Give us a Hand

It has been a pleasure this year to perform in concerts which have included not only solo works for two hands, but works for one hand – and to be joined by pianist friends in works for four hands, five, six and eight hands. Piano can be a lonely instrument; chamber music is a joy, and piano ensemble pieces bring their own pleasures and challenges.

Continuing the Russian theme, let’s look first at pieces for left hand alone, by Scriabin. His Op 9 consists of a Prelude and Nocturne. Damaging his right hand while at the Moscow Conservatory when practising one of  Liszt’s transcriptions and Balakirev’s Islamey, he turned to composition and to developing his left hand; although he regained the use of his right hand, his subsequent compositions do make full use of both, with florid LH passages.

The Prelude, in C sharp minor, is an introspective gem. Sad and melancholy, the thumb is used to good effect in projecting the melody. Other fingers need to play accompanying chords discreetly. It ends sweetly on an unexpected major triad; the Nocturne continues this major tonality, flowering into arabesques, fiorature and passion reminiscent of Chopin’s nocturnes.

Some interesting recordings here by two Russian-born pianists –  Cherkassky above, and Neuhaus, below.

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Exit – via The Great Gate of Kiev

great-gate 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 …

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The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. Baba Yaga – the Russian witch

hartmanns-clockJust as Red Riding Hood has a wolf, Narnia has the White Witch, Harry Potter has Voldemort  and everywhere has a bogeyman, fairy tales and children’s stories the world over have a villain, and Russian folktales are no exception. In Russian folklore this lot falls to Baba Yaga, the scary witch who lives in a mysterious dark wood in a house with chicken’s claws at its four corners. Whenever the witch hears someone approaching through the forest, the house can turn to face them and the victim can be lured inside, there to be ground in a pestle and mortar. Shades of Hansel and Gretel, perhaps. And when not in use for such a grisly purpose, the pestle and mortar double as a vehicle for flying through the sky.

Above is Hartmann’s design for a clock in the shape of Baba Yaga’s Hut, with its claws. But Mussorgsky’s musical picture goes far further than a literal representation of a clock, or of a hut. The music seethes with  barbaric fury and malevolence.


Abrupt interjections lead to a ‘revving up’ of a motor rhythm of leaping octaves in the LH above which the RH jumps and swoops perilously. The music pulsates with furious accents, vicious and vivid.

The tumult subsides, leaving the RH rotating on the interval of a minor 3rd; the LH now has an angular melody, creeping stealthily below in the bass. Chromatic tremolandi and a decrescendo take us to the deepest realms of the instrument; after some moments of suspense we return to the barbaric shrieks of the opening. Plenty of leap practice is needed for this piece which taxes one to the limit, but keep something back in reserve for the final, frenetic dash up the piano, hands alternating from the depths to the heights, finally  poised on a precipitous cliff-edge of tension. Wow.

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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.

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Two Paintings – one Picture. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle

Again we are privileged to be able to view the two paintings which inspired the next piece in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  They belonged to Mussorgsky; Hartmann himself had presented them to him, and Mussorgsky lent them to the exhibition. The catalogue described them: Two Jews, Rich and Poor, and the understanding is that their nationality was Polish.

Mussorgsky cleverly combines the two in one musical sketch, by at first giving each a different voice heard independently; then he brings them together.



The wealthy gentleman, Samuel Goldenberg, sweeps in at a majestic pace, with augmented seconds adding a spicy touch of the exotic to his imperiously announced theme.



Poverty-stricken Schmuyle’s theme begs and pleads in falling LH phrases, while the RH doubles the melody in a tricky, repeated note ornamentation. And then follows Mussorgsky’s masterstroke as the two characters combine, the LH disdainfully proud, the RH desperately insistent.

Silence descends. Two half-hearted, wheedling requests are abruptly pushed aside; a last attempt is refused with rude finality. And that’s that.



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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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Promenade; Tuileries – Fun and Games in the Gardens

After the shadowed reverie induced by Il Vecchio Castello, it’s as if Mussorgsky needs a brisk walk to shake himself up a little. The final G# is used as a pivot to turn us into the bright sunshine of B major in this Promenade, with the melody confidently proclaimed in bare octaves, striding along … until a sudden halt, and a repeat of the characteristic three-note motif of the melody, as if something caught Mussorgsky’s eye mid-stride, causing him to pause and retrace his steps…

Marche Triomphale 1860s ParisHartmann travelled widely in Europe, and here we find him in Paris. His picture, Tuileries, subtitled The dispute of Children after Play, is lost. It showed a group of children with their nurses. But here is an 1860s photograph of some French children dressed as soldiers in a little marching band [photographer unknown] and below is an 1867 painting by Adolf von Menzel , Tuileries, which must give some idea of the scene. There were twice-weekly concerts in the gardens, attended by the great and the good.

1024px-Adolf_Friedrich_Erdmann_von_Menzel_038Listen to the childish banter of Mussorgsky’s children as they tease and taunt in a sing-song, high-pitched, back-and-forth, over-and-over two-note motif, interspersed with chattering semiquavers. A woebegone little interlude intervenes, sounding rather crestfallen, then with a quicksilver change of emotion the teasing re-erupts, voices are raised and the jabbing harmonies become spiteful. At last, order is restored and the children’s happiness returns, until with a quick scampering up the piano – they’ve gone.


Manet’s well-known painting of 1862, Music in the Tuileries, also helps the imagination.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862






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