Vladimir Stasov

Stasov in Repin's portrait of 1883
Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906), in a portrait
by Ilya Repin, 1883

It was none other than Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) who coined the felicitous phrase by which the musical circle that crystallized around Balakirev in the early 1860s has generally come to be known: the "Mighty Handful" (moguchaya kuchka). For amongst Stasov's numerous activities (he was also an expert on history, archaeology, and the fine arts, alongside his many years of service in the Saint Petersburg Public Library), the one that was perhaps dearest to him was that of writing on music. Thus, it was in his review of the concert given on 12 May 1867 by the Free Music School (with Balakirev conducting), in honour of the delegates who had come to Saint Petersburg from Bohemia and other Slavic lands to visit the All-Russian Ethnographic Exhibition, that Stasov with his usual verve wrote the following:

"God grant that our Slavic guests forever preserve in their memory how much poetry, feeling, talent, and skill there is in this small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians!" [1]

This phrase was soon seized on by the detractors of the "new Russian school of music" (of which there were quite many to start with), in order to poke fun at the allegedly dilettantish and esoteric nature of the Balakirev circle's compositional efforts. However, the five composers who made up the core of the kuchka were proud of this designation, and, thanks to the works they were to create, the circle's often ridiculed nickname came to occupy a place of honour in the history of Russian music. With his generous enthusiasm, sparing neither time nor energy to assist the cause of national music, Vladimir Stasov played a considerable role in establishing the kuchka as one of the principal musical forces in Russia. He supported the members of this circle not just with his thundering articles, often directed against the kuchka's enemies (in particular, certain professors of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory who were disdainful of the very idea of original Russian music), but also by helping them directly in their work. Thanks to his post in the Public Library and his interest in the Russian past, he was able to provide his friends with invaluable materials—including extracts from ancient manuscripts and engravings—for the historical operas which some of them had decided to write. In many cases it was he who pointed them to the subjects for their operas: for example, on Borodin's behalf he drew up the preliminary scenario for Prince Igor, and to Musorgsky he suggested the subject of Khovanschina.

An 1864 photograph of Stasov
Vladimir Stasov in 1864

Turgenev became acquainted with Stasov at a concert given by the Free Music School in Saint Petersburg on 18 March 1867, and that was the setting for the first of the many lively conversations which they would have over the years, both in Russia and abroad, right up to Turgenev's death. In his reminiscences of Turgenev (published in 1888), Stasov recalled with great affection and humour all those disagreements which, save for very few exceptions, had constantly sprung up between them when assessing this or that work of Russian art. However, these quarrels never led to any permanent estrangement, since Turgenev for his part also took a humorous view of his eternal antagonism with the "snorter" Stasov (he styled him thus in view of Stasov's tendency to trumpet loudly the merits of Russian artists). In 1882, for instance, he observed in a letter to the writer Dmitry Grigorovich:

"That gangly fellow [Stasov] is very useful to me, since he often spares me the trouble of having to exert my own critical faculties: when he likes something, I can almost be sure in advance that I will find it repulsive, and vice versa..." [2]

Already at their first meeting, during that concert in March 1867, the cause of their immediate disagreement was precisely the significance, or otherwise, of the new Russian music. It is worth noting, though, that the works of the "new Russian school" performed at this concert weren't particularly outstanding (they included a now forgotten choral work by Musorgsky, as well as Balakirev's King Lear overture), so it isn't surprising that Turgenev didn't leave this concert with all too positive impressions. These are his comments on it in a letter to Pauline Viardot:

"Yesterday I went to a grand concert of Russian music of the future, because, you know, we too have such a thing! But it is something completely lamentable, devoid of any originality, of any ideas. It's simply a mediocre copy of what is being done in Germany. Apart from that, though, there is the arrogant self-confidence, bolstered by lack of civilisation, which is so distinctive of us Russians. Everyone is thrown into the same sack: Rossini, Mozart, and even Beethoven... Goodness!... how lamentable this all is!" [3]
An 1865 photograph of Turgenev
Ivan Turgenev in 1865

