Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano.
Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:
“Portraitures and caricatures: Conductors, Pianist, Composers”
Concert bookers around the world are lining up pianists and conductors for performances of Pictures at an Exhibitionnext year, the 140th anniversary of one of the most frequently performed, distorted, and some say “butchered” masterpieces of 19th-century Russian music. And yet it is sure to be a celebration of what the late pianist Sviatoslav Richter called the “best Russian work for piano, amen.” At least, he might have added, when performed as Modest Mussorgsky wrote it. Lesser performers and composers have never ceased tinkering with it, much to the detriment of the inspired original.
A suite of ten short pieces linked by a recurring “promenade,” Pictures renders in musical language a ramble through an art exhibit in Tsarist St. Petersburg. No piano writing of its period quite measures up to it for its oh-so-Russian sonorities, harmonies, and jolting changes of mood. Among the hundreds of recordings available, Richter’s 1958 recital in Sofia, Bulgaria, is regarded as the gold standard. “Here the piece has incredible pianistic color,” William Grant Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy on Lake Como, Italy, tells me. “It has Russian soul, yes, but it also looks beyond Russia.” The Richter performance is still a favorite of music-lovers:
Mussorgsky’s creative storm forPictureswas almost frightening in its intensity. Musical ideas from his viewing of the artwork flooded his mind over twenty days as he struggled to structure what he was hearing in his head. “I can hardly manage to scribble it down on paper fast enough,” he wrote in mid-composition; “I think it is working.”
As with most great classical compositions, the impression ofPictureson the listener deepens and broadens upon second and third hearings. Details emerge and images come to life as the music evokes bells, children on a playground, women quarreling at an open market, two Jews in conversation and a peasant singing as he drives a rumbling wooden cart, among other scenes. Audiences love it for its charm and easy accessibility. “Picturesis a truly Russian work in its directness of expression, its form arising from content, and its summing of parts rather than organic growth,” wrote British music academic Michael Russ in an extended monograph on the piece. “Mussorgsky prefers to depict real life rather than the spiritual, romantic, sensuous or erotic.”
The piece becomes more poignant when you consider its genesis: Mussorgsky wrote it shortly after his friend, the architect-artist Viktor Hartmann, had died at the age of 39 from sudden heart failure. The two men had found common ground over their views on the arts in Russia and were on a sort of crusade against excessive Western European influence.
Mussorgsky, an impulsive, temperamental genius with an appealing comic streak, began as a pianist and popular composer of songs. Voice gradually became his special interest. BesidesPictures, his other lasting contributions are his great operas –Boris GodunovandKhovanshchina. As a music innovator, he was a charter member of the group variously known as “The Five,” “The Mighty Handful,” and “The Mighty Coterie,” consisting of himself, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mili Balakirev, Alexander Borodin and César Cui.
Artist Hartmann gets little credit forPictures, although without him the music would never have been composed. He was no Rembrandt, but he worked tirelessly during his short life and left a copious legacy. For one architectural competition he produced seven hundred sketches. He dabbled in stage sets, teacups, lamps, picture frames and jewellry but his most accomplished works were watercolors and pencil sketches. The sole extant Hartmann architectural construction is the Russian Milleniary Monument at Novgorod dating from 1862.
Only about sixty-five of his paintings and sketches have survived Russia’s diasporas, wars and revolutions. The teacups and other ephemera have long since vanished.
Hartmann’s architectural creations often featured carved-wood filigree and quaint, impractical peasant ornamentation. Columns and pilasters were replaced with wooden filigree under the eaves, roosters and colored tiles in complex patterns. Mussorgsky, for his part, exhumed country folk music and dances and then felt his way forward on instinct. His brother Filaret recalled that the composer, who was largely self-taught, had a love for “everything connected with the people and the peasantry. Even the Russianmuzhikwas a human being in his eyes.” For most of the educated or aristocratic population, the Russian peasant was then considered equivalent to a farm animal, bought and sold “like a sack of corn or a cart-horse,” wrote a Mussorgsky biographer.
Their efforts were short-lived, however. “Russian music,” wrote one critic, “ had the vitality to break up the 18th century tradition but not the continuity to build up another. Like nomad Tartars, the Russians razed Western buildings to the ground but replaced them with gaily painted tents.” In retrospect, this seems a harsh indictment of the Russian tradition and the stalwart compositions that remain in the repertoire today. But without a doubt Russian music moved on: Stravinsky, most notably, came next.
Pictureswas slow to settle into the music scene after it was first published in 1886 – five years after Mussorgsky died and twelve years after it was completed. Even the initial published version was distorted. Rimsky-Korsakov, a former roommate and protector of Mussorgsky’s legacy, was the first to massage it. “With the best of intentions, Rimsky felt obliged to emend some of Mussorgsky’s more daring touches,” wrote German musicologist Manfred Schandert in his commentary on the urtext manuscript. It nevertheless remained little known for decades, rarely performed in recitals and too difficult for amateurs to play at home. (A pianist friend of mine in London today raises one eyebrow and warns of its “tight corners.”) Only in 1922, after Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel for an orchestration, was it brought to life in a new orchestrated version, Westernized, Frenchified and popularized in the form most concert-goers know today. The accurate and “daring” piano original was then finally published in 1931.
In the years since, orchestrators, adapters and performers have never stopped trying to make it better, or at least leave their own stamp on it. Russian-born Vladimir Horowitz wrote a personalized version of it for piano in 1947, “wild, dirty and explosive,” says Naboré. The full suite à la Horowitz is still available here:
Roughly thirty-eight full orchestrations ofPicturesare catalogued and another forty or fifty adaptations—many of them on the goofy side—can be found by trawling the web. Eclectic versions for a synthesizer, electric guitar, seven trombones, 23 clarinets, various chamber combinations, three pipe organs and percussion, accordion, women’s choir, men’s choir, a glass harp, indeed nearly every instrument known to Western man including a Kentucky jug band – if a jug can be called an instrument. The effect on the ear ranges from stirring (the trombones) to outrageous (Emerson, Lake and Palmer rock band), to just too French for words (the Ravel orchestration, by far the most popular), to cotton candy (Cailliet). For an ear-bending kazoo and pennywhistle parody, Canadian musician Friendly Rich’s orchestra recorded this tribute, which he admits is a friendly butchering:
Such heavyweights as Ravel, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lucien Cailliet (for Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra), Sir Henry Wood and Leo Funtek produced orchestrations.
But it is Ravel’s version that causes the most controversy among the cognoscenti. Russians, who feel they own this music, find his treatment – especially the inclusion of a saxophone – grossly inappropriate. Worse, he is also accused of reproducing errors from an inaccurate piano score. These shortcomings have not prevented the Ravel estate from making millions in royalties, however, as the orchestration became integral to the repertoire throughout the world. Even today the fees can be prohibitive, depending on the orchestra and its audience. Swedish movie director Christopher Nupen recalled for me his decision to drop the costly Ravel version he planned to use in a documentary film on Ashkenazy. Instead he opted for the orchestration by Leo Funtek, the Slovenian-born composer who made his life and career in Finland. As a bonus, Funtek hewed closer to the piano score – and included no offending saxophone solo. Later, Russian-born Ashkenazy undertook his own orchestration to restore “complete loyalty to Mussorgsky’s idiom.” Besides, he adds, “in my version these mistakes can be put right.”
Sviatoslav Richter’s criticism went much further. He said in an interview shortly before his death that he consideredPicturesto be the “most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. But when the Frenchman tried to improve it, Richter felt, the results were disastrous. “I loathe and abhor” the Ravel piece, he said. The orchestration is “an abomination, a terrible, decorative travesty.” The interview was published in book form and as a DVD by documentary maker Bruno Monsaingeon asRichter: The Enigma, a rare extended conversation on Richter’s life and piano career that electrified the music world.
Julian Lampert, a U.S. composer-pianist of Russian descent, tells me he also finds the Ravel version a clash of opposites. It reminds him, he says, of “Grand Marnier poured over potatoes and kasha.”
Music scholars argue in several biographies and monographs over the glories and tragedies of Mussorgsky’s artistic life, focusing first on the spelling and pronunciation of his family name. Variations through the ages had no letter “g,” hinting at the root “musor,” meaning garbage, mucous, or in current slang, “policeman.” One Russian friend tells me she recalls giggles in the classroom whenever Mussorgsky’s name was mentioned. The syllabic stress was eventually shifted and the letter “g” was inserted by Filaret, Modest’s “snooty” brother, to clean up the name, according to one scholar. Nevertheless, Modest took pleasure in jokingly signing lettersMussoryanin(in Russian, “he who lives in garbage”).
When Mussorgsky turned his talents toPicturesin 1874, shortly after finishing his great operaBoris Godunov, he selected ten works from the 400 on display at the Hartmann posthumous exhibit to portray in music. They provide one of the earliest and most direct examples of “program music”, the creative process for translating the visual into music. Ironically, six of the ten pictures in the “profoundly Russian” suite were produced during Hartmann’s travels in France, Italy and Poland.
Mussorgsky invented a unique structure to tie the ten pieces together. The pictures are linked by a recurring theme, a “promenade”, to evoke the wandering of an exhibit visitor. The viewer, Mussorgsky himself, first stops at a drawing entitled “The Gnome,” an awkward, jumping dwarf that in its musical depiction was considered “an incredible piece of audacity” in the way it departs from traditional piano writing. Next he stops atIl veccio castello(The Old Castle), painted during his trip to Italy. The music brings out a heart-rending melancholy line, evoking a troubador performing before the castle. The controversial saxophone appears in this part. A short promenade returns, then the viewer comes toTuileries, subtitledChildren’s Quarreling at Play. Here the music echoes the sound of animated young voices, one of Mussorgsky’s most effective translations of human sounds onto the piano. The frolic and romp of the children virtually leaps from the piano. Next comes a watercolor of a large wooden wagon, titled in Polish “Bydlo,” that combines thick, ponderous left-hand chords of the giant wooden wheels overlaid with a folk tune being sung by the driver.
A quiet promenade intervenes, then at No. 5 the visitor discovers theBallet of Unhatched Chicks, a sketch of costumes for a ballet called “Trilbi,” and it appears musically as a charming scherzino that breaks the heavy mood and substitutes a feeling of wild gaiety among privileged children. Next comes another watercolor, this one titled “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” which Mussorgsky explained as his attempt to “get at Hartmann’s Jews” and to reproduce more “intonations of human speech.” The music replicates a comfortable Jew speaking in a deep, rumbling voice, alternating with the whining tremulo of the poor Jew.
The longest promenade of the set follows, as the listener imagines the viewer pausing, moving on from picture to picture, finally settling at Limoges, usually subtitled “The Market(The Big News)” which he called “a study in intonation,” again picking up sounds of animated chatter. The musical outbursts here were invented to mimic women bickering and exchanging their version of news of the day.
Without a promenade, Mussorgsky next takes directly on to theCatacombs(A Roman Sepulchre)” in Paris, that flows from a haunting introduction into a subtheme, “Con mortius in linua mortua, bastard Latin for “With the dead in a dead language.” The eerie melody is Mussorgsky’s translation of a visit to the “place of skulls,” as he wrote on his score, and as he calls out to the macabre scene, “the skulls begin to glow faintly from within”. And on to No. 9, a sketch known as “The Hut of Baba-Yaga,” one of the most exciting passages in the suite, a wild scherzo with unusual harmonies and halting melodies. Hartmann has borrowed “Baba-Yaga” from Russian folklore, a witch who lives deep in the woods in a hut on hen’s legs. This creature was best rendered by Pushkin in his introduction toRuslan and Lyudmila. Mussorgsky’s witches’ ride is one of the most interesting of the entire suite for its thumping rhythms and memorable melodies.
The finale is the now-familiar “Bogatyr Gate, the Great Gate of Kiev,” based on one of the better-known Hartmann sketches, a monument to Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. He won the design competition for Kiev Gate, with a Slavic war helmet atop it instead of the usual onion dome. He regarded it as his finest work. The monument was never built but the music made it memorable in different artistic terms. The gate provides a finale that calls on the full range of the keyboard and its arpeggios, including bell-like chiming in the upper register – rendered in most orchestrations as a mighty climax with sets of bells hammered by percussionists. The effect, even for critics of Ravel, can be breathtaking. In this version, Gustavo Dudamel conducts a Venezuelan youth orchestra in the Ravel version:
Late in life, Mussorgsky’s tragedies multiplied. His operas were dormant or unfinished, his piano suite unpublished and his own creative talents in remission. He ended his life as an unpaid assistant teacher at a school for singers, and was reduced to accompanying them on tour. He suffered bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism. Epileptic seizures became more frequent. Virtually dysfunctional, he was sacked from a civil service post that had provided a subsistence income in 1881.
His last public appearance as a soloist was at a January 25, 1881, commemoration of Dostoevsky’s death, where he improvised a funeral march. The audience stood in respect – as much for the music as for the deceased.
Mussorgsky was destitute and close to begging in the street when he sat for a portrait by his friend the renowned painter Ilya Repin. The portrait depicts a man in distress, clothed in a dressing gown, disheveled, disoriented, uncombed. His nose is painted red, reflecting a long period of alcoholism. Mussorgsky died March 16, 1881, at 42 just 11 days after the painting was finished, alone in a hospital where he was being treated for a stroke.
“Pure as crystal, against the dark background of his tragic destiny, the soul of this incomparable artist stands out,” concluded biographer Oskar von Riesemann.
The story of Modest Mussorgsky contains many of the elements of the tortured Russian soul of 19th century fiction – a majestic natural talent, the rise to public acclaim, then a loss of creative power, descent into alcoholism and despair, and a pathetic, lonely death. Scholars and musicians today agree on Mussorgsky’s greatness as a creative force. His legacy is validated by his continued presence in opera houses and concert halls around the world, and popularity 130 years after his death that has inspired a broad spectrum of interpreters.
This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.
Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.
Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.
Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.
Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.
