Modest Mussorgsky was not a happy man, his life was short and sad. He came from a wealthy family, and was supposed to prosper as an officer in the Imperial Guard, but at an early age suffered a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. For many years he made a meager living, becoming more and more dependent on alcohol, and died at age 42. Were it not for his good friend Rimsky-Korsakov, his oeuvre would have been totally discarded. Mussorgsky undoubtedly has a unique voice; one can discern in it Slavic modal lines, intriguing associative ideas, which are often heard only after several performances of his works, and mainly unmistakable expressive dramatic tones.
For years his works were known to the audience through various versions, arrangements and “corrections”. In fact, two of the works in today’s concert (“Songs and Dances of Death” and “Pictures at an Exhibition”) were not orchestrated by the composer. The conductor chose to perform in this concert series Mussorgsky’s original version of “Night on a Bald Mountain”, instead of Rimsky-Korsakov’s well-known arrangement.
One can only wonder what works a “sane” Mussorgsky would have contributed to the world, but it is comforting to know that the immense musical output has some unconventional “mediums” (composers).
Night on a Bald Mountain, like many of Mussorgsky’s works, underwent several metamorphoses. On 23 June 1867, the composer completed the piano version of the work; in 1872 Mussorgsky orchestrated the work and thought of turning it into an opera, or at least an operatic scene; in 1866, five years after the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a symphonic version of the work, which he himself edited. The composer’s version of this work was premiered in Leningrad in 1920, and only in 1968 was the original version published. This evening the orchestra will perform the original, penetrating, raucous and chilling version of the work – befitting of the idea and poem by Gogol, which inspired the work: a night on a lonely, dark and distant mountain, to which witches and sorcerers arrive to renew their vows to Satan. In this work Mussorgsky is revealed as a bold and expressive “painter of tones”. One can almost feel the tremor and terror of all that watch this scene, the somber and remote mountain and all that occurs there. From a compositional point of view, this satanic fantasy freed Mussorgsky from the need to cope with formal and structural issues, since it is hard to believe that devils and demons would abide by the sonata and rondo forms… The music of a Night on a Bald Mountain is very powerful, and in today’s day and age, in which our attention span gets shorter and shorter, the fact that a listener is sorry that a work has ended after a relatively short time is quite encouraging.
Death was a well-known and customary visitor in works written throughout the 19th century. Mussorgsky, who was interested in the “world beyond”, gave it an esteemed place in the four Songs of Dance and Death, set in 1875-7 to poems by his relative Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. The songs were originally written for voice and piano and orchestrated by Glazunov (the first and third songs) and by Rimsky-Korsakov (the second and fourth songs). The version performed today was orchestrated by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1962. Death appears in these songs with the intention of taking helpless human beings. Mussorgsky, unlike Schubert’s obsessive lyricism in Der Erlkönig or Mahler’s later touching irony in Das Lied von der Erde, wholeheartedly invests in these serious circumstances. These somber and beautiful songs portray unforgettable musical moments, saturated with deep sorrow. The orchestrations enable the singer’s tone colors to echo clearly and affectively.
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in June 1874 for piano. Maurice Ravel presented the work in 1922 to conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, who was very enthusiastic about it and commissioned an orchestration from Ravel. In this work, or at least in the circumstances of its composition, death also prevails, in this case the premature death at 39 of painter Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky’s close friend. The work, based on Mussorgsky’s impressions of Hartmann’s paintings, was dedicated to his memory, and is an intriguing example of tonal realization of visual ideas. In each of the work’s movements we can see how, alongside the composer’s impressions of the painting’s subject, he creates an entire world of textures, sonorities and colors (which Ravel remarkably preserved), which go beyond the realm of Mussorgsky’s subjective and reported impression, and constitute a starting point for a unique and brilliant musical idea in each and every movement.