Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Part 1 “Promenade”

Today I want to begin a long conversation with listeners, which will continue without end, until the logical conclusion, until the end of my life.   This conversation is very important, where we will talk about the most important works of piano literature.   Today I want to start with Mussorgsky’s remarkable “Pictures at an Exhibition”, which needs a very big rethinking.  I am absolutely convinced that listeners should be trained to understand the music that they are going to listen to.

 “Do we need to explain the music?” I often hear such a question.  This is not quite the right question, not quite the right understanding of the task of the musician and artist, who gives a glimpse into his workshop, or his studio, to his esteemed public.This is not an explanation  of music; it’s a completely different process. You can not explain the music, because it speaks for itself. Also it is impossible, and it is not necessary.   But it is absolutely necessary to know and understand how music “works” ‐ in quotes. To perform serious music properly, and to fully convey the composer’s intentions, the performer must understand precisely the musical world, language, thoughts, and emotions of the composer that is being presented to his intended audience. This is a very exciting moment, a living moment of communication with the living soul of the composer, which is left to us in his live music forever.

In the case of serious works, and especially with great compositions filled with endless meanings, special preparation must be undertaken by the performer and the listener alike to fully understand the composer’s inner world. The lack of such practice ‐ the training of listeners and even professionals ‐ has led the musical world to the fact  that the performers themselves sometimes perform a work for centuries and at the same time still do not know it fully, and as such, they make mistakes in interpreting the meanings,  misunderstand the  principles upon which the music is built, its underlying laws, and its intended narrative.

Let’s try to break this vicious tradition.  Fortunately, in our time, and only recently, it has become possible for musicians to appeal directly to the public from their home, their workshop, and their studio, which makes it possible to strengthen the immediacy and intimacy of the connection between the artist, his friends and the public around the world. And most importantly, it enables us together to raise the level of performing art from the outdated, historically outdated, intuitive, semi‐shamanic level of the reflexive to the level of the modern, technologically enlightened public; a new society that lives in a completely different technological era, but at the same time culturally and spiritually still remains a backward, archaic society.

Let’s try together to understand the author’s musical language, where each picture, each individual movement gives ample opportunities to communicate in general,  though his musical series.
That is, today we will only tackle the beginning, the so‐called “Promenade”, “The Walk” ‐ the first movement of  this marvelous piano‐symphonic work of Mussorgsky.

“Promenade” … Mussorgsky belongs to the rarest of composers – those whose music carries    a very large specific weight, in every bar, and literally in every tone.   There are very few such composers. And there are not many such compositions as “Pictures” in the piano literature either.  The significance of each tone, each modulation, and each musical step is rivaled only by the best works of Schumann, the best works of Tchaikovsky and the best works of Beethoven by virtue of the saturation of the images.  Wherein literally every note carries an artistic meaning, an artistic load.

5.12 Now I want us together to analyze the wishes of Mussorgsky, which he writes in Italian, as is the tradition of composers, because all the terminology of the musicians is in Italian as well.   What does Modest Petrovich write?   He writes Allegro giusto, which has two meanings: either accurately, quickly, in precise rapid movement, or, to which I’m more inclined to use, Allegro giusto as a comfortable, fast movement, not too fast and not too slow.   The second meaning best matches the character of the composer, so I interpret it in this sense, in the second meaning.   Then he very carefully wrote a whole great phrase, what composers do very rarely, when they want to be accurately understood.   Further he writes nel modo russico, ‐ “in  Russian”.    Well, since I address the Russian language to the Russian‐speaking public, to the Russian‐speaking audience, to my friends, who think in Russian, we understand each other without explanation, what it means in “Russian”. It means – broadly,  with daring, chanting, and maybe, somewhat, disorderly.  That is associated with the Russian expanses, with the Russian character.

Further  ‐the most important instruction, through the comma, follows, which tells that Mussorgsky asks us, intensely asks, attracting our attention, to concentrate on the inner world of the Promenade, or in the vernacular, “Walking”. And here we find a big discrepancy, when for 150 years musicians focus primarily on  the outside.  They try to picture the gait, the body language at best.  This is more an expression of the outside world rather than that of  the inside.  But one way or another, they concentrate in this work mainly on the outside.The name, “Pictures from an Exhibition”, refers to artful  pictures we all familiar with. Unfortunately, such superficial thinking in approaching this work led to an interpretation, led away from the inner world, led away from the main idea of  Modest Petrovich, who wanted to show, of course, something entirely different here than the pictures.  The pictures here are only a distraction from the inner world Mussorgsky is reacting to.  And through focusing on his inner world in his music, he willfully and unintentionally tells us about time, about life, about the customs of Russia in the mid‐19th century and the whole culture that preceded it, which he absorbed into his Self, rooting his experience as a native Russian man.

