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IGOR STRAVINSKY - Orchestrations of The Song of the Flea by Modest Mussorgsky. The Song of the Flea by Ludwig van Beethoven.
Publication and Commentary by Arkady Klimovitsky.
St Petersburg: School of Music Publishing House (The Russian Institute for the History of the Arts), 2003
387 pages
ISBN 5-9500057-1-6 $150
Includes a CD of historical recordings by Feodor Chaliapin [9:23]

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The Russian Institute for the History of the Arts and the School of Music Publishing House here launch what they call ‘a major cultural project’. This is a series of publications of ‘Treasures of St Petersburg’s Musical Archives’ of which this is the first volume. What we have is a sumptuous and magnificently produced hardback book, in a very large format (342mm x 268mm), in Russian and English, and with a CD of historical recordings in a pocket on the back board. Except for the irritating absence of an index, in almost every way it is superbly done. Here we are introduced to two unknown scores by Stravinsky albeit two very minor ones. To have such a sumptuous volume devoted to what to most of us is an insignificant aspect of Stravinsky’s output is possibly a matter of regret. It would have been wonderful if it had added to our musical knowledge of something more substantial and central to Stravinsky’s life and stature. Yet as well as the detailed account of the music the background, and the flavour of the period immediately before the revolution are superbly conveyed. Just under 100 pages are facsimiles of full scores, including Stravinsky’s autographs, in colour, the proofs (of the Mussorgsky) and the final printed pages. Otherwise 164 pages are in Russian, 128 in English. The pictures are superbly reproduced.

On 28 November (10 December to us in the West) 1909 at a Siloti (Ziloti) concert in the Hall of the Noble Assembly, St Petersburg (wonderful atmospheric endpaper photographs) a concert took place on a Faust theme, including settings of ‘The Song of the Flea’ by Beethoven and Mussorgsky orchestrated by the young Igor Stravinsky. The singer was the celebrated bass Feodor Chaliapin.

Beethoven’s ‘Mephistopheles Lied vom Floh’, Mephistopheles’ song in Auerbach’s cellar (‘Es war einmal ein König’), is usually given the opus number 75 no 3, and is all that remains of Beethoven’s ambition to set the first part of Goethe’s Faust, first sketched in 1792-3 and actually written in 1809.

Klimovitsky tells us Beethoven’s intention to set the first part of Faust was reported in a Stuttgart newspaper in 1808, but the larger work never matured. Despite the inclusion of a CD with this book we are not offered a recording of the Beethoven either with its original piano accompaniment or in Stravinsky’s orchestral version.

If we remember Diaghilev’s total rejection of Beethoven it is not surprising to find that Stravinsky was at the least ambivalent about him. His early youthful reaction, as for so many, came from Beethoven being forced on him by his teachers. Klimovitsky quotes Stravinsky on his early piano sonata: ‘It was, I suppose, an inept imitation of late Beethoven’, a startling assertion and one that until now had not crossed my mind. Indeed replaying my old LP of the Stravinsky early Sonata by Paul Crossley (Philips 6500 884) the model of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky’s contemporary Rachmaninov seem to be far more in evidence. Yet a few lines later in a 1907 letter to Rimsky-Korsakov Stravinsky tells how: ‘In the evenings I relish Beethoven’s symphonies, which Katya [Yekaterina, his first wife] and I play four-handed’.

Mussorgsky’s setting of the same words is one of his last compositions and was first heard in public on 8 April 1880 when the composer was the pianist. Klimovitsky finds it ‘among the masterpieces of his vocal oeuvre, one of the supreme manifestations of his brilliant theatrical gift’. . . ‘an effective concert number for an operatic singer’.

Klimovitsky quotes Victor Zhirmunsky when he reminds us that ‘for many years Mephistopheles’ song . . . was omitted from Russian translations of Faust because of "its overtly political meaning, directed against the system of favouritism prevailing in absolute monarchies"’ which means different translations replaced the king with an old woman (‘A king lived once upon a time/ and with him lived a flea’ – ‘There once was an old woman/and she had a flea’). Mussorgsky, who was a fluent German speaker, appears to have made his own version from the German (which in the printed score has an English translation by Rosa Newmarch). Again in the Beethoven setting Stravinsky has a different version of the words in the autograph from that in the printed score. Here we are given a transliteration of the words in Russian, but no English translation of that in the autograph which is something of a handicap comparing them when reading the English version.

In a fascinating conclusion Klimovitsky finds Stravinsky on the threshold of future discoveries. Perhaps the chief interest of these two orchestrations is their signalling what is to come – for Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite were soon placing Stravinsky on the international musical stage. Here in the songs we find the fingerprints that would soon find a larger canvas, not least being his treatment of the bassoon.

The well-dubbed accompanying CD of historical recordings offers Chaliapin in the Mussorgsky, accompanied by piano in 1935, by orchestra (acoustic recording conducted by Percy Pitt, 10 October 1921), and the electrical orchestral recording by Goossens (20 May 1926), but nothing of the Beethoven. I have not been able to find a discussion of the recordings in the book, and although the Pitt is new to me, the Goossens orchestral recording of the Mussorgsky is more familiar having been reissued before (Pearl GEMMCD 9314; Conifer cassette MCHD 226). At least one of the various modern CD recordings is of the Stravinsky (Martti Talvela, Finnish RSO on Ondine ODE 945-2). The modern orchestral recording of the Beethoven by Nesterenko and Rozhdestvensky (Melodiya 74321 59058-2) is of a later orchestration by Shostakovich.

Reading the painstaking descriptions of the music given here is fascinating but of limited interest to most music lovers. However this minute treatment of Stravinsky’s two orchestrations also gives us a vivid window on a lost world. So this book is of much wider interest than the ostensible subject matter, despite its detailed musical treatment, and certainly of at least as much interest for the background history presented than for the actual music. All fascinated by Russian music and culture in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War will find much to please them, while the section on Siloti is particularly valuable. Certainly all libraries acquiring this will need to make a subject entry under the great Russian conductor-pianist. However, this wider constituency makes the lack of an index a matter of very real frustration. The glimpse it gives of the riches of Russian archives is tantalising and I look forward to future publications from the School of Music Publishing House in this authoritative format, and to the exploration of the riches in Russian Archives still denied to non-Russian readers.

Lewis Foreman

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