Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano.
Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:
“Portraitures and caricatures: Conductors, Pianist, Composers”
Concert bookers around the world are lining up pianists and conductors for performances of Pictures at an Exhibitionnext year, the 140th anniversary of one of the most frequently performed, distorted, and some say “butchered” masterpieces of 19th-century Russian music. And yet it is sure to be a celebration of what the late pianist Sviatoslav Richter called the “best Russian work for piano, amen.” At least, he might have added, when performed as Modest Mussorgsky wrote it. Lesser performers and composers have never ceased tinkering with it, much to the detriment of the inspired original.
A suite of ten short pieces linked by a recurring “promenade,” Pictures renders in musical language a ramble through an art exhibit in Tsarist St. Petersburg. No piano writing of its period quite measures up to it for its oh-so-Russian sonorities, harmonies, and jolting changes of mood. Among the hundreds of recordings available, Richter’s 1958 recital in Sofia, Bulgaria, is regarded as the gold standard. “Here the piece has incredible pianistic color,” William Grant Naboré, director of the International Piano Academy on Lake Como, Italy, tells me. “It has Russian soul, yes, but it also looks beyond Russia.” The Richter performance is still a favorite of music-lovers:
Mussorgsky’s creative storm forPictureswas almost frightening in its intensity. Musical ideas from his viewing of the artwork flooded his mind over twenty days as he struggled to structure what he was hearing in his head. “I can hardly manage to scribble it down on paper fast enough,” he wrote in mid-composition; “I think it is working.”
As with most great classical compositions, the impression ofPictureson the listener deepens and broadens upon second and third hearings. Details emerge and images come to life as the music evokes bells, children on a playground, women quarreling at an open market, two Jews in conversation and a peasant singing as he drives a rumbling wooden cart, among other scenes. Audiences love it for its charm and easy accessibility. “Picturesis a truly Russian work in its directness of expression, its form arising from content, and its summing of parts rather than organic growth,” wrote British music academic Michael Russ in an extended monograph on the piece. “Mussorgsky prefers to depict real life rather than the spiritual, romantic, sensuous or erotic.”
The piece becomes more poignant when you consider its genesis: Mussorgsky wrote it shortly after his friend, the architect-artist Viktor Hartmann, had died at the age of 39 from sudden heart failure. The two men had found common ground over their views on the arts in Russia and were on a sort of crusade against excessive Western European influence.
Mussorgsky, an impulsive, temperamental genius with an appealing comic streak, began as a pianist and popular composer of songs. Voice gradually became his special interest. BesidesPictures, his other lasting contributions are his great operas –Boris GodunovandKhovanshchina. As a music innovator, he was a charter member of the group variously known as “The Five,” “The Mighty Handful,” and “The Mighty Coterie,” consisting of himself, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mili Balakirev, Alexander Borodin and César Cui.
Artist Hartmann gets little credit forPictures, although without him the music would never have been composed. He was no Rembrandt, but he worked tirelessly during his short life and left a copious legacy. For one architectural competition he produced seven hundred sketches. He dabbled in stage sets, teacups, lamps, picture frames and jewellry but his most accomplished works were watercolors and pencil sketches. The sole extant Hartmann architectural construction is the Russian Milleniary Monument at Novgorod dating from 1862.
Only about sixty-five of his paintings and sketches have survived Russia’s diasporas, wars and revolutions. The teacups and other ephemera have long since vanished.
Hartmann’s architectural creations often featured carved-wood filigree and quaint, impractical peasant ornamentation. Columns and pilasters were replaced with wooden filigree under the eaves, roosters and colored tiles in complex patterns. Mussorgsky, for his part, exhumed country folk music and dances and then felt his way forward on instinct. His brother Filaret recalled that the composer, who was largely self-taught, had a love for “everything connected with the people and the peasantry. Even the Russianmuzhikwas a human being in his eyes.” For most of the educated or aristocratic population, the Russian peasant was then considered equivalent to a farm animal, bought and sold “like a sack of corn or a cart-horse,” wrote a Mussorgsky biographer.
Their efforts were short-lived, however. “Russian music,” wrote one critic, “ had the vitality to break up the 18th century tradition but not the continuity to build up another. Like nomad Tartars, the Russians razed Western buildings to the ground but replaced them with gaily painted tents.” In retrospect, this seems a harsh indictment of the Russian tradition and the stalwart compositions that remain in the repertoire today. But without a doubt Russian music moved on: Stravinsky, most notably, came next.
Pictureswas slow to settle into the music scene after it was first published in 1886 – five years after Mussorgsky died and twelve years after it was completed. Even the initial published version was distorted. Rimsky-Korsakov, a former roommate and protector of Mussorgsky’s legacy, was the first to massage it. “With the best of intentions, Rimsky felt obliged to emend some of Mussorgsky’s more daring touches,” wrote German musicologist Manfred Schandert in his commentary on the urtext manuscript. It nevertheless remained little known for decades, rarely performed in recitals and too difficult for amateurs to play at home. (A pianist friend of mine in London today raises one eyebrow and warns of its “tight corners.”) Only in 1922, after Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel for an orchestration, was it brought to life in a new orchestrated version, Westernized, Frenchified and popularized in the form most concert-goers know today. The accurate and “daring” piano original was then finally published in 1931.
In the years since, orchestrators, adapters and performers have never stopped trying to make it better, or at least leave their own stamp on it. Russian-born Vladimir Horowitz wrote a personalized version of it for piano in 1947, “wild, dirty and explosive,” says Naboré. The full suite à la Horowitz is still available here:
Roughly thirty-eight full orchestrations ofPicturesare catalogued and another forty or fifty adaptations—many of them on the goofy side—can be found by trawling the web. Eclectic versions for a synthesizer, electric guitar, seven trombones, 23 clarinets, various chamber combinations, three pipe organs and percussion, accordion, women’s choir, men’s choir, a glass harp, indeed nearly every instrument known to Western man including a Kentucky jug band – if a jug can be called an instrument. The effect on the ear ranges from stirring (the trombones) to outrageous (Emerson, Lake and Palmer rock band), to just too French for words (the Ravel orchestration, by far the most popular), to cotton candy (Cailliet). For an ear-bending kazoo and pennywhistle parody, Canadian musician Friendly Rich’s orchestra recorded this tribute, which he admits is a friendly butchering:
Such heavyweights as Ravel, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lucien Cailliet (for Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra), Sir Henry Wood and Leo Funtek produced orchestrations.
But it is Ravel’s version that causes the most controversy among the cognoscenti. Russians, who feel they own this music, find his treatment – especially the inclusion of a saxophone – grossly inappropriate. Worse, he is also accused of reproducing errors from an inaccurate piano score. These shortcomings have not prevented the Ravel estate from making millions in royalties, however, as the orchestration became integral to the repertoire throughout the world. Even today the fees can be prohibitive, depending on the orchestra and its audience. Swedish movie director Christopher Nupen recalled for me his decision to drop the costly Ravel version he planned to use in a documentary film on Ashkenazy. Instead he opted for the orchestration by Leo Funtek, the Slovenian-born composer who made his life and career in Finland. As a bonus, Funtek hewed closer to the piano score – and included no offending saxophone solo. Later, Russian-born Ashkenazy undertook his own orchestration to restore “complete loyalty to Mussorgsky’s idiom.” Besides, he adds, “in my version these mistakes can be put right.”
Sviatoslav Richter’s criticism went much further. He said in an interview shortly before his death that he consideredPicturesto be the “most profound masterpiece of Russian piano music”. But when the Frenchman tried to improve it, Richter felt, the results were disastrous. “I loathe and abhor” the Ravel piece, he said. The orchestration is “an abomination, a terrible, decorative travesty.” The interview was published in book form and as a DVD by documentary maker Bruno Monsaingeon asRichter: The Enigma, a rare extended conversation on Richter’s life and piano career that electrified the music world.
Julian Lampert, a U.S. composer-pianist of Russian descent, tells me he also finds the Ravel version a clash of opposites. It reminds him, he says, of “Grand Marnier poured over potatoes and kasha.”
