Monday, March 9, 2015

Mussorgsky - Song Cycle 'Sunless'

Modest Mussorgsky was in many ways a musical dilettante, for while he was a naturally gifted musician, he had very little formal training.  This was not looked upon by his mentor Balakirev as a bad thing. On the contrary, a lack of formal training was considered something that would help free the creative artist to express himself without the artificial fetters of pedantic methods.

Mussorgsky's life was a struggle after he gave up the family tradition of professional military service for music. He had to accept a minor bureaucratic position to make ends meet financially. A recurring problem with alcohol (possibly obtained while he was in military cadet school) made nothing easier and eventually cost him his life in 1881 at the age of 42. His lack of formal musical training also led to struggles with his composing.  He had plenty of ideas, but with a few notable exceptions, he left many of his works incomplete, some consisting of only a few sketches. He was both blessed and cursed with an excellent memory, which led to reports of works that Mussorgsky played at the the piano that were never written down.

The most numerous works that Mussorgsky did write down are his songs for voice and piano. In this genre Mussorgsky excelled and he brought a new fusion of the Russian language and music.  Mussorgsky was a cultured, well-read man and as such could be very selective in the texts he set to music. The poet that he used for his two song cycles Songs And Dances Of Death and Sunless was his distant relative Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov.  The two impoverished men shared a small apartment together for about two years until Kutuzov married.

Sunless (also translated as Without Sun) was composed in 1874 at a low time in Mussorgsky's life. His opera Boris Gudonov had finally had its premiere early in 1874 after two other versions had been rejected. The opera was a success with the public but the critics were very hostile to the work. This, along with other setbacks and frustrations as well as his hatred of the boredom of his bureaucratic job, brought on depression that was made worse by excessive drinking.  There are six songs in the cycle that reflect Mussorgsky's mood during this time.

I want to thank Sergy Rybin for extending his kind permission to include his translation of the Russian texts:

Within Four Walls
All six songs of the cycle are highly introspective, and the slow moving piano accompaniment sets the stage for a song that conveighs the barren feelings of being alone with the four walls.

A tiny room, quiet and pleasant,
An impenetrable darkness, irresponsive darkness;
A deep thought, a sorrowful song;
A treasured hope in the beating heart;

Speedy flight of moment after moment;
A petrified glance at a far-away happiness;
Plenty of doubt, plenty of endurance.
Here it is, my night, night of solitude.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

You Have Not Recognized Me In The Crowd
This song is ostensibly written in D major as the first song, but the very first chord of the accompaniment takes the music to a different tonal landscape. Harmonies restlessly shift in this very short song that ends with a odd sounding chord that gives no feeling of resolution.

You have not recognized me in the crowd,
Your glance did not say anything.
But I felt wonder and fright
When I caught it:

It was only a moment;
But believe me, within it I re-lived again
All the delights of past love,
All the bitterness of oblivion and tears!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Over Is The Idle And Clamorous Day
Over is the idle and clamorous day;
Human life has fallen silent and a-slumber.
Everything is quiet. The shadow of the May night
Embraces the sleeping capital.

But sleep escapes from my eyes.
And by the rays of the next dawn
My imagination is leafing through
The pages of the lost years.

As if again breathing in the poison
Of spring's amorous dreams,
I resurrect in my soul the stream
Of hopes, surges, illusions...

Alas, those are only ghosts!
I am bored with this dead crowd,
And the noise of their old chatter
Already has no power over me.

Only one shadow, the only one of all,
Appeared to me, breathing with love, and,
Like a true friend of the past days,
Bent down by the bedstead.

And bravely I gave to her alone
All my soul in a silent tear,
Unseen by no one, full of happiness,
In a tear I saved for so long!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Be Bored
Perhaps Mussorgsky gave the listener a glimpse of his boring bureaucratic job in this pessimistic song.

Be bored. You were created for boredom.
Without burning feelings there is no joy,
As there is no reunion without separation,
As without struggle there are no victories.

Be bored. Be bored listening to words of love,
Immersed in the stillness of your empty heart,
Responding with a fake greeting
To the truth of an innocent dream.

Be bored. From birth to the grave
Your path is written beforehand:
Drop by drop you'll waste your powers,
Then you'll die, and God be with you...
And God be with you!
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Elegy 
Passive and passionate alternate until the ultimate ending of death is reached with the quiet tolling of a distant bell played by the piano.

In the mist the night is in slumber. Silent star
Flickering, lonely, through the veil of clouds.
Sorrowfully ringing their bells in the distance,
Herds of grazing horses.
As night clouds my changing thoughts
Fly above me, disturbed and gloomy;
There are gleams of hopes in them, which were once dear,
Which are long lost, long dead.
There are regrets in them... and tears.
Thoughts rush along endlessly;
At times, transformed into features of a loved face,
They call for me, awakening in my soul former dreams again,
At times, merged into black darkness, full of silent threat,
Frighten my timid mind with the future's struggle, 
And I hear in the distance life's discordant noise,
Laughter of the soulless crowd, the muttering of treacherous feuding,
The irrepressible whisper of life's banality,
And the grim ringing of death!..
A rising star, as if full of shyness,
Is hiding her bright face in a joyless mist,
Like my future, mute and impenetrable.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

Above The River
The text is reflected in the gently rolling thirds in the bass of the piano while the treble gives support to the melody of the singer. The contemplation of death being the only way out, whether brought on naturally or by suicide, is chilling.

Pensive moon crescent, far-away stars
Admiring the waters from a blue sky.
I look in silence at the deep waters;
My heart senses magical secrets in them.
They splash mysteriously, tender-caressing waves;
There is much mystical power in their muttering.
I hear boundless thoughts and passions...
Unknown voice, which stirs my soul,
Caresses, frightens, and evokes doubts.
When it commands me to listen -- I can't move;
When it drives me away -- I want to run in fear;
When it calls into the depths -- I want to jump without hesitation.
translation © Sergy Rybin http://www.lieder.net/

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