dreamings of the seminary student as well as the thumping he receives from the girl's father after he catches the seminary student flirting with her during church. The Russian Orthodox Church censor banned the song from being circulated or printed in Russia as the song was considered to be disrespectful of the church. Mussorgsky wrote two versions of the song, and the church banned both versions, to Mussorgsky's delight:

The Seminarist
Panis, piscis, crinis, finis, ignis, lapis, pulvis, cinis…
Woe is me! Woe is me!
Orbis amnis et canalis, orbis amnis et canalis...
The priest gave me a thumping,
And blessed me with a beating,
And made me lose my memory with the blow of his holy hand.
Fascis, axis, funis, ensis, fustis, vectis, vermis, mensis…
The priest Semyon has a beautiful daughter,
Her cheeks are rosy, Her eyes are sensual,
Her breast like that of a swan,
That swells under her shirt.
Fastis, axis, funis, ensis, fustis, vestis, vermis, mensis…
Ah, Styosha, my Stoyosha,
How I would kiss you,
And embrace you!
Postis, follis, cucumis, atque, pollis, atque pollis, cucumis, cucumis… 
The other day during the service for holy and
famous Mitrodora
I read a part of the Scriptures.
But peeped at Styosha all the time
And glanced at the left side of
the choir stall and gave her a wink.
Then her devil of a Father saw it
and wrote it in his little book,
And my master blessed me three times
on the ears,
And with all his power beat the Latin lessons into my head with a stick.
Orbis, amnis, et canalis, et canalis, sanguis, unguis, et canalis, et canalis… 
Thus it was that I happened to experience temptation
from the devil In God’s own holy temple.
Amnis et canalis, sanguis, unguis, et canalis, et canalis, et canalis…..

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