Music scholars argue in several biographies and monographs over the glories and tragedies of Mussorgsky’s artistic life, focusing first on the spelling and pronunciation of his family name. Variations through the ages had no letter “g,” hinting at the root “musor,” meaning garbage, mucous, or in current slang, “policeman.” One Russian friend tells me she recalls giggles in the classroom whenever Mussorgsky’s name was mentioned. The syllabic stress was eventually shifted and the letter “g” was inserted by Filaret, Modest’s “snooty” brother, to clean up the name, according to one scholar. Nevertheless, Modest took pleasure in jokingly signing lettersMussoryanin(in Russian, “he who lives in garbage”).
When Mussorgsky turned his talents toPicturesin 1874, shortly after finishing his great operaBoris Godunov, he selected ten works from the 400 on display at the Hartmann posthumous exhibit to portray in music. They provide one of the earliest and most direct examples of “program music”, the creative process for translating the visual into music. Ironically, six of the ten pictures in the “profoundly Russian” suite were produced during Hartmann’s travels in France, Italy and Poland.
Mussorgsky invented a unique structure to tie the ten pieces together. The pictures are linked by a recurring theme, a “promenade”, to evoke the wandering of an exhibit visitor. The viewer, Mussorgsky himself, first stops at a drawing entitled “The Gnome,” an awkward, jumping dwarf that in its musical depiction was considered “an incredible piece of audacity” in the way it departs from traditional piano writing. Next he stops atIl veccio castello(The Old Castle), painted during his trip to Italy. The music brings out a heart-rending melancholy line, evoking a troubador performing before the castle. The controversial saxophone appears in this part. A short promenade returns, then the viewer comes toTuileries, subtitledChildren’s Quarreling at Play. Here the music echoes the sound of animated young voices, one of Mussorgsky’s most effective translations of human sounds onto the piano. The frolic and romp of the children virtually leaps from the piano. Next comes a watercolor of a large wooden wagon, titled in Polish “Bydlo,” that combines thick, ponderous left-hand chords of the giant wooden wheels overlaid with a folk tune being sung by the driver.
A quiet promenade intervenes, then at No. 5 the visitor discovers theBallet of Unhatched Chicks, a sketch of costumes for a ballet called “Trilbi,” and it appears musically as a charming scherzino that breaks the heavy mood and substitutes a feeling of wild gaiety among privileged children. Next comes another watercolor, this one titled “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” which Mussorgsky explained as his attempt to “get at Hartmann’s Jews” and to reproduce more “intonations of human speech.” The music replicates a comfortable Jew speaking in a deep, rumbling voice, alternating with the whining tremulo of the poor Jew.
The longest promenade of the set follows, as the listener imagines the viewer pausing, moving on from picture to picture, finally settling at Limoges, usually subtitled “The Market(The Big News)” which he called “a study in intonation,” again picking up sounds of animated chatter. The musical outbursts here were invented to mimic women bickering and exchanging their version of news of the day.
Without a promenade, Mussorgsky next takes directly on to theCatacombs(A Roman Sepulchre)” in Paris, that flows from a haunting introduction into a subtheme, “Con mortius in linua mortua, bastard Latin for “With the dead in a dead language.” The eerie melody is Mussorgsky’s translation of a visit to the “place of skulls,” as he wrote on his score, and as he calls out to the macabre scene, “the skulls begin to glow faintly from within”. And on to No. 9, a sketch known as “The Hut of Baba-Yaga,” one of the most exciting passages in the suite, a wild scherzo with unusual harmonies and halting melodies. Hartmann has borrowed “Baba-Yaga” from Russian folklore, a witch who lives deep in the woods in a hut on hen’s legs. This creature was best rendered by Pushkin in his introduction toRuslan and Lyudmila. Mussorgsky’s witches’ ride is one of the most interesting of the entire suite for its thumping rhythms and memorable melodies.
