By Marina Kostalevsky
What happens when a great composer dies and leaves a major work of classical music unfinished?
Usually, the completion and ultimate salvation of such a work falls to the composer’s pupils, fellow musicians, and other comrades-in-arms.
The most famous case of such a musical rescue operation is, arguably, Mozart’s Requiem. The story of his final piece has become a fascinating subject not only for musicologists and cultural historians but also for creative artists and the general public. The thrilling legend has been passed from Alexander Pushkin, who explored the rumors related to Mozart’s death shortly after receiving an enigmatic commission for a requiem mass in his drama Mozart and Salieri in 1830; to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, following Pushkin’s text almost verbatim, wrote his one-act opera, Mozart and Salieri, in 1897; to Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which premiered in 1979 and was adapted as a film in 1984.
As we now know, Antonio Salieri, the villain allegedly responsible for Mozart’s mysterious demise, was actually the victim of a long-lived defamation campaign. He did not poison Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
However, there was never any mystery about who had worked on Mozart’s unfinished Requiem. One of the musicians in charge of the task was Franz Xaver Süssmayr, whose claim to fame is precisely that: he was the composer who completed Mozart’s Requiem. Another Austrian composer who played a role in producing the final version of the score was Mozart’s student and friend Joseph von Eybler. There is an interesting practical detail related to the story. Mozart’s widow, anxious about the final payment for the commissioned Requiem, asked Süssmayr and Eybler to finish it and thus secure her husband’s honorarium. (The question remains as to whether Constanza remunerated them for the job.)
In a similar turn of fate, one of the most popular operas of all time, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, was left unfinished when the composer died in 1924. The task of completing this opera was given to Puccini’s compatriot, Franco Alfano (1875–1954). Although during his lifetime Alfano attained a respectable professional status as composer and pianist, he is, not unlike Süssmayr, mainly known as the composer who completed what became a staple in opera houses around the world: Turandot. The general recognition of Alfano’s role did not prevent him from the criticism and casual edits of his reconstructive efforts by opera conductors and directors. Moreover, when Luciano Berio composed a new ending for Turandot in 2001 many opera lovers found his contribution to Puccini’s unfinished finale more fulfilling than Alfano’s.
Next to these tales of admirable dedication to music and friendship, the account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s completion of works left unfinished by Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin becomes a story of epic proportions.
All of these Russian composers started their musical life in the early 1860s as members of the legendary group the Mighty Five, which also included Mily Balakirev and César Cui. The only professional musician among the Five was Balakirev, the group’s organizer and leader. Their union was cemented by a common belief in the unique nature of Russian musical tradition and radical ideas about how to create new, authentically Russian compositions. But even during the music-making-in-the-garage period, three exceptional talents stood out more and more from the rest: Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov.
By the time Mussorgsky died in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov, who had joined the group 20 years earlier, had undergone a transformation: from a young naval officer with musical aspirations to a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, one of the leading cultural figures in Russia, and a prolific composer, all the while remaining a relentless student of musical art. He was always close to Mussorgsky; they even lived as roommates back in 1871. As Rimsky-Korsakov later described it in his memoir, My Musical Life:
This could well be the only example of two composers living together. . . . In the morning until noon Mussorgsky usually used the piano, and I copied or orchestrated something I had already fully thought out. By noon he would go off to his duties at the Ministry and I had the piano. . . . That fall and winter we spent in constant exchange of ideas and plans. Mussorgsky had been composing and orchestrating the Polish act of Boris Godunov and the mass scene “Near Kromy.” I was orchestrating and completing The Maid of Pskov.
After Mussorgsky’s death, his entire musical archive was passed to Rimsky-Korsakov, who now faced the challenge of saving the ideas of the late composer by reconstructing entire musical parts from Mussorgsky’s chaotic notes and occasionally from his own memory. For the next several years he dedicated an extraordinary amount of time to the restoration and preservation of the Mussorgsky oeuvre. He not only completed the opera Khovanshchina and created a new masterful—albeit controversial—version of the orchestral score of Boris Godunov but also prepared numerous vocal pieces composed by Mussorgsky for publication. Five years later, Rimsky-Korsakov made a celebrated orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky’s tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain. It’s no wonder that he noted in a letter of 1882 to his friend, the music critic Sergei Kruglikov: “It seems to me that my own name is Modest Petrovich and not Nikolai Andreevich; and that it was I who composed Khovanshchina and, arguably even Boris Godunov.”
Alexander Borodin of the Mighty Five died in 1887 without completing his longtime musical project, the opera Prince Igor. (In all fairness, it should be noted that Borodin’s main occupation was as a professor of chemistry.) And again, Rimsky-Korsakov stepped in to save an unfinished masterpiece. This time he relied even more than in the case of Khovanschina on his formidable memory and on valuable assistance from Alexander Glazunov. Unfortunately, Borodin’s working method was based on performing his opera in progress for his friends rather than writing down his music in any detail. Rimsky-Korsakov did not cease to work on Borodin’s opera until it had been finished, published, and produced at the Mariinsky Theater in 1890. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s own words, “Both Glazunov and I were pleased with our orchestration and additions.”
So, how to explain such unfailing care given by a musical genius and superb composer to the legacy of other composers? How to interpret his staunch determination to foster the works of other people? What can shed light on that kind of altruistic behavior?