So, what is Mussorgsky asking of us? Senza allegrezza, which means “without joy.”   Therefore, this desire can not refer to the external; it refers exclusively to the inner world.   There can be no gait termed externally joyless.  That is, even if we have a bleak gait, a walk, then it is expressing  the state of our  inner world.  This is the most important thing that we have to concentrate on.   Senza allegrezza. Without joy … Humbly,  sadly, forcing you to live and move. Or maybe, most likely even in this particular case, referring to forcing himself to go to an exhibition, which he especially does not want to go to, because all this is exciting, but at the same time tragic and not entirely pleasant.   Well and further he asks poco sostenuto, ‐ “with some restraint”. Here is such a long introduction. A whole small literary introduction.   Which is unusual for the composer, who, in theory, was to only designate in two words:   the tempo and movement?

9.49 Let’s move on to the material itself and we will move step by step, trying to understand what Modest Petrovich wants to express in this music.  How not to make mistakes in the tempo ratios, how to find the right tempo, character, and try to penetrate into the inner world of the person who is obviously hinting that he is going to expound on the state of his inner world in this music, and not at all to paint children’s pictures?

So, the first musical theme.
10.29 ‐ 10.36 (Andrei plays). 10.38 ‐ It is very unusual that we have a variable rhythm ‐ 5 quarters, 6 quarters, together we get 11 quarters. What can it symbolize?  There is no desire to be expressive in the national style. Through his very rhythm    ‐  and Modest Petrovich himself admitted this    ‐ the “Promenade” represents his physiognomy.  This is his personal confession. When the composer, again, makes such confessions, he talks about the source of his inspiration; he talks about the source of what gave birth to this work, that is, his physiognomy.   And he admits this.

This is usually never done by composers, because they do not want to be understood in such a primitive way.  And they do not want to fill our ears and hearts with something rooted only in basic impulses   ‐ especially when such material forms the  basis or main impulse to this or that work. Rachmaninov, for example, always avoided such confessions.   He always believed that we should guess.  Shostakovich also avoided this, but then very much regretted that he did not give us any clues.

Here Modest Petrovich says: “This is me.Тhis is my physiognomy”. Open text, in his  letter, it’s me. This is my face.  And, he says it ironically.  Hence, he has a self‐ironical attitude to his own persona,  which speaks of a high level of culture, intelligence and a developed sense of humor.  Therefore, I very often draw a parallel with the great literary work of the Russian “Moscow‐Petushki” by Venedikt Erofeev, who is an absolute spiritual follower of this root irony, this musical and literary trend and the view of the native Russian man on the people and on himself.

12.57  So, 11 quarters. This indicates the complete disorder of the inner world.  On the impossibility of putting a strong beat. It always hesitates and shifts. This means that we immediately have an ironic self‐portrait statement, where Mussorgsky says: “Well, yes, here I am, a Russian bear. Today is one thing, tomorrow is different. ” Therefore, 11 quarters.

13.26 ‐ 13.32 (Andrei plays). Humpty Dumpty. How to determine the correct tempo ?   Obviously, if we continue the next two measures.

13.42 ‐13.49 (Andrei plays) we are dealing with a choral theme. That is, he identifies his inner world, his basic mood, naturally, being a true national representative. And highly intellectual, he feels his connection with the earth, therefore he takes a chant, a refrain and a chorus, which most organically conveys the basis of his character, the basis of his internal state – broad and dimensionless – using 11 quarters because it is an impractical time signature.. 1Here he is so broad, here he is so Russian.   And his basic state, his basis of character, his spirit, he associates with the Russian chant.   This statement is obvious and irrefutable. Therefore, we have a solo part

14.54 ‐ 15.00  (Andrei plays), brightly pronounced and with a choral accompaniment.

15.05 ‐ 15.12 (Andrei plays)   So, in choosing the tempo, we should start from that of  the natural choral, Russian, broad singing.   And at once we will face the mistake of interpreters who in our time have completely forgotten about the semantic pauses that can and should be in the text, depending on musical logic.

Now I turn to very important professional things.
15.47 Now, the chant or solo part and the chorus. So that we do not miss the tempo, we should …  And this does not raise any doubt that in these four bars we have vocal folk singing. It will not be challenged by anyone; no one will even try to argue with this, since it is an established fact, established by musicologists.

But where is the main error of the interpreters?   The main mistake of the interpreters is that they play the text, starting from the middle of the 20th century, in a row, trusting the graphics and thinking that in this way they purify it and make a verbatim reading of the musical text. Equally bad are the romantic and incomprehensible movements from the early 20th century or the end of the 19th century; all sorts of romantic or pseudo‐romantic nonsense made by ancient interpreters ‐ we know from early recordings  that they were only the result of bad taste.
Then, in the middle of the 20th century, musicians wanted (17.11‐shows quotes)  to have good taste and all began to read texts in a row,  which turned (???) to the fact that they, just like woodpeckers, began to chisel the graphic text, forgetting what it takes to start always  from the logic of music,  and from the logic of the text.

The logic of a musical language has two hypostases.  There is the logic of the language, regardless of the composer.   This is how we see here that this is a choral movement.   That is, the choral movement, choral singing here it already tells us one logic.  And there is a second logic, the language of the author.  When we know the author’s personality, when we know a lot about the author’s personality, when we experience the life experience of the author’s personality.  We know that the logic of life (???),  the knowledge of the logic of life( ???), of one or another author also narrows the possibility of error.  

18.05 So, let’s move on to these first 4 bars, which I’ve been talking about for so long.   Where is the main mistake ?  

18.14 ‐ 18.21 (Andrei plays) You can not play a chant and a chorus all at once as just one continuum because it never is presented this way ‐  it does not happen.  This contradicts the logic of the musical language.  Because the chorus has to collect air in an elementary way, and begins singing its part only after the agogical pause following the completion of the lead part which has been  sung by the soloist.  And using this analysis the first 4 bars acquire a completely different meaning.   As for the pace, it is not difficult to imagine a broad‐reaching, fast tempo in which you can sing without swallowing phrases.
But unfortunately, the Traditions developed over the years don’t accommodate this musical logic. The tempos are usually  accelerated.  It is impossible to sing extensively in these tempos.  It  is impossible to feel like the Russian man feels – what Mussorgsky wants to convey to us.

19.26 ‐ 19.33 (Andrei plays)  Any of us who sings with the choir knows that after the song we will at least turn our face to the choir,  and the choir will respond.  

19.41 ‐19.48 (Andrei plays) This means that between the first solo and choral solo, there must necessarily be some logical pause, without which the music immediately loses all meaning.  And we immediately lose character.  I’m not implying that many composers who did orchestrations of this work were wrong , rather that they just didn’t understand what this music is all about from the outset.  

For example, the famous orchestration of Ravel shows that he did not even understand the character of these first 4 bars; instead of a broad‐sung voice with a chorus, he gave the melody to the trumpet.
Big mistake.  He immediately transferred everything to a plain and one dimensional coloring.   The plaintive faraway human voice of the soul, especially the soul of a Russian, can not sound like a trumpet.   The trumpet is too brash to be songful.

20.50 ‐ 20.52 (Andrei plays) ) This is already a flat, unpleasant, gilded, golden ball: a cockerel that has nothing to do with the music of Mussorgsky’s soul.   Then, another mistake is made .

21.12  ‐  21.13 (Andrei    plays) When the chants end, Ravel stops the sound of the trumpet and gives a development section  to the stringed instruments .  

21.25 ‐ 21.30 (Andrei  plays) Therefore, after 6 introductory ticks, where the music develops, where the flow of music, the flow of thought of the inner world of Mussorgsky should become more expansive, Ravel contracts its dynamic scope by giving it away to the strings.   And thus there is a second big mistake – in dynamics.  After the bright trumpet, instead of expanding the sound, its narrowing comes, because the strings sound much softer.  

22.04 ‐ 22.07 (Andrei  plays)   and it turns out that this coloring takes us to a completely different plane, takes us away from the intended point. And Ravel’s coloring, as a rule, is copied by pianists – performing this part with an artificial diminuendo,  or rather, artificial sound reduction, changing from the loud dynamic of the introduction to a quieter one, where it should actually be the opposite  ‐ Mussorgsky’s inner world should unfold and open up and expand not contract.  It expands in a rhythmic way, and its sonority similarly expands as well.  So, from the very beginning, from the first 6 bars, we already have 2, 3, 4 and 5 errors, which lead us completely to another plain and force us to take false steps in walking the path of this work.  

