Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Part 2 “Gnome”

To fully and clearly comprehend the whole of this music we need to step back a bit from it   And focus our attention on human consciousness, to get inside the composer’s mind. This is the most important question to answer in order to understand the message behind, and the material content of, this musical work.…Consciousness…Human Consciousness, the conscious perception of time, of place or country and of people,  of human interaction and perception.

Today’s perception of and compassion for people whose DNA have made them dwarves or which folks of the middle 19th century termed Gnomes.  Unfurtunately, there exist many false preconceptions of dwarfs according to such vernacular as Disney cinema, cartoons, and fairy tales as well as many other mass media based misrepresentations which constitute our understanding of the 19th century’s portrayal of gnomes.  Or at least the essence of European thought at the time.  Our modern comprehension of dwarfs originally derived from the primitive views of early European culture.  Today’s  fairy tale culture portrays  dwarfs as cute, fanciful, agile, and heroic characters in caps, and sometimes as figurines with pompoms who engender positive emotions.

But 19th century Dwarfs are often portrayed as little people with supernatural abilities.  They freely go though  walls, cliffs, granite or material barriers.  They live underground.  And later I will explain why these concepts are important to our narrative.

The overly simplistic description of their nature is caricature rooted in traditional satire.  They are self-conscious, seemingly arrogant and overly serious, Focused on the goal of possessing certain objects, lacking in humor or grumpy.  This makes them objects of ridicule when they are placed among people of normal stature.  That is, the dwarf of the 19th century is a parody, a cartoon version of a person.  Above all they are short, presumably to facilitate their walking inside underground caves.  In addition, they possess superhuman abilities.

Since Mussorgsky was extremely adept at creating parodies and musical cartoons, , according to the memoirs of contemporaries, whenever he spontaneously improvised on all sorts of satirical and humorous themes, he made people laugh out loud.  So much so that Mussorgsky’s piano creations caused the public to fall down from laughing.  But the thing that is the most interesting is this :  as a true artist Mussorgsky did not just perform the parodies, he actually become their reincarnation.  It was his secret, his brilliance, his public influence.  Because of this, we are taken one step deeper towards the understanding of this distinctive musical miniature.

Mussorgsky doesn’t just play at the piano, he transforms himself.  Now we no longer see Modest Petrovich in front of us;  instead we see the troll, the nibelunga, gnome, sztverga, anyone, with all the grimaces.  Of course, when we have to do this, we should not overplay, it’s like bad actors, when they are said to be “overacting”.  But you can’t ignore those things which accent the presence of an actor in the author’s personality.

So the dwarf – as I have been describing it, is based on knowledge of European mythology and the image of that story as it came to Russia, – This is a perfect grounding for the humour , satire, and surreal talent of Mussorgsky.  In this play, Mussorgsky let his fantasy run wild in an ironic, sarcastic and humorous way.  And now I want to go straight to the text, so that together we look at the complete caricature,
and the sharp contrasts which define the appearance of the gnome. [4:14]

The dwarf appears suddenly, startling us, as dwarves often do in such tales, jumping out from under the ground. [4:28]
Reaction.  [4:35]
For sure, it’s all silly jumps, grimaces and more. [4:43]

A  very characteristic beginning, which can be attributed to the image of any gnome from any European country’s mythology.  Well, now, we’ll move on to the point where the image of the gnome transforms. And experiences amazing changes grounded in Russian soil.  Let’s see how all this information, collected from the middle of the 19th century, could be superimposed on the consciousness of the great poet, satirist and surrealist Mussorgsky.  Thinking about death – this is, in fact his fixation – memento-mori always was present, about the otherworldly inferno – which was quite fashionable at the time.

The parallel is obvious. Without thinking, all this mythology, once filtered thru the russian consciousness, leads us instinctively to this parallel, even if I don’t explicitly articulate it.  I think you’ve already guessed it.  Otherworldly characters, underground people, caves, underground worlds,surreal beings.  Who could  it be ? In the Russian mind it’s Gogol, Gogol, and once more Gogol.   Now we have arrived at the proper place and time for our journey, the time and place in terms of the consciousness of peoples, nationalities, countries, and the individual.

