Apr 1st 2013

How Pictures Comes to Life

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Concert bookers around the world are lining up pianists and conductors for performances of Pictures at an Exhibition next year, the 140th anniversary of one of the most frequently performed, distorted, and some say “butchered” masterpieces of 19th-century Russian music. And yet it is sure to be a celebration of what the late pianist Sviatoslav Richter called the “best Russian work for piano, amen.” At least, he might have added, when performed as Modest Mussorgsky wrote it. Lesser performers and composers have never ceased tinkering with it, much to the detriment of the inspired original.

A suite of ten short pieces linked by a recurring “promenade,” Pictures renders in musical language a ramble through an art exhibit in Tsarist St. Petersburg. No piano writing of its period quite measures up to it for its oh-so-Russian sonorities, harmonies, and jolting changes of mood. Among the hundreds of recordings available, Richter’s 1958 recital in Sofia, Bulgaria, is regarded as the gold standard. “Here the piece has incredible pianistic color,” William Grant Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy on Lake Como, Italy, tells me. “It has Russian soul, yes, but it also looks beyond Russia.” The Richter performance is still a favorite of music-lovers:


Mussorgsky’s creative storm for Pictures was almost frightening in its intensity. Musical ideas from his viewing of the artwork flooded his mind over twenty days as he struggled to structure what he was hearing in his head. “I can hardly manage to scribble it down on paper fast enough,” he wrote in mid-composition; “I think it is working.”

As with most great classical compositions, the impression of Pictures on the listener deepens and broadens upon second and third hearings. Details emerge and images come to life as the music evokes bells, children on a playground, women quarreling at an open market, two Jews in conversation and a peasant singing as he drives a rumbling wooden cart, among other scenes. Audiences love it for its charm and easy accessibility. “Pictures is a truly Russian work in its directness of expression, its form arising from content, and its summing of parts rather than organic growth,” wrote British music academic Michael Russ in an extended monograph on the piece. “Mussorgsky prefers to depict real life rather than the spiritual, romantic, sensuous or erotic.”

The piece becomes more poignant when you consider its genesis: Mussorgsky wrote it shortly after his friend, the architect-artist Viktor Hartmann, had died at the age of 39 from sudden heart failure. The two men had found common ground over their views on the arts in Russia and were on a sort of crusade against excessive Western European influence.

Mussorgsky, an impulsive, temperamental genius with an appealing comic streak, began as a pianist and popular composer of songs. Voice gradually became his special interest. BesidesPictures, his other lasting contributions are his great operas – Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. As a music innovator, he was a charter member of the group variously known as “The Five,” “The Mighty Handful,” and “The Mighty Coterie,” consisting of himself, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mili Balakirev, Alexander Borodin and César Cui.

Artist Hartmann gets little credit for Pictures, although without him the music would never have been composed. He was no Rembrandt, but he worked tirelessly during his short life and left a copious legacy. For one architectural competition he produced seven hundred sketches. He dabbled in stage sets, teacups, lamps, picture frames and jewellry but his most accomplished works were watercolors and pencil sketches. The sole extant Hartmann architectural construction is the Russian Milleniary Monument at Novgorod dating from 1862.

2alsoOnly about sixty-five of his paintings and sketches have survived Russia’s diasporas, wars and revolutions. The teacups and other ephemera have long since vanished.

Hartmann’s architectural creations often featured carved-wood filigree and quaint, impractical peasant ornamentation. Columns and pilasters were replaced with wooden filigree under the eaves, roosters and colored tiles in complex patterns. Mussorgsky, for his part, exhumed country folk music and dances and then felt his way forward on instinct. His brother Filaret recalled that the composer, who was largely self-taught, had a love for “everything connected with the people and the peasantry. Even the Russianmuzhik was a human being in his eyes.” For most of the educated or aristocratic population, the Russian peasant was then considered equivalent to a farm animal, bought and sold “like a sack of corn or a cart-horse,” wrote a Mussorgsky biographer.

Their efforts were short-lived, however. “Russian music,” wrote one critic, “ had the vitality to break up the 18th century tradition but not the continuity to build up another. Like nomad Tartars, the Russians razed Western buildings to the ground but replaced them with gaily painted tents.” In retrospect, this seems a harsh indictment of the Russian tradition and the stalwart compositions that remain in the repertoire today. But without a doubt Russian music moved on: Stravinsky, most notably, came next.

3Pictures was slow to settle into the music scene after it was first published in 1886 – five years after Mussorgsky died and twelve years after it was completed. Even the initial published version was distorted. Rimsky-Korsakov, a former roommate and protector of Mussorgsky’s legacy, was the first to massage it. “With the best of intentions, Rimsky felt obliged to emend some of Mussorgsky’s more daring touches,” wrote German musicologist Manfred Schandert in his commentary on the urtext manuscript. It nevertheless remained little known for decades, rarely performed in recitals and too difficult for amateurs to play at home. (A pianist friend of mine in London today raises one eyebrow and warns of its “tight corners.”) Only in 1922, after Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel for an orchestration, was it brought to life in a new orchestrated version, Westernized, Frenchified and popularized in the form most concert-goers know today. The accurate and “daring” piano original was then finally published in 1931.

In the years since, orchestrators, adapters and performers have never stopped trying to make it better, or at least leave their own stamp on it. Russian-born Vladimir Horowitz wrote a personalized version of it for piano in 1947, “wild, dirty and explosive,” says Naboré. The full suite à la Horowitz is still available here:




Roughly thirty-eight full orchestrations of Pictures are catalogued and another forty or fifty adaptations—many of them on the goofy side—can be found by trawling the web. Eclectic versions for a synthesizer, electric guitar, seven trombones, 23 clarinets, various chamber combinations, three pipe organs and percussion, accordion, women’s choir, men’s choir, a glass harp, indeed nearly every instrument known to Western man including a Kentucky jug band – if a jug can be called an instrument. The effect on the ear ranges from stirring (the trombones) to outrageous (Emerson, Lake and Palmer rock band), to just too French for words (the Ravel orchestration, by far the most popular), to cotton candy (Cailliet). For an ear-bending kazoo and pennywhistle parody, Canadian musician Friendly Rich’s orchestra recorded this tribute, which he admits is a friendly butchering:


Such heavyweights as Ravel, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lucien Cailliet (for Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra), Sir Henry Wood and Leo Funtek produced orchestrations.

But it is Ravel’s version that causes the most controversy among the cognoscenti. Russians, who feel they own this music, find his treatment – especially the inclusion of a saxophone – grossly inappropriate. Worse, he is also accused of reproducing errors from an inaccurate piano score. These shortcomings have not prevented the Ravel estate from making millions in royalties, however, as the orchestration became integral to the repertoire throughout the world. Even today the fees can be prohibitive, depending on the orchestra and its audience. Swedish movie director Christopher Nupen recalled for me his decision to drop the costly Ravel version he planned to use in a documentary film on Ashkenazy. Instead he opted for the orchestration by Leo Funtek, the Slovenian-born composer who made his life and career in Finland. As a bonus, Funtek hewed closer to the piano score – and included no offending saxophone solo. Later, Russian-born Ashkenazy undertook his own orchestration to restore “complete loyalty to Mussorgsky’s idiom.” Besides, he adds, “in my version these mistakes can be put right.”

Sviatoslav Richter’s criticism went much further. He said in an interview shortly before his death that he considered Pictures to be the “most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. But when the Frenchman tried to improve it, Richter felt, the results were disastrous. “I loathe and abhor” the Ravel piece, he said. The orchestration is “an abomination, a terrible, decorative travesty.” The interview was published in book form and as a DVD by documentary maker Bruno Monsaingeon as Richter: The Enigma, a rare extended conversation on Richter’s life and piano career that electrified the music world.

4Julian Lampert, a U.S. composer-pianist of Russian descent, tells me he also finds the Ravel version a clash of opposites. It reminds him, he says, of “Grand Marnier poured over potatoes and kasha.”

Music scholars argue in several biographies and monographs over the glories and tragedies of Mussorgsky’s artistic life, focusing first on the spelling and pronunciation of his family name. Variations through the ages had no letter “g,” hinting at the root “musor,” meaning garbage, mucous, or in current slang, “policeman.” One Russian friend tells me she recalls giggles in the classroom whenever Mussorgsky’s name was mentioned. The syllabic stress was eventually shifted and the letter “g” was inserted by Filaret, Modest’s “snooty” brother, to clean up the name, according to one scholar. Nevertheless, Modest took pleasure in jokingly signing letters Mussoryanin (in Russian, “he who lives in garbage”).

When Mussorgsky turned his talents to Pictures in 1874, shortly after finishing his great opera Boris Godunov, he selected ten works from the 400 on display at the Hartmann posthumous exhibit to portray in music. They provide one of the earliest and most direct examples of “program music”, the creative process for translating the visual into music. Ironically, six of the ten pictures in the “profoundly Russian” suite were produced during Hartmann’s travels in France, Italy and Poland.

5Mussorgsky invented a unique structure to tie the ten pieces together. The pictures are linked by a recurring theme, a “promenade”, to evoke the wandering of an exhibit visitor. The viewer, Mussorgsky himself, first stops at a drawing entitled “The Gnome,” an awkward, jumping dwarf that in its musical depiction was considered “an incredible piece of audacity” in the way it departs from traditional piano writing. Next he stops at Il veccio castello (The Old Castle), painted during his trip to Italy. The music brings out a heart-rending melancholy line, evoking a troubador performing before the castle. The controversial saxophone appears in this part. A short promenade returns, then the viewer comes to Tuileries, subtitled Children’s Quarreling at Play. Here the music echoes the sound of animated young voices, one of Mussorgsky’s most effective translations of human sounds onto the piano. The frolic and romp of the children virtually leaps from the piano. Next comes a watercolor of a large wooden wagon, titled in Polish “Bydlo,” that combines thick, ponderous left-hand chords of the giant wooden wheels overlaid with a folk tune being sung by the driver.

A quiet promenade intervenes, then at No. 5 the visitor discovers the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, a sketch of costumes for a ballet called “Trilbi,” and it appears musically as a charming scherzino that breaks the heavy mood and substitutes a feeling of wild gaiety among privileged children. Next comes another watercolor, this one titled “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” which Mussorgsky explained as his attempt to “get at Hartmann’s Jews” and to reproduce more “intonations of human speech.” The music replicates a comfortable Jew speaking in a deep, rumbling voice, alternating with the whining tremulo of the poor Jew.

The longest promenade of the set follows, as the listener imagines the viewer pausing, moving on from picture to picture, finally settling at Limoges, usually subtitled “The Market (The Big News)” which he called “a study in intonation,” again picking up sounds of animated chatter. The musical outbursts here were invented to mimic women bickering and exchanging their version of news of the day.

Without a promenade, Mussorgsky next takes directly on to the Catacombs (A Roman Sepulchre)” in Paris, that flows from a haunting introduction into a subtheme, “Con mortius in linua mortua, bastard Latin for “With the dead in a dead language.” The eerie melody is Mussorgsky’s translation of a visit to the “place of skulls,” as he wrote on his score, and as he calls out to the macabre scene, “the skulls begin to glow faintly from within”. And on to No. 9, a sketch known as “The Hut of Baba-Yaga,” one of the most exciting passages in the suite, a wild scherzo with unusual harmonies and halting melodies. Hartmann has borrowed “Baba-Yaga” from Russian folklore, a witch who lives deep in the woods in a hut on hen’s legs. This creature was best rendered by Pushkin in his introduction toRuslan and Lyudmila. Mussorgsky’s witches’ ride is one of the most interesting of the entire suite for its thumping rhythms and memorable melodies.

6The finale is the now-familiar “Bogatyr Gate, the Great Gate of Kiev,” based on one of the better-known Hartmann sketches, a monument to Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. He won the design competition for Kiev Gate, with a Slavic war helmet atop it instead of the usual onion dome. He regarded it as his finest work. The monument was never built but the music made it memorable in different artistic terms. The gate provides a finale that calls on the full range of the keyboard and its arpeggios, including bell-like chiming in the upper register – rendered in most orchestrations as a mighty climax with sets of bells hammered by percussionists. The effect, even for critics of Ravel, can be breathtaking. In this version, Gustavo Dudamel conducts a Venezuelan youth orchestra in the Ravel version:




Late in life, Mussorgsky’s tragedies multiplied. His operas were dormant or unfinished, his piano suite unpublished and his own creative talents in remission. He ended his life as an unpaid assistant teacher at a school for singers, and was reduced to accompanying them on tour. He suffered bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism. Epileptic seizures became more frequent. Virtually dysfunctional, he was sacked from a civil service post that had provided a subsistence income in 1881.

His last public appearance as a soloist was at a January 25, 1881, commemoration of Dostoevsky’s death, where he improvised a funeral march. The audience stood in respect – as much for the music as for the deceased.

Mussorgsky was destitute and close to begging in the street when he sat for a portrait by his friend the renowned painter Ilya Repin. The portrait depicts a man in distress, clothed in a dressing gown, disheveled, disoriented, uncombed. His nose is painted red, reflecting a long period of alcoholism. Mussorgsky died March 16, 1881, at 42 just 11 days after the painting was finished, alone in a hospital where he was being treated for a stroke.

7“Pure as crystal, against the dark background of his tragic destiny, the soul of this incomparable artist stands out,” concluded biographer Oskar von Riesemann.

The story of Modest Mussorgsky contains many of the elements of the tortured Russian soul of 19th century fiction – a majestic natural talent, the rise to public acclaim, then a loss of creative power, descent into alcoholism and despair, and a pathetic, lonely death. Scholars and musicians today agree on Mussorgsky’s greatness as a creative force. His legacy is validated by his continued presence in opera houses and concert halls around the world, and popularity 130 years after his death that has inspired a broad spectrum of interpreters.


 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACT: "Shocks are here to stay, and our task is not to predict the next one – although someone always does – but to sharpen our focus on resilience. Staying the course of politically mandated policies while minimizing the inevitable dislocations is easier said than done. But that is no excuse to fall for the myth of being victimized by the unprecedented."
Dec 21st 2023
EXTRACTS: "A new world is indeed emerging. It will be characterized not only by more interdependencies, but also by more insecurity, danger, and war. Stability in international relations will become a foreign concept from a bygone age – one that we did not fully appreciate until it was gone."
Dec 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "Yet one must never forget that Putin is first and foremost an intelligence officer whose dominant trait is suspicion."
Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."