From Stasov's reminiscences, it is clear that Turgenev was not afraid to speak out his mind about the "new Russian school" in his presence. During the interval at that concert Turgenev reportedly burst out:

"What horrible music! It's a sheer nonentity, sheer ordinariness. It's not worth coming to Russia for the sake of such a 'Russian school'! You can get that kind of stuff anywhere you like: in Germany, in France, at any concert... and no one will take the least notice... But here you immediately have to start talking of great creations, an original Russian school! Russian, original!" [4]

And this is how Stasov summarised his impressions of their first meeting:

"Until that day, or, rather, until the publication of Smoke [Turgenev's 1867 novel], I had no idea of the extent to which Turgenev couldn't stand new Russian music and how little he understood of it" [5]

Certainly, when reading his letters to Stasov no other conclusion seems possible other than that Turgenev rejected the kuchka's aspirations altogether, and that, with the sole exception of Rimsky-Korsakov, he considered its members to be little more than ungifted dilettantes. For example, in a letter to Stasov of 27 March 1872, he wrote the following:

"Of all the 'young' Russian composers only two have positive talent: Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. As for the others—not as persons, mind, because they are all wonderful persons—but as artists they should all be put into a sack and thrown into the sea! The Egyptian pharaoh Rampsinitis XXIX is as forgotten nowadays as they will be within 15 or 20 years! That is my only consolation" [6]

This prediction, of course, was quite wrong and unfair, but so, in fact, is what Stasov in his memoirs said about Turgenev's alleged "backwardness". For example, he argued that Turgenev had "stopped still at Beethoven and Schumann, and refused to recognise any music after theirs", and he called the great novelist "an enemy of everything that is new" [7]. Bearing in mind that Turgenev would express the greatest enthusiasm for Bizet's opera Carmen shortly after its premiere in 1875 [8], it is clear that Stasov was himself being unjust in reproaching Turgenev for his "reactionary" musical tastes. In this context, it is worth quoting another passage from Stasov's reminiscences:

"Turgenev knew very little of the Russian school [of music], and understood even less what it was about, but his hatred towards it was very strong. He spent many years of his life in Paris, in the circle of Madame Viardot, a singer who was undoubtedly very well educated and highly talented, but who for many years had stopped still at the tastes and notions of her youth and had no preparation whatsoever to allow her to appreciate those tendencies which inspired the new Russian school. Together with her, Turgenev continued to admire just Mozart and Gluck, Beethoven and Schumann, but didn't go further than that, and had a most hostile disdain towards the Russian school, which hadn't yet received European accreditation and which he was too old to be able to appreciate by re-educating himself" [9] 

There is an element of truth in the above. Turgenev, as a result of living abroad for most of the time during the last twenty years of his life (although he would often try to spend the summer months on his estate in Russia), really did have very few opportunities to get to know the new works by the composers who belonged to the "Mighty Handful". During his occasional stays in Saint Petersburg, he would often ask Stasov to arrange for him to be able to attend a gathering of the Balakirev circle so that the members of the kuchka might perform for him some of their recent compositions. However, as Stasov explains in his memoirs, they refused for a long time to fulfil the famous writer's request because they couldn't forgive him for his allegedly disparaging remarks about Glinka in the novel Smoke (1867).

In the spring of 1874 Turgenev arrived in Saint Petersburg for a short visit, with his attitude of scepticism towards the "Mighty Handful" essentially unchanged. Still, in the Russian newspapers which he received in Paris he had read about the recent première of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov (on 8 February 1874) and how that opera had been a resounding success with the public—especially with students—but had been described as "a cacophony in five acts" by one critic and as "complete disharmony and chaos" by another, with most other critics giving Musorgsky some credit, but taking him to task for his alleged lack of taste and compositional skill [10]. These reviews had clearly awakened Turgenev's curiosity, and in two letters to Pauline Viardot from Saint Petersburg towards the end of May 1874 he noted with some regret, albeit also with his habitual irony, that the opera season was already over:

