Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Part 9 “Catacombs (Roman Tombs)”

Catacombs, where Modest Petrovich was able to express himself and to encode himself in such a way that today we are the first ones, after all these 144 years since creation of the Pictures, looking into the very depth of his suffering soul.

Catacombs. But what is this piece?

The further we advance into this remarkable epic work which is like a musical Iliad, (I already talked about this), the more it becomes perfectly obvious that so called Pictures have become not just a secondary issue, but moved really far far away.

In front of us, of course, is Mussorgsky’s confession from the beginning to the end. In front of us is Modest Petrovich’s persona, expressed in all the themes that one way or another existed in his heart, in his brain, in his body. That is, it is he himself. As I already have said in the beginning of the narrative, Pictures appeared only as a catalyst, as a trigger that awakened his desire to declare himself completely. Like Liszt declared himself in Mefisto, declared his very innermost hidden thoughts. Same way Modest Petrovich declared himself in this work where we can hear the reverberations of practically his entire music life. Here come live fragments of his overtures, fragments and methods of Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina, his song series “The Nursery” and “The Flea”, “The Fair at Sorochyntsi”… In short, he spoke himself out via piano, moreover, spoke out his life philosophy, and told us his emotions and his very inmost thoughts.

So, Catacombs are, of course, the center of the dramatic narrative. What do we see at first glance? Static sounds of various volume [2:53-3:03], as performed by pianists for more than a century now. But let’s try to look deeper into these static sounds. Let’s walk away from a picture that doesn’t really convey anything, where Gartman portrayed himself in Catacombs and thus provoked Modest Petrovich’s thoughts about the other world, world of tombs, thoughts that we may call “not of this world”.

If we look at the text carefully, we will find Modest Petrovich’s persona in his music. Not just his persona that manifests itself in the Pictures illustration, which seems at first sight that it is being symbolized by static stone-like sounds. Let us remember these several sounds which are called catacombs, as reflected in the name for this piece. [4:41-5:53]… And the transition to Promenade in minor scale.

At first sight, this doesn’t tell us anything. If we go further, we see a method used by all the composers from whom Modest Petrovich learned, Schumann first of all. They are Sphinxes, the idea is the same. Mysterious sounds that are played either in a static manner or are meant to tell us that we are supposed to make the Sphinx talk. That means we have to “tremolo” him to make him talk.

There are many traditional ways to perform Schumann’s Sphinx where he encoded his name, his surname. Some musicians play it in a static manner, by separate accords; others play with tremolo and try to somehow make these sphinxes talk to tell them their secret. In short, these techniques and these declarations mean a lot of improvisation and readings of the Sphinxes’ mysteries.

This idea came to Schumann from the composers of the pre-Bach era who developed it. Bach was fond of encoding his name, we all know his B-A-C-H fugue [7:28-7:31]. This theme where Bach’s surname is encoded is developed by Bach himself many a time. And then, up until now. Even Alfred Schnittke wrote fugatos and fugues on this theme. Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich encoded his surname. In short, every composer has his “sphinx” were his mystery is encoded.

Well, let’s try to decode and make talk Modest Petrovich’s sphinx, which is actually not so hard to do if we envision the Russian character at the time, or like they put it nowadays, the psychotype of the genuine remarkable Russian person, extremely emotional, with highly sensitive psyche, highly intellectual, and carrying the heavy burden of the Russian way of life, the

life of constant drama, understanding the fate of Russian intelligentsia, Russian individualism. In short, all the complexity of Russian problems. And in addition, all the underlying personal circumstances.

And if, in retrospective, we’ll now look at the life and death issues, and encoding issues then we’ll see that Modest Petrovich is present not just in Promenade where he declares himself as just walking and mulling over various circumstances. But he is present in practically every one of his works except for parody, caricature, and genre scenes.

In all the serious nerve entanglements of this epopee we see him, not only in his secret form where he doesn’t really show himself but where his face is coming out as, like we were discussing earlier, by cinematographic methods. Imagine this cinematography method where we see the of face of the character, and it becomes transparent, it becomes secondary, and we see episodes of his life, various situations, a montage, where it is clear sometimes, and sometimes not so clear, and we see his face shining through, his eyes, and his soul.

The cinematographers know how to do it really well, especially nowadays, with all kinds of nuances. And so this cinematographic method was of course created by musicians and composers. Cinematography just borrows it from musical compositions.

Do you remember what Modest Petrovich is associating himself with? With which harmony he describes himself? [10:50-10:55]. Very airy spirit. It’s an almost pentatonic scale, almost the same which Debussy will operate with later on [11:02-11:08] with only one small deviation [11:08-11:15]. That is, here we see this Slavic transparency of his soul which he encoded [11:19-11:26]. This is absolutely remarkable! This impressionist image of a transparent Slavic key that is bursting out at us from before the Christian era, expressed by means of such a remarkable melody the whole world loves. Like the whole world loves the introduction to Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto [11:53-11:57] where Peter Ilyich tells us about the creation of the

world, seven bangs of the creation of the world, seven bangs of the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s concerto. This is the Creation of the World. Peter Ilyich is creating his world. And with this concerto, with his new world he comes to the public.

