Mussorgksy’s imagery

 

Charlie Brown, of Peanuts fame, often had the mot juste. Two, in this case, simple words are all that’s needed to encapsulate how most of us feel in the UK right now.

The ennui can be enough to stop you writing a blog; and yet I realise it’s exactly the reason for doing so. For a few minutes I have the pleasure of steering you away from the ugly vitriol which pervades our political pigpen – and that, alliteration – is yet another thing which is weally winding me up wight now. Our current leader, have you noticed?, has a particular propensity for practising prolonged pompous pronouncements, peppered with diatribes on dithering , delaying, deceit and denial.

So it’s a touch ironic that I’m turning to the Russian composer, Modest Mussorgky (1839-1881) today. It’s a strange name, Modest. First you commit perhaps the most selfish thing possible by gifting the world a reflection of yourself; and then you foist upon your creation a name, meaning moderate or restrained, as if by way of an apology.

Sadly his musical output did little to disabuse this. Nowadays he is chiefly known for works like Night on a Bald Mountain and his opera about another Boris chieftain, Boris Godunov. He was a highly gifted pianist, but he struggled with the subtleties of orchestration, causing many, including Tchaikovsky, to be uncharitable in their assessments of him. Even his teacher, Mily Balakirev, concurred that “Yes, Mussorsgky is little short of an idiot.” Despite the success of Boris, he did not get a good press.

Time for some belated balance. In 1874 Mussorgsky composed a fiendishly difficult piano piece in ten movements to celebrate the pictures of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, known as Pictures at an Exhibition. Its main theme, The Promenade, which filters in and out of the piece to reflect the different mood of the viewer as he wanders through the exhibition, was used in the 1980s political sitcom, The New Statesman, (when did we last see one of those?) featuring an MP called Alan B’stard, many of whose irreverant views have turned out to be spookily prescient. It was a part specifically created for, and acted by, the late Rick Mayall, and is comedy at its very best. Dig it out on The Youtube.

Classical music often seeps into our minds in ways like this. We know or like the tune, and can be content to leave it at that; but a little more digging adds to its appreciation. Today’s passage is the last of the ten, a picture for the design of the Gates at Kiev. Don’t go looking for them, the project got cancelled. (Another taste of things to come?) This final part comes from the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel in 1922.

Brace yourself: this is a stonking sound, so don’t hold back on the volume. It’s precision playing. As you listen to it patiently,  you will hear how it expands and unfolds, bringing back the original theme, and culminating in a thundering, majestic finish.

I suspect Mussorgsky’s life was not a particularly happy one, and a high dependance on alcohol from an early age did for him at just 42. His grave has long since been covered by tarmac, but he gets his fair share of visitors: it’s now a bus stop in St.Petersburg. This famous portrait by Repin was done just days before died.

Click on the link and forget our political shambles – albeit with the help of some music applied to a political satire.

 

 

Autumn

Forgive me if I strike a slightly sombre, or maybe just reflective, mood with this post. Over the years, especially as my own seem to pass ever more quickly, I have found the season of autumn to be an unwelcome visitor.

It is a reminder, however beautiful the colours may be for a few days, that there is decay in everything. As I write, rain is lashing down and strong winds are stripping trees of what leaves remain – to reveal the nothingness, the skeletons, that lie beneath.

Yes, I know it is part of an essential process, you might even assert a long-term harbinger of spring; but I cannot look at it that way right now. It is, for me, more of a summation of things past, of things gone for ever, whether they be happy events, of which I was fortunate to share many this summer – or people who are no longer here.

Anniversaries fall throughout the year for all of us, obviously. But autumn. Autumn, in its greyness and early nightfalls, has its way of bringing them all together. Which is why it is particularly apt that in the Christian calendar the feast of All Souls should be commemorated at this time of year.

So today I will be brief with my own words and let the music of my favourite composer, Franz Schubert (as if you needed telling) do the work. Many wrongly assume that Schubert’s brief life – just 31 years – was a sad one. He was, in fact, much loved and loved almost as much. I have no idea how many of his 600 songs or more I have heard, but this one, Allerseelen, set to the words of Johann Jacobi and written for the feast of All Souls, captures precisely my feelings of autumn and what it brings.

This version by Ian Bostridge is in the throat-lumping category. Each of the three verses has exactly the same melody, yet each is treated with different colour and emphasis, at times assertive and others almost whispering and yet never losing the note. Add to that the crystal clarity of his diction and you have 4.5 heavenly minutes to savour and reflect.

And no, you do not need to be a Christian or even a person of faith to appreciate this. All of us, at some stage, will wish this for those we have loved. Here is the translation (by Richard Wigmore) –

May all souls rest in peace;
those whose fearful torment is past;
those whose sweet dreams are over;
those sated with life, those barely born,
who have left this world:
may all souls rest in peace!
The souls of girls in love,
whose tears are without number,
who, abandoned by a faithless lover,
rejected the blind world.
May all who have departed hence,
may all souls rest in peace!
And those who never smiled at the sun,
who lay awake beneath the moon on beds of thorns,
so that they might one day see God face to face
in the pure light of heaven:
may all who have departed hence,
may all souls rest in peace!

 

And here is the music, click on the image –