"'The singing has stopped' in Petersburg: the Russian opera has been closed, and I shall not have the pleasure of hearing those delightful cacophonies" [11]
"Yesterday, after a rather poor dinner at the hotel, I went to the Russian [dramatic] theatre (the only one which is still open, for there are no more operas—and yet I would have liked to hear the productions of our modern geniuses)" [12] 

However, it was precisely during this visit to Saint Petersburg that Stasov finally succeeded in arranging for Turgenev to meet all the members of the kuchka (except for Balakirev, who had withdrawn from social life) at a soirée in his apartment. They had evidently decided to relent and give Turgenev the opportunity after all to hear some of their works at this soirée, which was fixed for 4 June 1874. An invitation was also sent to the great pianist and founder of Russia's first conservatory (in 1862), Anton Rubinstein (1829-94), who was an old friend and admirer of Pauline Viardot. Relations between Rubinstein and the "Mighty Handful" had always been somewhat strained as a result of the hostility of Balakirev's pupils towards the 'Germanic' system of professional musical education introduced into Russia by Rubinstein. Still, it seems that for the sake of meeting Turgenev again, Rubinstein was prepared to put his head in the lion's mouth, that is to visit the apartment of Stasov, the most implacable enemy of conservatory 'academicism'! This is how Turgenev, in a letter to Mme Viardot, described the soirée that had been specially arranged for him and which took such an unexpected and unfortunate turn:

A photograph of Anton Rubinstein in 1889
Anton Rubinstein in 1889.
"Dear Madame Viardot, theuerste Freundinn, you will probably be surprised to learn, after receiving this letter, that I am still in Petersburg—in fact, I too am surprised by it, but this time I really have been forced to against my will. Yesterday I was supposed to leave for Moscow, and I had already sent my brother a telegram to warn him of my arrival, but suddenly on the street I bumped into Mr Stasov, the great critic, prophet, leader etc. of the "new musical school" in Russia! And he invited me to a soirée at his place, explaining that all these gentlemen would be gathering at his place later that day, and that A. Rubinstein was also coming specially for the occasion—from Peterhof (where he has bought a house). The "new Russian school" doesn't recognise him as a composer, but 'tolerates' him as an interpreter. I agreed to postpone my departure until the following day: I was filled by such curiosity, and then the thought of being able to tell you later about everything I would see! And so I arrived at Mr Stasov's place at 7:30 p.m.. The whole "school" was there: Mr Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and his wife, Musorgsky and Rubinstein. Rubinstein and I embraced cordially, and he asked me how you were [...] then he sat at the piano and played splendidly, albeit too loudly, Schumann's Variations sérieuses, one of Beethoven's final sonatas, and two pieces by Chopin. While he was playing, however, I suddenly felt myself seized by convulsions or colic—even though I hadn't had anything to eat! I swallowed one or two mint lozenges, but that didn't help either! The colic kept intensifying and went over from the stomach to the kidneys, and the pain was eventually so strong that I could neither stand upright, nor sit down, nor lie down—I wanted to go home, but... it turned out to be impossible! I was forced to adopt a folded position; the pain kept becoming even more acute and absurd; I had cold sweat trickling all over me, and thought that this was finally death! But no, it wasn't that yet, and it wasn't cholera either, as you may perhaps be imagining: it was simply a bout of nephritic colic [...] The sight of me in such pain caused panic to spread amongst all the musicians present; someone ran off to fetch a doctor [...] The doctor arrived, gave me some opium to swallow, and I was wrapped up in warm sheets... some two hours passed, and finally I was in a bearable enough state to return to my hotel [...] By next morning the pain had largely calmed down [...] But, anyway, what is clear from all this is that I have been forced to postpone my departure from here for another three days; that during these three days I won't be able to receive any letter from you, which for me is very distressing; and that I wasn't after all able to hear with my own ears the wonders of the "new Russian school"! [...]
     I don't know the degree of talent or genius—as Mr Stasov would have it—that these gentlemen possess, but I must say that they all behaved very courteously and kindly." [13]

