would be pretty good words to characterize the music I heard recently, performed by my friend pianist Beth Levin at Merkin Hall in Manhattan. Outside the concert venue, pin oaks held tight to their leaves in the autumn gloaming.
The piece Beth played, Pictures at an Exhibition, by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, has stayed with me. The composer was a product of the Russian nationalist movement of the late nineteenth century, but remains fresh today.
Beth’s self effacement in person is matched by her thunder as a performer.
We treated ourselves to dessert beforehand at the classic New York diner Old John’s Luncheonette, across West 67th Street.
Good place to go if you want a Broadway mojito (rum, muddled lime, mint, soda), or a brief Prossecco, or a ginger ale, or “momma’s meat loaf.” Or, more my speed, a warm brownie with fresh mint chocolate chip ice cream and mocha crème anglais.
These days I mainly consume rabbit food. Maybe the ice cream qualified, it was in fact made with fresh mint and so tasted a little medicinal, though scrumptious with a brownie right out of the oven.
The ticket-taking usher on being told we had pie: Pie is always a good thing.
Yes, and so is Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky wrote it to honor his friend Viktor Hartmann after the artist’s unexpected death from a brain aneurism in 1873 at the age of 39.
The suite of ten short pieces was inspired by a postmortem exhibit mounted in St. Petersburg of Hartmann’s work, with the central conceit of promenading past the different works of art. As interpreted by the solo piano version it is both intimate and grand – and incredibly difficult, requiring stamina as well as passion. Beth has both in spades.
Walking in the quiet of a fall afternoon, thinking back to this haunting elegy, one creative person pouring out his soul to another.
In fall, the melancholy that is always with us as humans seems pronounced. How do you capture the feeling in art? In music? In fall the flowers keep coming.
Will this beauty never stop? I stalk a black squirrel around the trunk of a big black locust. The sound your shoes make sloshing through crisp autumn drifts.
The sound of hammering just off the trail — workmen snugging down a roof before winter comes.
Plantanus offers its astonishing platter-size leaves.
One of the most affecting passages in Pictures is “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” and it’s also one of the few extant pieces of art on which Mussorgsky based his music, a watercolor featuring costumes for a children’s production.
The things you come across as you promenade. A child’s lost shoe.
Hemingway, it is said, once wrote a six-word story on a bet: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A writer who knew a little bit about melancholy.
Mussorgsky ventures into the Catacombs of Paris after his friend’s dark and umbrous painting.
He wrote in the score: “The creative genius of the late Hartmann leads me to the skulls and apostrophizes them. The skulls begin to glow.” Sad, sadder, saddest. In fall we think about friends we’ve lost too young. How happy we were.
Winnowing down storage, coming across journals I kept as a much younger woman, replete with both melancholy and rapture in gouts that are so great as to be embarrassing. I remember feeling euphoria at the sight of a plate of ripe sliced tomatoes on a diner counter. Today, the red heartbeat of the Japanese maple.
Only connect, from E.M. Forster, served as my adolescent mantra. If you had told me at 24 I would be still connecting as a writer I think I’d be hornswalloped.
Mussorgsky never heard Pictures performed – he died six years after composing it at age 42, almost as young as his friend Hartmann. The piece would have faded from the culture entirely if it hadn’t been orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel. Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty. Keats’ perfect adage, always relevant. I meet the my new favorite cocker spaniel on the trail, Pepper. A little melancholic herself. She wouldn’t be bothered with me, but why should she be?
Scraps of saved letters surface in dusty boxes. Missives from Maud as an itty bitty.
Promenade past pictures, promenade past trees. Birches glowing in the autumn sun, bright as skulls.
As long as you make sure to promenade. Wherever you’re likely to find melancholy and rapture.