Pictures at an Exhibition – Lecture & Performance (Vadim Monastyrski)


Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky – “Pictures at an Exhibition”. One of the most popular pieces in the pianist’s repertoir. And I believe, one of the most popular pieces
for the listener. Wherever I play, – and I’ve been playing these “Pictures”
for many years now – in any country of the world, people know this piece, they love and adore it. It is recognizable.
Every housewife, you might even say, knows it. Such a composition the eminent Mussorgsky has written. To this day I can’t stop wondering and finding
new details and nuances in this piece, those that earlier I have somehow skipped,
misheard or haven’t thought through. This is an endless wealth of sonic capabilities
of the piano, of its stylistic capabilities, of the texture-wise solutions, of the sound in
general, of finding a deeper imagery. All this – is why, returning again and again
to this piece, I keep wondering about it, amazed by its greatness and profoundness. Although Mussorgsky was never a piano composer. If we begin to recall what he has written for piano,
it would just be small programmatic pieces like “Seamstress”, “The Nursery”, “Nanny and I”… Such pieces of psychological character. Like small sketches, small portraits. Already at that time Mussorgsky has shown himself
as a master of portrait, a master of sketch. He could, using but a few strokes, define a character,
determine a direction of thought. This man is such, and that one is another.
This picture is such… Meaning that he was a big professional of
programmatic music. Sounds a little orderly, but that’s how it was. And so, Mussorgsky. He was a descendant of Princes of Smolensk in Russia. And Princes of Smolensk were like Rurikids (a dynasty). Meaning that you were set from the childhood
for a destiny of a military man. You must go to the military school,
finish it, become an officer. And then you begin your career.
There was no alternative. And he does exactly that.
He enrolls to the School of Ensigns, graduates… By the way, his first published piece was
“Porte-Ensegne” (Polka) – a military piece. He graduates, becomes an officer.
And starts to play as a pianist is salons. Incidentally, as a pianist – since his youth – he studied with a great pedagogue Anton Gerke. Who in his turn was a student of John Field. He (Mussorgsky) has received a very good education. And so while performing as a pianist, he accidentally
makes acquaintances with amature musicians who have close ties with Mily Balakirev.
Who take lessons from him in composition. He becomes very curious. He comes there and finds himself surrounded by
something completely new. A Russian spirit. They are all under the impression of Glinka’s art,
they are studying Russian songs – Russian peasant songs. Not romances, not those of urban content, but
namely those coming from the cradle of Russian land. And Balakirev infects everyone with this Russian spirit. And Stasov – great music critic of the
time – he was their ideological leader. He believed that at the basis of everything must be the
Russian peasant song, the origins of Russian folk music, And of course – opera. Even so he loved Liszt, loved the music of Romantics.
Especially programmatic Liszt, of course. By the way, this group, part of which Mussorgsky
becomes, following Stasov’s initiative eventually receives the name “The Mighty Handful” (“The Five”). Out of this mighty handful come three Russian geniuses.
Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky. These are the three pillars of Russian music.
Who still are a decoration of Russia today. Stasov acquaints Mussorgsky with an architect
Viktor Hartmann. And they become closest friends. Hartmann is preoccupied with the idea
of creating new Russian architecture. He is working not only on architecture, but also
on theatrical productions, he is painting, making sketches for costumes… He is a man of a wide spectrum, I would say. They become very good friends. And then, there’s a tragedy. At the age of 39, Hartmann suddenly dies. Mussorgsky was under great sorrow, great woe. They were so close, that Mussorgsky felt it with all
his heart – the loss of the closest person to him. Stasov, who worshipped Hartmann, decides
to arrange an exhibition in his honor. And so, in St. Petersburg, at the Academy of Fine Arts, – in my city, where I was born; where I was raised
and where I received my education; I can even imagine this place right now… At the Academy of Fine Arts he arranges
an exhibition of Hartmann’s works. There are over 400 works. Different ones.
