Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

performed by Nicolas Economou or below by Mikhail Pletnev (much more on recordings below)

Here we are in October, and with the first piano piece of the month’s piano-focused series, with a small tip of the hat to what we’ll be doing in November.

This work wasn’t actually in the original lineup for this month, but it was as good a time as any, and an impromptu listen to Economou’s recording of the work reminded me what a stunning, gorgeous, vivid, musical masterpiece it is, and one that has the added advantage of being inherently approachable and visual. It’s just superb.

While I maybe don’t care for much of Mussorgsky as a human, after reading up on him and his ‘mighty hand’ of composers in preparation for last year’s Russian Symphony Series (in which he made only a passing appearance), it’s clear from a piece like this that the man was a musical genius. 1874 was long before the time when people were using the Impressionist label to speak of piano works from Ravel or Debussy, but we see someone as… I dunno, pedantic? crotchety? as Mussorgsky using to breathtaking effect the imagery and textures of visual stimuli to ‘paint’ phenomenal sound worlds that revolve around the recurring yet varied theme of the promenade, which is itself a stunningly beautiful passage of music.

This piece almost defies the need for words as expression. Each section is based so clearly, so perfectly on a visual stimulus that any additional attempts to elaborate on the music could only detract from its glory. So then, what we’ll do is list the individual sections and their inspirations, and then talk about the piece as a whole. This will be largely taken from Wikipedia, but I think it goes without saying that the best way to approach a work like this (aside from just listening to it straightaway) is to follow the program: do a bit of reading on what each of the movements is depicting, maybe after a first listen or two, and see how closely it compares with your impressions. Since this is music depicting non-musical ideas, it’s likely that you won’t listen and say “oh wow that’s a chicken” or a gargoyle, but when given the imagery, it certainly fits. Non-musical ideas aside, Wikipedia explains the musical structure of the work in solid terms:

The suite traces a journey that begins at an art exhibition, but the line between observer and observed vanishes at the Catacombs when the journey takes on a different character. For all the variety individual movements display in musical invention, each springs from a kernel in the opening melody. The Promenade theme provides distinctive “cells” of two and three notes that generate themes and accompaniment figures throughout the piece.

The piece was the result of interactions among three men strongly devoted to Russian culture and developing a distinct Russian art. Mussorgsky the composer was obviously one of them, but the others were architect Viktor Hartmann, and (art?) critic Vladimir Stasov, who likely arranged the meeting of the two. Hartmann died at only 39, and this made an impression on Mussorgsky, who attended a huge exhibition of Hartmann’s art organized by Stasov, and the work was completed within about a month, in June of 1874. It is as follows:

Promenade

Originally in a meter of 11/4, it’s marked on the score now in alternating bars of 5/4 and 6/4. It’s a stately, simple, yet strong, bold theme, and we see it time and again throughout the work, with small changes throughout the work. It’s kind of the ‘great room’ or ‘hallway’ of the piece, passed by often, but changing each time. Listen for similarities not only among different appearances of the theme, but its influence on the ‘works’ themselves.

No. 1 “The Gnome”

The name is straightforward enough. It’s gnarly, clumsy, growly, uneven in many places, but vivid, as would be the imagery of a limping, lumbering gnome.

(Promenade)

No. 2 “The Old Castle”

One of my favorites. This section is in 6/8, and in G-sharp minor, after the quiet, stately promenade. It’s Medieval-sounding, melancholy, dark, but also lyrical, as if there are many stories to be told behind stone walls.

(Promenade)

Bolder, brighter and weightier, especially after the castle imagery.

No. 3 “Tuileries”

Light, playful, Vladimir Stasov refers to it as”An avenue in the garden of the Tuileries, with a swarm of children and nurses.” It’s certainly flowery and charming enough for a sunny day in the garden.

No. 4 “Cattle”

Back to a minor key, and pesante, with an oxcart, apparently in the foreground (marked at ff but fading away) as it rolls off, similar to the lumbering clumsiness of no. 1 above. I see wagon wheels and hooves rolling and clopping over cobblestone.