I’d like to go back to what I was talking about in the previous piece: when the musician comprehends what he is doing, the public, the people, not being professional musicians, even having no understanding, get the importance of the message anyway. Why do we love, and why does everyone know “the fate” from Beethoven’s Fifth? Because a lot of sense is put in it, in four mere sounds. The same exact way everyone knows and loves the introduction to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, because Peter Ilyich had put a huge amount of sense and his whole life in the creation of his world, in these four sounds [13:03-13:06]. The same happened to Modest Petrovich who, through this consonance [13:10-13:20] bordering both Asia and Europe, is portraying himself in this pentatonic Asian image.

Of course, his blood roots are speaking here. His pure Slavic blood, from the wild Slavic tribes, from this perfect purity. Surely, he wasn’t thinking of this philosophical massif that we are discussing here when he associated himself… This harmony simply sounded in his soul [13:52-13:55].

So, here we have Modest Petrovich “balanced”. But take a note: if we remember Old Castle, we are going to pass now, like in a movie, through the remembrances, as if we have already lived our lives, and have come to this moment, Catacombs – it is the central nervous system, everything comes together here. We are going to see all of this now, follow it so you can understand what I am talking about.

From Catacombs, therefore, we are going to look back in retrospective. So, [14:30-14:37] here we have Modest Petrovich’s spirit. Now then, let’s see what we have here in the minor key for the first time, with the appearance of this piece in the minor scale [14:41-14:53]. We already traced where it comes from, it comes from Tarantella, but whether willingly or unwillingly, Modest Petrovich, he again, expressed himself here, only in the minor key…

[15:05-15:22]. Modest Petrovich is here, here he comes! He lived in this castle, he places himself there.

The next dramatic piece is based on a Belorussian folk song about terrible fate, never ending miserable existence, and sorrowful life [15:43-15:57]. And again, Asian theme is encoded in it, almost Japanese harmony [16:00-16:10]. That is almost pentatonic Asian, Asian grain and salt that lives in these Slavic tribes, this is where he sees himself from coming from, and his music shows it: how Modest Petrovich sees and hears and feels. The same harmony, the same man who lives there, same spirit. This is incredibly interesting and deep!

Did Modest Petrovich realize it? I don’t know. But this is of no importance to us! What is important is what comes out of the stroke of genius. For us in retrospective, from our temporary position, it’s interesting to see how and in what way this man expressed himself in eternity, because a human soul is eternal. And everything he carried through his music, everything he gave us, was reflected later in the works of only two men who can be considered his musical “relatives”. A very nerve wracking Shostakovich, because there was the constant confrontation with totalitarian regime, to the point of an almost constant hysterical state of mind. So, it’s of course a very much distorted soul due to grief and unhappiness. And then there is a very ironic view but with the same Slavic roots, same blood, and this is Stravinsky, who gave us the same harmonic combinations [18:05-18:09], that later were passed on to Debussy, who created his own cosmos.

But look at the kinship of these souls! How all this is wandering! One multi headed multinational soul with the same roots, provided they are pure and beautiful and create one musical cosmos. We, on our small planet, are flying through these harmonies with the help of men from different nations, through the creation of their works seen through the prism of their national and personal fates, allowing us to hear, to recognize, to see, and to analyze.

But let’s go back to our Catacombs. Let’s try to make Modest Petrovich’s Sphinx talk. So, we saw that he existed in this [19:04-19:07] form, existed

in this form [19:08-19:12]. It encodes itself consciously or unconsciously, which isn’t important to us.

So, let’s remember the beginning [19:24-19:26], let’s travel to the catacombs [19:28-19:31], it’s the same passage only a slightly distorted one. If here [19:36-19:38], then here [19:39-19:41], in Catacombs, and further on [19:42-19:46], this is Modest Petrovich again! It is him! It’s him, only he sees himself in a new condition, that’s why it’s his ego which he expressed using the Slavic pentatonic, at first in major, then in minor scale, and then he expresses himself as he’s not of this world any longer. That is why we see [20:18-20:21] this Sphinx-like stone-like posture. And then the bass passage [20:26-20:26] – a drop down into “tartarary”. A drop down into scorching heat. Death [20:36-20:40].

Composer’s methods are perfectly obvious, the way we see and associate his emotional senses with all of human history, with all of our impressions and emotions. In Christianity and before it, death is always associated with a drop down to the center of the Earth, or to the burning griddle, with a gigantic fall. Even if we ascend to heaven, the moment of death, moment of dying is always associated with this [21:17-21:22]… Fall.

So, we understand that it is Modest Petrovich in the image of the Sphinx. Interesting! Now let’s try to make him talk in order to understand what this Sphinx is made out of. So, Catacombs; only the speaking kind [21:48-22:10]. He is asking to play the second note very quietly. The first note should be played loudly and the second one very quietly. And the third one, he wants us to “warm it up”. He puts crescendo, i.e. increase in volume. And an increase from piano, from a very quiet sound, to a huge forte! That means we are supposed to “blow up” this note using tremolo, and to become the coauthors, and not just unseeing performers of these standing Sphinxes, who don’t speak to us as long as we have not been admitted into their secrecy.

