I really would like to live next door to Alice. That is, Alice Sara Ott, the German pianist. I would ask her to illustrate posts on this blog from time to time for she’s not only an accomplished musician, but also a gifted cartoonist! And yes, I do admire her! Two years ago, Alice Sara Ott made a wonderful recording of Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece “Pictures of an Exhibition”. The music inspired her to some funny drawings illustrating two of the different parts of Mussorgsky’s cycle: “The Great Gate of Kiev” and “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicken”.
The Russian composer, born 1839 in Karevo, composed the piece in 1874 as a work for piano alone. It has been arranged for a full orchestra in 1922 by the French composer Maurice Ravel, and it is this version that I heard first – along with Tchaikovsky’s overture “1812” – at school.
Mussorgsky had been at an exhibition of drawings and sketches organized by the journalist Vladimir Stassov. Inspired by this visit, he composed individual themes rendering the psychological impression of different subjects on the visitor: Gnome, Il Veccio Castello (The Old Castle), Bydlo (The Bull), Ballet of the Unhatched Chicken, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, The Marketplace at Limoges, Catacombae, Cum Mortuis in Lingua Morta (With the Dead in a Dead Language), The Hut on Fowls’ Legs and The Great Gate of Kiev. The different parts of the cycle are linked by a common theme called “Promenade”, slightly changed each time it shows up, illustrating the fact that the visitor moves from one painting to the next and reflecting the visitor’s mood, conditioned by the picture he has just seen. As in the case of Tchaikovsky’s overture, my teacher managed to link in my mind melodies and pictures and I immediately loved the piece. It is interesting that Mussorgsky’s music, inspired by drawings, inspired Mrs. Ott to make drawings of her own.
The composer was part of a group ironically called “The Mighty Five” uniting Mussorgsky with the Russian composers Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin in the quest of composing “Russian” music, devoid of any influences from contemporary music from Western Europe, namely the German Romanticism. The idea was to go back to folklorist melodies and traditional subjects taken from everyday’s reality and mythology. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky had a good knowledge of what was going on in Western Europe through his education in St. Petersburg and was familiar with the works of Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert and Berlioz.
Mussorgsky was very ambitious, but had trouble to stay focused. He started many pieces and many remained unfinished. The works best known today are the cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition”, the operas “Khovanshchina” and “Boris Godunov”, the piece “Night On the Bare Mountain” and a collection of traditional songs. While several of his works were warmly greeted by the public in his lifetime, they were performed less often than those from other composers of the time. Competition was tough and the newspapers did not always treat Mussorgsky gently. He certainly was underrated in his lifetime.
Mussorgsky died at the age of 42. He suffered of severe depressions and had become an alcoholic. The fact that the liberation of the Russian slave by Tsar Alexander II meant the total ruin of the Mussorgsky family, owner of large portions of land, did not help his situation. Reflecting this, I feel deeply sad that this composer did not benefit from better circumstances in his lifetime. Who knows, what other masterpieces Mussorgsky might have created, had he had a little more luck!
Keen to move through the exhibition yourself? There is an excellent recording of the “Pictures at an Exhibition” in its orchestra version by the Cleveland Orchestra. The piano version, performed by Alice Sara Ott, has been published by the label Deutsche Grammophon. This recording also features that lovely Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Major, D. 850, composed by Franz Schubert.
© Charles Thibo