I recently asked some readers of Good Music Speaks to suggest some music they would like to see up on the blog. Some kind followers offered up the suggestion of “M and M”. I have to admit I was slightly confused by the suggestion of a candy. I am as big a fan of candy covered chocolate as the next blogger, but this is a music blog, not a food blog. I looked all through my music collection and did not find anything related to chocolate. A mystery was growing.
Finally I decided that someone must have wanted to hear about Modest Mussorgsky! His initials are M and M. I knew I must be on to something. Mussorgsky is a fascinating character, and one of the musical godfathers of Russia. He was largely self-taught as a composer, outside of some studies with Mily Balakirev. His most well-known works draw upon Russian legends and folklore. The opera Boris Godunov and the piano work Pictures at an Exhibition are two of his most often heard works. Pictures might be even more well-known in some of the versions orchestrated by other composers for symphony orchestra. The one by Maurice Ravel is the most recorded, but there are over two dozen others. Leonard Slatkin, current Music Director for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, once said he has an “unhealthy relationship” with the work. He means he has spent too many hours pouring over the different orchestrations done by different composers of Pictures.
Mussorgsky’s best known work may very well be the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain. A tone poem is a one movement work for orchestra that usually depicts a story, painting or other literary work. A tone poem is therefore programmatic music; it has an extra-musical story or program that is being illustrated in music. This is contrasted with absolute music, which has no such program. Meaning in a work of absolute music is found entirely in the interplay of the musical elements presented by the composer. Absolute music is not meant to represent anything outside of itself, whereas programmatic music does have an outside narrative.
The Russian legend that serves as the program for Night on Bald Mountain is about the witches’ sabbath that occurs at midsummer on Lysa Hora near Kiev. For whatever reason, the Russian practitioners of witchcraft picked St. John’s Night to assemble, dance and cavort in the moonlight on this treeless hill. The orchestra version that is most often heard was compiled by fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Because Mussorgsky was guided mostly by his ear, he often wrote unorthodox and unconventional harmonies and orchestration in his scores. Many of his works have been “corrected” and edited by well-meaning supporters like Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s often impossible to find an “Urtext” edition of Mussorgsky’s music without such outside changes.
One of the strikingly original things that happens in this piece is when the first section is repeated. Our maverick Modest raises the pitch of the whole repeat by transposing everything up a half-step. This effectively cranks up the tension and intensity the second time around. I have to wonder what other original details have been “corrected” out of Mussorgsky’s scores.
Sadly, Mussorgsky died at the age of 42 from complications of alcoholism. The famous portrait Repin painted of Modest shows him red-nosed and with bags under his eyes. This was painted near the end of Mussorgsky’s life and certainly shows some of the wear and tear that alcohol had caused him.
Postscript: I have just been informed by my wife/editor that Modest Mussorgsky is not the “M and M” that was referred to in my dear reader’s request. This leaves me with the obvious question: Who is the real Slim Shady?