Part of the answer certainly lies in Rimsky-Korsakov’s personality, which was characterized by generosity, honesty, and, in Igor Stravinsky’s words, “deeply sincere, not for show magnanimity.” Indeed, at the outset of the Mighty Five, Rimsky-Korsakov’s nickname within the Balakirev’s circle was “Sincerity.” A comparable account comes from one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s student at the Court Choral Cappella (now the Glinka Cappella). He fondly recalls how typically mischievous choirboys paid high respect to their teacher, who carried out his responsibilities with the utmost dedication and professionalism.
Another factor that arguably made Rimsky-Korsakov ready to stand up for his fellow composers is discernible from his background. The very idea of service to others was ingrained within the Rimsky-Korsakov family, which could trace its lineage back to 14th–century Russia. Furthermore, several generations of the clan served as naval officers. It is not without reason that the coat of arms of the family is adorned with images of two silver anchors. Thus, it was predictable that the parents of the then 12-year-old Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov enrolled him in the Russian Imperial Naval College in St. Petersburg. “I never thought about becoming a musician,” wrote the composer years later in his memoir, “but my dream of becoming a marine enchanted me.”
The dream of his youth was fulfilled when, six years later, naval officer Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a three-year-long journey around the world. The influence of this sea voyage on Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and artistic imagination is well known and has been studied by music scholars. However, for the purposes of this essay, it is worthwhile to point out a fundamental part of life on a naval ship: the dependence of a sailor on the entire crew and of the crew on each sailor. In that context, such notions as a sense of duty and service to others quickly lose their air of abstract morality and become practical necessity.
Yet, there is another important factor illuminating the unprecedented gift of Rimsky-Korsakov to the prestige of Russian music. It may sound paradoxical, but in his service to his fellow composers, Rimsky-Korsakov—who was not a religious man and was frank about it—followed a principle that is integral to Russian Orthodox teaching and practice.
A significant part of the intellectual life in 19th-century Russia revolved around the debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. The former perceived Russian history and destiny as unique and incomparable with other nations; the latter advocated the European way of life and hoped that Russia would earnestly adhere to Western civilization. Leaving aside the host of historical, philosophical, and religious questions relevant to this subject, it is necessary for us to point to a specific social and spiritual principle called sobornost’. This term, coined by early Slavophiles, conveys the idea of the ontological unity between nature and the living community of people as well as the need for cooperation within that community. The etymological roots of the term sobornost’ indicate multiple meanings, reflected in the verb sobirat’—translated as “to put together” or “to unite”—and in the noun sobor, understood alternatively as “cathedral” or as the church “council” or “gathering.”
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, unlike his early mentor Balakirev, had never been an apologist for Slavophilism. His dream of building a distinctly Russian school of classical music, which was shared by all his musical allies, had little to do with Slavophile ideology or politics.
However, some aesthetic and ethical ideals of the Russian Slavophile thinkers and the Mighty Five were intrinsically related. Aside from an understandable like-mindedness on the importance and special value of the folk musical tradition, the notion of sobornost’ serves as the common denominator for both groups.
The prominent Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev (1893–1988), working from the concept of all-unity as developed by Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900), Semyon Frank (1877–1950), Pavel Florensky (1882–1937) et al., even believed that the principle of sobornost’ had found its aesthetic manifestation in 19th-century Russian opera, particularly in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden. “Here,” he wrote about the opera, “all-unity and transfiguration is already achieved.”
The Snow Maiden was the composer’s own favorite opera. As he put it in a letter of 1896 to Vladimir Stasov: “ I have already written my Ninth Symphony in the form of the opera The Snow Maiden.” In saying this, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov, implied that he considered this work to be his finest musical creation. Yet the unparalleled status of Beethoven’s Ninth had been determined not only by the perfection of its composition and the richness of its musical language but also by its musical projection of utopian idealism.
In bygone days, long before “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” invaded our cell phones, the Russian analogue for the European vision of humanity living in a golden age was the community of people living by the principle of sobornost’.
In reflecting upon The Snow Maiden, it is not hard to notice that the “community” in the opera symbolizes the same utopian model. Strictly speaking, from the Orthodox point of view the term sobornost’ should not be used in relation to the opera’s pantheistic kingdom. However, Rimsky-Korsakov’s contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky did not hesitate to visualize (in several works) his own dream of the ideal society, which exists on “the beautiful planet,” outside historical Christianity.
It seems that in his musical life as well as his mortal life Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired by both the unity between nature and the living community of people, and the need for cooperation within that community. His remarkable devotion to his “musical community” strikes one as an unpretentious manifestation of a deeply Russian idea.
Marina Kostalevsky is associate professor of Russian at Bard College. She received her MA from the Leningrad State Conservatory and her Ph.D. from Yale University. She was a lecturer and teaching assistant at Yale University as well as the Yale Summer Piano Institute, and a music instructor at Rutgers University. She has also served as accompanist and music adviser at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Her publications include Dostoevsky and Soloviev: The Art of Integral Vision (1997) and articles in the Russian Language Journal, Voprosy Literatury, Russian Literature, Transactions of Russian-American Scholars, Pushkin v XX Veke, Moskovskii Pushkinist, and Dictionary of Literary Biography. She is editor of The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive (2018).