Skip to main content

Modeste Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881)


Khovanshina Prelude
arr. Rimsky-Korsakov

Both Mussorgsky's operas delve deep into the soul of the Russian people – and a dark and sombre place he finds it. He began work on Khovanshina in 1872, shortly after completing Boris Godunov but before its first performance. This was only ten years after the emancipation of the Russian serfs, until which time most of Russia was a largely mediaeval country. The resulting tension between the mediaeval and modern in attitudes, beliefs and behaviour, and its often devastating effect on the ordinary person, drew Mussorgsky's deepest compassion.

The opera was left on his death a mass of sketches, mostly not fully orchestrated, and with several large sections completely missing. Various sections have been completed since, first by Rimsky Korsakov, and more recently by Shostakovich. The introduction was described by the composer as depicting “dawn over the Moscow River, matins at cock crow, the patrol, and the taking down of the chains [on the city gates]”. It is short but very effective – it begins delicately, and soon a beautiful tune emerges. This grows until, when the oboe has the tune against rising scales in the violins, the curtain rises and we see not the Moscow River but Red Square. As the music becomes more animated we see “the church domes lit by the rising sun. The bells sound for early mass.” The bells die away, and the music dissolves like the mist from the river.

St. John's Night on a Bare Mountain
(orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)

On St. John's Eve (23rd June), according to Russian folklore, Tchemobog (Satan) and his witches, sorcerers, and evil spirits gather on Bare Mountain for a night of revelry. It is also Midsummer's Eve, the night of the summer solstice, and a time for pagan celebrations of summer.

In a letter to his friend composer Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky noted that he finished "St. John's Night on the Bald Mountain" on St. John's Eve, 23rd June, 1867. However, he could not get a performance arranged, and was under some pressure from colleagues to improve the orchestration, which they considered crude and barbaric. It wasn't until after Mussorgsky's death that Rimsky-Korsakov revised and re-orchestrated the piece and introduced it to audiences in 1886. Only later did Mussorgsky's original version turn up - it seems Rimsky's version was based on other earlier sketches, now lost.

Mussorgsky creates a supernatural atmosphere at the beginning with violins playing in the upper register, coupled with woodwinds, trombones and bassoons. Violins and clarinets softly herald the beginning of the wild revelry, but soon break into wilder frenzy as passions mount. For a brief time, the excitement subsides into a more subdued treatment by the woodwinds and strings until they explode with wild abandon. A sudden pause allows the sound of church bells to be heard. Muted violins describe the retreat of the witches and demons as a clarinet heralds the approach of dawn.

Pictures from an Exhibition
(orchestrated Ravel)
Promenade 1.
The Gnome
Promenade 2
The Old Castle
Promenade 3
In the Tuileries Gardens
Promenade 4.
Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.
Two Polish Jews, Rich and Poor (a.k.a. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle)
The Market Place at Limoges.
The Catacombs (Sepulchrum Romanum).
Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language)
The Hut on Fowls' Legs
The Great Gate of Kiev

Ravel orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures in 1922 in response to a commission by Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It was a huge success and has been popular ever since. You may have heard a BBC Proms concert last year which presented a version of Pictures made up from many other composer's arrangements.

Though interesting, it convinced me that no-one else has got even close to the brilliance and sheer musicality of Ravel's version. It is considered a showpiece for orchestra, great fun both to play and listen to.

Mussorgsky had been a close friend of Russian architect and painter Victor Hartmann, and was shocked by Hartmann's untimely death at the age of 39. A mutual friend arranged a commemorative exhibition of Hartmann's works in St.Petersburg the following year, and Mussorgsky was deeply moved. He decided to take ten of the pictures and make from them a work of art himself, a piano suite dedicated to the memory of his friend.

The first few pictures he shows us are linked by a “promenade”, which is varied each time to suggest the composer's varying moods in walking between the pictures. Later he uses the promenade theme within some of the pictures themselves.

  • Promenade : The Gnome – a design for a wooden nutcracker in the shape of a gnome with crooked legs.
  • Promenade : The Old Castle – a mediaeval Italian castle with a troubadour singing in the foreground. Ravel gives the song to a not-very-mediaeval saxophone. 
  • Promenade : The Tuilleries – children playing in the famous Tuilleries gardens in Paris, while their mothers watch. 
  • Bydlo – a heavy peasant cart drawn by oxen, which grinds slowly into view then disappears. A rare solo for a euphonium.
  • Promenade : Ballet of the unhatched chicks – costume designs for a children's ballet on this rather unlikely theme.
  • Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle – a picture of two Jews, one rich and assured, the other poor and cringing. A solo for muted trumpet in the central section. Mussorgsky owned this picture by Hartmann himself. 
  • The market place at Limoges – women chattering on a busy market day in the French town. 
  • Catacombs; Roman tombs – a self portrait by Hartmann looking at the ancient cave burial sites underneath Rome. It leads into “With the dead, in a dead language” – according to Mussorgsky, the creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads him to the skulls, which glow dimly from within. This uses the promenade theme. 
  • The Hut on chicken's legs – a clock in the form of a hut, on which squats the ugly form of the witch Baba-Yaga. Her wild flight leads into the last picture -- 
  • The Great Gate of Kiev – an architect's design for a monumental archway, crowned with a bell tower. This is based on the promenade theme, which is heard in original form at one point on the trumpet.

Back to programme notes index