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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EXTRACT: "After a decade of unconstrained growth – when it seemed that a new billionaire was minted every day – the tech industry has finally hit a rough patch. Elon Musk’s erratic behavior following his takeover of Twitter has left the financially leveraged platform in a precarious state. The crypto exchange FTX’s sudden implosion has vaporized a business that was recently valued at $32 billion, taking many other crypto firms with it. Meta (Facebook) is laying off 11,000 people, 13% of its workforce, and Amazon is shedding 10,000.
What are we supposed to make of these setbacks? Are they isolated incidents, or signs of structural change?"
EXTRACT: "Just looking at explicit debts, the figures are staggering. Globally, total private- and public-sector debt as a share of GDP rose from 200% in 1999 to 350% in 2021. The ratio is now 420% across advanced economies, and 330% in China. In the United States, it is 420%, which is higher than during the Great Depression and after World War II."
EXTRACT: "The Conservative leadership must stand up to the party’s extremists, and it must do so sooner rather than later. If moderates cannot defeat the hardliners by the next election, and the outcome turns out to be as bad for the Tories as recent polls suggest, they will find they have the same fight on their hands in opposition. ---
Conservatives must never underestimate the importance of their moderate supporters. If the Party continues to disregard centrists whenever the Brexiteer right stamps its feet, it may find itself out of power for a long time to come."
EXTRACT: "....young voters did reach the polls they voted overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates across the country. According to reports, 63% of 18- to 29- year olds voted Democrat and 35% voted Republican in the House of Representatives elections. Voters between 30 and 44 split their vote between the two parties, while older voters tended to vote Republican."
Nouriel Roubini: "Central banks are in both a stagflation trap and a debt trap. Amid negative aggregate supply shocks that reduce growth and increase inflation, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they increase interest rates enough to bring inflation down to 2%, they will cause a severe economic hard landing. And if they don’t – attempting instead to protect growth and jobs – they will be left increasingly far behind the curve, leading to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations and a wage-price spiral.
Very high debt ratios (both private and public) complicate the dilemma further. Raising interest rates enough to crush inflation causes not only an economic crash, but also a financial crash, with highly leveraged private and public debtors facing severe distress. The resulting financial turmoil that intensifies the recession, creating a vicious cycle of deepening recession and escalating financial pain and debt distress.
In these circumstances, central banks will blink. They will wimp out in the fight against inflation, in an effort to avoid an economic and financial crash. But that will lead to a higher permanent inflation rate, while only postponing the arrival of stagflation and debt crises. In other words, central banks in the United States, Europe, and other advanced economies have only bad options."
EXTRACTS: "Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West." ---- "....whatever the weaknesses of Western democracies, they still command a degree of soft power that their autocratic competitors could only dream of. Democracy remains popular around the world – among citizens of both democratic and nondemocratic countries. That is why modern dictators pretend to be democrats." ----
"....there is no shortage of criticism about how the US and Europe function. But that itself is a product of the press freedom and political opposition that one can find only in democracies. But actions speak louder than words: Immigrants from around the world are eager to come to Europe or America, whereas few are trying to get into Russia or China."
EXTRACT: "In conventional macroeconomics, an economy’s longer-term growth potential is determined by the sum of labor-force and productivity growth. If one of those factors slows, the other must accelerate. Otherwise, long-term growth suffers.
China is in serious trouble on both fronts. An unsustainable one-child family-planning policy –subsequently changed to a two- and now three-child policy – means that the working-age population is declining, and Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress suggested that already-strong productivity headwinds are likely to intensify. "
EXTRACTS: "First and most obvious – it has happened before. And in an historical sense, it has happened relatively recently, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 rightly considered a seismic event in world politics.
The rub is that nobody predicted the end of the USSR either.
In fact, it was confidently assumed in the West that Mikhail Gorbachev would go on ruling the Soviet Union, until the hard-line coup that failed to topple him (but left him mortally wounded in a political sense) made that view obviously redundant." ---- "So is it speculative to talk about a future Russian collapse? Yes. Is there evidence it is imminent? No. But in many ways that’s the problem: when authoritarian regimes implode, they tend to do so very quickly, and with little warning."
EXTRACT: " But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he [XI left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China."
EXTRACTS: "Recent inflation news from the eurozone’s largest member, Germany, is particularly alarming. In August, producer prices – which measure what is happening at the preliminary stages of industrial production – were a whopping 46% higher than in the same month last year. Given the long-term correlation between the growth rate of producer and consumer prices, this suggests that the latter could soar to 14% in November. Price stability – which is supposed to be the ECB’s uncompromising goal, per the Maastricht Treaty – is no longer perceptible" ----- "Since the 2008 global economic crisis, the ECB has allowed the central-bank money supply to increase twice as fast, relative to economic output, as the US Federal Reserve has. Of that growth, 83% was the result of the ECB’s purchases of government bonds from eurozone countries. With those purchases – which totaled an estimated €4.4 trillion – the ECB pushed interest rates on government bonds to around zero. This spurred countries to disregard European debt rules and accumulate debt at a breakneck pace."
EXTRACTS: "While some Russians have opposed the attack on Ukraine from the outset and publicly protested against the mobilisation that has just been declared, others, on the far right, feel that Russia is holding back too much and are increasingly calling for total mobilisation, the carpet-bombing of Ukrainian cities, and even the use of nuclear weapons." ----- "Will the Kremlin be able to channel the growing warmongering zeal? In view of the intensity of the rhetoric of the various wings of the Russian far right, backed recently by several Putin allies including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it is doubtful: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, nationalist pressure is likely to become a serious and lasting threat to Russia’s internal stability."
EXTRACT: "But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here."
EXTRACTS "Ever since she became a prominent political figure 12 years ago, Truss has been a shapeshifter. She started as a Liberal Democrat before becoming a Conservative, and she voted to remain in the European Union before championing Brexit. As a minister, it is hard to think of anything she accomplished. She signed a few EU trade deals as Secretary of State for International Trade, but most of those were rollovers." --- "But if until recently it seemed that Truss was driven solely by political ambition, her government’s 'mini-budget' proposal sheds light on her deeper ideological affinities."
EXTRACT: "Russia’s focus on Ukraine and Putin’s choice to frame this as a civilisational struggle with the west has created opportunities for China to enhance its influence elsewhere – at Russia’s expense."
”The Ukrainian army is making spectacular advances,” --- “…the European Union has fully mobilized to confront the energy crisis.” ---- “we are helping our partners in the Global South to handle the fallout from Russia’s brutal aggression and cynical weaponization of energy and food.” ---- “In short: the overall strategy is working. We must continue to support Ukraine, pressure Russia with sanctions, and help our global partners in a spirit of solidarity.”
EXTRACT: "In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which ....... “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?”
EXTRACT: "Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else."
EXTRACTS: "As the revolutionary founder of a new Chinese state, Mao emphasized ideology over development. For Deng and his successors, it was the opposite: De-emphasis of ideology was viewed as necessary to boost economic growth through market-based 'reform and opening up.'
Then came Xi. Initially, there was hope that his so-called 'Third Plenum Reforms' of 2013 would usher in a new era of strong economic performance. But the new ideological campaigns carried out under the general rubric of Xi Jinping Thought, including a regulatory clampdown on once-dynamic Internet platform companies and associated restrictions on online gaming, music, and private tutoring, as well as a zero-COVID policy that has led to never-ending lockdowns, have all but dashed those hopes." ----- "With the upcoming 20th Party Congress likely to usher in an unprecedented third five-year term for Xi, there is good reason to believe that China’s growth sacrifice has only just begun."
EXTRACTS: "Less widely noted, however, is that the prices of many commodities fell this summer. The price of oil decreased by about 30% between early June and mid-August. The politically sensitive price of gasoline in the United States fell by 20% over the same period, from $5 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The overall index fell 12%." ---- "There are two macroeconomic reasons to think that commodity prices in general will fall further. The level of economic activity is a self-evidently important determinant of demand for commodities and therefore of their prices. Less obviously, the real interest rate is another key factor. And the current outlook for both global growth and real interest rates suggests a downward path for commodity prices."
EXTRACT: "How Trump planned to use the classified documents remains a question that investigators presumably have made a high priority. Depending on the answer and the resulting charges, if any, one thing is certain: Trump will play hardball, including by amplifying his claims of victimhood at the hands of the fictional Deep State, and denying any wrongdoing in purloining the documents. His lies and hyperbole, however, don’t preclude seeking a plea deal. In his previous tangles with the law, such as his Trump University scam, he agreed to compensate the victims (in that case $25 million) after his prevarications were exhausted."