These are paintings, graphics, sketches of costumes, theatrical productions, architecture projects… And of course, Stasov invites Mussorgsky to this exhibition. Mussorgsky comes to the exhibition, and immediately he
comes up with a plan to create pictures – musical pictures. And after a while he already plays them to
this company of Mily Balakirev. And then, in the course of three weeks he creates
the entire cycle. Just imagine – such a genius composition appears in three weeks. Albeit, it wasn’t published during the
composer’s life, unfortunately. Only five years after his death it was published. In this piece Mussorgsky is an innovator in all respects. First of all, this is authentic Russian music. We said that Scriabin is a Russian composer, Shostakovich… Yes, they are all Russian. But this closeness to Ruthenia, to Russian origins, that
Mussorgsky possessed, – as we say, of flesh and blood – neither Scriabin, nor Shostakovich had. Although Shostakovich has learned much from Mussorgsky. And so, he writes this composition in which – as I said –
he is an innovator throughout. By the way, not without a reason many say that this piece
may be compared to Schumann’s “Carnaval”. Yes, the “Carnaval” of Schumann is fabulous.
It is where he created these masks, these images – yes. But it is entirely different in form. After all, for the first time in music history, in a cyclic
piece, Mussorgsky introduces the so called “walks” – promenades. What is this walk? This is a walk that takes you to this exhibition. And here, you arrive. You enter the hall. And here’s the first appearance – a typical Russian theme,
which is sung by the leading singer, and the choir responds. The soloist. The choir. The soloist. The choir. So you enter the hall,
and you see paintings in front of you. The promenade ends, and the first painting is “The Gnome”. By which means does he solve it? You know, each piece – and by the way, there are 11 of them – is a special kind of texture, a special kind
of distribution of sound, registers. Look what he is doing. Terrifying gnome! We always think that gnome is so small, so puny, nimble… Nothing of the sort.
A horrible hunchback! And then look what’s happening. Each bar is a sketch. It is something unique, inimitable. By the way, all of the composers – Ravel, Debussy,
Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok… Everyone found something of his own in this piece. Something inexplicable and dear, that later on
gave birth to many compositions. You see?
And of course, this gnome – is Prokofiev’s sarcasm. Why, no? Yes. And so this poor gnome, a hunchback, in the beginning
has this form. But then he… He grows. Here he becomes great, big. And after the end of this… Another promenade. This promenade is penetrating through the whole piece.
It is a connecting link. It is preparing, on the one hand, the following piece. On the other hand, it’s as though it
is telling – on behalf of the author – about what has been. It always carries some sort of psychological character. Imgaine how the first promenade was… And how the second is, after the Gnome. You know, a lot may be said about this second promenade. It is different entirely. This “comodo” – meaning comfortably – needs to be played
in such a way that you will immediately feel comfortable. You have moved to another hall. And after the Gnome you surely must rest –
after this terrifying gnome. And this thing begins again – this russian choral texture… The soloist again. And in entirely different manner… Some begin to argue: “And where are the bells for the first time?” – Here they appear! A modulation. The modulation alone is worth a lot!
From E-flat major to G-sharp minor. I must say that this cycle has Italian titles –
“Il vecchio castello” (The Old Castle), French titles – “Limoges, le marché” (Limoges Market),
“Tuileries” (Tuileries Garden); there are Polish titles – “Bydło” (Cattle),
and there are… They are in Russian, but it is a Jewish theme
of two Jews – a poor and a rich one. This is a big scene – I will be talking about it. But all of them are in fact Russian. Take even the Troubadour that sings his aria. Why am I saying that he’s Russian? Because… again, I have already said it about three times today
and I repeat myself – what distinguishes Russian music? Great attention must be paid to this. It is some kind of extraordinary heartiness,
some kind of yearning, unmeasurable sorrow… It must be evident in every note. Do not be afraid to open your heart. I think that this will only contribute to the performance. And when we learn the basics, we learn these frames of style and form – without which,
of course, one cannot imagine a professional musician – we sometimes forget that occasionally
these frames must be pushed. And you see, if you play this theme simply beautiful,
it doesn’t present much. It doesn’t sound. And if… And here goes… And especially here. It is very much…
yearning, sorrow, Russian sentiment… Such is the second painting. And a promenade again!
