We’ve come to the end of the Exhibition, and Mussorgsky has saved the grandest musical picture to the last. It’s usually known as The Great Gate of Kiev, but the original title was The Bohatyr-Gate of Kiev; all who viewed this architectural sketch in 1874 would recognise the allusion to the Bohatyrs, tough medieval knights. Interestingly, Hartmann adds human figures to the design, giving scale, and perhaps those figures on horseback reminded viewers of the warlike nature of the Bohatyrs.
This is music on a huge canvas; broad, spacious, underpinned by solid chordal foundations. We can hear a triumphal procession approaching through the arch, marching in step, interspersed with a far-off, distant chant of a Russian Orthodox choir; then suddenly the choir is near, at full volume.
Hartmann’s picture has a bell tower, with three bells visible. And the bells start to toll at different pitches and speeds – bass, tenor and treble, the sustaining pedal adding overtones and harmonics to give an amazing aural effect spread across the pitch spectrum. Mussorgsky’s final stroke of genius is to incorporate his own Promenade theme among the bells, high up amidst the right hand chords. He bids us farewell as the piece, and the exhibition, concludes with a massive E flat major blaze of immense proportions.
On Radio 4’s Front Row programme recently, the presenter discussed a current art exhibition here in the UK and how the final selection of paintings at the end gave a sense of uplift. And so with Mussorgsky’s Exhibition, Hartmann’s pictures no doubt selected and re-arranged by the composer in a different order from the original listings in the catalogue, but in a way which presents them so satisfyingly – and with a sense of uplift at the end.
Onward and upward – the year is also nearly at an end. Some posts on other Russian music to follow …