MODEST PETROVICH MUSSORGSKY
b. Karevo, Russia / March 9, 1839 (March 21, New Style )
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / March 15, 1881 (March 28, New Style )
Pictures at an Exhibition
The very famous portrait was captured just days before the subject’s death. His green dressing gown, trimmed with dark, red silk is rumpled, as if he has just been roused from his convalescence. His scraggly beard, bed-head hair, hollow eyes and bulbous red nose give a hint to the fact that Modest Mussorgsky was at the end of his days, just shy of his 42nd birthday. The painter, Ilya Repin, was a close friend of the Russian composer, and over the course of four sittings had preserved some of the former vigor of his subject, particularly in Modest’s piercing gaze. But the alcoholism that plagued the composer in his final years had taken its toll. When Repin returned for a final touch up sitting a few days later, Mussorgsky was dead.
Modest had won early success with his tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, and the historical opera Boris Godunov. He shared the drive of Mikhail Glinka to develop a uniquely Russian musical identity. Joined by Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, this “Mighty Handful” of composers developed a brand that set themselves apart from more Western-focused traditions at the Moscow and St. Petersburg conservatories.
In his final years Mussorgsky was plagued with thoughts of mortality. Following the death of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, Mussorgsky attended a public exhibition of works by the Russian artist and architect. A suite for solo piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, was the result, in which the composer makes a musical promenade from picture to picture, contemplating each image before moving on to the next. Some of Hartmann’s images survive to this day and others have been long lost, but the written descriptions of the event and Mussorgsky’s musical depictions evoke the experience.
Following the initial Promenade, the first image is a Gnome, a grotesque Christmas Nutcracker with bared teeth and crooked legs. After moving on, an Italian troubadour is seen in front of the ruins of an Italian castle. The sounds of quarreling children are heard in the garden of a French palace, followed by the plodding of heavy oxcart in Poland. The skittering Ballet of Unhatched Chicks was inspired by a costume design for children dressed as fledgling canaries. Separate portraits of two Jewish men, one rich and one poor, are captured, respectively, in a low, stern voice and a nervous, chattering response.
Continuing the promenade through the gallery, Mussorgsky interprets a scene at The Market in Limoges as an increasingly heated quarrel between two women. From one French scene we are soon taken to Paris, to view the gloomy, underground catacombs built in Roman times. A wall constructed of skulls evokes a chilling hush, before the sudden appearance of Baba Yaga. She is a menacing figure in Slavic folklore, flying through the sky to her forest hut, which is supported by clawed feet.
At the end of the exhibition stands a depiction of the Great Gate of Kiev, inspired by Hartmann’s architectural rendering, complete with an onion domed bell tower. The ceremonial procession, chanting, and tolling of bells brings the program to a thunderous climax.
The original piano suite has been arranged for various ensembles over the years and the present showpiece, for brass and percussion, was prepared by the English conductor, composer and arranger, Elgar Howarth (b.1935). He was a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, for whom he created the setting, and, incidentally, one of the trumpeters on the recording of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour!
Program Notes by Matthew Baird
MUSSORGSKY (arr. Elgar Howarth)
PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
Oliver de Clercq, Acting Principal
Andrew Mee, Acting Associate Principal
Nick Anderson *
Holly Bryan *
Larry Knopp, Principal
Marcus Goddard, Associate Principal
Vincent Vohradsky - Neil Harcourt in memory of Frank N. Harcourt Chair
Chris Mitchell *
Matheus Moraes *
Candice Newberry *
Brian Wendel, Principal
Jeremy Berkman *
Robert Fraser *
Andrew Poirier, Second Trombone
Peder MacLellan, Principal
Ellis Wean *
Vern Griffiths, Principal - Martha Lou Henley Chair
* Extra musician