But completely different. You know, I want to say a few words about the promenades. I love to give this piece to my students. Good students, of course.
But which lack a little imagery, lack a little the sense of… being able to
paint a picture in the musical language, to create it, to be more interesting at the piano. To push their confines a little, and to become more of an artist. This piece helps like nothing else. And what do I ask them to play at the beginning? I ask them: “Come and play for me all of the promenades, one after the other. With the mood that Mussorgsky has put into them.” And without a whimper they bring them to my lesson and play them all. The first one, like I played, and the second one,
and this third one… Here it is already Herculean! You see?
Just before the Tuileries Garden. And these children who play here… They plead, plead with this nanny… I myself, by the way, – having been raised
in St. Petersburg, and having spent a lot of time as a kid running in the Summer Garden – I can imagine this very well. After all, the Summer Garden is a prototype of the Tuileries Garden in Paris. They are constructed by the same principle. I even think that Summer Garden is more interesting
and beautiful. Those who’ve been to Paris know. And Tuileries Garden is a pretty modest
place, adjacent to Louvre. But these children with their nannies,
they are running and pleading… There are beggings, and whatnot…
and crying… I don’t know another piece in which you have to find something new every measure. There’s always some turn. And the intonation (shaping) must always be
absolutely clearly distinguishable. The next, after the flying-away “Tuileries Garden”,
is the “Bydło”. Everybody knows what “bydło” is. It is a Polish cart that
waddles, and it is very heavy, overloaded, and it goes… And a Polish peasant is riding on it and singing his song.
I always imagine that this is a Russian peasant. Riding on a road and singing his song. There are many options.
Mussorgsky has written fortissimo in the beginning. Ravel, who has done an orchestration, – a genius one –
begins with piano. I also have put many thoughts into this.
And my mood changes all the time about it. Sometimes I want to start with forte…
But now, when I recorded here in Japan, I have recorded piano. I imagine this cart that comes from afar, waddling… Barely… You can only hear this noise from the distance.
And this emerges… And what then happens to this theme… Then it occurs in this form. And this is the cart passing by you, with this rumble and noise,
and then it slowly goes away. Basically, the idea is very simple –
maybe even unpretentious in a way. But if you do it well, start from nothing… Again, to teach this – how to begin at nothing, at some kind of
dark coloring, and then arrive to this fortissimo and go back down. I think that this awakens our imagination. And Mussorgsky, of course, is geniously guiding us here. He was actually a great teacher.
In this piece he’s not only… He is teaching us. He is calling to us: “Be fascinating.
You must make each picture impossible to break away from.” Next painting – look what’s happening. 5/4, 6/4, 7/4!
Typically Russian meter. Why, isn’t the meter in Shostakovich’s prelude and fugue,
which I talked about, – a la Mussorgsky – the same, 7/4? Here you go – 7/4. Here’s a connection. Interesting. In the promenade sometimes there’s suddenly… You move to the next hall, and Mussorgsky
is tuning you into it. And sometimes he’s tuning you in gradually,
but in “Chicks” – I’m sorry – he’s suddenly giving… They appear unexpectedly. Suddenly there are these light chicks in front of you,
jumping with these… Picturesque. This last chick that didn’t make it with the others, and flopped… And right away – attacca. I haven’t said a word about what’s on Hartmann’s paintings.
And what’s in this genius piece. By the way, the piano version of this piece, in my opinion,
is much superior to all of the orchestrations together. By its psychologism, its depth…
By what the piano can produce. You see, orchestral colors obstruct the psychologism of this piece. Obstruct its incredible depth… Russian depth… I really think so. And so, what is on Hartmann’s paintings? Sometimes it’s just a single moment,
out of which Mussorgsky creates such a canvas! I will later speak about these two Jews – the rich and the poor. And these chicks… What does Hartmann have?
