June 2

Trilby, the ballet

One of the joys of the Internet – though I doubt whether the musicians or the composers or the recording companies are terribly joyful – is the ability to listen to literally any piece of classical music that you please, for absolutely free, and in a multitude of performances. During my years on the American continent I subscribed to Pandora, which did my choosing for me; now that I am back in Europe Pandora is unavailable, so I am surfing LiberLiber and ClassicalCat and the archives of the Vienna State Opera, or simply putting in someone's name to a YouTube search engine and seeing what comes up.

The Rich Jew
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offers its own unique catalogue of performances, of which Alexander Ghindin's solo keyboard rendition of Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition" reminds me what a splendid piece of composition this is, even without the massive fireworks of the full orchestral performance, which are what one normally remembers. Mussorgsky began the piece on June 2nd 1874, and finished it a modest twenty days later, on June 22nd; the exhibition in question should be included in the full title, though it never is, alas. Картинки с выставки – Воспоминание о Викторе Гартмане in the Russian, which I believe is pronounced something like Kartinki es vystavki – Vospominaniye o Víktore Hartmane, the latter phrase prousting as "A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann". 

It is, for the information, a suite in ten movements with a recurring set of variations known as "Promenade", and it was composed for solo piano; the full orchestrated version with which you are likely familiar, replete with instrumental fireworks, was not Mussorgsky's work at all, but an arrangement decades later by Maurice Ravel (played rather mournfully slowly here by the National Radio Orchestra of Bucharest under Valentin Don), though there are other versions, the first in the 1880s by Mikhail Tushmalov, others by Henry Wood, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Slatkin and many others, including a truly dreadful electric version with Moog synthesiser by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (listen to it here). 

But my reason for being here is to talk about Hartmann's Pictures, not Mussorgsky's musicalisation of them.
Sandomierz Jew (The Poor Jew)
Hartmann was both an artist and an architect. He and Mussorgsky met somewhere around 1870, while ancient France and newly-created Germany were tearing central Europe apart and the Abramtsevo Colony was being purchased and preserved by Savva Mamontov, beginning what would come to be known as the Russian Revival, a subject close to the hearts of both Mussorgsky and Hartmann: how to create an art, a literature, a poetry, a music, that was intrinsically Russian, when so much of what had been happening through the 19th century displayed openly its roots elsewhere in Europe, France in particular, whose language was the one preferred at Court. The meeting was probably arranged by Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov, the influential critic who followed both of their burgeoning careers with interest, and to whom Mussorgsky would dedicate the composition.

Paris Catacombs
Mussgorsky was thirty-one in 1870, Hartmann thirty-six. Three years later, on August 4th 1873, Hartmann died of a brain aneurysm. If Mussorgsky was shaken, so was the whole of the Russian art world. With Stasov at the helm, an exhibition was organized in Saint Petersburg, to celebrate Hartmann's brief but brilliant achievements as an artist; more than four hundred of his works were put on display at the Academy of Fine Arts during February and March of 1874, including works from his personal collection lent by Mussorgsky; and of course the composer attended in person. Fired by the experience, he scored "Pictures at an Exhibition". As Stasov explained in the first published edition of the work – and he knew because Mussorgsky had discussed the suite with him as he composed it - "The composer here portrays himself walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened, he thinks in sadness of his dead friend. …"

The hut of Baba Yaga
Mussorgsky based his musical material on drawings and watercolours which Hartmann had produced during his travels overseas, mostly in Poland, France and Italy, though the final movement also captures Hartmann the architect, through his design for a city gate for Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Sadly, almost all of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibition have been lost, destroyed in war or by some censorious Communist official, or more likely not lost at all but simply hidden, in the vaults of somebody's private collection, where most of the world's ungalleried art ends up if it is any good. There are critics, mostly of the academic variety, for whom art lives in the lecture hall rather than the studio, and music in the seminar room rather than the auditorium, who would like to be absolutely certain that this painting, rather than that painting, is the one Mussorgsky had in mind for each section of the score; I am sorry to disappoint them in this regard, but they are no more likely to answer that question than will the Christian academics who have identified the locations of every claimed relic of the True Cross and wish to state for certain which are authentic and which merely optimistic, or those politicians who like to focus their pre-vote speeches on all the terrible things that "could" happen if the other candidate should win; hypothetical speculations all of them, absolute unknowables each one.

Design for a city gate, Kiev
The Russian musician and conductor Sergei Vladimir Korschmin is probably the leading contemporary expert on Abramtsevo, and especially on Viktor Hartmann; rather than posting all the images I can find on the Internet, I recommend my reader to go to Korschmin's page on "Pictures At An Exhibition", which you can do by clicking here, and where you will find a far more comprehensive Hartmann art gallery than Mussorgsky was able to manage. In the meanwhile, above and below are (perhaps!) the specific pictures on which Mussorgsky based his composition.

Amber pages:

Also, today in

1740, the Marquis de Sade was born

and in 1840, Thomas Hardy

and in 1857, Sir Edward Elgar

and my mother insists that I mention the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, today in 1953; though she probably won't be all that pleased if I leave a blank page for my essay on the glorious achievements of her reign (though, on reflection, her having done absolutely nothing of any significance whatsoever may actually be that glorious achievement: having a monarchy provides a set of formal boundaries round the not-terribly-democratic system that we operate, which checks it, and balances is, and keeps it safe from despotism. Imagine what would happen if we abolished the monarchy: within days there would be calls for a Presidency instead, and all the egomaniacal megalomaniacal failures of British politics lining up on the hustings shouting "me-me-me". Lord Blair of Kazakhstan. That Huguenot immigrant Farage. Sir Michael Backstab-Gove. Boris the Buffoon. God help us all and save the Queen!)

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