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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky Composer

Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea (song; ed. Rimsky-Korsakov)   

Performances: 10
Tracks: 11
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Musicology:
  • Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea (song; ed. Rimsky-Korsakov)
    Year: 1879
    Genre: Solo Song / Lied / Chanson
    Pr. Instruments: Voice & Piano
Dating from August-September 1879, Modest Mussorgsky's setting of Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea is one of the last-preserved of his compositions. On July 21, 1879, Mussorgsky embarked as accompanist on a hardscrabble tour of southern Russia with aging diva Daria Leonova. Through the end of October, Mussorgsky and Leonova appeared in cities such as Poltava, Odessa, Sevastopol, Yalta, and Tver. While the tour proved ultimately a financial disappointment, Mussorgsky and Leonova reached many audiences that were totally unaware of Russian Nationalist style. The tour also allowed Mussorgsky, who'd operated in a limited geographic range all his life; to see parts of Russia he'd only dreamed of or heard about.

It was during this tour that Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea was written by Mussorgsky and first sung by Leonova. It was paired with a newly composed piano piece of Mussorgsky's entitled Storm on the Black Sea that is not now extant. Upon the conclusion of the tour, Leonova and Mussorgsky performed in the St. Petersburg salons of the Balakirev circle. Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea was an immediate sensation, according to Victor Belayev; "(it) brought an uproar of applause from the audience. Here Mussorgsky's skill in picturesque accompaniment was vividly demonstrated, and at times one could almost hear the flea jump. The audience became so enthusiastic that they all crowded up to the platform...."

Mussorgsky drew his text from scene five of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's verse play Faust, Part One. Mussorgsky utilized a Russian translation by A. N. Strugovshchikov; the proper title of this song being Mephistopheles' Song in Auerbach's Tavern (or Cellar). In the scene, Satan sings a lusty song about a king who lavishes extravagant attention towards a flea in his court. The king calls upon the royal tailor to fashion a velvet caftan and satin gown for the flea, and names the flea to his circle of advisors. Along with the flea comes his "train (of) henchmen," namely "all fleas that are." The ladies of the court have "not a minute's peace" and life at the king's court is ruined.

There is no autograph source for this song in Mussorgsky's hand; this was lost in the chaos that ensued regarding his manuscripts in the months after his death. Fortunately, Mussorgsky's friend and benefactor Vladimir Stasov had the foresight to make his own copy of this music before the original vanished forever.

From Stasov's copy the song was printed shortly after Mussorgsky died, and several orchestrations of the piano part have been prepared, including one by composer Igor Stravinsky made about 1913. Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea was most closely associated with the Russian bass-baritone Feodor Chaliapin, who made two recordings of it and included it in recitals given worldwide. Through Chaliapin, Mephistopheles' Song of the Flea has become the best known solo song among the 65 written by Mussorgsky.

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