Mussorgsky – Hopak from the opera The Fair at Sorochynsk

by Max Derrickson

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky    (b Karevo, Russia, March 4, 1839; St. Petersburg, March 16, 1881)

Hopak from the opera The Fair at Sorochynsk

The miracle of Russian Romantic music is that after roughly 1,000 years of cultural isolation, the last half of the 19th Century produced some of the greatest musical treasures the world has ever known.

The reasoning is essentially this: for centuries, the Orthodox Church-State of the vast landof Russia kept its people isolated from the evils of the West, shut off from its music, literature – anything “new”.  The only music permitted by the Patriarchs was chant, and basically unharmonized at that.  It was by scholarly accident, in fact, that in the mid-1600’s harmony within the chant was introduced, yet instruments in the church were still forbidden.  And not until about 1700, after Peter the Great’s reforms took hold,
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This isolation persisted even into the lives of the greatest Russian composers.  For example, at age 21 in 1861, Tchaikovsky did not know that one could change keys within a piece, nor how many symphonies Beethoven had written.  And Mussorgsky, already an accomplished pianist at age 22, did not know who Robert Schumann was, had never heard a symphony, nor any other classical music besides some Italian opera arias arranged for piano.  Likewise, this isolation that exploded into creativity during the second half of the 19th Century explains why the two major conservatories inRussia, inSt. Petersburg andMoscow, did not open until 1862 and 1866, respectively.

Literature, and interestingly, opera, in Russia pushed forward a little ahead of symphonic music, but it too flourished mightily in the 1800’s, specifically, the writings of Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852), Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837), Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) and Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881).  Their heroes were often times the common fellow, the serf, or the tragic and pitiful, brought to heights of glory in their own right; these authors’ styles, especially Pushkin’s, pioneered using vernacular speech in their prose, and authenticated Russian life.  Their works heavily influenced the creative minds of the composers who followed.  Mussorgsky, particularly, found a voice in both Pushkin and Gogol’s writings, and Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov, follows Pushkin’s verse-novel closely.  Tchaikovsky, likewise, wrote his great opera Eugene Onegin after Pushkin.  For authors and composers alike, these were works that celebrated being Russian above all else.  But it was Gogol’s short story from his collection of Ukrainian stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, that was the subject of Mussorgsky’s last operatic endeavor, The Fair at Sorochynsk (1872 – 1880, left unfinished), from which comes his wonderful Hopak.

The Fair is a comedy about Ukrainian peasants who, through several scenes of buffoonery and misunderstandings, end the opera up by marrying off a young couple and dancing a hopak in celebration.  The dance itself dates far back in the Ukraine,
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It’s an incredibly fun piece to hear.  So beloved was the Hopak that Rachmaninoff himself, the great pianist, made his own wild version of it and he played it often in recitals.  From its first measures where the fiddles saw away on “open” strings, through its fast-paced conclusion, and all the off-beat syncopations in between, Mussorgsky reminds us of why he is often called the most “Russian” of them all.
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