Friday, May 18, 2012

Perfect Pictures: Mussorgsky at an Exhibition

This weekend’s concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony features one of the great sonic experiences of the modern concert hall, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Stuart Malina conducts a program that will include Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Starburst” and also Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with returning guest artist, Karen Gomyo.

Performances are Saturday/8pm and Sunday/3pm at the Forum and Stuart will be giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

You can hear excerpts from a few different performances and recordings (scroll down) along with some of the artwork that inspired them.

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Poor Mussorgsky.

Think about it: largely self-taught, Modest Mussorgsky had serious doubts about his musical talents (even his friends wondered about him) and had a job he hated (working in a drudge job in the civil service to make ends meet) and became an alcoholic. In fact, his older brother had changed the spelling of their family name, adding the “g” so it wasn’t “Músorsky,” from the Russian word “músor,” meaning “rubbish” (though he sometimes jokingly signed letters to friends “Musoryanin,” garbage-dweller).

Yet he wrote some music that is considered some of the greatest of Russian music – the opera Boris Godunov, the tone-poem Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition.

But wouldn’t you know it, for most of the century after his death, we didn’t even know his music the way he wrote it. These pieces were published and performed in versions by other composers!

Boris was re-orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff and later re-orchestrated by several other composers including Dmitri Shostakovich.

It’s hard to say what the original version is of Night on Bald Mountain is because there were so many different attempts to use it (from an opera, there’s a version with choir) – but still, we know it (even today) in Rimsky-Korsakoff’s re-orchestration.

And Pictures is so often heard in symphony concerts in an orchestration by Maurice Ravel, people are surprised when they hear some pianist is performing it and wonder if they’re doing a transcription of it.

It’s only in the past thirty years or so operas like Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina are being heard as he wrote them – well, one of the ways he wrote them. Part of the problem, if the work was ever finished, very often there was no definitive version and often changes were made to an opera (add a scene, drop a scene, put them in a different order), it’s hard to know what the composer really wanted or if his initial idea was really the best one.

Because he was untrained – though Balakirev might argue with you on that one – his friends considered his orchestration odd or weak and most of all very dark. His harmonies (since he never studied harmony – the language of chords and how they function) seemed crude to them and audiences cringed because not only were they unfamiliar, they seemed… well, primitive.

And since Rimsky-Korsakoff was a brilliant orchestrator, he took his friend’s darker music and made it brilliant, too. Even today, I admit I miss the brilliance of certain scenes in the traditional Rimsky versions of Boris or Bald Mountain when I hear them, but there is also a raw power to them that, somehow, Rimsky didn’t understand.

The “problem” with Pictures, unfortunately, was that it was viewed as a piano piece screaming out to be orchestrated!

After all, how could any single pianist make as great a noise as a stageful of a hundred musicians?

Maurice Ravel was not the first one – or the last – to have turned Mussorgsky’s collection of piano pieces into an orchestral tour-de-force. Ravel, like Rimsky (who inspired him), was a brilliant orchestrator and had a knack for turning piano pieces – especially his own – into brilliant orchestral works that didn’t sound like transcriptions.

But I think Ravel succeeds because he realizes Mussorgsky’s original is not intended to be a typical piano piece – and after his version brought Mussorgsky’s name into the concert hall, there was little need for anyone else to bother transcribing them again. And those that do are always compared (unfavorably) to Ravel.

We tend to forget that Mussorgsky’s raw talent had something to do with that.

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Viktor Hartmann
In 1870, Modest Mussorgsky met Viktor Hartmann, an artist and architect who had many of the same views about the intrinsic value of the “Russian” in Russian art as the composer had.

By this time, Mussorgsky was in the midst of writing and revising (and re-revising) Boris Godunov which was to be rejected several times between 1867 and 1872. The influential critic, Vladimir Stasov, was interested in both of them and probably had something to do with bringing them together – perhaps with the idea of some collaboration.

Then, in 1873, Hartmann suffered an aneurism and died at the age of 39 and his death greatly saddened Mussorgsky, himself only five years younger.

Stasov helped organize an exhibit of some 400 of Hartmann’s drawings in a memorial retrospective that opened in February of ’74. Mussorgsky, of course, attended and was much affected by seeing his friend’s work.

He began composing a suite of pieces for the piano inspired by ten of these drawings. In June, Mussorgsky wrote to Stasov, “Sounds and ideas float in the air and my scribbling can hardly keep pace with them." In six weeks, it was finished.

He called it “Hartmann.”

I’m not sure when the title became “Pictures at an Exhibition” but despite being written at white-heat in June, 1874, it wasn’t published until 1886 – and Mussorgsky had died in 1881.

And true to form, it appeared in print in a version “corrected” by Rimsky-Korsakoff. It wasn’t until 1931, the 50th Anniversary of the composer’s death, that his original version was made public.

Ravel’s orchestration was made in 1922.

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But it’s not just a collection of pieces, each one describing a different painting.

The work opens with what he called a “Promenade” which recur in different guises between several of the movements. This represents the gallery visitor viewing the paintings, wandering through, looking at and reacting to the different works, perhaps remembering his friend.