It was a sketch for the ballet “Trilby”. Little girls and boys were dancing in canary costumes. That’s it. And what does Mussorgsky do?
He gives these… Poor chicks. They are crying, they can barely walk,
they have barely just hatched… By the way, the title was given by Mussorgsky himself. Two Jews.
What is on the painting of Hartmann? One is in a fur hat, sitting still.
The other is poor. Two portraits, not connected one to another. What does Mussorgsky do?
Mussorgsky gives a big theatrical act. A relationship between the rich and the poor. This rich one, who… And this miserable… By the way, an interesting example.
We spoke about metronome marks, tempi. Well, Mussorgsky writes “Andantino”.
Meaning it may be played more agile. I believe that it needs to be played very whiningly.
Because this poor Jew is always… He pleads for something. The rich one. Such a psychological picture the author creates,
while Hartmann only has two unrelated paintings. “The Market at Limoges”. This is also… Diversity of colors around, excitement, anticipation, agitation…
This is like Glinka’s “Travelling Song”. Everything is seething, is agitated,
everything is… Everything is excited!
Old women are yelling… This scene is breathing, it is alive!
Virtually in front of your eyes. Wonderful picturesque piece, wonderful picturesque piece! And now look – “Catacombs” – the next piece, the eighth. What’s on Hartmann’s painting? Hartmann has come with his friend and a guide to
the opening of Parisian Catacombs. That is all. They are standing there like three statues. What Mussorgsky does?
He creates a very deep, mystical – I’m not afraid to
use this word – painting. And here, again, it is so important to awaken… This absolutely genius motive.
Once again, yearning. So Russian… How is it connected to French catacombs?
Of course it’s not. And this last chord… We’ve missed it. For a long time there was no promenade. “Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” – With the dead in a dead language. This is Mussorgsky’s insertion, which has nothing to do
with Hartmann’s painting. The genius of Mussorgsky suddenly places this here,
based on the promenade, notice. For the first time inside the piece itself we hear a promenade. Not the one that leads us from one piece to another,
but one that is inside. Again, I can’t omit it – this is the main theme
of all my lectures: Russian emphasis. He wrote “con lamento”.
We all know what lamento is – weeping, grieving. And this grieveing is here… You see, again, there are pianistic discoveries.
When suddenly the registers begin to touch one another. From afar. And Shostakovich has… Also “lamento”. The same lamento.
What a tremendous connection. And of course, these harmonies, from which… It is very difficult for me to take it simultaneously
with my hands – I don’t have big hands. But it’s so important to play all the notes together. A remarkable “Baba Yaga” – from the Russian folk tales.
Everybody knows who she is. With her broom, with these… Yes… and this theme here… A Russian theme. Russian rollicking theme. A real portrait of this “Baba Yaga”. Again, these bells appear here. Notice, it is the second time that bells appear. What does Hartmann have?
A clock in the shape of a small hut. That’s all. And what a psychological picture it is here.
This horrible Baba Yaga… And suddenly – the small hut. “Hut, hut, turn your front to me, and your back to the forest.” That’s how it’s said in Russian folk tales. And here it turns. “Hut, hut, turn to me.” And in recapitulation it is already completely different, of course. And the return of Baba Yaga, who flies straight into… Like in genuine Russian way, at the gates of Kiev there
must be a church, a Russian orthodox prayer. And here it is given in its absolutely pure form. Dear Lord… The bells begin. Yes, the bells have begun, which of course… He is really a master, he is a founder.
For the first time he is introducing bells into music. Which is later used by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokofiev. He has given the way to everyone.
Russian theme – the tolling of the bells. Suddenly a promenade appears again. Here is the promenade. Of course. Yes. And here’s what happens to these bells. That is how he ends this piece. With a big sweep, with a big cheer. And as I said, here is the entire great Ruthenia.
With its tolls of the bells, with its prayers. That is the ending of this piece. Russian grand great music.

6 thoughts on “Pictures at an Exhibition – Lecture & Performance (Vadim Monastyrski)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *