When asked to name a Russian composer from the Romantic Period of Classical music, most people today would frown. For the few that could exert their knowledge on the subject, most would only be able to name Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Yet behind Tchaikovsky lurks a wealth of passion, brilliance and creativity. Although it would be hard to signal any men out from such a prodigious crowd, Modest Mussorgsky took his own approach to the music, and created a small collection of greatness.
Mussorgsky was part of a group of Russian nationalist composers known as 'The Mighty Five.' Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, Mussorgsky did not try and follow the path laid out by so many composers before him. Mussorgsky attempted to create his own sound of raw power, emotion and beauty that was influenced greatly by Russian folk music, foreign composers and Russian church music. Although he only composed part-time, and left behind a small collection of works, Mussorgsky's work visibly progressed then declined. He gradually opted for more of a sense of realism in his music, portraying subjects in their full imperfect form. Before his steep decline into the murky waters of alcoholism, Mussorgsky composed one of his finest works, the innovative piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition
Although stunning in its own right, Mussorgsky's piano composition is outshined in some areas by Maurice Ravels orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition
, that enhanced the intensity and passion of the music. Pictures at an Exhibition
was a tribute to Mussorgsky's friend Viktor Hartmann, a Russian artist and architect. Yet rather than just opting for a simple tribute, Pictures at an Exhibition
is an imaginary musical tour through a collection of Hartmann's drawings and watercolours. The structure of the suite showcases Mussorgsky at his most innovative, composing the album as if it was an actual walk through the exhibition. Each Promenade
(leisurely walk) between pictures takes on a different form and emotion, creating a natural flow between pictures. Yet even more noteworthy is the way that Mussorgsky merges the Promenade
into two of the movements, Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
and The Great Gate of Kiev
, sounding enigmatic in Cum mortuis in lingua mortua
and nationalistic in The Great Gate of Kiev.
Each of the 10 pieces represented by Mussorgsky takes on their own unique form, ranging from the mysterious, to the patriotic and even to haunting darkness. Some of the artworks portrayed have been lost or destroyed, yet Mussorgsky's musical representations clearly portray what the paintings may have looked like. For such a subjective art form, Mussorgsky's music focuses in on the essence of each painting, capturing their spirit into 30 minutes of musical brilliance. With each note Mussorgsky recreates a stroke of the brush, every note falling into place to paint each striking picture.
Mussorgsky's ability to imagine the sounds of each painting shines through in The Old Castle
, where the sombre Alto-Saxophone defines the path of the song. The mood is not altogether outcast; the powerful backbone of the castle is portrayed through a deep and weighty double bass. Yet emptiness takes over the song, bringing forth thoughts of a lifeless and emotionless medieval castle. Bydlo
is equally downcast at first. Although the interpretations of the opening bars vary (some begin very loudly, and others softly), the rhythmic percussion section sets an unconstricting marching tone. After fluttering string instruments overtake the pounding march, the rhythm becomes increasingly overpowering, in a state of booming fortissimo. But down the pressure goes, as the marching object soon continues on into the distance.
Pictures at an Exhibition
is not a one trick pony however, and offers melodramatic happiness in equal quantities. Tuileries
and Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
are both heavily excitable, prancing around in a flurry of flutes and strings. Mussorgsky does not quite capture their radiant beauty as well as he captures power, truth and lack of it. Equally energetic is The Market Place at Limoges
, which buzzes along like a real market place, lively and enticing.
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
shows off Mussorgsky at his highest point of realism in Pictures at an Exhibition
. Clearly portraying two men, their sounds contrasts greatly, poor and rich in conversation with each other. Eventually the heavy theme of the rich man drowning out the poor man's high-pitched muted trumpets.
Mussorgsky's touches of realism in his music are enthralling, yet his strong Russian nationalism also makes an appearance. The Great Gate of Kiev
is largely patriotic, blaring trumpets and other brass instruments overpower small segments of darkness, like light at the end of the tunnel. For a modern audience, the strong nationalism may be a bit overdone, but it is nevertheless, quite an enjoyable movement.
is one of the most exhilarating movements, at times forcing the listener to strain to hear, then quickly entering a state of fortissimo. The darkness surrounding the song encases the people within a catacomb of brass chords. The two songs after that, Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua
and The Hut on Fowl's Legs
, follow a path of increasing darkness, with equally dark drawings to match. Mussorgsky's ability to lead the audience on a path of discovery is perhaps one of his finest attributes, each step forward relates to the previous step, and foretells of the next step. Each step points the audience in one direction, yet never forces its meaning onto the audience. Of course the darkness is shattered by Mother Russia, in The Great Gate of Kiev
, which pushes away all the bad in all its nationalistic glory.
If there is anything wrong with Ravels Orchestral version, it is that it misses the intricate details in parts. The overall sound and mood is captured in every song, yet the large orchestral version misses the deftness and human touch of the piano. The attention to detail of the original piano version allows it to recreate each dot of ink, focusing in not only on the main object's plight, but rather their emotions, thoughts and personalities too. Ravels Orchestral version may be bastardized, but it does make the score more accessible to a knee-jerk reaction society, allowing the same themes and aspects of human life to be accessed by a wider audience. As such, Mussorgsky's original piano composition may be a more challenging listen, but it offers larger rewards. Once again though, Ravels Orchestral version is much more suited to the modern listener.
No matter what aspect you focus in on, every facet of Pictures at an Exhibition
offers a truly unique artistic experience. From the creatively brilliant composition, to the rich and deep emotion; Pictures at an Exhibition
can only be looked at as exquisite. Modest Mussorgsky truly does create a unique sound that is just as enthralling today as it was back in 19th century Russia.