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.