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ClassicsOnline Home » MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839, the fourth 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 and less demanding compositions for the entertainment of his friends. It was a meeting with the nationalist composer César Cui, an expert in military fortification, and with the composer Dargomïzhsky, that led him to a more influential connection with Balakirev, self-appointed leader of the nationalists, and their polymath mentor, the immensely influential Vladimir Stasov, Mussorgskys first biographer. It is of some interest to notice that Stasov at first found little good to say of Mussorgsky, whom he found lacking in ideas and a complete idiot, a judgement in which Balakirev concurred at the time and over the following years. Mussorgsky resigned his commission in the army in 1858. Following the emancipation of the serfs of 1861, which brought financial consequences for land-owners, Mussorgsky in 1863 took a position as a clerk in the Ministry of Communications, and continued intermittently in government employment. It was from this time onwards that he developed his own highly original musical ideas and language, and his deep interest in the people and history of Russia. In 1867 he left the civil service and attempted to earn a living from music, as a teacher and accompanist, but the following year he sought to solve his financial difficulties by taking a position in the government Forestry Department. Perhaps his greatest musical success came in 1874 with the performance of his historical opera Boris Godunov, a work to which critics, however, took general exception. His bouts of drinking finally forced him to abandon government service in 1880, after attempts by friends to protect his position. Others now offered him support, hoping that he might complete his operas Sorochintsy Fair and Khovanshchina, two tasks that, in the circumstances, were beyond him. He died in March the following year, his death the result of epilepsy, induced by alcoholism. He left much unfinished, to be revised and edited by his colleague Rimsky-Korsakov, from whom Balakirev had recently advised him to take lessons in harmony. Rimsky-Korsakov, who had acquired his musical skills largely as an adult, after earlier service as a naval officer, was to revise and complete some of the works that Mussorgsky had failed to complete, and to perform the same service for the nationalist composer Borodin, introducing an element of musical sophistication that has not always proved welcome, as the nature of Mussorgskys originality and genius has become more widely understood and appreciated.
The origin of the orchestral piece Night on the Bare Mountain lies in music written for a play, The Witch, by a friend from Mussorgskys time in the army. The composer later had the idea of writing an opera on a story by Gogol, St Johns Eve, to take gradual form as Sorochintsy Fair, but left, at his death, in a very imperfect state. In 1867, dismissed for the moment from the civil service, he found the time 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 midsummer, on Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky was to return to the music five years later for an abortive stage-work, Mlada, 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. Mussorgsky derives his inspiration throughout from Russian folk-song, an element never far from the musical language he employed. Rimsky-Korsakov later virtually recomposed the work, basing his version on the arrangement Mussorgsky had made of it for Sorochintsy Fair. Both versions are included in the present recording.
The famous Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair also enjoyed an early separate existence in a piano arrangement by the composer. The dance was apparently intended for the finale either of the first act or of the last. It fits well enough into the celebration that closes the whole opera with all misunderstandings resolved.
Khovanshchina (The Khovansky Affair), described as a national music drama, was left incomplete, to be revised for posthumous performance by Rimsky-Korsakov, with later versions by Ravel and Stravinsky for Dyagilev, and by Shostakovich. The work, based on the historical research of the composer and of Stasov, deals with the conflicts over the succession after the death in 1682 of Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich. The streltsï (musketeers), led by Prince Ivan Khovansky, had their own reactionary ambitions, while other factions included the so-called Old Believers, and Sofia Alexeyvna, sixth child of the first of the Romanovs and sister of the former Tsar, appointed Regent, while her young brother Ivan shared the position of Tsar with his half-brother Peter, later sole ruler as Peter the Great. The opposition to Peter, still a boy, is largely one of conservative reaction to religious and political reforms that are taking place. Prince Vasily Golitsïn, at one time the reputed lover of Sofia Alexeyevna, represents her interests, but his involvement in her plan to have Peter murdered and to take the throne for herself leads to his exile, an event mourned by the people of Moscow.
Pictures at an Exhibition was written in 1874 as a set of piano pieces, a translation into music of paintings, designs, models and drawings by Mussorgskys friend Victor Hartmann, who had died the year before. The exhibits are linked by a Promenade, as the visitor to the exhibition goes from exhibit to exhibit. The titles of the works are largely self-explanatory. Gnomus is a design for nutcrackers in the shape of a gnome; The Old Castle shows a troubadour singing outside the castle walls and the Tuileries depicts children at play and quarrelling, while nursemaids gossip, in the famous Paris gardens. Bydlo is a traditional Polish peasant ox-cart, with its creaking wooden wheels slowly turning; Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells shows designs for childrens costumes, as described in the title, and Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the names of those portrayed the invention of the painter, is a picture of two Jews, one rich, one poor, a present by Hartmann to the composer. In Limoges market-place old women gossip, discussing the fate of an escaped cow, and more trivial nonsense, while the Roman Catacombs, subtitled Sepulchrum Romanum, are lit by a flickering lamp, the skulls piled on either side beginning to glow in the light from within. This is linked to the eerie With the Dead in the Language of the Dead. The macabre continues with The Hut on Fowls Legs, a clock in the form of the hut of the witch Baba Yaga, who crunches up childrens bones and flies through the night on a pestle. The triumphant conclusion offers a design for a triumphal gate in Kiev, to commemorate the escape of Tsar Alexander II from assassination in 1866. The music contrasts the massive structure with the sound of a solemn procession of chanting monks. Pictures at an Exhibition is equally well known in the colourful orchestration of the work by the French composer Maurice Ravel.
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MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition