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About this Piece

Composed: 1858 (1883)
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In the late 1850s Mussorgsky was studying with Mily Balakirev and began two piano sonatas in 1858. He only completed the scherzo movements, orchestrating the B-flat Scherzo with Balakirev’s help. In 1860 Anton Rubinstein conducted the new Russian Music Society in St. Petersburg in the premiere of the Scherzo. The main, framing section of this Scherzo has the character of a fast waltz, with some modest metrical games at phrase ends. The soft, gently pulsing trio section is built entirely over a sustained D pedal tone – mostly D major, but with some surprises.

In 1872 the director of the Imperial Theaters, Stepan Gedeonov, invited Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (then sharing lodgings) to join Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Ludwig Minkus in composing a fantasy opera-ballet Mlada. This project fell through for lack of funding (Rimsky-Korsakov later set essentially the same libretto by himself), but early in 1880 Mussorgsky was able to salvage a march from the Mlada wreckage to fulfill a new commission for an event celebrating the reign of Alexander II. This event also failed, but in October Eduard Nápravník led the Russian Music Society in a performance of the Festive March (titled “The Capture of Kars” for the aborted Alexandrine festivity, and also known as the Solemn March and other variants thereof).

After an introductory fanfare, the folksong theme of the March, in A-flat major, is broadly sung by the trombones and answered by the strings. When he revisited the piece in 1880, Mussorgsky added an alla turca trio section in C minor, mostly soft woodwinds and strings over the insistent “Turkish” jangle of the tambourine.

The legend of Mussorgsky already alive at the composer’s death held that he was a wild, original, but untutored talent, much in need of technical correction. The force of his genius was appreciated, but not the aptness of its expression. Certainly Rimsky-Korsakov believed that, and gave himself freely and unstintingly to his friend’s work, completing, editing, and arranging many of Mussorgsky’s works, including both the Scherzo and the Festive March in 1883.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.