Mussorgsky in 1870
As Mussorgsky told Stasov “My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes.”

In some of them, we can hear a reminiscence of (or a reaction to) the picture we just saw and it ends, often inconclusively, with a musical premonition of the next one – walking from picture to picture, looking, thinking, remembering.

Eventually, the promenades disappear – but toward the end, this theme (representing the composer) becomes part of the piece, in the one called “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in the language of the dead)” before being transformed into the triumphant conclusion of the “Great Gate of Kiev.”

In this sense, at least for the composer, the experience becomes interactive – he remembers his friend and essentially joins him through this “language of the dead” and perhaps realizes something like this:

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He whom we have loved and lost
Is no longer where he once was:
He is now wherever we are.
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(To be honest, I have no idea if Mussorgsky knew that quote which I’ve only ever seen once, attributed to St. John Chrysostomos, the Russian orthodox saint who composed the text for the Orthodox Christian liturgy.)

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Most people I know have shared that uncomfortable feeling I had when I first saw copies of the pictures that inspired “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

“That’s it?!”

These stiff, fussy, almost garish drawings inspired this music?

It’s not so much that the pictures themselves fail to “reach” me but that they seem to be so much the opposite of the music they inspired which has that wild, barely containable energy and emotionalism that made Mussorgsky’s music so questionable to his friends.

Music inspired by these drawings should be square-cut and ornate, strict meters and standard phrase patterns, little miniatures of little value – like the salon pieces that were the Standard Operating Procedure of Russian Music before the likes of Rachmaninoff and Skryabin.

And Mussorgsky wrote melodies spiraling along in measures of 5/4 and 7/4 within phrases that didn’t care if they were three measures or five measures or more, unlike the usual classical 4+4+4+4 in 4/4.

But curiously, when I look back at it, those metric irregularities are in the Promenades – Mussorgsky’s self-portraits. The paintings themselves are often more straightforward in the way they’re put together. Maybe in this sense, he’s making a distinction between his own personality and his friend’s?

In a way, it doesn’t surprise me that of those 400 drawings Stasov gathered into his retrospective of Hartmann’s life-work, few of them survive. We’re not even sure which of them might have inspired certain of Mussorgsky’s pieces.

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Mikhail Pletnev conducts the Russian National Orchestra in the opening of Pictures: starting with the Promenade through the Gnome, the second Promenade and the Old Castle.

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After the initial Promenade with its opening solo line (the individual viewer) which Ravel so brilliantly turned into a trumpet solo, we meet a gnasty little Gnome. This was presumably a costume design; the original is lost.

The Old Castle by Viktor Hartmann
“The Old Castle” is based on a watercolor of an Italian palazzo. Stasov added the comment about “before which a troubadour sings a song” which, again brilliantly, Ravel turned into a solo for the saxophone.

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Ion Marin & the National Philharmonic of Russia from the promenades with “Tuileries,” “Bydlo,” the “Ballet of the Chicks,” “Goldenberg & Shmuyle” to “The Marketplace at Limoges.”

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In “Tuileries,” with its comment “dispute between children at play,” we are in Paris, in the gardens of the palace – perhaps the children are arguing over who gets to play with the toy next before the run off down a path and out of sight.

“Bydlo” or the “Polish Ox Cart” comes rumbling up from the distance and passes by with the power of a slow-moving train before receding into the distance. In Mussorgsky’s original, it begins loud like it’s right in front of us but Rimsky-Korsakoff (and Ravel who used his edition) starts it softly, in the distance. Yeah, I have to admit, that is an improvement…

"Chicks in their Shells"
The “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (or “of the Unhatched Chicks”) wins the prize for cuteness though it’s also fiendishly difficult to play (in both piano and orchestral versions). The inspiration is a costume drawing for a production of a ballet called “Trilby” (after the evil magician) with music by Julius Gerber and choreography by the great Marius Petipa. Hartmann did the décor. This ballet was originally for canary chicks to be danced by children.

Considering Ravel’s love for mechanical toys and clock-work mechanisms (his father, after all, was an inventor and engineer), this is, however daintily, one of the more brilliant successes in the orchestral version: listen to the percussion sounds imitating the turning of wheels and gadgets in a mechanical doll. As Ravel held up a mechanical toy bird (was it named "Zaza"?), he said to a friend, “Listen – I can hear its heart beating!”

The next picture may actually be a pair of pictures or a conflation of a whole series of pictures. Mussorgsky called it “Two Jews.” Stasov added the distinction “One Rich, One Poor.” I think it was Rimsky who described the rich one as “Samuel Goldenberg” and the poor one as “Shmuyle.”

Hartmann spent a while traveling through Poland – for instance, the earlier ox-cart is specifically a Polish one – and around the town of Sandomierz where he painted a number of portraits of its Jewish inhabitants. While some of these survive, none of them is specifically identified as Goldenberg or Shmuyle.

In Mussorgsky’s musical portrait, the rich one is evidently deep in prayer, his long melodic line full of exotic inflections that bring to mind the singing of a cantor. (I loved how, in the middle of the first rehearsal last night, Stuart stopped the orchestra to work out a detail in this passage and said, “and here – this is the mother that made my grandmother cry.”)

