Promenade. Overground and Underground in France: The Market at Limoges; Catacombae, Sepulchrum Romanum

Mussorgsky promenades again, this time in a grand repetition of the very first Promenade at the beginning of the work, with a few subtle alterations and even more breadth. He is reasserting his own presence, and reminding us both of his self-appointed role as guide, and of his personal musical theme – a theme which will slip in again later, but in partial disguise. The ending elongates the value of the last few chords until we land on B flat and pause – and are suddenly thrown back into France, this time to the marketplace in Limoges.

The original painting is lost, but Mussorgsky’s colourful  musical picture is full of bustle and noise, excited chatter, arguments, gossip, laughter, busyness. Repeated chords tax the wrist, unexpected sf’s prod and poke through the texture, and a final cacophonous burst of energy sees the hands alternating in  furious demisemiquavers, reaching a fever-pitch crescendo …

Then, with the unexpected shock of a light suddenly extinguished, we’re underground. It is dark, cold, cavernous and echoing. And full of bones. From marketplace life above ground, crowded with teeming humanity, to eerie death below ground, crowded with the serried ranks of skeletal remains, in the Catacombs under the streets of Paris. And here is the picture – showing Victor Hartmann and fellow architect Victor Kenel in their top hats, looking at the bones, while a guide holds the lantern.



Browsing through a  copy of ‘The Diamond Guide to the Stranger in Paris’ of 1867,    I found this –

‘The Catacombs, ancient stone quarries, lie on the south of Paris. Those which are within the perimeters of the old barriers have been converted into a vast bone receptacle, whither have been transported, during the Revolution and since, the products of the exhumations made in the ancient cemetaries of Paris (upwards of six millions of dead). About seventy staircases give access to the catacombs.

The galleries of the bone caverns are lined with a double row of human bones (2 yards and a quarter in width). The cornice is everywhere formed of bare skulls …’

Slow-moving, massive chords give an idea of space and perspective; quieter chords return the echoes. The second part of the piece bears the title: ‘Con mortuis in lingua morta.‘ Mussorgsky jotted on the manuscript: “NB – Latin text: With the dead in a dead language” and, along the right margin, “Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within.”  Beneath a trembling right hand, we hear the ghostly and mysterious tread of Mussorgsky’s promenade theme, in a minor key, picking its way stealthily amongst the bones as he himself enters into the picture.

Below is a remarkable photograph in the catacombs taken in about 1870 by the French photographer, Nadar, using artificial light underground.

Embed from Getty Images
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