Beware ye lads and lassies… there's a marmoset loose in my basement which means that instead of working on my tunnel to freedom, I'm forced to hole up in the tree house. To while away the time before animal control arrives, I thought we might discuss one of my earliest experiences with classical music. Ever since I could remember, I've been a fan of the ghoulish, the grotesque, and anything altogether ookey. I don't know exactly why but four out of five speculum manufacturers speculate that this is due to my abnormally large man-boobs which I procured at age six by collecting Kool-Aid™ points. Enter Disney's Fantasia. Such a deviant mind as mine naturally gravitated toward the Night on Bare Mountain sequence with its skeletons and demons and years later, I bought a CD with this symphonic poem. Unbeknownst to me, this CD also contained Pictures at an Exhibition by the same composer, a Russian fellow named Mussorgsky. Of course, Night on Bare Mountain will always hold a special place in my heart, right next to the spot I hold for Ruth Buzzi and a bit below the spot reserved for popping bubble wrap, but Pictures etc. has a spot of its own.
Before we delve into the Pictures Inc., let's have the obligatory look at its arriviste composer. Modest Mussorgsky the paramount slacker of his times, Moose, as I call him during séances, often wrote his music for solo piano, leaving the time-consuming work of writing out all the parts for the eighty-some players of an orchestra to whichever gluteal-kissing upstart came along. For this particular piece, a young Habitrail salesman named Maurice Ravel took on the job. Never you mind that Ravel orchestrated while wearing a freshly dusted wig, he was masterful at his work, always creating the perfect sound from the orchestra. Of course, since the original piece was composed in 1874 and Ravel didn't have his version completed until 1922, Ravel might be considered a slacker in his own right, but the Magic-8-Ball tells me that he spent much of that time working on a macramé rug depicting a herd of buffalos engaged in certain fecund activities. You just gotta love the French- it's in their by-laws.
The actual music, however, isn't all that great. Okay, I'm just pulling your proverbial leg with my proverbial leg-pulling contraption, patent pending. Mussorgsky had this friend, Victor Hartmann, an architect and occasional painter. As if often the case with architects and occasional painters, Hartmann went to the big drafting table in the sky at an early age. While at a posthumous exhibit of Hartmann's work, Mussorgsky was inspired by the delicate and tasty odourves (some kind of puff pastry filled with crab meat) and rushed home to compose. After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to capture the delicate and flaky pastry in music, he gave up and instead composed a visit to the art gallery where each musical vignette is a painting. The music depicting a visit to the loo never got past sketch stage. There is a recurring and stately "Promenade" theme between many of these paintings which illustrates the viewers progress from painting to painting and also manages to nicely tie the various and varied tone poems together. These poems range from mysterious to frenzied to humorous, depicting such things as a huge cart pulled by oxen, women chatting and quarreling in the market place (read: cat fight), a clock in the form of a witches house, two old Jewish men haggling, and a bunch of dogs playing poker. Now that I think about it, you had better get a copy of this CD now before the PC police ban it for perpetuating stereotypes. Anyone in my peer group (old enough to know better but with not enough gumption to make a new… ah, who cares) has heard the melody from "Tuileries" as it was used extensively as background music for the original blue demons, The Smurfs. The other well-known piece is "The Great Gate of Kiev", a glorious and uplifting finale and leaves the listener feeling as if they had just visited this wondrous, nonexistent gate, albeit without the jet lag and mandatory bribes to the officials. The whole effect of the piece is that you feel like you've been to an art gallery, but one in which you actually enjoyed and understood the art. The dirty little secret of this piece is that out of the ten pictures depicted, only three actually appeared at the exhibition Mussorgsky attended. The rest were from Mussorgsky's private collection or sprang from opium-induced dreams. But I see my 800 word limit is up and Animal Control has managed to capture the varmint (actually a ravenous dust bunny named Sven) so I'll end with an urgent plea for you to seek out this music. Use it to celebrate the moments of your life.
Copyright 2001 Jason Hoffman