Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mussorgsky and Stravinsky

In a previous post (I think it was my longest yet), I said that Mussorgsky's style could almost not be described as Romantic, despite the time in which he lived.  As we get into more and more bizarre art, I think that Mussorgsky was way ahead of his time, and may have done exactly what Stravinsky and Co. were going for.  Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (there is a definite "the" in the title here too) was so controversial and revolutionary because it was deliberately somewhat ugly, wild, unrefined, and inelegant--which are all exactly how Mussorgsky's style is generally characterized, although it is generally branded as Russian nationalism (Stravinsky was also portraying Russia's roots...)  Another piece that shows Mussorgsky at his most inelegant (his critics would say "technically incompetent," and there might be something to that) is St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain, usually known as Night on Bald Mountain, a tone poem that portrays a witch's sabbath on a mountain at night.  It is almost exclusively known in a version very thoroughly revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, which makes for much easier listening but sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov, whose style is in many ways opposite to that of Mussorgsky.  Here is a recording of the original:

The bizarre orchestration, fragmented development, and overall ugliness of the piece, as well as its nightmarish subject matter, are a stark contrast to Rimsky-Korsakov's perfect orchestration and carefully structured pieces.  It's not much of a contrast at all, though, to Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring--in fact, I think that Night on Bald Mountain in this version is strangely more disconcerting; at least there's a single idea that's fairly clearly expressed in The Rite of Spring.  At best, Mussorgsky's piece is revolutionary, keeping the listener off balance in a fashion that mirrors his subject.  At worst, it is an incompetent, aimless mashup of half-written ideas.  I personally love this piece; whether or not Mussorgsky was actually capable of writing in a more traditional style, I think he still managed to achieve a spot-on tone for this piece by leaving it, in a sense, only partially written.

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