Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Part 11 “The Golden Gates of Kiev”

To begin with, I want to say that, here, of course, as in all previous instances, Hartmann’s actual picture was only the initial impetus, or, as they say, the trigger, for the huge scope of thoughts and feelings that Modest Petrovich put in this wonderful finale.

Well, what is the “finale”? The finale is the apotheosis of good, life, the victory of good over evil, the victory of life over death. Therefore, there is not a great deal that is not readily self‐evident via the music’s own content. There is nothing special to say here, there are no special explanations needed here, there are no special great underlying allusions, there are no grand chains of association; however, there are minor associations which are bright and harmonious. But people often ask, and in particular, my friends often ask me, “Why is Evil portrayed so picturesquely?”

Well, I, too, when I was younger, was surprised by this, and always felt that it was due to the fact that people often find Evil more appealing to describe. Why is Dante’s “Hell” so picturesque, and “Paradise” particularly not? Why do we all have such interest in various evils, which give rise to thinking about bad deeds? While at the same time, the good becomes considered somehow unambiguous and, at first glance, boring, when taken in contrast with regard to the picturesque, or dramatic … But it’s all very simple, actually. When one becomes more mature, gaining life experience, one realizes it is very easy to create evil. Evil can be done by any fool, or weakling. Evil is the destiny of the weak, no matter how picturesque, how ingenious, how much blood is spilled as a result of this evil, and regardless of how much suffering is caused as a result ‐ this is the lot of weak, of ignorant, short‐sighted people. For us, the good is unambiguous and, at first glance, not very picturesque ‐ one must come to it by overcoming the endless onslaught of evil.

From the endless forests, mountains, and oceans of evil, of blood, of problems, we must emerge triumphant into the sunlight, where we have inspiration, light, and where the next life begins anew ‐ begins beautifully, brightly and, perhaps, eternally – nevertheless, the question of immortality remains an open one. And Modest Petrovich, being in the middle of his thirties, is just the age when intelligent, thinking people begin asking themselves endless questions about eternal life, and death. I think in the “Old Castle” one of his favorite quotations I ascribed to Goethe: “Peacefully sleep in a coffin sleeping, but live with the living “[1]. He had great doubts after Hartmann’s departure, about whether there is any eternal life? Almost all intelligent people were convinced that this does not exist. Now, especially, many people are beginning to assert this. But for a person with a strong internalized world and possessing a large cosmos of inner consciousness, this becomes an open and very intimate question. Of course, all these questions related to life and death were turning about in his head. There were quotes of Goethe, who claimed that to live life is the best religion, to not fear death – death will come of its own accord and in its own time, and so on, and so on … And all the thoughts of the German romantics, Heine, Goethe, Schiller … Schiller’s quote, which was often quoted by Modest Petrovich, from his famous poem about Troy (my friends corrected me). But the idea was that one should make the best use of one’s life, that there is no life beyond the mortal coil … Mussorgsky, through all these thoughts, went through the process of composing his amazing canvas: grandiose, epic, in the style of a Russian Homer.

And he finished this work with the “Bogatyrsky Gates”, where this Kiev‐centric Russia, the foundation of of Slovanic Orthodoxy greatly inspired him, through the pictures, to face his inner fears and doubts, and general, to overcome them. And he shows us his journey out into the light through this musical work. Why do I say with such confidence that this is all broken through his personality? Because here, again, it is very clear that in the first instance, Modest Petrovich himself appears. It’s amazing that again I have not seen this in any analytical literature. An instance of striking myopia.

So, how does this wonderful, bright sound begin with us (6:11‐6: 22)? Well, what do we have? To us, it’s the same Modest Petrovich again, only more intensely so (6:25‐6: 31), with the magic crystal with which he identifies, with the Slavic almost pentatonic, as I already spoke (6:38‐6:42 ), with his light, trembling character, which he simply unfolds through a sequence such that it sounds very epic (6: 46‐6: 55). That is, we have Modest Petrovich [2]. Modest Petrovich in all his incarnations.

Modest Petrovich does not appear in the genre pieces; he does not appear in the hen house, in the “Baba Yaga”; however, he does appear in practically all serious situations including those connected with life or death ‐ the “Castle”, and all “walks” between, and the “beastly share” ‐ “Cattle”. And here again in the apotheosis we have everywhere Modest Petrovich: first in a minor, then in a major, then weak, then strong, sometimes fragile, then swinging. And here, at the end, completely strengthened of course, as the form and content dictate to a certain degree. Although it was possible to finish, of course, both tragically and dramatically, this was entirely the choice of the author and playwright …

But let’s look at this by going through the text, as we usually do. Here we find the will of his thoughts ‐ and as in the previous piece, where there was a portrait of Russian evil, I spoke about the fact that behind every musical thought is the will of his intellect. He simply leads us from one intellectual notion to another, which is very rare for composers, and only happens when they possess a keen intellect. This is one of those rare cases. So here the thoughts are very broad in scope. Therefore, we will not need to go into any great detail, to look for some hidden meanings. No, everything is here, as we go out into the light, we go out into the good, we go out into harmony, into outer space, where we overcome all the dark, all the bad, rising above all tragedies, and all dramas. Therefore, everything becomes quite unambiguous. The fact is that some people are disappointed in the unambiguousness of good. But do not be disappointed in the uniqueness and seemingly small picturesque‐ness of the good; because there are other joys that few people are given to know. So, Modest Petrovich in our heroically bright image, identifies himself with Kievan Russia, with the sources to which, perhaps, his soul aspired. I think he was an extraordinary man of extraordinary purity and yet, I believe, on the basis of this finale, a man of indestructible Orthodox faith. This was not especially shown in his speeches, diary entries and letters, but in his music I feel it. And I think that you will feel this too, this great strength of faith.

So ‐ (10: 10‐10: 27). This is Modest Petrovich, here with us. He first walks for a time, still very insecure and frail, followed by a second walking period, where he grows ever stronger through great experiences of a huge amount of evil and worries until he becomes a such a fortress! He repeats this phrase a second time to confirm (10: 50‐10: 57), rises up in a remarkable choral system (11: 04‐11: 11). Emerging as a great free Russian soul. This choral, organ, cosmic melody is suddenly replaced by three harmonious chords (11: 27‐11: 31). Yes, here we see the notion of his faith. We see how it connects (11: 37‐11: 50). Three chords tell us that this is his orthodox foundation. So modestly he expresses his core and then goes on again to this remote song that conquers all evil (12: 10‐12: 18). The motive gets stronger (12: 19‐12: 37). A perfectly organ sounding, double third is very interesting (12: 41‐12: 44) ‐ that creates a very original sound (12‐50‐12: 53). Usually, strong composers do not create strong chords by sounding definite thirds, as this is considered a little bit unstable. But here we see that every tone he uses is equally stable and, conversely (13: 10‐13: 12), it would seem that what is considered harmonic on the usual grounds ‐ the strengthened third ‐ is not a harmonious sound ‐ but nevertheless, we see here that every tone of his soul sounds convincingly like a golden organ. This sweet song is replaced by the manifestation of his faith (13: 41‐13: 47). And here we see the foundation, which is expressed literally in the essence of the Orthodox hymn. Here both “Hallelujah” and “Have mercy on the sinner [3]” (14: 10‐14: 16). Such a number of church chants (14: 19‐14: 24) are laid in this course, literally all Orthodoxy (14: 27‐14: 35), roughly speaking. A remarkably empty pure chord, but it’s also a void that does not symbolize fear (“fears of emptiness” ‐ remember, we had empty intervals‐it was fear, the abyss and everything else) ‐and here is pure purity through the chant.

He writes here a characteristic desire for “essentio espressione” ‐ “without expressiveness.” But in fact, this is not entirely true, of course. He just did not want to be overly sensitive. But in the Orthodox hymn, expressiveness certainly exists and exhibits a much greater than superficial sensual expressiveness. He just did not want it to start sensually, intoning the interpreters. But in fact, here, of course, he had to write “religious expressiveness” to be more exact, and then everyone would understand everything at once, because playing it is simply cold and detached, would be wrong. No, it will be expressiveness of believers singing (15: 36‐16: 06). Here it is Holy Russia.

Then again appears Modest Petrovich, strengthened, with variation, where in the upper voice at first, and then in the lower voice everything is framed with a bell ringing (16: 21‐16: 51). Here is such beauty! And we come again to the Orthodox theme, but for two fortes screaming! What does this mean? Now, this is a very important point! (17: 04‐17: 24) When are the believers so eagerly sung? When do they so earnestly pray? That is, these are the hardest moments. The hardest moments ‐ the harder, the stronger the faith of a true believer, the stronger the faith. Here the strength and intention of the prayer burns white hot with the intensity of almighty faith…

