On Monday, the Zamir Chorale presents “Elijah Rocks!,” a program of stylistically juxtaposed Old Testament storytelling. Joshua, the post-Mosaic Israelite leader, gets two numbers: the spiritual “The Battle of Jericho” (in Moses Hogan’s arrangement); and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Jesus Navin” (the Orthodox version of Joshua’s name). But “Jesus Navin” is a bundle of contrasts all on its own, an intersection of Romantic entertainment, Jewish heritage, and the young Mussorgsky’s operatic ambitions.
Mussorgsky only ever finished one opera — “Boris Godunov” — but was always working on some project or another. His first serious attempt came in 1863, when the 24-year-old composer read “Salammbô,” Gustave Flaubert’s best-selling historical romance of ancient Carthage. The book’s scenes of battles and mobs — including a terrifying set-piece in which the Carthaginians sacrifice their children to the god Moloch — were theatrical enough; the exotic setting suited the current fashion among Mussorgsky’s intellectual circle. Mussorgsky set to work, undeterred by the lack of a commission, a prospect, or even a libretto.
That last deficiency probably scuttled the opera, but not before Mussorgsky finished six scenes, providing material he would rescue and reuse in various other works. “Jesus Navin” — first sketched out in 1874 — recycled the “War Song of the Libyans,” from Act I, and the mercenary leader Mathô’s dungeon soliloquy in Act IV. While Flaubert’s pagan pageantry might seem a long way from Old Testament reportage, Mussorgsky had planted the appropriate seed: the “War Song of the Libyans” was based on an actual Hassidic song he overheard being sung by a Jewish neighbor. (Musicologist Boris Schwarz traced the tune to a melody attributed to the legendarily ascetic 18th-century Polish rabbi Avraham ha-Malakh).
Mussorgsky’s attitude toward Jews was complicated. His letters are dotted with casual anti-Semitism; his libretto for yet another unfinished opera, “Sororchintsy Fair,” caricatures Jews in the most pejoratively stereotypical way. And yet “Jesus Navin” was one of a number of pieces in which Mussorgsky indulged a fascination with Jewish subjects and culture. (He once recounted how he witnessed services at two Odessa synagogues, “and was in raptures.”) The discrepancy escaped any self-reflection; indeed, one of Mussorgsky’s more insidious Jewish portraits (“Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle,” from “Pictures at an Exhibition,” collating images of wealthy and poor Jews, hinting that the former’s respectability is a façade) and “Jesus Navin” were set down at almost the same time. Mussorgsky, it seems, preferred the Jews of biblical history to the Jews of contemporary St. Petersburg.Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@