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ClassicsOnline Home » MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition / BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances
"this newcomer tackles the giants with zest."
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839- 1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
2. The Old Castle
3. The Tuilleries
5. Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells
6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
7. Limoges: The Market Place
8. Catacombae -Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
9. The Hut on Fowl's legs
10. The Great Gate of Kiev
Night on the Bare Mountain
Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (1833 -1887)
Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor)
In the Steppes of Central Asia
The later nineteenth century was the great age of
nationalism in Russia, a period in which the Russian language became a fit
vehicle for the work of great novelists and poets and in which music sought
development through recourse to Russian traditions, sacred and secular. There
was a curious ambivalence, apparent in music as elsewhere in the cultural and
political life of the country. On the one hand Western Europe seemed to offer a
model to follow, the course embraced by Anton Rubinstein and composers of a more
cosmopolitan turn of mind: on the other hand Russia was seen as the saviour of Europe,
with a messianic role opposed to the decadent West.
The Five, the group of Russian nationalist composers
under the leadership of
Balakirev, nick-named by the polymath librarian Stasov
"the Mighty Handful", involved themselves in the creation of a truly
Russian form of music. Balakirev himself deplored the foundation of what he saw
as German-style conservatories, established in St. Petersburg and Moscow in the
1860s by the Rubinstein brothers, but it was difficult to defend his followers
against a charge of amateurism or dilettantism. While Balakirev himself had
musical training and was a musician by profession, apart from a brief
interruption of his career, when religious melancholia induced him to work for
the state railways. Rimsky-Korsakov, who was to acquire considerable technical
skill, particularly in orchestration, was at first a naval officer; Cesar Cui
was a professor of military fortification; Borodin was a research chemist, and
Mussorgsky, when he left the army, became a monstrously incompetent and unreliable
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839, the son of
a land-owner. As a young officer he had musical ambitions, and without any
training in composition tried his hand at an opera, as well as lesser
compositions for the entertainment of his friends. It was a meeting with Cui
and with the composer Dargomizhsky that led him to a more influential
association with Balakirev and Stasov.
After leaving the army, Mussorgsky held various positions
in the civil service.
At his death in 1881, the result of epilepsy induced by
alcoholism, he left a great deal unfinished, including the opera Khovanshchina,
later completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who took it upon himself to serve as
musical executor to both Mussorgsky and Borodin. His great Russian opera Boris
Godunov was to be revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, who applied his technical
abilities to smoothing out apparent crudities in this and other works.
Pictures at an Exhibition, a set of piano pieces written
in 1874, is intensely original in its use of texture, and has lent itself well
enough to re- arrangement for all the colour of a full orchestra, as here in
the most famous orchestration of the work by Maurice Ravel The work
commemorates an exhibition of the work of the artist Victor Hartmann, who had
died a year before, the exhibits linked by a Promenade, with which the work
opens. The first picture is a design for nut-crackers in the shape of a gnome,
and the second of an old castle, before the gates of which a troubadour sings.
The visitor moves on to a picture of the Tuilleries Gardens, where children
quarrel and play and nursemaids gossip, and this is followed by a picture of a
Polish peasant ox-cart, its heavy wooden wheels slowly turning.
The Promenade leads now to a costume sketch for children,
chickens in their shells, with arms and legs protruding, and to a picture of
two Jews, one rich and one poor, a present from Hartmann to the composer, who
invented his own names for the two represented. In the market at Limoges old
women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow and more trivial nonsense,
as Mussorgsky suggested.
The Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum Romanum, are lit by a
The skulls stacked on each side begin to glow, lit from
within, as the music sets out to suggest the eerie scene, with the dead, in the
language of the dead. The macabre continues in the clock in the form of a hut
on fowl's legs, the hut of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who crunches the bones
of her victims and flies through the night on a pestle.
The triumphant conclusion shows a design for the Great
Gate at Kiev, a monument to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from
the hands of assassins in 1866. The music contrasts the solemnity of a
liturgical procession with the massive domes and columns of the projected
The origin of the orchestral piece Night on the Bare Mountain
lies in music written for a play, The Witch, by a friend from Mussorgsky's time
in the army.
The composer later had the idea of writing an opera on a
story by Gogol, St. John's Eve. In 1867, dismissed for the moment from the
civil service, he found the leisure to write an orchestral work based on the
material he had composed to depict a witches' sabbath, held on the eve of the
Feast of St. John, at mid-summer, on Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky was to make use
of the same music five years later for an abortive stage-work, in which he
collaborated with Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Cui.
As seems usual on these occasions, the witches'
celebration starts with relative decorum, before proceeding to more
characteristic activities. Throughout Mussorgsky derives his inspiration from
Russian folk-song, an element never far from the musical idiom he employed.
Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was the illegitimate son
of a Georgian prince, his name and patronymic taken, according to custom, from
one of the prince's serfs. He was brought up by his mother, who later married a
retired army medical officer. Borodin studied at the Medico-Surgical Academy in
St. Petersburg, where he made his subsequent career ~ a professor of
chemistry, his work internationally known and respected. He died of a
heart-attack at the age of 53 during the course of a fancy-dress ball given by
the professors of the Academy.
Borodin's professional career left him relatively little
time for music. His first symphony had occupied him intermittently between 1862
and 1867, while the second, started in 1869, reached its final form twelve
years later. From 1870 on-wards he worked at his opera Prince Igor, for which
Stasov had sent him a scenario, writing music and words piece-meal, but without
ever providing himself with a full libretto. At his death in 1887 the opera was
still unfinished and was to be filled out by Rimsky-Korsakov and his young
colleague Glazunov as best they could.
The Polovtsian Dances make up a sequence of choral dances
in the second act of the opera, where they provide entertainment for the Tartar
Khan's prisoners, Prince Igor and his son. The opening dance was orchestrated
by Rimsky-Korsakov and the remaining dances by the composer, all making use of
rhythms of enormous vitality and melodic material that suggests vividly the
scene in all its barbarous energy.
In the Steppes of Central Asia, described by the composer
as "a musical picture", was written in 1882. It depicts the journey
of a caravan through Central Asia, with a Russian theme joining with an
oriental theme, as two groups meet on their long journey. The piece, the result
of a commission from several composers for music to illustrate a pageant of
events in the reign of Alexander II, proved enormously popular. Borodin
dedicated the work to Liszt.
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