Friday evening sees the return of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Naked Classics to the Usher Hall, as Paul Rissmann and conductor Danail Rachev explore Modest Mussorgy's Pictures at an Exhibition. Here, Rissman introduces the composer and his work.
It is a familiar tale: Father demands that his son follows in his footsteps, gets a respectable job, stops daydreaming. This was indeed the case for 19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, discouraged from leaving a secure life; his dream was to enter the risky and often ill-rewarded arena of music composition.
Much to his credit, Modest decided to cast off all security and live the life of the penniless but passionate musician. In the world of classical Russian music, Mussorgsky's early work was rejected by the powerful Imperial Theatre. It was only when the general public got to hear his works that the music started to develop a following.
The year 1874 was significant for Mussorgsky and the year that Pictures at an Exhibition was composed as a set of works for solo piano. The piece is a musical description of walking around an exhibition of his artist friend Hartman's paintings. Each painting has a movement conjuring up the mood evoked by the picture.
The first picture is Hartman's design for a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome.
Although the painting has been lost, we can imagine, through Mussorgsky's music, that the gnome was grotesque looking.
Following the gnome there is a Promenade, leading to The Old Castle in Italy, and a medieval feel, created by the sustained bass note that runs through the piece. Another Promenade leads to the Tuileries Gardens in Paris, which depicted children playing. Bydlo, a farm cart, follows. It depicts a Polish cart being pulled through mud by two oxen. You can practically hear the hooves plodding through the mud thanks to a notoriously tricky tuba solo.
The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks movement was inspired by some designs Hartman had drawn for a ballet, called Trilbi. The costumes were for children dressed as canaries as well as unhatched chicks.
This movement is very playful and quite short. Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle were two Polish Jews originally the subjects of two separate paintings by Hartman. Mussorgrsky combined the essence of the two paintings into one movement, perhaps to emphasise a rich man/poor man contrast.
The next picture is of Limoges - the Market. On the original score, Mussorgsky noted some imaginary conversations between tradespeople in this bustling market. The scene shifts back to Paris next, to the Roman burial ground - the Catacombs. This leads to the next movement, which doesn't directly describe a picture: Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua, meaning "With the dead in a dead language".Baba-Yaga is the witch of death from Russian mythology, known for stealing and eating children. This is another quite dark movement.
Finally we come to the Great Gate of Kiev, Hartman's grand design for a new city gate. The music starts with striking chords, describing the grandness of the gate.
Other performers have taken Pictures as inspiration, including the founder of The Proms, Henry Wood and Promenade is also the theme tune to 80s/90s television comedy The New Statesman, with Rik Mayall. Sadly many of the original pictures no longer exist and Pictures at an Exhibition, in its various guises, is all we have to remember them by.
RSNO Naked Classics, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, Friday, 7.30pm, 10, 0131-228 1155