Scriabin and Mussorgsky may seem odd company for Beethoven. Yet Beethoven was
the first major composer to introduce Russian music to continental Europe when in
1806 he took Russian folk themes from the collection by Nikolai Lvov and Johann
Pr�c, using them in two of his Razumovsky String Quartets, Op. 59. Russia
reciprocated, staging the first complete performance of Beethoven�s Missa solemnis in
1824 and revering him ever afterwards. Balakirev taught his own band of talented
amateurs, the �mighty handful� of which Mussorgsky was a member, to study
Beethoven�s symphonies: Mussorgsky�s early B flat Scherzo for orchestra is clearly
modelled after the Scherzo in Beethoven�s Fourth. During the Soviet years,
Beethoven�s reputation became even more unassailable as Lenin became known as a
great admirer, writing of the Beethoven Sonata programmed by Federico Colli on this
album: �I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen
to it every day. It is marvellous, superhuman music. I always think with pride �
perhaps it is na�ve of me � what marvellous things humans can do.�
Beethoven composed this ferociously impressive Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, in
the summer of 1804, the year after he had completed the Eroica Symphony. In that
summer he had enjoyed what he described as a �lazy� period in the spa town of
Baden, which clearly refreshed him as he almost immediately afterwards composed the F minor Sonata, together with the Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 54, while staying
in the village of D�bling just north of Vienna. Beethoven�s pupil, Ferdinand Ries,
recalled that Beethoven�s compositional process involved long works in the nearby
Vienna Woods: �We went so far astray that we did not get back to D�bling until nearly
8 o�clock. He had been humming, and more often howling, always up and down,
without singing any definite notes. When questioned as to what it was, he answered,
�A theme for the last movement of the sonata [Op. 57] has occurred to me.� When we
entered the room he ran to the pianoforte without taking off his hat. I sat down in
the corner and he soon forgot all about me. He stormed for at least an hour with the
beautiful finale of the sonata. Finally he got up, was surprised that I was still there
and said, �I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some work�.�
The Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, eventually gained its name Appassionata when a piano
duet arrangement was published and so-christened by the Hamburg publisher Cranz in
1838. As this was 11 years after Beethoven�s death, the claim sometimes made that
Beethoven approved the title may appear moot; yet there exists an autograph copy of
the Sonata subtitled �La Passionata�. In any case, the name has been widely thought
apt as it is one of Beethoven�s stormiest creations. Indeed, its sudden fortissimo
outbursts, as may be heard even in the first page of the Sonata, and its ferocious
passagework would have been unthinkable on the Walter fortepiano Beethoven owned
before 1803; in that year, he was presented by the Parisian firm Erard with a forte-
piano en forme de clavecin, a more powerful and sturdier instrument which assigned
three strings per note and used the action originally developed for the English square
piano. The Appassionata�s tempestuous nature would impress several composers of the
following generations, notably influencing such F minor works as Schubert�s Piano
Sonata D625, and Mendelssohn�s final String Quartet Op. 80.
The Appassionata�s first movement has a brooding opening, tense as if before an
imminent storm; this soon bursts, with tremolandos and arpeggios cascading over the
length of the keyboard. A second melodic theme of noble character appears, but is
soon swept away by the opening ideas as they are further developed, only to
eventually re-emerge in the recapitulation before a final impassioned coda. The
following Andante movement, a set of variations on a chorale-like theme, is like the
calm at the eye of the storm, which resumes in the Allegro finale which follows
without a break.
Nature, albeit of a sunnier kind, also inspired Scriabin. His final Piano Sonata, No. 10
Op. 70, was composed in the late summer of 1913 in the country estate of
Petrovskoye, Kaluzhskaya Oblast. Scriabin�s musical language had by then evolved well
beyond the Chopin-style melodiousness with which it had so masterfully started,
Scriabin having invented a richly chromatic language which explored harmonic territory
similar to but quite independent of Schoenberg�s so-called atonal works and Debussy�s
more adventurous piano works. Scriabin himself described his Tenth Sonata as �bright, joyful, earthly� and spoke of �the impression of a great forest� that had inspired it.
Certainly the work opens in an atmosphere of mystery � introducing the main elements
of an augmented triad followed by a diminished triad, their alternation suggesting the
very breathing of the music, and a chromatic line � before launching, with a series of
trills, the main allegro section. These ecstatic trills which fill the music have often been
associated with the buzzing of insects: the composer himself described the work as a
�Sonata of insects... born from the sun; they are the sun�s kisses.� Elsewhere, though,
Scriabin described such trills as may be heard in his earlier late period sonatas as
�palpitations... vibrations from the universe�, which suggests that his emphasis was on
the benevolent influence of the sun rather than insects themselves. Indeed, it is a sun-
filled, ecstatic world already well-mapped in his earlier works of that period, and which
Stravinsky, then a great admirer of Scriabin�s, promoted to a wider audience in
depicting the title character of his first ballet The Firebird. Ultimately Scriabin�s music
was not intended to be �of this world�, but shared with the Symbolist poets of his time
the aspiration of transcending mortal existence through the revelation of art, through
which one might discover the essence of being rather than its mere substance.