It was precisely with this catastrophic dénouement of the soirée in mind that Stasov lamented in his reminiscences:

"So we weren't, after all, able to show Turgenev the new Russian operas, symphonies, the completely original song-cycle The Nursery by Musorgsky, the new Russian declamatory style. And no other opportunity subsequently presented itself to acquaint Turgenev with all this"

adding, in conclusion, that "Turgenev's hostility towards this new direction in music, so unfamiliar to him, never abated" [14].

However, as Abram Gozenpud pointed out in his book on Turgenev and music, Stasov's observation about the great writer's invariable hostility towards the "Mighty Handful" is not quite correct. Turgenev did in fact have another opportunity to acquaint himself better with the "new school of Russian music", or rather, with the operas of Musorgsky in particular. For Stasov seems to have been unaware that on the day before that of the abortive soirée described above, Turgenev had been invited to supper in the house of the venerable Russian bass Osip Petrov, another mainstay of the "Mighty Handful", and that Musorgsky had performed excerpts from his two historical operas on that occasion.

Osip Petrov

A photograph of Osip Petrov in the 1870s
Osip Petrov (1807-78)

The bass Osip Petrov (1807-78), who was one of the leading singers with the Russian opera company in Saint Petersburg and had created the role of Ivan Susanin in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, was held in tremendous esteem and affection by the members of the "Mighty Handful" (Musorgsky would even call him "Grandfather"!). After Balakirev withdrew from society in the early 1870s, the circle would often meet in the hospitable house of Petrov and his wife, the contralto Anna Petrova-Vorobyova (the first Vanya in A Life for the Tsar). Moreover, the composers of the kuchka regularly entrusted Petrov, a singer of great dramatic talent, with the main bass roles in their operas—both in private performances and on the stage. Thus, Petrov sang, for instance, the vagrant monk Varlaam in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov (performing the title-role in this opera would probably have been beyond his stamina, since by the time of its première he was already almost seventy), and Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Maid of Pskov (1873).

There were long-standing cordial relations between Petrov and Turgenev, since during that unforgettable Italian opera season in Saint Petersburg in 1843-44 Pauline Viardot had sung together with Petrov on a number of occasions (albeit only in concerts). A few days before his first meeting with Stasov at the Free Music School concert in March 1867, Turgenev attended a soirée at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at which some of Mme Viardot's Russian romances were performed, and Petrov happened to be in the audience. Turgenev described their meeting in a letter to Mme Viardot:

"Old Petrov, who also attended this soirée, talked to me about you with tears in his eyes, and assured me that not a single day passed without him thinking about you. All this, naturally, pleased me greatly, and I am telling you about it, since I am sure that it will please you too" [15]

In 1875, when the fiftieth anniversary of Petrov's début on the opera stage was to be celebrated, Turgenev, always generous and ready to help, was among those who contributed money to buy a present for the singer. Turgenev also met Petrov in Karlsbad, in the summers of 1873 and 1874, where they both went to take the waters. The most significant of their meetings, however, is that which took place on 3 June 1874 in Petrov's own house in Saint Petersburg, for it was there and then that Turgenev had the great fortune of hearing various excerpts from Musorgsky's two outstanding operas—Boris Godunov and Khovanschina—performed not just by the great bass but also by the composer himself, who was a highly gifted pianist and had a very expressive baritone voice. What actually happened at this private concert and how it induced Turgenev—contrary to Stasov's portrayal of him as an incorrigible 'reactionary' in his artistic tastes—to believe in the value of what the most original composer of the "Mighty Handful" was trying to achieve, is described in the section on Musorgsky.