Again he writes essentio espressione here, which again, of course, is completely wrong, but, again, it is understandable why he writes it. Since he uses the Italian vocabulary for purposes of musicianship and, of course, there is no such situation for singing with religious ecstasy, with inner burning, with expression directed inwards, with introvert expression! I remember the film “Andrei Rublev” by Tarkovsky, where believers pray when the Tatars are bursting into the cathedral, where the whole city of survivors gathers before they perish. So recently I reviewed this scene in the light of our present conversation here, and was very surprised by Tarkovsky’s big artistic mistake ‐ his people are praying there, and he presents the worshipers calmly phrasing the Russian chant, “Have mercy on me, a sinner”. But on the verge of death, when one’s faith is heated to the point of losing consciousness, one would not pray that way. That is, the idea was sound ‐ giving a fragment of the religious hymn, but emotionally it was handled utterly unrealistically, because there would never exist such a quiet regular church chanting in a situation where people were burning internally waiting to be killed in a cathedral. But this is the state when faith here screams (19: 43‐19: 58), pouring out, “hallelujah!” Only so at the edge of death could people pray, locked in the cathedral. It is so interesting. I was drawn by this prayer to reconsider this moment, and where immediately as a musician this director’s mistake was cut. My soul was not convinced, but, on the contrary, it was wounded. And after this cry of prayer (20: 37‐20: 41) the bells begin to ring. First they call in a minor (20:44). The bells are no longer “bad”, as there, in the personification of evil, but very disturbing bells, bells tolling in a terrible hour. Who can call in the terrible hour of national life or personal experiences (21: 07‐21: 29). There is nothing sadder than the minor ringing of large bells.

Gradually, all the belfries of large bells, small bells (21: 34‐21: 39), middle bells are gradually turned into ringing. And this minor, mourning ringing ‐ when I was working on this work, ‐ it is so expressive and connected with a heated cry of faith, anticipating it, that it remained with me for quite some time … And the enlightenment that follows ‐ did not actually lighten these dark colors. And so, at the outset of my deep study of this work, journeying according to Modest Petrovich’s consciousness, it seemed to me that this was a requiem of some kind, since the minor sound remained, despite all the majorities, which then go and are affirmed. So expressive is this connection of a prayer cry and a minor, almost alarmist sound (22: 31‐22: 42). Very, very sad coloration! The bell and all the bells already speak of a very great grief anyway. But then ‐ many times I went through it with him, and came to the fact that still remains a major. The major wins, the light wins, the beams win (22: 58‐23: 07).

From this moment comes the enlightenment of colors (23: 08‐23: 22) and Modest Petrovich appears in the form of a bell‐ringing (23: 31‐23: 46). That is, we see that he identifies himself with the victory of this golden, ringing bell, where everything seems to have been overcome that is unpleasant. That is, the power of faith, character, the power of light of this amazing consciousness, which simply rages in his soul still wins, and through the bell‐ringing, breaks into a very earnest holiday (24: 17‐24: 32). The whole piano is involved, everything that can sound does sound! And through this breaks the theme of “Promenade”, that is, Modest Petrovich himself, in such might appears! Yes, and yet in a triple presentation (24: 49‐24: 56).

Very often in apotheosis, Catholics ‐ Liszt, Beethoven, Protestants use the binary ‐ quadruple, bipartite affirmation of happiness and victory. And here we see, of course, a completely conscious trinity ‐ three times each harmony is confirmed, three times (25: 24‐25: 30). This, of course, comes from his religious consciousness of the Trinity sensation. Maybe on a subconscious level. So, here comments are superfluous, it is the victory of good and the merging with the cosmos of light (25: 47‐26: 41). We walk the stairs to the sun! We can compile all the literature created by the word, all the victorious finals, collect epilogues, and we will understand how rich the sensations of literary, poetic, and the spiritual possessed him when he wrote it (27: 14‐27: 16), looking at the harmonies in a very simple folk manner, at the root level. That’s why he likes it so much, again I repeat, to the jazz musicians, the people’s musicians, the street musicians (27: 26‐27: 28). He goes through the minors (27: 32‐27: 37), this is a very characteristic move for a simple and bright man, seeking good (27: 43‐27: 50).

Therefore, it is so close to all nations, so it is so close to the street and the palace, that’s universal. The minor is replaced by a major (28: 00‐28: 23), and he flies in majeure indestructibly (28: 30‐28: 32), but he does not get there first, which is also very typical for ordinary musicians, root, such pseudo‐cadences: 44‐28: 47), ‐ not in that tonality! And again he repeats (28: 51‐28: 59), and finds! And finds his light in E flat major and flies to the sun (29.05‐29: 35)! Victory! Crown. And a victory from those philosophical and spiritual victories that are just beginning life, and all that was preceded ‐ it was the passage of all circles of hell. How do they say in Russian fairy tales? A fairy tale is a lie, but in it a hint, to pretty girls and good fellows a lesson! (30: 13‐36: 14)

[1] This refers to the quotation from the translation of V.A. Zhukovsky “The triumph of the winners” of Schiller’s ballad “DasSigesfest”, mistakenly attributed to AG Goethe. He goes back to this below.

[2] This refers to the theme of Modest Petrovich, given already in the “Walk”.

[3] Psalm 50: “Have mercy on me. O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy bounties, blot out my iniquities. Wash me many times from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin, for I recognize my iniquity, and my sin is always before me …”

Translated by Svetlana Harris and Todd A Harris

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