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A new collection presenting one of the pinnacles of nineteenth-century pianism, Musorgsky’s radically innovative Pictures from an exhibition, alongside later responses—challenges even—to these innovations from Maurice Ravel and Olivier Messiaen.
Musorgsky’s masterpiece is coupled here with works by Ravel and Messiaen—an inspired choice, as both of these composers were indebted to the innovations of their Russian predecessor. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) first heard the music of the ‘Five’ at the Paris Universal Exhibitions of 1889 and 1900 and through them discovered a way of composing concerned with colour and texture as well as with new approaches to harmony, melody and form. While his orchestral song-cycle Shéhérazade (1903) epitomises his ‘Russian’ years, Miroirs (1905) acknowledges Musorgsky in its use of intervallic relationships linking each movement as well as in presenting a succession of ‘images’ akin to the sequence of paintings evoked in Pictures at an exhibition. Like Musorgsky, Ravel approaches the piano from the point of view of a virtuoso orchestrator, while achieving a pianism that is both virtuosic and entirely idiomatic. Miroirs also embraces a more discreet Russian reference: each of the five movements is dedicated to a member of ‘Les Apaches’, a group of like-minded thinkers brought together by Ravel who shared mutual enthusiasms for the music of the Russian ‘Five’: the poet Léon-Paul Fargue, the pianist Ricardo Viñes, the painter Paul Sordes, the writer Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, and the composer Maurice Delage. Ravel’s deep admiration for Mussorgsky was later enshrined in his orchestration of Pictures from an exhibition, completed in 1922.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) acknowledged the importance of Musorgsky on his compositional development in his writings, including Technique de mon langage musical (1944) and his posthumously published Traité de rythme, de colour et d’ornithologie (1995). While he particularly revered the opera Boris Godunov, from which he derived several of his distinctive modes and chords, allusions to Pictures from an exhibition infuse sections of his great piano cycles of the 1940s, Visions de l’Amen and Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus, in their evocations of bell-sonorities, use of resonance and grandeur of expression as well as in more intimate aspects of the pianism. Messiaen also deeply admired Ravel whose music, like that of Musorgsky, was central to his teaching at the Paris Conservatoire. (Messiaen’s analyses of Ravel’s piano music have since been published.)
Completed in 1905 and first performed by Ricardo Viñes in 1906, Miroirs comprises a set of five pieces evoking contrasting moods and pianistic characters. Far from being Impressionist—a movement with which Ravel had little real affiliation—the ‘Mirrors’ of the title suggests more Symbolist associations in that the individual pieces explore ambiguities between supposed reality and ‘reflected’ simulation. Ravel was particularly fascinated by a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things.’
The first movement ‘Noctuelles’ (‘Night Moths’) relates to a prose poem by Léon-Paul Fargue in which insects flutter like fairies in a magical garden redolent of that later evoked by Ravel in L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Highly chromatic, the piece shimmers with delicately rapid arpeggiations, eventually interrupted by a tolling bell in a more doleful middle section. A line from the same poem alluding to nocturnal birdsong also inspired the second piece ‘Oiseaux tristes’ (‘Melancholy Birds’). Here Ravel resumes the idea of tolling, bell-like repeated notes, juxtaposed with evocations of imagined birdsong, while raising the curtain on a new harmonic vocabulary infused with parallelisms, ostinatos, chords of fifths, fourths, added ninths, elevenths and thirteenths, along with piquant dissonances that elude any real sense of key in a mood of mournful longing. The intervals of the movement’s accompaniment figures provide the melodic stimulus for ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ (‘A Boat on the Ocean’), a more extrovert movement brimming with shimmering arpeggiations, rapid surging crescendos and effects of resonance exploiting the full register of the piano. Miroirs, like most of Ravel’s piano works, was conceived for his preferred Erard piano which had a lighter, shallower touch than either the Pleyel or Austro-German instruments. This facilitated the performance of swirling figurations, glissandos and rapidly repeated notes, the latter being most notoriously exploited in the supremely virtuosic ‘Alborada del gracioso’ (‘Dawn Song of the Jester’). An evocation of the traditional Spanish song of dawn intended to wake lovers after a night of ecstasy, the song itself occurs in the sultry central section, which is framed by a vigorous and rhythmically percussive Spanish dance. Ravel later orchestrated the piece. The final movement ‘Vallée des cloches’ (‘Valley of Bells’) returns to the haunting mood of longing that characterises the set as a whole, and features the tolling of bells in a manner that anticipates ‘Le Gibet’ in Gaspard de la nuit, while the oscillating repeated-note figuration of the opening anticipates ‘Ondine’. Exploring the harmonic and melodic qualities of fourth intervals, the quartal harmony established here became one of Ravel’s most distinctive stylistic features.