  1. From Stasov's article 'Slavianskii kontsert g. Balakireva' (Mr Balakirev's Slavonic Concert). See: V. V. Stasov, Izbrannye sochineniia, 3 vols (Moscow, 1952), i, p. 173 [back]

  2. Letter to Dmitry Grigorovich, 1/13 February 1882. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, xiii/1, p. 194 [back]

  3. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 5/17-6/18 March 1867. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, vi, p. 172. With "Russian music of the future" Turgenev is ironically borrowing the phrase which Wagner's enemies had coined to describe his operas (Zukunftsmusik). Here is the original text in French: "Ce soir je suis allé à un grand concert de la musique d'avenir russe, car il y en a aussi. Mais c'est absolutement pitoyable, vide d'idées, d'originalité. Ce n'est qu'une mauvaise copie de ce qui se fait en Allemagne. Avec cela une outrecuidance renforcée de tout le manque de civilisation qui nous distingue. Tout le monde est jeté dans le même sac: Rossini, Mozart et jusqu'à Beethoven... Allez donc!... c'est pitoyable!" [back]

  4. See: V. G. Fridliand and S. M. Petrov (eds), I. S. Turgenev v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols (Moscow, 1983), ii, p. 99-100 [back]

  5. Ibid., p. 100. For some of the critical remarks on Russian music expressed by Potugin in Turgenev's novel Smoke, see the Introduction and the sections on Glinka and Balakirev [back]

  6. Letter to Vladimir Stasov, 15/27 March 1872. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, ix, p. 245 [back]

  7. See Stasov's reminiscences of Turgenev in: V. G. Fridliand and S. M. Petrov (eds), I. S. Turgenev v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols (Moscow, 1983), ii, p. 99-100 [back]

  8. Cf. his letter of 28 May/9 June 1875 to Ludwig Pietsch: "Des jungen französischen Componisten Bizet Tod ist ein großer Verlust. Wenn man seine «Carmen» irgendwo in Deutschland giebt—versäumen Sie nicht, dahin zu gehen. Es ist das Originellste, was seit Gounod's «Faust» in Frankreich erschienen ist". See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, xi, p. 89.  English translation: "The death of the young French composer Bizet is a great loss. If his Carmen is staged anywhere in Germany, do not fail to attend a performance. It is the most original work to have appeared in France since Gounod's Faust" [back]

  9. See: V. G. Fridliand and S. M. Petrov (eds), I. S. Turgenev v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols (Moscow, 1983), ii, p. 105 [back]

  10. See the article by Nikolai Solovyov (29 Jan. 1874 issue of Birzhevye vedomosti) and the note in the 31 Jan. 1874 issue of Peterburgskaia gazeta, as well as the other reviews of Boris Godunov compiled by Aleksandra Orlova in her chronology of Musorgsky's life and works: A. Orlova, Trudy i dni M. P. Musorgskogo. Letopis' zhizni i tvorchestva (Moscow, 1963), p. 336, 343 [back]

  11. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 7/19 May—9/21 May 1874. See: H. Granjard and A. Zviguilsky (eds), Lettres inédites de Tourguénev à Pauline Viardot et à sa famille (Lausanne, 1972), p. 195. This letter has been incorporated into the second Academy edition of Turgenev's Complete Works: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 30 vols (Moscow, 1978-), Pis'ma, xiii (2002), p. 72. In the original French: "«Les chants ont cessé» à Pétersbourg, on a fermé l'opéra russe — et je n'aurai pas le plaisir d'entendre ces délicieuses cacophonies" [back]

  12. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 10/22 May—11/23 May 1874. See: A. Zviguilsky (ed.), Ivan Tourguénev. Nouvelle correspondance inédite, 2 vols (Paris, 1971), i, p. 202. This letter has been incorporated into the second Academy edition of Turgenev's Complete Works: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 30 vols (Moscow, 1978-), Pis'ma, xiii (2002), p. 74. In the original French: "Hier, après assez mauvais dîner à l'hôtel, au théatre russe (le seul encore ouvert; plus d'opéras — j'aurais pourtant voulu entendre les productions de nos génies modernes)" [back]

