Sunday, August 2, 2015

Modest Mussorgsky - The Great Gate of Kiev

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was not the only great composer to come out of Russia in the nineteenth century, Modest Mussorgsky was also producing his masterpieces at that time and probably so were other Russian musical geniuses I have yet to discover. I think it is safe to say the second half of the nineteenth century seemed to be the heyday for Russian classical music, it is interesting that I have such confidence in estimating this since the only pieces of Russian classical music I am overly familiar with at Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and today’s topic of discussion Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Like his fellow Russian Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky drew inspiration mostly from Russian history and folklore when creating his music, however that is not the case for “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which can be directly linked to the art work of Viktor Hartmann.

In the past I have written on numerous occasions about how art inspires art and how we see this happening across mediums of creativity. I wrote a trilogy of reviews about Greek mythology with songs by Manowar, Symphony X and Led Zeppelin; I have written a handful of reviews about how Blind Guardian have written almost exclusively about fantasy literature; and I talked at length how Lovecrat inspired Metallica who in turn who inspired a variety of metal musicians and interestingly enough some horror writers. Of course all my listed examples have something in common beyond trans-artistic inspiration, they are all music inspired by written art, literature.

I read a lot, or at least I try to, and that hobby is probably why I keep returning to the sort of reviews mentioned above. When music is inspired by something else, some other medium of art, I am not so quick to notice it, and it is for this reason that I was forced to research Viktor Hartmann and his work. I had no idea “The Great Gate of Kiev” was based on a painting, or that said painting was meant to be serve as a blueprint for an architectural design for an actual gate, which I believe was never erected. I always thought “The Great Gate of Kiev” was about an actual gate. I was wrong.

While working with Mussorgsky and others on expanding the existence of modern Russian art (at the time it was modern), Hartmann suffered a fatal aneurysm and died at age thirty-nine. This had a powerful affect on Mussorgsky and he decided to not only make an exhibition of his friends artwork at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, but also, as we know dedicate an entire musical piece based on his works. So “Pictures at an Exhibition” is the most literal title for a musical suite every.

The full title for Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is “Pictures at an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann.”

There are ten movements in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition:”

No. 1 – “The Gnome”

- Could not find painting for inspiration

No. 2 – “The Old Castle”

"Castle at Chermomor" possibly the painting of a castle that inspired this part of the musical piece.

No. 3 – “Tuileries”

- Painting lost

No. 4 – “Cattle”

- Painting Lost

No. 5 – “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells”

"Chicks Sketch" done for the Tribly Ballet.

No. 6 – “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”

"Samuel Goldenber" also known as "Jew in a Fur Cap." The Rich Jew.

"Schmuyle."  The poor Jew.

No. 7 – “The Market at Limoges (The Great News)”

"Market 1"

"Market 2"

No. 8 – “Catacombs”

"Paris Catacombs."  Image depicts Hartmann and another architect in Paris catacombs with a guide holding a lamp.

No. 9 – “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”

"Baba Yaga."  This clock, maybe a hut, is in fact held up by chicken/fowl legs.

No. 10 – “The Great Gate of Kiev”

"The Great Gate of Kiev."

The entire piece is quiet famous and like most casual music listeners you would likely be at least somewhat familiar to the various movements through “Pictures at an Exhibition” but the final movement, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is by far the most famous, and easily one of my single favorite pieces of music.

Various Russian and Ukrainian friends have told me that radio and television stations in Russia and Ukraine when going off air would play “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Also professional wrestling fans may recognize the iconic piece as the entrance theme for Jerry “The King” Lawler. The song makes numerous appearance throughout various forms of media and rightfully so, it is regal, and it is also powerful song, full of energy and celebration.

Other interesting facts about “The Great Gate of Kiev” provided here:

Obviously numerous orchestras have performed “Pictures at an Exhibition” but perhaps the strangest incarnation of Mussorgsky’s work come in 1971 when psychedelic rock band Emerson Lake and Palmer decided to do recreate the entire set as a rock opera at the Newcastle City Hall. Emerson Lake and Palmer so confident in their production they added lyrics to “The Great Gate of Kiev” which has always seemed audacious to me. How could someone hope to improve upon a masterpiece like “Pictures at an Exhibition?” What is there to say really? Nonetheless fans of classical music, and/or progressive rock should have a listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s version, it is trip.

Emerson Lake and Palmer - The Great Gates of Kiev

I am not educated in classical music, nor am I as familiar with that genre as much as I am with rock and roll and metal, so I often feel like the possibility of me missing something important is high, and also there are people out there who are literally academically educated on the genre who probably are in a much better intellectual position to commentate on the topic than I. Because of this, I often hesitate to review classical music, but there are some pieces I love so much I have to get around to holding them eventually and saying “here everyone, ‘The Great Gate of Kiev,’ it freaking rocks.” “The Great Gate of Kiev” does rock, the swaying triumphant sounds of the violins inspire power and greatness, the exact sort of thing you would want from a rebel yell that we so often associate with rock and roll.

- King of Braves.

Special thanks to these sites that helped me learn about Viktor Hartmann and his work:

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