Modest Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881) was a largely self-taught Russian composer and pianist responsible for a body of unique and enduring music. Most popularly known is probably Night On Bald Mountain, which featured in Disney's Fantasia and seems to be a go-to piece for anything involving hell. continue
Mussorgsky VS. King Baldwin:
Compare his Pictures At An Exhibition
to ours, track by track.
Same theme, different vibe. Mussorgsky throws open the gates, while King Baldwin lets the past in through the fog.
The madcap, grotesque Troll 2 attempts to morph Mussorgsky's troublesome gnome into a gnarled and inhuman portrait of the daily grind. Fun!
No King Baldwin version here. We recorded one but it sounded like clowns.
At The Dawn of Time takes the same meter and archaic vibe from The Old Castle and updates it with a trippy trip back to the imagined start of recorded time.
No King Baldwin version here. We recorded one but it sounded like clowns. Again.
Horrible Children reframes the playing youngsters in Tuileries as a tongue-in-cheek lament from someone who's not yet a parent about how exhausting and crazy it must be to have kids. The sax player described his transcribed Mussorgsky melody as "the weirdest thing I've ever had to play."
The Ox Cart matches the ponderous monotony of Bydlo with a half-dirge, half-drive that expands on the image of a lumbering ox cart until it encompasses the whole weight of life. More fun!
No King Baldwin version. But this time because it sounded less like clowns than a tired and nervous poker player.
Shell is probably the biggest musical departure from its counterpart, Ballet Of The Unhatched Chicks. Mussorgsky's quirky, chipper piece is hardly a minute long, while Shell is a slow and intense dive into social anxiety. The colorful chords with their grace notes from the original appear here as ornaments during the pre-chorus.
We had a bit of a problem in that Mussorgsky's subtitle was "The Two Jews" and... yeah, that's not ideal for a rock song. So, naturally, we called our song Doctors and set it inside of a funky mental hospital. See if you can catch the fleeting references to the original.
The Exhibition represents both the Promenade that begins Mussorgsky's collection and the literal return of that Promenade before his Market At Limoges kicks into gear. The famous melody is here at the start, but after that it's largely a song built on a few sunny riffs and featuring a killer bassoon solo. The mantra "leave me here forever" was envisioned as a desire to just let everything else go and fade away into the energy of an imaginary museum.
Downtown People represents a big departure from its Market At Limoges counterpart. The latter is a piano-shredding depiction of a bustling marketplace. After a number of rewrites, we settled on a slower and soulful tune about stress and displacement in a big city. The piano riff in this song is a parody of the fast 16th note 3rds that fill Mussorgsky's piece.
The Legendary Dungeon reflects the dank, underground atmosphere of Catacombs within its stoney, jazzy walls. A fairytale of lost love works sinuously between a song structure that's labyrinthine but always seems to hit dead ends.
In A Dead Tongue pretty faithfully recreates Mussorgsky's final Promenade iteration as a jazzed-up tone-painting. Between the mutated theme on the bassoon and the piano's ceaseless tremolo part, this is our way of saying that from here on out we're paying extra homage to the original: we're in Mussorgsky Country.
Baba Yaga is the hardest-rocking song in the set, which makes sense as Mussorgsky's counterpart is some of the wildest and most violent stuff in 19th piano literature. His pounding left hand octaves can be heard in the pre-chorus and those lightning downward plunges can be heard shared between the drums and the piano basically competing for who can break their instrument first. The evil witch from Russian folklore gets a makeover here and she becomes a parable of a mother warning her child about the very real evils of the world.
Monuments and The Great Gate Of Kiev are both finales. The original is full of grandeur and nationalism. Ours thinks about large physical structures as desperate attempts to remain relevant and immortal. The beautiful chorale theme that appears twice in The Great Gate Of Kiev forms the central moment in our song as an austere and reverential instrumental section replicating the Mussorgsky melody note for note and beat for beat. Thereafter, his big piano octaves are in the same place in our song, and his cyclical decision to repeat the initial Promenade theme during the ecstatic outro gets an identical treatment as we bring back previous elements from the album as Monuments builds to a close.
A full live piano performance of the original piece:
There is a comprehensive article on Mussorgsky in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Abraham 1980).
David Brown. Mussorgsky: His Life and Works. Oxford University Press. 2002.
Michel D. Calvocoressi. Modest Mussorgsky, His Life and Works. Essential Books. 1956.
Caryl Emerson. The Life of Mussorgsky. Cambridge University Press. 1999.
The Russian musicologist Yury Keldysh contributed a valuable article on Mussorgsky to the Muzykal’naya Entsiklopediya (Musical Encyclopedia) (Keldysh 1976).
Mussorgsky. Alfred A. Knopf. 1929.
Montagu Montagu-Nathan. Mussorgsky. New York: Constable and Company. 1917.
Michael Russ. Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Cambridge University Press. 1992.
Richard Taruskin. Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue. Princeton University Press. 1997.
from Oxford Bibliographies:
Abraham, Gerald. “Mussorgsky, Modest Petrovich.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 12. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 865–874. London: Macmillan, 1980.
In his article, the author provides extensive information about Mussorgsky’s life and work. At the end of the article there is a complete catalogue of the composer’s works, arranged by genres in chronological order. An ample bibliography provides a list of important works written about the composer by Western and Russian scholars. The entry is useful to researchers who are looking for valuable sources on Mussorgsky’s life and work. Even though this article is almost forty years old, it contains accurate and ample information about the composer.
Arnold, Denis. “Mussorgsky.” In The New Oxford Companion to Music. Vol. 2. By Denis Arnold, 1225–1226. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.
This short review offers information about the composer’s musical style and focuses on a few important landmarks in his life. Useful to music students who are collecting introductory information about Mussorgsky’s life and works.
Keldysh, Yury. “Mussorgsky.” In Muzykal’naya Entsiklopediya. Vol. 3. Edited by Yury Keldysh, 838–846. Moscow: Sovetskiy Kompozitor, 1976.
The focus of the article is to present Mussorgsky’s compositional style and provide a general overview of his important compositions. This article abounds with interesting quotations from Mussorgsky’s letters, diaries, and documents.
Kennedy, Michael. “Mussorgsky, Modest.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Music. 2d ed. By Michael Kennedy, 606. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
In this overview, readers will find information on Mussorgsky’s life and his affiliation with the “Mighty Handful.” There is an index of Mussorgsky’s important compositions, in which the composer’s works appear in chronological order. Moreover, this index includes details about the number of completed scenes in each opera and the dates of new editions, and it lists compositions created in collaboration with other members of the Mighty Handful.
Oldani, Robert. “Mussorgsky, Modest.” In the Reader’s Guide to Music: History, Theory, Criticism. Edited by Murray Steib, 487–489. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.
In his important essay on Mussorgsky, Oldani examines various opinions about the composer and his compositional skills during his life in Imperial Russia, perspectives on the composer’s orchestration technique expressed by Western and Soviet researchers in the 20th century, and the most recent approaches and viewpoints about his musical style. This article is a valuable source of information and is recommended to scholars, researchers, and graduate students.