Work: Songs and dances of death
About This Work
It is a mistake to regard all of Rimsky-Korsakov's editing of the works of Mussorgsky as blasphemous defilement. There were extenuating circumstances. First, Rimsky believed he was genuinely performing a service for his friend. They had lived
together in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Second, Rimsky, like nearly every friend Mussorgsky had, considered him mentally feeble, an image his alcoholism did nothing to contradict. Third, without Rimsky's editing, most of Mussorgsky's works would not have entered the repertoire. Fourth, Rimsky performed the same editing job on his own music, re-writing and re-orchestrating most of it during the 1880s, the same period that he was re-writing and re-orchestrating Mussorgsky's music. Fifth, editing the works of a dead composer was not an action which Rimsky perpetrated only on Mussorgsky; he and his pupil Glazunov also edited -- and re-wrote and re-orchestrated -- Borodin's opera Prince Igor.
That having been said, however, the case of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death is an entirely separate issue. That Mussorgsky would have orchestrated them himself had he lived is nearly certain. But that he would have re-composed the Songs and orchestrated them in a pallid and lifeless manner is as nearly certain. Yet Rimsky and Glazunov did re-compose and orchestrate the Songs -- Rimsky-Korsakov did Serenade and The Field Marshal while Glazunov did Trepak and Cradle Song -- and in every case they blunted the songs, planing down the melodies and smoothing over the harmonies until the works are a ghost of their former morbid glory.
For many years, Rimsky and Glazunov's orchestral version of the songs was the one most frequently performed; indeed, even so staunch a Mussorgsky partisan as Boris Christoff recorded the Songs in Rimsky and Glazunov's edition as late as the '50s. That version has been superseded by Dmitri Shostakovich's orchestration of the work. Shostakovich's scoring sounds little like the work of Mussorgsky -- it sounds like Shostakovich's own orchestral voice through Mussorgsky -- but, unlike Rimsky and Glazunov, Shostakovich respects the integrity of Mussorgsky's music and his edition has now become the preferred version.
-- James Leonard
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