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Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition

Released 12/16/2005

This is an original electronic arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's masterwork, Pictures at an Exhibition. You can read the liner notes for this album below.

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Born March 21, 1839, in Karevo in the province of Pskov, Russia, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was not a composer by training.

Though he had studied piano as a child and become quite good, Mussorgsky's parents chose for him a career in the military. In 1852 at the age of thirteen, he enrolled in the Guards' Cadet School in St. Petersburg. During his teenage years, he tried his hand at composing an opera and eventually came into contact with other Russian composers, specifically Cesar Cui, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, and Mily Balakirev, the latter of whom gave him lessons in music.

At seventeen Mussorgsky joined the Regiment of Guards, but his passion for music consumed him as he devoured the works of Beethoven and Schumann. In 1857, he joined "The Mighty Handful" (also referred to as "The Russian Five"), a group of young composers headed by Balakirev and including Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin. The Handful sought to create a distinctly Russian musical form by abandoning the constricting, traditional biases of the stuffy, European conservatories. At nineteen a nervous crisis caused him to leave the Guards, and he began a lifelong struggle with depression which was exacerbated by his heavy drinking. Though his compositions were now reaching audiences, the deterioration of his mood and psychological faculties made him somewhat unstable and cost him the respect of his peers.

Mussorgsky spent most of his adult life in relative poverty. During a four-year tenure (1863-1867) as an engineer at the Ministry of Communications, he became exposed to radical ideas regarding art, philosophy and politics. He moved into a commune with five other like-minded men who attempted to put these ideas into practice, but the death of his mother in 1865 worsened his mental instability and his alcoholism, and he was eventually relieved both of his job and his place in the commune. After a calm but productive summer spent at his brother's house in the country, Mussorgsky returned to St. Petersburg, determined to renew his friendships and devote his life to the most frank depiction of tangible existence through art. "I am a realist in the highest sense," he wrote. "That is, my business is to portray the soul of man in all its profundity."

It was during this time in St. Petersburg that Mussorgsky received momentous acclaim for his opera Boris Godunov, based on a Russian adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth by playwright Aleksandr Pushkin. Mussorgsky's unique style eschewed the popular conventions of Italian and German opera in favor of Russian folk melodies, and was received as a masterpiece upon its performance in 1874.

August of the previous year saw the sudden death of Victor Hartmann, an architect who had been an ally of The Mighty Handful, and with whom Mussorgsky had formed a close friendship. He was 39. The Russian art community was stunned. Hartmann had achieved some level of recognition in the years shortly before his death for having submitted the winning entry in a contest to design a great gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander II's narrow escape of an attempt on his life in 1866. The project was cancelled, however, and Hartmann's death came without any of his architectural visions having been realized. The critic Vladimir Stassov organized an exhibition of over 400 of Hartmann's works at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in February, 1874.

Mussorgsky found himself deeply moved by the exhibition, and was inspired to commemorate it in music, lest Hartmann's legacy be lost forever. Choosing a solo piano as his medium, Mussorgsky began the piece on June 2 and worked rapidly. "Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music," he wrote, "I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough."

He finished the suite on June 22. It consists of sixteen pieces of music (depending on how they are counted), representing ten of Hartmann's works. The movements are linked ingeniously by the stately Promenade, representing the viewer's (Mussorgsky's) progress through the gallery. The theme is at first brash and bemused, as he makes his way from one picture to the next. Soon, however, his self-awareness lessens, and the Promenade features less often. Later, in a self-portrait set in the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris, the Promenade is integrated seamlessly into the melody. The viewer has lost himself in the painting. The Promenade does not resurface again until the final movement depicting the Knight's Gate at Kiev, where the melody is played in strict 4/4 time. Hartmann's genius has risen above the crude media of paint and canvas. Viewing it, Mussorgsky is transformed.

Though Mussorgsky continued composing and gained more recognition, he remained a poverty-stricken alcoholic. His death on February 28, 1881 occurred in a military hospital in St. Petersburg after an epileptic fit.

After Mussorgsky's death, many of his works were arranged and published by Rimsky-Korsakov who took it upon himself to "correct" Mussorgsky's harsh and untrained style. Pictures at an Exhibition first appeared in print in 1886 in an edition arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov which contained numerous errors. Mussorgsky's original arrangement of the suite was not printed until 1931. In the interim, several other composers arranged orchestrations of Pictures, the most popular of these being the one produced by Maurice Ravel in 1922. Generally, however, Mussorgsky's works had fallen into obscurity, and it was not until the mid-20th century that the striking originality of his efforts was noted by the mainstream. Now, nearly 125 years after his death, Mussorgsky's grandiose and hugely theatrical style are nearly ubiquitous in the media, from the appearance in Disney's Fantasia of St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain to professional wrestler Jerry "The King" Lawler's appropriation of The Great Gate at Kiev as his theme music.

Regrettably, few of Hartmann's original works survive, and many of those which inspired Pictures at an Exhibition deteriorated long ago. Then again, Mussorgsky's melodies strive so effectively to transcend the humble limitations of the piano and provide so much fuel for the imagination... Perhaps when the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer wrote the closing lyrics to their version of The Great Gate at Kiev, they were referring to the musical immortalization of the Pictures themselves:

"There's no end to my life,
no beginning to my death:
Death is Life."


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