Mussorgsky and the art of the day job

This is going to sound terribly unromantic, but I’ve never found the image of the starving artist the least bit appealing. In the tear-jerking, gut-wrenchingly poeticized version of my life, I’m so committed to the making of my art that I don’t care (or perhaps don’t even notice) that I can’t afford shoes without holes in them, and I haven’t eaten much more than a few crusts of bread for days now. I am undaunted—and even somewhat ennobled—by the fact that no one wants to pay me fairly for my work because my soul is sufficiently nourished by the very act of creating.


Um, no thanks.


Of course, there is some precedent for this astoundingly principled artist life. A quick scan of Van Gogh’s entry in Wikipedia should give you all the material you need to realize how grim it can be. The Dutch master created over 2000 works in his life. In 2015, his painting L’Allée des Alyscamps sold for just over $66 million. During his lifetime, however, Van Gogh sold exactly one painting. Life isn’t, and as it turns out, never has been fair.


By contrast, there has been a whole slew of respectable creative types who have shrugged off the notion of art as meal replacement. In fact, many were happy to hang onto their 9-5 jobs to make the ends meet a little more readily. Kurt Vonnegut kept his job managing a Saab dealership; Philip Glass moonlighted as both a cab driver and a plumber; and Lewis Carroll worked as a math teacher at Oxford University for a good portion of his life.


The great Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky was another who managed to hang onto a bit of his more pragmatic side. One of the members of the famed group of Russians called The Mighty Five, he maintains his position as one of the formative musical minds that helped Russian music sound like it could have come from nowhere else but Russia. For nearly all of his adult life, his office hours were largely spent working as an unremarkable civil servant for the Russian government, including a stint in the Forestry Department and a short stay in the ominously named Department of Government Control.


Mussorgsky’s musical output was not large, and many of his compositions were completed and orchestrated by other composers. But in a piece like his Pictures at an Exhibition, his astounding inventiveness still catches an unchristened listener off guard. Originally conceived as a set of show pieces for a virtuoso pianist, Pictures at an Exhibition more commonly appears now in concert programs as a tour de force for orchestra in an arrangement done many years later by the master French orchestrator, Maurice Ravel. It is astonishing in its palette of sonic colours and its melodic originality. The last of the pictures in the series, The Great Gate at Kiev is as hair-raising a finale as any in the orchestral canon.


My advice to you, though far from original: don’t quit your day job.