Spotlight On: Il Vecchio Castello
Literally, "The Old Castle", this vignette depicts a medival castle - in front of which a troubadour plays a song, probably on a lute. It was originally written in the unusual key of G# minor, not often seen outside of keyboard music and in use as an aid to modulation. Given that Pictures was originally a piano composition, however, these keyboard-centric keys are to be expected.
The initial motif, played by the bassoons, is - at the same time - timeless and familiar, yet ancient. The repetitive, circularity of the line shows us exactly how little the castle changes over the centuries. The years and seasons pass, and the castle remains the same. After the motif is established, the troubadour appears - voiced by the alto saxophone. Unusually for classical repertoire, the alto sax is specifically called for in the Ravel arrangement of Pictures, and lends a very different character to the solo line. While the castle motif is very Italian - Siciliano even - the troubadour's song is thoroughly Russian in its melodic construction. There is no doubt Mussorgsky is calling back to the music of his home land.
The solo ends perdendosi - literally "getting lost" - with connotations of disappearing. One human life is a flicker in the existence of the castle - a match that flares up, quickly dies away, turns to smoke, and vanishes without a trace.
The original painting which inspired Mussorgsky has been lost. Depicted above is a paiting of Chernomor's castle, from Ruslan and Lyudmila a famous Russian poem by Alexander Pushkin. Glinka composed an operetta based on this poem, and Harmann is known to have illustrated designs for costumes, scenes, and the like for various operas. It is easy to imagine that he was inspired by such illustrations when creting the original Castello.
Attend our performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, June 10, 2017 at Northshore Performing Arts Center.