(Promenade)

This promenade sounds more pensive, distant, melancholic, the first promenade in a minor key.

No. 5 “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells”

Again from Stasov: “Hartmann’s design for the décor of a picturesque scene in the ballet Trilby…” which had some scene involving canary chicks, which seems humorous and terribly cute sounding. The lively, chirpy music seems to fit, but it’s also fluid and ballet-like.

No. 6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”

In B-flat minor but making use of scales similar to Jewish modes, its inspiration is apparently of “Two Polish Jews, Rich and Poor (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle)” apparently inspired by two separate portraits. While not the longest of the movements, this one has a more complicated structure than the ABA found in most others. The two themes (one for each character) are presented individually, then in counterpoint followed by a coda, but this all happens rather quickly.

(Promenade)

Hey this sounds familiar! We’re back to the promenade in its original key with that original asymmetrical meter.

No. 7 “The Market at Limoges (The Great News)”

Busy, chattery, scherzo-like, and very charming, it depicts “French women quarrelling violently in the market.” Although I’m sure it’s more charming than actual French women quarreling in almost any setting, the hurried, busy nature of the work seems fittingly to depict the hubbub in almost any metro area as the day begins and the area comes to life.

No. 8 “Catacombs”

And then death. Stasov again: “Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern.” It’s certainly a shocking change of atmosphere from what came before, and the most jarring of anything that’s appeared yet. There’s a sense of seriousness, awe, but also more tender, lyrical chords against the heavy, hammer-like blocks of sound. The second part of this movement introduces or references the promenade theme in a more delicate contrast to the opening, making no. 8 one of the longest, most elaborate movements in the work.

No. 9 “Baba Yaga”

“The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” Maybe that’s a more familiar title, and it draws on the grotesqueness of the Gnomus that began the piece, except this one is more fully-worked out. It’s a very scherzo-like movement, ominous, driving, and a bit crazy, but it winds up in the coda and leads without break into the final, glorious, amazing last movement of this stunning work.

No. 10 “The Great Gate of Kiev”

It’s everything about the promenade that was stately and solemn and awe-inspiring, blown up on a grand scale. It’s majestic and powerful and glorious, with moments of touching, delicate tenderness. It’s a soldier, a hero returning from battle to the glorious gates of his hometown, after having gone through who knows what hell. It gives me chills every time (and sometimes tears). The piano shines and gleams and thunders out the glory that Mussorgsky has written for it, and a performer like Pletnev (as we will discuss below) lets the piano roar, until the entire hall, audience and all, must be floating and weeping. It’s a hell of an epic ending for a collection of piano sketches based on quite a wide variety of images, all tied together with a common theme of (not only the same artist but) an inherent Russianness.

I have, for better or worse gotten used to Economou’s interpretation, but Pletnev’s finale is monstrous and epic. I prefer a slower, more stately promenade, so I didn’t include Richter, but Seong-Jin Cho deserves recognition for his outstanding performance in 2011 at the Tchaikovsky competition, at 17 years old, no less. Alice Sara Ott includes a promenade many ignore in a Verbier performance, and there’s Kissin in a wonderful studio recording (and at least one live on on YouTube as well).

This could be one of those works that even people who don’t (think they) have the attention span or patience for classical music could come to love, and maybe a great way to break listeners into music that doesn’t have words or actual visuals, although in some sense it does.

As much as Mussorgsky might seem like the crusty old Russian man intent on being not European in musical terms, resisting influences from the masters who came before, even refusing to touch chamber music, he was clearly a genius, an artist of high order, and this work shows his craft beyond measure. Welcome to the website, Mussorgsky. We talked a lot about you last year, but finally welcome.

I figure this was as good a place to start as any for Russian piano music. There’s much more to come, so stay tuned.

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One thought on “Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

  1. A delightful piece. The symphonic version was one of the compositions that sparked my interest in classical music at school, the other being Tchaikovsky’s Overture Solennelle 1812 and Smetana’s “Ma Vlast”.

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