Creepy castles, crazy kiddies, cursed catacombs, cattle carts, chirping chicks and a chicken-legged hut – just what was Mussorgsky taking when he sat down to compose his best-known work?! He was certainly drinking like a fish. It’s 1874 and 35-year-old Modest Mussorgsky’s got nothing to be so modest about. He’s just written a super successful opera – Boris Godunov – and is Russia’s greatest musically-untrained composer. His real job is in the civil service. But outside office hours, things aren’t so civil. Mr M is probably getting sloshed at his local or hanging out with a posse of composers called the Mighty Handful. They share Mussorgsky’s love for the Russian motherland – proud nationalists In fact, they’ve long been writing distinctively Slavic music that draws on Russian legends. So when Mr M lets on that his childhood nurse reared him on Slavic tales and folk songs, he’s in!
But he’s also super depressed. You see, his best mate, the artist Victor
Hartmann, has recently died. Just 39 he was. Hartmann… Ah Hartmann… Everyone loved Hartmann. His art was all about Russia’s heritage just like Mussorgsky’s music. And when a mutual friend opens a memorial exhibition to him Mussorgsky is deeply moved. Through music, he pledges to immortalise his dead friend. If it helps Mussorgsky overcome his own grief, all the better. So he writes a piano suite inspired by Hartmann’s paintings. It’s written in a feverish frenzy and not all’s plain-sailing: “so many sounds and ideas hang in the air – I am gulping and overeating them, and and can barely manage to scribble them down on paper”. Glutton… Mr M completes the score within just 20 days in June 1874. Yes, just 20 days! He then shows it to some friends who are super-harsh and totally unsupportive gits to them, it’s all bewildering novelty and gimmicks. So a dejected Mr M sets the whole project aside… The piano suite isn’t published until 1886 five years after Mussorgsky’s early death brought on by drink and depression. But almost immediately after publication, composers start orchestrating it. For them, something more than solo piano is needed to bring out the piece’s brilliant colours and pictorial qualities. So we
get versions by Tushmalov-Golovanov, Arthur Wills and Henry Wood and Lawrence Leonard, Leonardis Leonardi, Leopold Stokowski Ashkenazy, Toscanini! Jazz versions, folk versions, heavy metal versions and a progrock version by Emerson, Lake and Palmer! And Michael Jackson! And the Sugarbabes! OK, maybe not the Sugarbabes. But the most famous version is by Ravel. Nowadays we hear Ravel’s orchestration much more often than Mussorgsky’s original piano suite. The piece opens with a grand promenade. This promenade theme returns throughout. It evokes the viewer roving from picture to picture in the exhibition. Now Mussorgsky was fat. I mean, really fat. Like 300 pounds fat. But he must’ve a fast walker because the promenade’s played at an allegro pace – meaning ‘fast’ rather than ‘andante’, which is technically walking speed. Mussorgsky’s particular clever with the rhythm too; it’s irregular, suggesting an art-lover strolling through hesitantly, here and there thrown off-balance by a work that has attracted his attention.
In fact, every time this promenade theme reemerges, the mood is different. This implies the impact on the viewer of a work just seen or glimpsed at in anticipation. The melody revolves around five notes. It’s called a ‘pentatonic scale’ and is characteristic of much folk and gospel music. Hallelujah! The first picture’s based on a lost Hartmann drawing. A toy nutcracker in the shape of a gnome. You stick a nut in his mouth to crack it. Honest; they’ve got gadgets for anything these days. And the music’s just weird man. I mean weird. Sinister, with awkward leaps and lurches, slippery melodies and savage growls. The music stops and starts aggressively. In Ravel’s orchestration, the xylophone clacks along to suggest the busy gnome pottering awkwardly on deformed legs. Freaked out? You bet. The second picture catches our eye. It’s based on Hartmann’s sketch of a medieval castle. Within this romantic setting, a troubadour
sings to his beloved. And Ravel gives voice to this plaintive folk-song with a solo saxophone. If Mussorgsky’s melody strikes us as exotic, Ravel’s choice of instrument here is just as unusual. During the 1920s when Ravel orchestrated the piece, you would have heard the sax much more often in Western popular music than in a classical orchestra. Another picture. This time based on Hartmann’s lost picture of Paris’s Tuileries Gardens. Squabbling children scurrying
mischievously around their gossiping nannies. The music sparkles and the
whining woodwinds suggest the naughty kiddies taunting each other:
“nyaah-nyaah”. Get it? Quick-fire change of scene. A Polish ox-cart lumbers through the Jewish ghetto a picture painted during Hartmann’s visit to Poland. A tuba sounds as the cart’s enormous wheels approach with earth-shaking volume. It then recedes into the distance until out of earshot. But what’s this? Another light and frothy picture. This time based on Hartmann’s costume designs for a ballet. Fluttery woodwinds and piccolo represent a group of theatre pupils. They are scampering about on stage playing the part of hatching chicks. And then back to the Jewish ghetto. The next movement is based on two pictures that Hartmann gave Mussorgsky after his Polish visit: a rich Jew called Samuel Goldenberg and a poor Jew called Schmuyle. The rich Jew’s theme comes first; it’s all commanding strings and harmonies drawn from Jewish
music. The poor Jew replies with a whining muted trumpet. They enter into argument
battling for attention. This is followed by a bustling marketplace in Limoges. Inspired by Hartmann’s depictions of the market on his travels, Mussorgsky portrays a raucous dispute between rival vegetable vendors. It’s all furious music. But now… the most mournful and introspective picture yet. It’s based on Hartmann’s watercolour of the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris. Stark blocky chords evoke the grandeur, stillness and echo of the subterranean chambers. Brass reverberates within the eerie gloom of the catacombs. And this is where things get strange… The following Promenade isn’t simply a linking device as before – it’s shadowed by the blackness of the picture just seen. It’s as though we have now entered into that picture, descended the catacombs and cast our lamp onto the skulls. It’s at this point – Mussorgsky hinted – that he most intimately communes with his dead friend’s soul. All descends to a ghostly whisper. Creepy right? But hey – let me ask you this: what do you get when you cross a witch
with a wooden hut and stick a pair of chicken legs on it? Why – Baba
Yaga! Russia’s favourite bone-chomping monster! According to Russian folklore, Baba Yaga llived deep in the woods in this grotesque hut in which she flies around in search of prey. We know that Hartmann made a sketch of an elaborate clock in the shape of Baba Yaga’s hut. We also
know that Hartmann had a fetish for dressing up as the witch herself at
fancy dress parties. I know, go figure! And Mussorgsky’s imagination runs
riot here. The music conjures a phantasmagorical picture of Baba Yaga
soaring through the skies. The final picture is titled the Great Gate of Kiev. This was inspired by Hartmann’s design for a gateway. It was commissioned to commemorate a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar. Mussorgsky returns mournfully to some heartfelt nationalism. We hear solemn themes redolent of
Russian Orthodox prayer. But this is soon resolved with a monumental
rendition of the promenade – it’s all clanging bells and a searing tamtam.
We imagine Mussorgsky processing through this great gate of paradise
to meet his dead friend in an ultimate act of catharsis. But here’s the thing. Take a look at Hartmann’s designs for the gate. Like his other paintings, it’s a little disappointing compared with Mussorgsky’s music; a pretty conventional archway dotted with a few loiterers and a rickety horse-drawn cart.
Nothing triumphal in this… In fact, Hartmann was a pretty unremarkable artist, with few surviving works or people who could recall his name today. And in the end that gate was never built. So the irony is that this spectacular piece no longer functions as a memorial to Hartmann. It’s rather a memorial to Mussorgsky who created something eternal: something far more exotic, magical, and romantic than Hartmann did. well that’s it. Thanks for watching. Don’t
forget to listen to the piece in full. Follow our channel. Leave your feedback and, most importantly, enjoy classical music!