Eight Mazurkas – Luke Dahn
These eight mazurkas were composed between the years 2016 and 2020 as a kind of response to a personal study of the Chopin mazurkas, for which I have developed a genuine fondness. My “mazurkas” then deserve quotation marks, as they stand removed from the mazur tradition from which Chopin drew. To be sure, each of my mazurkas bears some of the basic defining metric and rhythmic elements of the dance—e.g. triple meter, emphasis on beat two or three, and syncopated accents—though at times these defining elements are rather latent or obscured. Mazurkas 1 and 8, which serve as bookends, are the most extroverted, celebratory and even bombastic pieces of the set. The short, pithy Mazurka 2 is marked by sharp staccatos and hidden quotations of two chorale tunes within its brittle texture. Mazurka 3 features a quiet passacaglia bass line above which an angular canon occurs. Perhaps the least mazurka-like of the set is the fourth piece in the set with its obscured triple meter and syncopated rhythms. Metric clarity returns in Mazurka 5 as pulsing harmonic seconds accompany patterned melodic gestures, although a much slower and delicately expressive middle section broadens these dance elements considerably. Mazurka 6 is the only piece in the set that explicitly draws from Chopin as the left-hand fifths that pervade the piece are taken directly from the sparkling middle section of Chopin’s Op.68, No.3. The dark, almost sinister character of the short Mazurka 7, marked by a low register “bass drum,” prepares the exuberant final number.Luke Dahn
Pictures at an Exhibition – Modest Mussorgsky
It is difficult to conceive that the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition written in 1874 by Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881), had to wait until after the composer’s death to be published. The origin of Pictures at an Exhibition goes back to 1873. That year saw the death of Victor Hartmann, architect and artist, who was a close friend of Mussorgsky’s. The composer expressed his sorrow at the loss to Russian critic Vladimir Stassov, who had first introduced them. The following year Stassov helped to arrange an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s watercolors and drawings in St. Petersburg. From this collection, Mussorgsky chose eleven works on which to build his suite, introducing some of the movements with a recurring “Promenade” theme. The “Promenade,” as explained by Stassov, represents the composer “walking now right, now left, now as an idle person, now urged to go near a picture; at times his joyous appearance is dampened as he thinks in sadness of his departed friend. . . .”
“The Gnome” is the sketch of a nutcracker in the shape of a deformed gnome. “The Old Castle” (following a “Promenade”) portrays a medieval Italian castle with a singing troubadour in the foreground.
“Tuileries” (following another “Promenade”) shows a crowd of children and nursemaids in the famous Parisian park. Mussorgsky’s subtitle reads: “Dispute of the Children after Play.” “Bydlo” portrays a Polish peasant wagon with giant wooden wheels drawn by oxen. “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (following a “Promenade”) was based on a design for a child’s ballet costume, which is a shell from which only the head and limbs protrude. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” contrasts strongly with the previous section and stems from two pictures the artist gave to Mussorgsky (now lost). “Limoges — The Marketplace” shows a group of women gossiping by their pushcarts amid hustle and bustle.
“Catacombs,” a picture of the Paris catacombs, led Mussorgsky to inscribe, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me toward skulls, apostrophizes them — the skulls are illuminated gently in the interior.” “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a continuation of the catacombs motif, reworks the “Promenade” theme into an eerie character piece.
“The Hut on Fowls’ Legs” is a drawing of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba-Yaga, the Russian witch. Toward the end of the section, Mussorgsky suggests the witch flying. When she lands, it is squarely on the downbeat of the final section, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” This was Hartmann’s design for an ancient-style gate, complete with decorative cupola and a triumphal procession marching through the arches (represented by the “Promenade” theme). The full mass of the piano’s resources comes together here to give Pictures at an Exhibition a majestic conclusion.
Notes by Dr. Michael Fink, copyright 2020