Written for the pianist Yvonne Loriod, with whom Peter Donohoe studied in Paris, Cantéyodjayâ (1948) was first performed at the Concerts du Domaine Musical in 1954. With this highly energetic piece Messiaen embarked on a period of stylistic experimentation that followed completion of his gargantuan Turangalîla-Symphonie. An unusually non-descriptive work for Messiaen, without religious references or birdsong, Cantéyodjayâ is about musical process and is constructed as a mosaic-like collage in which a jaunty rhythmic refrain is juxtaposed with a multiplicity of contrasting ideas, many of which are re-workings from Turangalîla. While representing something new in Messiaen’s output, this collage-principle owes much to Musorgsky’s Pictures as well as to Debussy’s ballet Jeux where contrasted and related ideas follow each other as a chain of different coloured beads. Although aspects of sonata and rondo form are embedded in the work, the piece unfolds by repetition and alternation more than true development. Like the many pseudo-Sanskrit words sprinkled throughout the score, the title is Messiaen’s own Franco-Sanskrit invention—a cipher for the Indian rhythms that abound in the music. Of the several slower sections in the work, two are entitled ‘Alba’ in reference both to the dawn love-song of the Troubadours and the love themes in Messiaen’s so-called ‘Tristan’ works of the 1940s; here the percussive clusters in the bass are borrowed from the ‘Princess de Bali’ movement from Jolivet’s Mana—a work Messiaen deeply admired. The energy and propulsion of Cantéyodjayâ is enhanced by moments of reflective stillness and include a compositionally virtuosic six-part canon that generates a whirlwind cadenza leading to the reappearance of the refrain at the work’s conclusion.
Pictures from an exhibition was inspired by a series of paintings and drawings by Viktor Alexandrovich Hartmann who died suddenly in 1873 at the age of only 39. An enthusiastic supporter of Musorgsky and the ‘Five’, Hartmann shared their aim of establishing a uniquely Russian mode of expression that looked to ancient Russian traditions, legends, history and folksong as a means of revitalising the course of Russian music. Profoundly affected by the loss of his friend, Musorgsky assisted the eminent critic Vladimir Stasov in mounting a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings, which took place in the spring of 1874 at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg. Soon after, Musorgsky decided to immortalise the memory of his late friend by composing a multi-movement work for solo piano in which each piece would be a musical representation of paintings from the exhibition. Pictures from an exhibition was composed in a white heat of creativity during the summer of 1874.
The work comprises a series of ten pieces interspersed with several interludes which function as a theme and variations—the five ‘Promenades’ and the mysterious contemplation of death, ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’. In this way, Musorgsky evokes his own movement around the exhibition as well as his musical commentaries upon the pictures themselves to represent the observer as well as that which is observed. The effect is one of a dual ‘reality’ as the listener is progressively absorbed into the ‘unreality’ of the often grotesque, surreal and even nightmarish world of Hartmann’s images.
After the opening ‘Promenade’ which presents a cyclic theme with asymmetrical rhythms in the character of a Russian folk melody, ‘Gnomus’ evokes Hartmann’s drawing of a devilish gnome running clumsily on crooked legs whose faltering movements have much in common with Ravel’s later depiction of ‘Scarbo’ in Gaspard de la nuit. While ‘The Old Castle’ was inspired by Hartmann’s watercolour of a medieval Italian fortress in front of which a minstrel is shown singing, the mood is one of quintessential dolorous Russian lamentation. Distant locations—from a Russian perspective—also appear in the following two numbers: set in Paris, ‘Tuileries’ is a capricious scherzo and depicts a group of children quarrelling at play, while ‘Bydło’ portrays the lumbering of a heavy Polish cart with massive wheels drawn by a team of oxen, and is characterised by sonorous ostinato chords in the lower register of the piano. Relating to Hartmann’s innovative designs for Marius Petipa’s ballet Trilby, the curiously named ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ is another scherzo-type movement; light and staccato throughout, it explores the upper registers of the piano. ‘Samuel Goldberg und Schmuyle’ is thought to be based on portraits of two elderly Polish Jews, one rich and one poor, each being represented by distinct themes that are first contrasted and then juxtaposed; the use of augmented second intervals suggest Jewish modes.
Following the fifth and final statement of the ‘Promenade’, a lighter mood returns with ‘The Market Place at Limoges’. Another scherzo movement, we return to France where Hartmann’s painting depicts the bustle of the market and women gossiping busily. The climax of the movement is interrupted by ‘Catacombs’, one of the most extraordinary sections of the work where the momentum comes to a sudden halt in a sequence of static chords that resonate like great tolling bells. In this painting, Hartmann shows himself contemplating the subterranean catacombs of Paris by the light of a lantern in what Musorgsky must have interpreted as a prophesy of the artist’s own death. ‘Con mortuis in lingua mortua’, an interlude that serves as a postscript to the movement, transforms the ‘Promenade’ theme into an ethereal memory as if Musorgsky here bids farewell to his departed friend. If this section appears to ascend into the peace of heaven, ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs of the Baba-Yaga’ descends into a living hell akin to that of Musorgsky’s orchestral tone poem Night on a Bald Mountain. In the piano piece, the strident fortissimo tritones opening the movement depict the nightmare image of the witch of Russian folklore, Baba-Yaga, and the surreal chiming of her grotesque chicken-leg clock. The climax explodes into the final movement of the cycle, ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, a magnificent edifice in the ancient Russian style that celebrates the might of Tsar Alexander II and the heroes of all Russia. Stupendous chords exalt the ‘Promenade’ theme to its full climactic potential while chiming octaves and thundering bass chords evoke the clanging of bells in a pianistic evocation of the clamorous Zvon-ringing featured in the Coronation scene of Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. Pictures from an exhibition remains a startlingly modernist work and an icon of the quintessentially Russian.
Caroline Rae © 2019