So, [22:37-22:44]. When we get to the double forte [22:46-22:49], if we play deliberately, like everyone else plays, then we won’t be able to carry

out what he later intends to do. First of all, we won’t be able to “blow it up” from piano to forte. Second, he wants us to hit, to accent every second beat of these loud Sphinxes. We won’t be able to do this if we play in a deliberate manner. Therefore, we need to improvise here, to tremolo, then we’ll get the result. [22:15-23:42].

Here, the Sphinx begins talking to us [23:43-23:55]. And every one of these Sphinxes we have to play with a different technique in order for them to talk to us openly and sincerely.

When we come to this point [24:05-24:19], the sound needs to flow like a wave. Why? I want you to listen. Remember, I was talking about the gypsy orchestras? Remember, I was talking about his vigil in the Maly Yaroslavets restaurant? About his alcoholism, about his drinking problem, about his falls? About his hallucinations, his fainting spells, his hysterics spells [24:29-24:41]. About Sorokin guitar (and it was in Saint-Petersburg already), and Sorokin already played it. It is hundred years old. We heard Sorokin play it in the 60s, this guitar, exactly this very guitar Modest Petrovich could have heard in the gypsy choir, gypsy orchestra. Look at the connection between the points in time. So, [25:06-25:11], in this Sphinx we can hear the sound of gypsy orchestras, that’s why we have to make this Sphinx talk in a way the gypsy orchestras sound: of cymbals, balalaikas, guitars, well, you know it very well. And we can imagine the character. What character? We can associate Modest Petrovich only with the characters of Mitya Karamazov or Fedya Protasov from “The Living Dead” by Tolstoy. These are the beautiful examples of Russian national character, unbelievably emotional, they are practically asocial, and they all live in that lethal, suicidal Russian bohème.

And so here we see [26-07-26:19] perfectly definite gypsy intonations of a terrible musical drama which was ringing very deep inside Modest Petrovich’s soul.

This music, by the way, was one of the defining themes that sounded in Shostakovich’s soul as well, he spoke about it himself [26:45-27:12]. And

last, if we are already talking about it, we can see a sobbing Russian man, the likes of Mitya Karamazov, Fedya Protasov from “The Living Dead” by Tolstoy, i.e. a real Russian [27:15-27:33].

Here, in the last part of this Sphinx, we can see the pure hysterics of a man. Hysterics of a Russian man, drowning in the ocean of Russian bohème, gypsy orchestra, and complete self-destruction and absence of control [27:55-28:13]. We practically see a cinematographic scene of explosion and despair of a Russian hero [28:24-28:40].

And all this is connected with a literal loss of consciousness which is practically written out here. And Modest Petrovich’s merge, in his Promenade form, with the spirit of Gartman.

That is, he fell down there, fell into hysterics, fainted, and his soul ascended [29:00-29:17], and it’s now above, now below.

Stasov, who hardly understood anything in what Mussorgsky composed, told us, based on the scarce words of Mussorgsky, what he envisaged himself here: speaking to the dead in a dead tongue, Gartman taking him by the hand, they walk together [29:36-29:48], there are sculls there in the picture. It does not matter in a musical sense. There is a totally different thing here, and it’s deeply personal [29:54-30:07].

Here we see the Modest Petrovich’s soul, and it falls from heavenly heights down to the set decorations of hell, [30:26-30:45], and does it with a great fear.

These simple methods paint pictures which are totally otherworldly. Very simple, just two musical voices, double bass, and tremolo in the upper voice, but with such a remarkable palette there is no need to be loquacious. This is exactly the same in literature, and in poetry as it is in music, which is the sister of all these arts; and the brevity and laconism become all-inclusive and complete when the feelings run deep. [31:17-31:37]. We see enlightenments.

Why did I say it was the central nervous system of all? Simply because here we can see the true collapse of a man, the explosion of despair, practically “described” by a fall, hysterics, loss of consciousness and flight into other spheres, and other worlds. Surely, it is the center of a drama. And an epic drama at that. Therefore, Homer comes to mind, and the passions of ancient Egypt [32:09-32:37].

Here, Modest Petrovich opened up his soul to us, shared his state of mind, and described it. We saw the real Russian hero that we knew from books, like I said before, Karamazov, Fedya Protasov, these amazing characters created by our genius authors. [32:41-32:55]. And now his soul is expressed in musical form. Here he is, a real Russian hero with his confession. And this is a completely unique experience that we will always live through with him and with the Russian people, Russian consciousness, and Russian soul. This is a monument to the Russian soul, to that kind of Russian people who are no longer here and will never, ever be here. Which makes this work, and especially this central nervous system of this work, Catacombs, (and later the ascending, travelling to another world, meeting with the spirit of a dead friend, the fear) all this makes it such a tremulant, theatrical, cinematographic audio/visual experience, which no other art and no other work can communicate.

For this, we’ll always be grateful to Modest Petrovich, for immortalizing that which has now forever disappeared from this planet.

Thank you.

Catacombs [34:02]

Translated by Fira Headrick and Masha Taborisskaya.

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