Of quite a different persuasion was an earlier revolutionary composer, Mussorgsky, who
in the late nineteenth century aspired to create music that truly reflected the grit and
individuality of human existence. Complementing this was his fascination with Russian
folklore and the world of imagination, most particularly that of a child, as exemplified
by the first song of his cycle The Nursery, �With Nanny�, in which a child begs his
nyanyushka to tell his favourite tales. It was this world particularly which was evoked
by the artist, Viktor Hartmann, whose drawings and elaborate architectural designs
reflected his preoccupation with peasant artwork and folklore, often involving elaborate
filigree with suggestions of birds, snakes and fantastical creatures. It was in Hartmann�s
memory that Mussorgsky composed his now most famous work, Pictures at an Exhibition.
The immediate spur to this was an exhibition of Hartmann�s drawing, designs and
paintings organized after the artist�s death, aged 39, in 1873. That Hartmann also shared something of Mussorgsky�s interest in closely observing ordinary life is evident
from an article about the pictures by the exhibition�s organizer, Vladimir Stasov:
�One-half of these drawings shows nothing typical of an architect [but depicts]
scenes, characters and figures out of everyday life, captured in the middle of
everything going on around them: on streets, and in churches, in Parisian catacombs
and Polish monasteries, in Roman alleys and in villages around Limoges.� Stasov
went on to list some of the characters portrayed by Hartmann: �workers in smocks,
priests with umbrellas under their arms riding mules, elderly French women at prayer,
Jews smiling from under their skull caps, Parisian rag-pickers...�
Already the composer of the mighty opera Boris Godunov, Mussorgsky found Pictures
at an Exhibition a welcome break from the labour of composing concurrently his two
subsequent operas, Sorochintsy Fair and Khovanshchina. Even so, he scarcely treated
Pictures as a throw-away project: �Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled;� he wrote to
Stasov, �sounds and ideas have been hanging in the air; I am devouring them and
stuffing myself � I barely have time to scribble them on paper.�
Just six (out of a possible ten or eleven) of Hartmann�s original pictures depicted in
Mussorgsky�s cycle have been discovered. Charming as several of those originals are,
and for all Stasov�s eulogising, they hardly measure up to the powerful piano
portraits they inspired. Yet Mussorgsky modestly called the result an �Album Series�;
indeed for a long time even champions of Pictures at an Exhibition � before Ravel
made his successful and repertoire-holding orchestration � tended to play just
selections from the work. In fact, the work is bound into a substantial single entity
by several elements, most obviously the opening Promenade, which not only recurs
as interludes between several of the �pictures�, but itself becomes increasingly and
significantly involved in those depictions. Then, perhaps only felt subconsciously by
the listener, there is a key progression starting with B flat major, which ultimately
proves to be the dominant preparation for Mussorgsky�s final goal: the �Great Gate of
Kiev� in E flat major (incidentally the �heroic� key of Beethoven�s Eroica Symphony!).
The movements of Pictures at an Exhibition are as follows:
I A representation of the gallery�s visitor, or perhaps rather his initial impressions as he enters the exhibition: note the fanfare-like motif.
Mussorgsky, describing this movement as �in modo russico�, almost certainly
had in mind the effect of a precentor answered Orthodox-style by a choir.
II A portrait of a grotesque gnome (Hartmann�s design for a nutcracker).
III A gently reflective promenade prepares for...
IV An old castle before which a troubadour is seen serenading.
V A more rumbustious promenade prepares for...
VI Tuileries, the Parisian public garden where children are having a dispute during
a (perhaps aborted) game.
VII Without an intervening promenade, we are struck �right between the eyes� by
what Mussorgsky originally called �The Sandomirsko Bydlo�. A historic town in
south-east Poland, Sandomir was ripe in the composer�s mind with not
altogether positive associations, featuring in Boris Godunov as the town where
the pretender plots the protagonist�s overthrow. �Bydlo� is Polish for cattle,
though Mussorgsky confided to Stasov that the unnamed element was �le
tél�gue� � an �ox cart� � after which the movement is now generally titled.
VIII A reflective, even brooding Promenade as the visitor � possibly still mulling
over the picture just seen � unexpectedly comes up against...
IX �Ballet of unhatched chicks�: Hartmann�s costumes for children inspire a
charming and frankly pictorial piece in which one can hear the cheeping of the
X Another sharp contrast. Like �Tuileries� to �Bydlo�, we are again taken from the
world of children back to Sandomir, where Hartmann made several paintings in
the Jewish ghetto. A self-important rich Jew refuses to give charity to a poor
Jew, whose thin-voiced pleas shiver from the cold.
XI A grand statement of the Promenade theme prepares us for the final
XII Limoges � market day: market women gossip loudly in order to be heard
above the tumult.
A sudden scene change, casting us into the gloom of the Parisian catacombs,
the original picture depicting Hartmann himself with a friend and their guide
observing a cage stacked full of skulls.
Then, in one of the work�s most haunting masterstrokes, we now hear the
promenade theme transformed, played against eerie tremolandos. Still in the
catacombs, the viewer is now Mussorgsky himself, according to a pencilled
annotation in the score: �the creative genius of the late Hartmann leads me
to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow�.
Another abrupt scene change as we are brought face-to-face with the
ferocious, child-eating witch Baba Yaga. According to Russian folklore, she
lives deep in the woods in a hut with hen�s legs � hence the music�s clucking
XVI The final abrupt transition of the work for the final �picture�, inspired by
Hartmann�s design for a grand entrance to the city of Kiev to celebrate Tsar
Alexander II�s escape from assassination there in 1866. With interludes
representing an Orthodox choir, this reaches a thrilling apotheosis in which
the tintinnabulation of bells spells out the promenade theme before the Kiev
theme brings the work to a grand conclusion.