Let’s move on to the text directly.
23.14‐ 23.21 (Andrei plays) The soloist turns to the choir.
23.22 ‐23.29 (Andrei plays) It’s also very important, as I said, since every tone matters, to provide a little micro dynamics.   It is absolutely necessary for us to show changes in moods in every tone of this wonderful narrative of the inner world,  that is,
23.47 ‐23.51 (Andrei plays) the major expresses  a certain optimism;
23..55 ‐23.58 (Andrei plays) the transition to a minor, expresses doubt;
24.01 ‐24.02 (Andrei plays) a return to the major brings back hope;
24.06‐24.08 ( АAndrei plays) then leaving in the distant major, symbolizes some question mark,
24.16 ‐24.17 (Andrei plays) and then we return.  

This is an amazingly rich series, which consists of only 11 chords, but it already narrates quite a bit about the immensity of the author’s inner state.  

So, now I will play it without interruption, as I consider it necessary and as it seems to me correctly to read this very important, main statement of the beginning of the big play, the beginning of the display of Mussorgsky’s musical self‐portrait.
24.52  ‐ 25.34 (Andrei plays). Very interesting remark of the author, when he, after short, first expansive statements to us, reveals his soul,  but suddenly, in the middle of the phrase, he breaks off, showing   a pause.   What does he mean by that?   He wants to say that, again, when he talks about his inner state, he talks about endless internal disruptions.  It’s so obvious  ‐ and it’s we musicians who must emphasize this so much, because it’s a portrait of his inner doubts.  

26.18 ‐ 26.30 (Andrei plays) This is a very expressive paint, which is absolutely necessary to complete his portrait.
26.36 ‐ 26.53 (Andrei plays) At this point, the general narrative of his general state ends, the backbone of his character ‐ wide, broad.  In the Russian language we have a name for this sudden change in spirit or break in mood – it trans‐literates as   “avralney” – literally the act of a person assuming the characteristics of an emergency ‐ all hands on deck for example;  it is typical for a Russian person to quickly rethink himself, to regather, to go and constantly change course, for one reason or another.   That is, there is no consistency here. He, again, ironically tells us about his internal problems. But the general narrative of his general state, the general character traits that were before, begins to move into details in the middle part of the “Walk”.
When he delves into the details of his inner world, we see that he breaks and separates each chord into its component intonations.
What do we have here?
27.56 ‐ 28.03 (Andrei is playing).
That is, from its general state, we move into a more intimate, deeper view after the introduction.  

Now let us try to connect these two materials
28.18 ‐ 28.45 (Andrei plays)  And one more very interesting detail, suddenly appearing is a chromaticity in the middle voice.
28.51 ‐ 28.55 ( Andrei plays) What does this mean?   This, again, is an ironic trait, to which he portrays his character of insecurity, stumbling.   And, we can even guess, knowing his life path, knowing the negative sides that accompanied his life, a certain state
29.21 ‐ 29.23 (Andrei plays) of some drunkenness .
29.25 ‐ 29.37( Andrei plays)   Then he encourages himself
29.39 ‐ 29.42 (Andrei plays) And the walk continues, the movement of his character continues as well.
29.47 ‐ 29.57 (Andrei plays). And the last element appears, very interesting, when he stumbles on the spot
30.02 ‐ 30.07 (Andrei plays). Here you can easily see the so‐called body language, and character is the character of a wonderful good‐ natured person who decides to undertake some specific movement.
Well, let’s say, he decides here, takes himself in hand, and, remember, how Erofeev says: “I did not go, but got involved”, since my legs did not go.   So here, Modest Petrovich remakes himself, apparently.
On the one hand, it shows here the outer part of “Walking” ‐ the walk to the exhibition per se and, on the other hand, of course, it’s part of his wonderful, amazing, charming character.   And ends with the first theme of “Promenade,”  

When he leaves here, he forces himself to go after certain doubts, after the internal unpleasant and bitter reflections,
Which 31.05‐31.06 ( Andrei plays) led to this turn of a minor
31.08‐31.12 (Andrei plays); as obedience to the fate
31.13 ‐ 31.16 (Andrei plays);   drunken stamping from  foot to foot
31.19 ‐ 31.22 (Andrei plays);    forcing himself,
31.24‐31.26 (Andrei plays);   Hurrying himself
31.28 ‐31.33 (Andrei plays) ; with a shift, again, a strong beat which indicates a lack of character and uncontrollability
31.41  ‐  31.46 (Andrei plays) trampling on the spot, like a bear
31.48  ‐  31.52 (Andrei    plays)). And, finally, pulling himself together, “hands reaching down the legs and to the feet”
31.57 ‐ 32.12 (Andrei plays) And proceeds on to the goal.  

Here is such a wonderful, ironic, sad and at the same time funny, bitter and at the same time sweet, charming self‐portrait ‐  a charming “physiognomy” of our beloved and dear Modest Petrovich.
32.30  Andrei plays until the end of the video.  

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