In the Russian consciousness of a man with both Mussorgsky’s mind and immense talent, all mythology would be about dwarfs filtered  through the prism of Gogol’s consciousness,   the consciousness of a Russian Goya, with all his world of horror.  Now we have the direct path I mentioned in my lectures many times.   These are Russian artists of the surrealist school -Gogol, Mussorgsky, in part Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Shostakovich, Erofeev.  Who we choose to include in this list depends on our personal ‘’taste’’,  Leskov and Sologub can be included here too.

In short, this surrealistic Russian direction is musical, literary and poetic.  These are certainly surrealists – psychologists with a strong orientation towards diabolical satire, quite talented in cosmic satire and irony realized thru surrealistic and mystical imagery .  Once you understand how Gogol had become established as an intrinsic part of Russian philosophical thought, this list of artists becomes an obvious choice, an obvious direction.  Unusual, unique.  This neither fully reflects Goya, nor Europe, nor all the surrealistic dwarfs and horrors I have enumerated, whether they be comic, or satirical.  It’s already pure Russian.  Once rooted in European soil, interestingly, it’s now Russian.

Therefore, when we get to the material that follows, this is obviously a music of satire, of mockery, where the image is seemingly no longer that of the European dwarf, but is now replaced by all manner of freaks, and mental ugliness, from Gogol’s writings .  Imps, russian imps.  A comprehensive picture of a folk-tale dwarf – in spirit, thought, and physical dimension.

Moving on to the next bars.  By 1868 Mussorgsky had already met Gogol.  It became obvious by this time that his artistry had been infused and injected in a positive way by Gogol’s creative force.  He had already written a significant part of the opera based on the plot of Gogol’s “Marriage” story.  By 1868 it had already been performed.  That means, 5 years before « Pictures » was composed, he was already compleatly immersed in Gogol’s world. He was quite ahead of his time, so when he was playing prepared scenes from the opera,  whether in small living room groups or in full public view, nobody understood the seriousness of his subject, finding it easier to view it as a matter of curiosity and frivolity.  Lets delve further into the text. [9:53]

We can see here The Nose, Sobakevich and others. All the characters are here. [10:08] Mussorgsky is playing the piano with great fury.  [10:14]
This presents us with a vivid image of Modest Petrovich.  It’s impossible for him not to be seen here !  Because of this, there is no way it can be played using classical technique, it would be ridiculous to falsely choose an aesthetic that fails to recognize the omnipresent spirit of the composer in his music.  Mussorgsky is present in every pianistic motion made by the body and hands. [10:51]
Especially here. [11:00]  Well, who else can slap on the keyboard with the whole palm?  Only Modest Petrovich of course, nobody else. No European would allow himself to do this, and the German school would only attack it nimbly.  Here we have something completely different, demanding of a different touch altogether. [11:15]
It is necessary, of course, to maintain the text a way that is true to the intent of Modest Petrovich. [11:20]   I  think here, in this tune, you can surely catch the famous intonations from the « Flea », It’s sarcasm, pure Mussorgsky’s sarcasm. [11:39]   Flea ( singing ), once more Flea.

Here concludes the formation of our image of the Gnome.  But further…there is a beginning…

Who is Gogol’s most terrifying dwarf ?  Towards what is our Russian consciousness going ?  Viy ! Viy and only Viy, it can be no one else.  « Raise my eyelids »  This narrative comes directly from the scary Russian dwarf himself. [12:32]
All the time, [12:43] we see him [12:46]  moving towards us.  I think that no one will doubt who we see before us.  Obviously ,it’s the satanic and terrifying Viy.

Now our fantasy is taking us to the next step, it is an infernal entity incredibly conveyed by simple, but very effective, trills and chromatic glissandos, By the way, nobody had done it like this before, nor has anyone done it like this in modern times.  Here we’re moving straight to Shostakovich, who really appreciated Mussorgsky,  because he is one of the few who understood his depth, in all it’s metaphysics.  Mussorgsky and Shostakovich are like relatives of each other.

So, [14:53] we have a phenomenal picture that is phenomenally short, it is the real inferno, yes, the very one which in fact was so fashionably adopted by the intelligentsia, the one which Dostoevsky so often used.  Consummation by the inferno’s fire.  [15:29]   And the chords become the chilling ice of death. [15:42]   Concluding with a diabolical, infernal passion.  He returns to the underground in the same way that he appreared.  In the last line, where he spirals into the soil, last line, Mussorgsky  asks us to play every note with extreme force. [16:07] He falls thru.