  13. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 25 May/6 June 1874. See: A. Zviguilsky (ed.), Ivan Tourguénev. Nouvelle correspondance inédite, 2 vols (Paris, 1971), i, p. 212-14. This letter has been incorporated into the second Academy edition of Turgenev's Complete Works: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 30 vols (Moscow, 1978-), Pis'ma, xiii (2002), p. 86-88. In the original French: "Chère Madame Viardot, theurste Freundinn, vous serez bien étonnée, en recevant cette lettre, de me savoir encore à P[éters]b[our]g, et moi aussi j'en suis étonné, mais cette fois-ci, c'est contre ma volonté. Je devais partir avant-hier, jeudi, pour Moscou, et j'avais déjà télégraphié à mon frère pour le prévenir, quand je rencontre Mr Stassoff, le grand critique, prophète, chef, etc. de toute la nouvelle école musicale en Russie; il m'invite à passer la soirée chez lui — en me disant que tous ces messieurs se réunissent ce jour même dans sa maison et qu'A. Rubinstein aussi vient exprès de Péterhoff (où il a acheté une maison). — La nouvelle école ne le reconnaît pas pour un compositeur, mais elle «l'admet» comme exécutant. — Je consens à remettre mon voyage d'un jour: la curiosité me piquait, et puis l'idée de pouvoir vous raconter tout cela! J'arrive à 7h ½. Toute l'école y était: Mr. Kuï, Borodine, Rymski-Korsakoff et sa femme, Moussorgski — et Rubinstein. Rubinstein, avec lequel nous nous embrassons cordialement, me demande de vos nouvelles [...] et puis se met au piano — et joue admirablement, quoique trop bruyamment, les variations sérieuses de Schumann, une des dernières sonates de Beethowen, deux morceaux de Chopin. — Pendant qu'il joue, je sens des spasmes me prendre — des coliques; — pourtant, je n'avais rien mangé! — J'avale une ou deux pastilles de menthe mais bast! les coliques augmentent, passent de l'estomac aux reins et deviennent d'une violence telle que je ne puis plus ni rester debout, ni m'asseoir, ni me coucher — je veux retourner à la maison... Impossible! Je suis forcé de me tenir courbé en deux, les douleurs deviennent intolérables, absurdes, une sueur froide ruisselle sur tout mon corps, mais c'est la mort! — Non, ce n'est pas encore la mort, et ce n'est pas le choléra, comme vous le supposez peut-être, c'est une colique néphrétique. [...] Je répands la terreur parmi tous les musiciens présents, on court chercher un médecin [...] il me fait avaler de l'opium, on m'enveloppe de serviettes chaudes [...] deux heures se passent — je suis enfin en état de revenir à l'hôtel [...] vers le matin, les douleurs se calment [...] Le plus clair de tout ceci — c'est que mon voyage est remis de 3 jours; que pendant trois jours je n'aurai pas de vos lettres — ce qui est bien dur, et que je n'aurai pas entendu — de mes propres oreilles — les merveilles de la nouvelle école russe! [...] Je ne sais quel est le degré de talent ou de génie, selon Mr Sassoff — que possèdent tous ces messieurs — mais je dois dire qu'ils se sont montrés tous fort aimables et gentils" [back]

  14. See: V. G. Fridliand and S. M. Petrov (eds), I. S. Turgenev v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols (Moscow, 1983), ii, p. 106-08 [back]

  15. Letter to Pauline Viardot, 5/17- 6/18 March 1867. See: I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 28 vols (Leningrad, 1961-68), Pis'ma, vi, 172. In the original French: "Le vieux Pétroff, qui se trouvait aussi à cette soirée, m'a parlé de vous avec des larmes dans les yeux, et m'a assuré qu'il ne passait pas de jour sans qu'il ne pensât a vous. Tout cela m'a fait naturellement beaucoup de plaisir, et je vous le dis, parce que je suis sûr que cela vous en fera aussi" [back]