Pictures at an Exhibition

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            A staple of piano recitals given by virtuosi, this work is probably more familiar to many in its orchestration by Ravel.  Unquestionably, a tour de force for the solo pianist, it is equally a sound spectacular for the modern orchestra.  It lends itself admirably to reinterpretation in the orchestral idiom for the simple reason that few works in the repertoire consist of such deliberate and vivid depictions of a variety of colorful images from the physical realm.  It was composed by Mussorgsky in 1874 during three weeks in June as a tribute to the distinguished Russian architect and artist, Viktor Hartmann, who had unexpectedly died of an aneurysm the age of only 39.  Hartmann, a Volga German, was one of the champions of a new resurgence of indigenous Russian art, along with his close friend Mussorgsky.  In recognition of Hartmann’s work, an exhibition of some 400 of his drawings and paintings was given in the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg in February and March of 1874. Mussorgsky’s musical tribute to his friend takes the form of a suite of movements that vividly depict the subjects of ten of the paintings (few of the art works survive).

           Pictures at an Exhibition is so replete with such a variety of colorful, eccentric and unique visual references that it almost begged for a setting for orchestra, with that group’s magnificent palette of sound “colors.”   Yet, in all fairness it must be said that it is unquestionably equally successful as a solo piano work—imagine one person drawing all of the color, drama and power out of one instrument!  To my mind, a comparison between the original piano version and its orchestration is rather like imagining a Western vista photographed in black and white by Ansel Adams on the one hand, and the same vista painted on a grand scale by Alfred Bierstadt.  Both would be equally stunning interpretations.  In any case, Mussorgsky’s work was almost immediately seized upon by orchestrators and literally dozens of orchestral interpretations have been pumped out during the past 135 years—many by distinguished familiar conductors, composers, and orchestrators.  Some of these occasionally are performed today, but only one has achieved almost universal acclaim and dominates today’s concert performances, and that is the one done by Maurice Ravel in 1922.  His gift for orchestration is well familiar to audiences, and his choices in the orchestration have now well nigh defined the work in the world’s imagination.

           In keeping with the composer’s desire to mimic as much as possible the experience of a visitor to the exhibit, he starts the series of vignettes with a short movement (Promenade) that literally depicts the viewer walking from painting to painting.   The music of this short introduction appears several times throughout the suite in various guises as the visitor moves from picture to picture.  The effect of walking is cleverly created by music that is without a steady metre—Mussorgsky self-deprecatingly said that it alluded to his own rather lumbering gait.

           The suite begins with the Promenade, played by solo, unaccompanied trumpet.  It doesn’t last long, and we arrive at the first picture, Gnomus, the music for which stutters to and fro, depicting a grotesque little gnome.   The promenade takes us to the next picture, Il vecchio castello (the old castle), a serene and antique scene in front of which a troubadour sings.  In this case, Ravel has given the troubadour’s song to a smoothly lyrical saxophone.   The promenade next takes us to the Tuileries, the famous garden near the Louvre, where children are noisy (and contentiously) at play.  This short scene features light woodwinds and lyrical strings in a consciously naïve and playful style.  Without the help of the promenade, we encounter the next movement, Bydlo, dominated by a rustic, lurching Polish oxcart, depicted so famously by the melancholy tuba solo.  The movement starts softly, growing louder as the huge cart goes by, and fades as it passes on.  Again, the promenade theme presents us with the next picture, a truly bizarre painting of dancing “un-hatched chicks in their shells.”  Chirping flutes, pizzicato strings, and a scampering bassoon aptly conjure up frenetic baby birds in a mad avian ballet.

           Immediately thereafter, there emerges a dark portrait of two Russian Jews, Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuÿle—one rich, one poor.   This clichéd and dated caricature uses a Middle Eastern gapped scale to evoke the two men’s culture, beginning with Goldenburg, followed by a rapidly tongued, muted piccolo trumpet passage for Schmuÿle.  The two portraits are then combined, followed by a short, morose tag.  The famous market at Limoges comes next, populated by quarrelsome French peasant women.  Barking horns and scintillating strings and woodwinds seem to evoke village gossip as it makes the rounds.  A sudden pause and then a breakneck coda leads us to the dark and moribund world of the Roman catacombs, subtitled “With the dead, in a dead language.” 

           Massive low brass and French horn passages ominously begin the first section, later joined by the trumpets in a powerful evocation of the finality of death.  The second section is somewhat less foreboding, with strings and woodwinds creating a somewhat reflective search for the meaning of it all.   The next movement takes the concept of “bizarre” to a truly higher level:  it pictures the famous Slavic witch, Baba Yaga, who eats small children and lives in a hut standing on chicken legs.  This particular hut is in the shape of a clock whose bells enter into the texture.  It’s a grotesque exercise in frenetic chasing around, far exceeding what we have heard so far.  The end winds up in a whirlwind that spins right into the finale of the whole suite, the “Great Gate of Kiev.”  The majestic theme is worked through in several versions—some with intimations of a carillon.  Each version seems to be more intense than the one before, with teasing sections of calmness, only to be redoubled by even more massive and imposing renditions that seem to challenge human and musical limitations.   The peroration is usually considered to be just about the loudest and most imposing playing of which an orchestra is capable.  Enjoy!

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan