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Musorgsky: 'Pictures at an Exhibition.'

Any who retain doubts about the fastidious care with which Musorgsky--often so impetuous, instinctive, fearless and furious when in the act of creation--fixed the form of his finished work need look no further than the facsimile score of his Pictures at an Exhibition (Moscow, 1975). The calligraphy is elegant, the score impeccably neat and clear. He meant every note he wrote. Yet analysing this unpredictable, fitful music remains, to put it mildly, a challenge. It will not yield readily (and sometimes not at all) to established approaches. An empiricist who despised the sophisticated technical/expressive tradition which had made possible the miracles of Bach, Mozart et al., Musorgsky took his extraordinarily alert and perceptive ear as almost his only guide, and he demands a matchingly alert ear from his listener. Dr Russ has tackled a challenging yet enticing set of pieces, and it is greatly to his credit that he serves so well both the scholar or analyst who will be looking for rationalization and clarification of the creative process, and the performer or listener who will be seeking information and pointers that will focus and fertilize his more intuitive response.

Dr Russ proceeds from the general to the particular, first setting Pictures in its wider, multifaceted context, then examining Victor Hartman as an artist and Musorgsky's relationship with him, commenting on the autograph manuscript, with a thorough and illuminating account of Rimsky-Korsakov's editorial interventions and of other subsequent editions of Pictures, and investigating the work's earliest public performances, or--more precisely--non-performances, since it seems that the piano original was not played publicly before the twentieth century (Dr Russ demonstrates that the performing history of Pictures was, until recent decades, largely confined to its numerous transcriptions for orchestra, and in his final chapter he comments on these). He notes Stasov's remarks about Pictures, discusses the piano writing and, very valuably, the importance of narrative as the basis of each piece; examines the broader structural features of the set; and then offers a 'Synopsis', which is essentially a series of detailed programme notes. The latter include at times very useful background information, and incorporate Stasov's comments and metronome markings, which should be heeded, though with caution, and the Soviet-period interpretations of Emilia Fried, the editor of the 1975 facsimile reprint, which are mostly better ignored. There are also practical suggestions for performers. Dr Russ has no hesitation in suggesting his own programmatic details or in pointing to what he hears as the weaknesses of individual pieces.

The more detailed analysis of Musorgsky's technical method follows. Dr Russ recognizes that Musorgsky's music sometimes creates its own principles, that it is often disruption and discontinuity that are the structural method in these pieces, and he offers many revealing comments. I leave others to decide whether the application of set theory and other recent analytical approaches in Chapter 7 really illumines the work of a composer as 'instinctive' and empirical as Musorgsky, though it may incidentally prove useful in identifying deep-lying connections between his creative processes (as distinct from his products) and those of later composers. There can be danger, too, in searching too deeply. To take one instance: in Ex. 6a (the opening two bars of 'Tuileries') the use of only five fundamental pitches (for the single fleeting C double sharp is surely an ornamental chromatic lower auxiliary of the most conventional kind) provides very sketchy evidence for an octatonic foundation; might not the basis of the opening seven bars of this piece be simply Lydian (rather than there being a shift to F sharp major for bars 5--7)? Is this not a more plausible way for Musorgsky, whom we have every reason to believe conjured these pieces in piano improvisations, to have thought? And the claim for octatony operating in bars 8--9 is flawed by the G[sharp] Musorgsky inserts before the fourth semiquaver in the melody in each bar (this sharp is not inserted in all editions but can be seen clearly in the facsimile). Nevertheless, the discussion of pitch prolongations in the late pieces is illuminating, impressively confirming the importance of such things for Musorgsky, and in other portions of this chapter there are ear-guided observations for which the thinking performer will feel gratitude.

Elsewhere I have a few quibbles. I wonder, for instance, whether the motivic importance of flat-sixth-to-fifth movement (and sharp-fourth-to-fifth movement) in the cycle is exaggerated: I do not find all the instances traced in Ex. 4 convincing. Sometimes Dr Russ is irrefutably right; but is it not also true that the dominant is particularly important melodically for Musorgsky (it is the initial pitch--or at least the most prominent of the early pitches--in a remarkable number of melodies in these pieces) and that chromatic movement either side of it is sometimes there more for colouristic than motivic reasons? And some instances (as in 'Limoges' and 'Il vecchio castello') are surely unremarkable touches of chromatic decoration or simply part of the melodic flow? Dr Russ is right to trace folk music as one of the roots of the 'Promenades', but what Musorgsky draws from that source is very thoroughly absorbed into a melodic/harmonic flow of a totally unfolklike kind, and to suggest that the piano right hand at the end of the 'Promenade' preceding 'Il vecchio castello' may be redolent of the sopranos of Russian folk choirs providing inverted pedal effects seems implausible. And the tonal structure of Pictures would have emerged more clearly from the table on page 33 if Musorgsky's sharp-key notation from 'Il vecchio castello' to 'Bydlo' had been fearlessly inverted (i.e., if it had been made immediately clear how these pieces actually sound in relation to their flat-key predecessors).

No matter; such things are very minor points. This is an admirable, attractively written handbook which the scholar and critic will investigate with much profit, and it should be obligatory reading for all pianists, especially the first five chapters.
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Author:Myller, Rolf
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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