The finale is the now-familiar “Bogatyr Gate, the Great Gate of Kiev,” based on one of the better-known Hartmann sketches, a monument to Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt. He won the design competition for Kiev Gate, with a Slavic war helmet atop it instead of the usual onion dome. He regarded it as his finest work. The monument was never built but the music made it memorable in different artistic terms. The gate provides a finale that calls on the full range of the keyboard and its arpeggios, including bell-like chiming in the upper register – rendered in most orchestrations as a mighty climax with sets of bells hammered by percussionists. The effect, even for critics of Ravel, can be breathtaking. In this version, Gustavo Dudamel conducts a Venezuelan youth orchestra in the Ravel version:
Late in life, Mussorgsky’s tragedies multiplied. His operas were dormant or unfinished, his piano suite unpublished and his own creative talents in remission. He ended his life as an unpaid assistant teacher at a school for singers, and was reduced to accompanying them on tour. He suffered bouts of depression and struggled with alcoholism. Epileptic seizures became more frequent. Virtually dysfunctional, he was sacked from a civil service post that had provided a subsistence income in 1881.
His last public appearance as a soloist was at a January 25, 1881, commemoration of Dostoevsky’s death, where he improvised a funeral march. The audience stood in respect – as much for the music as for the deceased.
Mussorgsky was destitute and close to begging in the street when he sat for a portrait by his friend the renowned painter Ilya Repin. The portrait depicts a man in distress, clothed in a dressing gown, disheveled, disoriented, uncombed. His nose is painted red, reflecting a long period of alcoholism. Mussorgsky died March 16, 1881, at 42 just 11 days after the painting was finished, alone in a hospital where he was being treated for a stroke.
“Pure as crystal, against the dark background of his tragic destiny, the soul of this incomparable artist stands out,” concluded biographer Oskar von Riesemann.
The story of Modest Mussorgsky contains many of the elements of the tortured Russian soul of 19th century fiction – a majestic natural talent, the rise to public acclaim, then a loss of creative power, descent into alcoholism and despair, and a pathetic, lonely death. Scholars and musicians today agree on Mussorgsky’s greatness as a creative force. His legacy is validated by his continued presence in opera houses and concert halls around the world, and popularity 130 years after his death that has inspired a broad spectrum of interpreters.
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Last week, a far-right extremist killed at least 50 people – including a three-year-old child – worshiping at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Neither white supremacy, nor racially motivated terrorist attacks carried out in its name, are new phenomena. Yet the response to far-right terrorism remains thoroughly insufficient.
Allegations of Russian meddling in the affairs of Western countries have been a persistent feature of Western politics since the Cold War. Claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election are only the most recent in a long series of suspected conspiracies across the past century or so. But Russian political discourse is also riddled with conspiracy theories. Everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by some to one or another anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish US President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school.
The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers, and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked, and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.”
Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things.
WASHINGTON, DC – It seems that every time I write about Donald Trump’s presidency, I pronounce it to be in more trouble than ever. This time is no different: he and his presidency are indeed in more trouble than ever. And yet that may not prevent him from winning again in 2020.
The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution................polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit..........
At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”
That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else.
Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.”
Extracts: "Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table....."
".......Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks."
US President Donald Trump’s administration has underestimated China’s resilience and strategic resolve. With the Chinese economy slowing, the US believes that China is hurting and desperate for an end to the trade war. But with ample policy space to address the current slowdown, China’s leadership has no need to abandon its longer-term strategy. While a cosmetic deal focused on bilateral trade appears to be in the offing, the sharp contrast between the two economies’ fundamental underpinnings points to a very different verdict regarding who has the upper hand.
Extracts: "......after three years of referendum-induced turmoil, there is finally a new move, a brave move, by the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs (and counting)......There are no policy announcements, no real statement of principles, and there is no leader or political platform. And yet, this policy-free political movement is of incredible political importance........this is an act of direct action, based on the concept of prefiguration. That is, the actual policy statement at the heart of the formation of this movement is the formation of the movement itself. There is no need for grand policy statements right now."
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.
From Trump’s very inauguration day speech, written for him by the fascist gadfly Steve Bannon and man still without a prom date Stephen Miller, it was apparent that the 45th president was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen.
And now, without our realizing it for the most part, the constitutional crisis is here.
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open.
A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost.
Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security.
As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth?
A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas.
The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.