by Henry Lane Hull
Earlier this month Michael Repper conducted the Northern Neck Orchestra in a wonderful performance of Handel’s “Water Music” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The latter composition is one of the iconic pieces of Russian music.
Mussorgsky, who lived from 1839 to 1881, belonged to a group of 19th-century Russian composers known as “The Five.” The others were Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakoff and Alexander Borodin. They sought to produce a distinctly Russian form of music, apart from the currents of Western European music. The Emperor Alexander III considered them extremists and banned some of their music, most notably Mussorgsky’s opera about the seventeenth-century Tsar, Boris Godunoff.
When he died, Mussorgsky was buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg, the burial site of many great Russian composers. An imposing granite marker, again distinctly Russian in design, was placed over his grave. He was a boyar, which means he was of noble birth, claiming descent from Rurik, the ninth-century founder of the future Russian state.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Mussorgsky’s music fell into disfavor, especially during the Stalinist regime. In the 1930s, the Soviet government decided to enlarge a bus terminal, which entailed taking part of the land of the Tikhvin Cemetery, specifically the section where Mussorgsky was buried. His stone monument was moved to another location, but the grave was not. It was paved over and his body now lies beneath the tarmac of a bus lane.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the return of cities and places to their original names, and with the renewed interest in Russia’s past, Putin’s government has asked the U.S. to return the body of another Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, to be buried in Mother Russia. Thus far, their efforts in this regard have failed, as well they should.
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Rachmaninoff fled to the West, ultimately to the U.S. where he became a naturalized American citizen. He gave numerous concert performances in his new homeland and died four days short of his seventieth birthday in Beverly Hills, California. As the Tsarist government never recognized the Gregorian calendar, remaining with the Julian calendar, his birthday was March 20 Old Style and April 1, New Style, thus one might say he had two birthdays. His body was taken to New York where he was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y.
The Rachmaninoff family has opposed returning his body to Russia, and the matter at present seems to be in abeyance. In his time in America, Rachmaninoff gave numerous concerts across the county, his last being in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. In 1937 he performed at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., and while in the nation’s capital he asked to be presented to the young Prince Cyril Toumanoff, whose father had been a general in the Tsarist Army and whose mother had been murdered by Bolshevik soldiers as a means of demoralizing the general. Rachmaninoff was consistently loyal to the Imperial Russian heritage, which he condemned the Soviets for destroying.
Several years ago the Northern Neck Orchestra presented a great rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2,” and now Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” both of which, along with the orchestra’s many other enthralling performances should make us very proud and grateful that we are able in this small rural area to have the opportunity to enjoy live classical music.
We are perhaps the smallest region in America to have its own full symphony orchestra, and to all who make that possible: Maestro Repper, the musicians, volunteers, board members and audiences, speaking with no authority save that of my own, but with the assurance that my words represent the views of legions of others—many thanks!