Cattle and chickens: Bydlo, Promenade, The Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens in their Shells

We’re roughly thrust across countries, classes and cultures into a world of harsh brutality in the next piece, ‘Bydlo’, the Polish word for cattle. The painting, now lost, showed a Polish cart on huge wooden wheels, drawn by oxen. We can hear it lumbering along, the grinding LH struggling to move forward, mired in the depths of G sharp minor, while the RH intones a slow-moving, ponderous melody. Mussorgsky’s craftsmanship turns the descending minor 3rd motif of the preceding  Tuileries’  B major top line  into the rising minor 3rd of Bydlo’s bass in the relative minor, giving a subtle, unconscious unity to the two pictures, heard next to each other without an intervening Promenade.
In the middle section, phrases are heard again and again – there’s no escape; we’re going nowhere fast, in fact we’re going nowhere at all. Thick and clumsy, the wheels seem stuck in a rut, until with a huge effort and a massive crescendo the cart pulls free and moves forward painfully slowly, the oxen straining against the weight as they gradually lumber out of sight.
Mussorgsky shocks us without apology after the genteel refinement of  the Tuileries. The following Promenade also gives pause for thought. Starting in a high range, it falters, with unexpected silences.  Frowning minor 2nds appear in deep LH octaves, and the RH follows suit, in angular discomfort. Is Mussorgsky unsettled by the vision of rural Polish poverty after the opulent urban wealth of the Parisian Tuileries?
But suddenly, something catches his eye. Looking ahead, the mood changes; with an anticipatory octave leap and a flurry of hushed, pecking acciacciaturas   …
Mussorsgky has now turned to a gem of a painting, a watercolour which which can still  be viewed in the  Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House), Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Or below –
Yes, at last we can see the original inspiration for one of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. It is a costume sketch for a ballet named ‘Trilby’, written in 1870 by composer Yuli Gerber and choreographer Marius Petipa, who was named  premier maître de ballet  of St Perersburg’s Imperial Theatres in 1871; the ballet was performed in St Petersburg in that year. The exhibition catalogue described the sketch: ‘Canary chicks, enclosed as in suits of armour. Instead of headdress, canary heads put on like helmets down to the neck.’
With quick, darting movements, high-pitched chirrups, deft trills and pattering staccatos, the little chicks pirouette, peck and dance their way through the piece, until with a final squawk and a quick bow – they disappear. Irresistible.
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