Monday, February 28, 2011

Little Star; Mussorgsky invokes music of the past

Mussorgsky had an uncanny ability to shape the simplest of materials into highly individualized musical constructions. One can observe this gift in almost every detail of his first surviving song, written at the age of 18 in 1857. Called "Gde ty, zvjozdochka," this song title is often translated "Little Star" in English.

The text is based on parts of a short poem by Nikolai Porfiryevich Grekov (1810-1866). Grekov was a misfit who eked out his living as a translator. Never highly respected, his poems nonetheless were set with some frequency by composers like Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein.

Gde ty, zvjozdochka, (Where are you little star?)(akh,) gde ty, jasnaja? (Ah, Where are you pretty one?)
Il' zatmilasja (Or are you covered)
tuchej chjornoju, (by a dark cloud)
tuchej chjornoju, (dark cloud
tuchej groznoyu? (dark, and menacing?)

Gde ty, devitsa, (Where are you maiden?)
gde ty, krasnaja? (Where are you fairest?)
Il' pokinula (or have you abandoned)
druga milogo? (thy beloved)
Druga milogo, (thy beloved,
nenagljadnogo? (one and only?)

Tucha chjornaja (A black cloud)
skryla zvjozdochku, (covered the little star)
Zemlja khladnaja (Cold Earth)
vzjala devitsu. (covers my maiden)

I've arranged the lines differently than they appear in anthologies to show that they are comprised of 5-syllable groupings. We have lost the ability to think in poetic meters, but the ancient feel communicated by this formality is structural to the setting: the texture of the piano writing evokes the bard's harp.

Mussorgsky varies the emphasis of each 5-syllable set using melismas that allow the lines to float. The second line contains an extra exclamation common to the oral tradition and heard from time-to-time in the Milman Perry recordings.

The song opens with an unaccompanied piano line; a most unusual texture. One might expect a line like this to be doubled at the octave below, perhaps set against a simple drone. The spareness evokes broken loneliness.

The chords in the opening stanza explore the relationships between progressions by fifth and linear motions in thirds, particularly as the section approaches its cadence.

The middle stanza [1:09] brightens into the relative major with rustic drones and internal cadences on the mediant (the dominant of the larger tonal structure).

There is a wonderful collision as the last pitch of the central section rests on F-sharp [1:56], which becomes a dissonance as the music shifts back into G-sharp minor. Somehow our minds find a resolution that is unvoiced; a powerful symbol within the matrix of images in this song.

The final stanza [1:57] alters the pattern established in the first stanza. The powerful crystal-clear high G-sharp [2:23] sung and sustained clears away a space for the final phrase to quietly flow. The music shifts to the parallel major as the death of the maiden becomes clear to the listener [2:48], and as soon as the major tonality is understood it is taken away [3:00]. The highest note of the piece is the minor third, voiced in octaves on B-natural, just before the closing line.

This song intentionally invokes a music of the past to illuminate a grief that remains connected to nature. Its realizations come through images of stars and clouds and finally of Earth.

1 comment:

  1. One of your best explanations. I could follow the way the piano line evoked "broken loneliness" and the way the higher note "cleared space" for the next section.

    This blog is an education for a musical illiterate like me.


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