It is fantastic !  All the European world’s manifestations of Mephistopheles are fading away, all of them.  All infernos pale when compared to the Russian inferno, because they are unable to as effectively convey the force of the devil to us.  Even Liszt could not, in spite of all his beautiful knowledge of harmony, symphonic structure, and his endless technical wizardry, even with all this, put it together…Here, Mussorgsky’s talent, through a whole series of philosophers and writers, whom I enumerated, closes in on Shostakovich and partly on Erofeev, too, who, in an icy horror, created his own visions of Russian passions-nothing like that exists in anyone’s musical literature, nor in the concepts of written literature – there is nothing like this in the world.

« Dwarf ». [17:22] 

Here is the truly infernal picture, where we really need to present both the satire, and the humor embodied by Mussorgsky’s sitting at the piano, and delve depper into the surreal pathology, psyche, and the sacred mentality of russian people:  Which, in music, has yet to be spoken of.

This is the legacy of Mussorgsky which we must understand to fully comprehend the man and appreciate his music.  It will probably be 200 years before we begin to understand the amazing psychology of this completely crazy genius , just as only now are people beginning to understand that of Dostoevsky’s.

Next, Mussorgsky is coming to his senses.  Now we can once again see our charming Modest Petrovich, who is returning back to his body, his soul, his normal self.  As he said, each time the theme  « Promenade » appears, it is the physiognomy of Modest Petrovich himself as the narrator.  He appears in between the most dramatc points, in some ways moderating the drama and preparing us for the next piece, next Picture, which is nothing more than his reincarnation, his mental state and absolutely fantastic psychological dives into the hidden places of the psyche of the Russian man.

So presented with this horror, how does Modest Petrovich react ?  He writes : moderato comodo assai e con delicatezza.   That means : very discreet, discreetly quiet and delicate.   And he is drawing his inner self… we’ll see what he does next. [22:29]

Completely incredible reaction !   It’s delicate, floating Modest Petrovich.  Obviously smiling and floating in space. [23:04]
This three chords can represent nothing else but a bright smile [23:12] with some coquetry.  There is nothing missing, everything is included.  Everything that goes with genius – all encompassing.

So, what is this all about ? It’s something that appeals to our modern sensibilities as people.  Suspended in air… Smiling…What is the modern jargon for it?  How it can be indicated ? Swing.  Yes… Russian swing of the second part of 19 century. Sounds wild, doesn’t it ?  When viewed from a purely historical perspective.  But this is precisely what makes Modest Petrovich seem so modern, so appealing to us as listeners.  It will be always something new.  It’s already part of Earth’s atmosphere, the atmosphere of our life.   It’s forever.  Nowadays it’s called swing but in Mussorgsky time it was called enlightenment, floating and soaring.  Now it’s swing, probably in 1000 years it will be called something else more appropriate to the future time.  But it will always embody that which appeals to the pleasantries of the human condition.

By the way, this piece has that quality which makes it so appealing to jazz performers – they go crazy for it.  They don’t interpret it the way that classical musicians do, but through it’s soul the music communicates something elemental to the human condition that is visceral.   They can feel this swing intuitively because of their formal jazz training.  Jazz performers quickly understand it because they feel it in their gut.  For sure, it’s so basic that feeling its essence demands no lengthy evaluation or analysis.  Although to understand it the way that Russians understand it, you need to be Russian –  to inhabit the Russian soul – in fact you may even only fully understand it in the way we are referring to the notion of « understanding »  here if you are a Russian psychologist, writer, or historian.  But the feelings engendered here are intuitive to everyone.  It may take some time for classical musicians to fully understand at the gut level all that the practitioners of the pop and jazz idioms have to offer Musssorsky and vice versa.   Shame, shame and more shame on those classically trained musicians that ignore that side of Mussorsky.

These works are interesting pieces of a dynamic time puzzle – together they form intuitive, ingenious imagery, that is, timely and fantastical.  Descending from the world of Russian poverty,  salons of progressive half novelists, half musicians, and just plain smart and talented people from the streets, we have here inherited through a time portal something forward looking and trending worldwide only now – a few tacts becoming a prognosticator of the swing movement. [26:16]

So, like that, floating in space, slowing down, softly swinging we are moving into Italy, into Old Castle – we will see you in the next episode.

Thank you very much !

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s