EXTRACT: ".........every component of aggregate demand – consumption, capital spending, exports – is in unprecedented free fall. While most self-serving commentators have been anticipating a V-shaped downturn – with output falling sharply for one quarter and then rapidly recovering the next – it should now be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is something else entirely. The contraction that is now underway looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting..............The risk of a new Great Depression, worse than the original – a Greater Depression – is rising by the day."
EXTRACT: "President Donald Trump and US policymakers have thus far favored piecemeal measures, especially when it comes to the state directing – indeed, reorganizing – the private sector. Their instinctive belief in the superiority of the market and private initiatives, regardless of the circumstances, leads them to recoil from the scale of government intervention needed to save our lives and livelihoods."
EXTRACT: "Back in July 2019, while in Michigan for one of the early Democratic Party presidential debates, I was invited to a small dinner with Bernie Sanders. Toward the end of the meal, those who remained at the table included actor/activist Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, former Mayor Gus Newport, Jane Sanders, and a few key campaign staffers. What ensued was a free-flowing discussion of the agents of social and political change, sprinkled with personal recollections of and lessons learned from historical figures – many of whom had been known by my dinner companions.......I came away from that evening seeing Bernie Sanders in a different light. He was, and still is, a candidate for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he must also be seen as a transformative figure in modern American political history."
EXTRACT: "Why are we more scared of what is less likely to kill us?
The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu, or COVID-19, but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period – as with car accidents or the seasonal flu – it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seatbelts or getting vaccinated."
EXTRACT: "But if containment measures fail – as we are seeing in Italy just now – the banks may still end up in trouble. They may also stop lending again, in which case the asset bubbles would collapse and a long-term recession would become a certainty. Central banks and governments would have to step in with more assistance: as well as further interest rate cuts, they look likely to try more QE and potentially bailouts like in 2007-09 if necessary. But given the limited scope this time around, if the global economy stalls for the long term, these measures might still fail and central bankers could potentially lose control of the marketplace altogether. In such a situation, we would be in truly uncharted territory." PICTURE BELOW: WORLD DEBT.
EXTRACT: "The Russian resistance appears to have derived from fears that if they cut back exports and OPEC managed to keep the price high, US petroleum firms using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would simply rush in to grab Russian markets in Europe........So the theory that Russia provoked the price fall to harm US fracking companies is incorrect. They provoked it to avoid being harmed by the American producers, as they saw it."
EXTRACT: "I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”
The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.” "
EXTRACTS: "Dreyfus was originally arrested and convicted on charges of selling military secrets to Germany – France’s historical enemy. But because he was a Jew, his guilt was assumed from the start, particularly by most of the French officer corps. To ensure that the charges would stick, various conspirators fabricated evidence against Dreyfus, including a secret file that only the judges who handed down the conviction and prison sentence were allowed to see........In the Dreyfus Affair, a savagely right-wing press fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and intrigue among elites, just as Fox News does today against Trump’s enemies. Owing to these malign efforts, truth itself becomes blurred,........Most depressing of all, though, is the fact that no senior figure in the US has come forward to stand alongside Vindman. There has been no Zola to issue the equivalent of the famous “J’Accuse!” pamphlet, shaming the country’s complicit elites for their lies and corruption. Instead, men like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have put their personal interests first, remaining mostly silent......"
EXTRACT: "After nearly four years of inveighing against the US intelligence officials and analysts who revealed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump is finally acting fully on his paranoia by carrying out a purge. "
EXTRACTS: "........the next global recession could be around the corner – and that it may look a lot different from those that began in 2001 and 2008.........unlike the two previous global recessions this century, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, implies a supply shock as well as a demand shock. ..........In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp declines in production and widespread bottlenecks. In that case, generalized shortages – something that some countries have not seen since the gas lines of 1970s – could ultimately push inflation up, not down."
EXTRACT: "The EU must ask itself if it is prepared to do what is necessary to remain an independent player, united in the common interest of all Europeans. Otherwise, Europe’s viability as a democratic, sovereign entity in control of its own destiny will be called into question – and therefore tested by adversaries – like never before."
EXTRACT: "The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. ...........This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets."
EXTRACT: "It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that this new coronavirus is likely to do much more damage than SARS. Not only has COVID-19 already caused more deaths than its predecessor; its economic consequences are likely to be compounded by unfavorable conditions – beginning with China’s increased economic vulnerability.................So far, US investors seem unconcerned about these risks. But they may be taking too much comfort from the US Federal Reserve’s three interest-rate cuts last year. Should the US economy falter, there is nowhere near enough room for the Fed to cut interest rates by 500 basis points, as it has in past recessions."
EXTRACT: "Beyond the usual economic and policy risks that most financial analysts worry about, a number of potentially seismic white swans are visible on the horizon this year. Any of them could trigger severe economic, financial, political, and geopolitical disturbances unlike anything since the 2008 crisis."
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report.
Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents.
Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself?
Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."