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Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure Hardcover – 7 Nov 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 7 Nov 2013
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (7 Nov. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571245625
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571245628
  • Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 4 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 737,304 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'A fascinating story of rival ideological factions and vendettas ... Stephen Walsh has told this story superbly in a consistently gripping narrative ... Only someone with the deepest knowledge and understanding could write so lucidly, sympathetically and convincingly. I confidently predict that this wonderful book will be among the pick of the year.' (Classical Music Magazine)

Stephen Walsh is as good a guide as you could want ... his writing sound, sharp-witted and musically insightful ... Brilliant. (Sunday Telegraph)

Musorgsky and his Circle offers many original insights ... an illuminating study of the dark preoccupations and insecurities that beset the heart of Russian culture, then as now. (Norman Lebrecht Wall Street Journal)

A magisterial new study of one of the most melancholy chapters of musical history ... It constructs a richly detailed and absorbing saga of a remarkable cultural phenomenon. (Rupert Christiansen Literary Review)

Book Description

Musorgsky and His Circle: A Russian Musical Adventure, by Stephen Walsh, is an accessible and thought-provoking biography of Modest Musorgsky (or 'Mussorgsky'), creators of some of the best-known and most admired Russian music of the nineteenth century.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A curious phenomenon, discussed in all books on music history, is the appearance of a bunch of Russian composers in the middle of the nineteenth century, known under the name of Mighty Handful or The Five or Kuchka for short. Studies dedicated to this group are scarce and usually boil down to five separate biographies of composers, while paying little attention to their mutual relationship.
The present book is the first one to attempt a continuous story of the Kuchka without separate chapters on each composer. However, by doing so Stephen Walsh is in fact writing a history of Russian music in the second half of the nineteenth century without giving its main composer his due. Nonetheless, because Tchaikovsky was well acquainted with the kuchkists, he is often mentioned.
Musorgsky's name figures in the title as being the most famous and talented one. Indeed, more space is devoted to him than to any of the others. After his premature death in 1881, the exploits of the remaining four, till Cui’s death in 1918, are treated in twenty pages. In fact, the kuchka as such had dissolved in the seventies. The last fifty pages are used for notes and index.
However, no clear choice was apparently made between describing Musorgsky’s life and works and the former members of the kuchka, who did remain in close contact and were responsible for the fate of Musorgsky’s works after his death. However, telling the whole story would require a work the size of Walsh’s book on Stravinsky. The story begins with the arrival of the young Balakirev in St.Petersburg in 1855, where he met Mikhail Glinka and Cesar Cui. The first one went down in history as “The Father of Russian Music”, the second one would have passed into oblivion, had he not been a founding member of the Kuchka.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a marvellous book for anyone who has thrilled to the music of Modest Musorgsky and learn about his compatriots of the Kuchka (Balikirev, Rimsky Korsakov, Borodin, Cui...) it is a fascinating read and one that I highly recommend to anyone with a passion for Boris Godunov and the period. I am not a musicologist but I am a fan and passionate about the music of Musorgsky. Go buy the CD'S of Boris, Pictures at an Exhibition etc and buy this book thanks
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Highly informative; poorly written; badly proofread.

I get the feeling that today editors acquire, but don't edit. And I know that there are no proofreaders anymore, just spell-checkers (which don't "know" anything -- hence "there" for "their" and vice versa).

But Walsh has jammed a great deal of information into this volume and it's worth winkle-ing out.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This seems to be aimed at someone interested in music who has little general knowledge of the Russian Nationalist composers of the C19, and as such is very useful. However, at times it is a little too generalised and one wishes for more depth - but presumably the author was constrained to less than 500 pages! There are a few anomalies: for example the author does not appear to know what a Glass Harmonica is, nor appreciate(when writing about Glinka) that both Fidelio and Der Freischutz have spoken dialogue between the musical 'numbers', as most German operas of the period do, in varying degree.
The book deals not only with Mussorgsky, but also with many of the other C19 Russian composers and is an interesting read. One of the best things about it is that it is available on Kindle for a much more reasonable price than the hardback version.
There is, however, still room for books on C19 Russian music that delve rather more deeply, and with more apparent original research.
Modified Rapture!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x8dfb9ef4) out of 5 stars 2 reviews
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8deca930) out of 5 stars Thorough up to a point, but slightly biased and with a surprising omission 10 Jan. 2014
By Julian Grant - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In the last 20 years it has suddenly become cool to write about 19th century Russian Music - long dismissed as anti-intellectual, gimcrack and populist by the (usually Germanic) music scholars, writers such as Richard Taruskin, Marina Frolova-Walker, David Brown, Edward Garden and more have devoted serious study to the tradition, and put it in context, and shown how remarkable this body of music is. Stephen Walsh has impeccable credentials in this field, having written in depth studies of Stravinsky and Bartok in particular.

What one does get from this painstakingly researched book is the emergence of a body of work from absolutely nowhere, in a country with no art music tradition, a brand new conservatoire, and almost no concert series, and how, in a generation, the composers highlighted (the 'Mighty Handful' - Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Cui) forged a Russian nationalist style which sowed the seeds for an explosion of music-making. The retelling of these birth pangs makes for compelling reading, as do the roots of the ideology of creating a national style, and the frictions of this very disparate group of creators forced to appear as a united vanguard for a new world of music. I also liked how the account is chronological, switching back and forth from the creative endeavours of each composer. There are many perceptive insights into the chronic lack of basic training that is the strength and paralyzing weakness of this bunch, which resulted in several very well known torsos being left (the operas Prince Igor and Khovanshchina above all) and a sense of incredible promise, talent,and in fact, genius, frittered away and wasted.

This book is aimed for the musically literate, even if there are almost no musical examples, some of the theoretical explanations require prior knowledge of the works in hand and assume technical knowledge to follow - even so these do not dominate the book and take up only a very small part.

However, one sense that the author is not really passionate about much of this music, and the summary dismissals of old style Russian music criticism occasionally rear their inappropriate heads. While several of Musorgsky's songs are given very amplified and detailed comment, I find it strange that certain works (the 1st symphonies of Borodin and Balakirev) are glanced over, as many writers before have drawn attention to their extremely original construction, that presage the processes of Sibelius. As usual, Rimsky is condescended to - while Scheherazade may not be the most profound work in the repertoire, its narrative vitality has surely by now warranted it a place in the pantheon of great pieces. It would have been interesting to see a book like this reverse some of these hoary old received opinions.

Towards the end of the book, there is surely an opportunity lost in the chapters that deal with the influence these composers had. For example Debussy is mentioned, but only in the light of Mussorgsky, whereas the lush sound world and formal freedom of Rimsky's 'Antar' and Balakirev's 'Tamara' - both commented on in Debussy's own writings are omitted. And far more damaging, having commented on all the unfinished lives work (Musorgsky and Borodin), there should surely have been a chapter on how these composers legacies were posthumously managed, edited and published, and again, how all of this music was disseminated to the west, through Diaghilev and others - only becoming widely known (and potently influential) some 40 years after its creation.

While a critical stance is welcome, and one would not a book like this to be partisan, the impression left at times is that of a lack of enthusiasm for some of the subject, and a slight indifference to much of the material. A useful survey, but not as complete as it could have been.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8dfc9c60) out of 5 stars Russian music brought to life 19 Aug. 2014
By Robert and Jo Anna Oldani - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Excellent addition to your Russian music/history collection. Well don by a respected author.
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