The poor Jew is nervous, perhaps a beggar nattering at the crowd for alms. Ravel turns him into a muted trumpet – again, brilliant. You can imagine the rich one passing him in the street for, at one point, we hear their music together.

Back to France for the marketplace at Limoges, a city in central France. Stasov describes this one as “French women quarreling violently in the market.” Mussorgsky had originally added several lines of French text describing the women’s discussion as “the great news” and then withdrew it. This is a great chaotic scene where fragments of different voices are flapping about like a gathering of gossips enjoying the latest news and adding their two cents. At the end, I can imagine seeing nothing but wagging tongues and fingers. Today, we might call it “The View.”

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This is from Claudio Abbado’s recording with the London Symphony, playing “The Catacombs” and “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua.” The artwork is actually Viktor Hartmann’s watercolor.

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Limoges collapses into the next picture – the shock of two contrasting paintings side by side. From the lively market place with its gossips, we suddenly find ourselves in the dark catacombs underneath the streets of Paris. In the original painting, Hartmann is one of the men exploring by the light of a lantern. In his manuscript, Mussorgsky wrote this in the margin: “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within." The second section, perhaps from a second painting, is inscribed in Latin “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in the Language of the Dead)” and we hear the Promenade Theme (the viewer) now communing with the dead artist in the music.

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Here is Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar (Youth) Orchestra of Venezuela in a concert in Salzburg in 2008 with the conclusion of Pictures at an Exhbition: Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev.

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The last two are perhaps the most famous, by themselves, and the most brilliant. Rare is the pianist who can bring these off without bringing the instrument to its knees.

Clock: Baba Yaga's Hut on Fowl's Legs
Hartmann designed an intricate, ornate clock inspired by the Russian fairy-tale of Baba Yaga, the old witch who flew through the skies in her mortar-and-pestle (not just a broom), collecting the souls of children, and who lived in a strange hut in the midst of the dark forest (but not made out of candy like the one in Hansel & Gretel). This hut was built on chicken’s legs: when an unwanted visitor, the hut would rise up on its legs and the visitor could not enter. Somehow, that’s supposed to be frightening.

Actually, I think Hartmann’s clock, though representative of the fairy tale, is also a bit silly, compared to the music. The music is, without doubt, frightening. I can’t imagine Stravinsky’s “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird without it.

Mussorgsky also adds the final detail: Baba Yaga flying away in her mortar.

Apparently she slams into the Great Gate of Kiev because there isn’t even a pause to catch your breath. The sudden change from horror to grandeur is breath-taking.

The Bogatyr Gate, Kiev
The “Bogatyr Gate in the City of Kiev” was a drawing Hartmann made for a proposed archway (like those arches the Romans built to celebrate great events) to mark the spot where Tsar Alexander II survived an assassination attempt (only narrowly – later, he would not be so lucky). For some reason, the gate was never completed which was a disappointment to Hartmann who thought his design was some of his best work.

The music this inspired in Mussorgsky, however, may well be some of his best work, certainly some of his grandest, considering the Coronation Scene in Boris (though, originally, his was a very dark concept given its treacherous underpinnings and grim historical outcome).

Russians love their bells – there is a whole system of “bell-ringing” that is uniquely their own – and you hear this reflected in both Boris Godunov’s Coronation Scene and the ending of “The Great Gate of Kiev,” as the finale of Pictures came to be known. Even on the piano, it’s a very impressive sound but who can stand up against a whole orchestra bashing away on these great tolling chords, the chimes chiming and the gong bombulating to reverberate through your memory down into the future?

1874 was a banner year for Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov was finally performed, he was beginning work on a collaboration with his friends of "The Russian Five," an opera that was a kind of Russian answer to Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung called Mlada (which was to include another choral version of his Night on Bald Mountain), and he started another vast operatic project, Khovanshchina, about the uncertain times before Peter the Great became Tsar of Russia.

But already his friends of "The Might Handful" - the Russian Five that included Mily Balakirev, its guiding light and the only person Mussorgsky ever knew as a teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, Alexander Borodin, and the usually forgotten and easily overlooked Cesar Cui - was beginning to disintegrate - "soulless traitors," he called them, complaining to Stasov.

While he had been something of a dandy as a young man and as a cadet before he met Balakirev when he was 19, the teenaged military life fostered a life of partying and heavy drinking. Through most of his life he was able to withstand the temptations, despite his career beginning to take off and perhaps because of his dead-end job and a sense of abandonment by his friends, he took to drinking again and became an alcoholic. He was able to keep his job only because his music-loving superior was willing to overlook his frequent absences and illnesses.

Repin's portrait
But in 1880, only six years after composing his Pictures, he lost his job and was reduced to begging from his friends. He suffered four seizures in quick succession and died in 1881 in a hospital a week after his 42nd birthday. The famous portrait of him by Ilya Repin (see left) was painted just a few days earlier.

It is a very haunting reminder of the delicate balance between art and reality.

- Dick Strawser

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