(1875-1937) - Pictures at an Exhibition
Mussorgsky was the wild man of the Mighty Handful, a man whose coarseness
is something he perhaps picked up in the army. The correspondingly rough-hewn,
uncivilised quality of his music was, in his day, considered a Bad Thing.
Unfortunately, though I suppose he wouldn't see it this way, his predisposition
to over-indulgence in another habit picked up in the army meant that he
started far more than he finished. Following his early - if not entirely
surprising - demise, the commendably dedicated Rimsky-Kosakov and Glazunov
prepared completions of some of his best work. Their well-intentioned “improvements”,
however, ironed out what they saw as flaws. Nowadays, we are busy putting
the “flaws” back in.
a tribute to his friend, the artist Victor Hartmann who died suddenly in
1873, Mussorgsky composed this astonishingly graphic suite. Being for solo
piano - and completed! - it escaped his friends' ministrations,
thus retaining the unsettling earthiness of the real Mussorgsky. Pictures
at an Exhibition is a classic of the virtuoso piano repertoire, an
epic work of such grand conception that its orchestral potential was immediately
recognised. Yet, if so, how could Rimsky-Korsakov, that orchestral magician
par excellence, have considered it “untranslatable into any other
medium”? Probably because, with his unparalleled understanding of tone
colour, he appreciated more than most why Mussorgsky had chosen
the solo piano - for example, think about the palpable desperation
in the efforts of even the finest pianist during the coda!
1891 Tushmalov, ignoring his teacher's edict, orchestrated seven “pictures”,
instituting an immense roster of orchestrators which includes Henry Wood,
Leo Funtek, Ravel, Leonidas Leonardi, Caillet, Stokowski, Toscanini, Nikolai
Golovanov, Walter Goehr, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and Lawrence Leonard (who
neatly reworked it into a piano concerto). There's Elgar Howarth's effective
brass and percussion version, and Arthur Wills' impressive, but less effective,
organ transcription. Curiosities include a salon orchestra arrangement
by Giuseppe Becce, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's rock band adaptation.
you might ask, with such a varied menu, are we hearing “the Ravel” orchestration
yet again? Well, it is arguably the finest: a true orchestration (neither
adding nor subtracting any significant notes), the model for several others,
and the victim of numerous “tartings up”. A prodigious feat of instrumental
imagination, its colours vividly harmonise with the images, whether romantic
or raging, fleet or ponderous, humorous or downright ugly. If it has a
fault, it is, as Stokowski intimated, that it is “too French”, simply
too refined to truly reflect the rude original, emulating Rimsky-Korsakov's
and Glazunov's general misconception. But, really, that's not a fault,
is it? Any “arrangement” is necessarily a different work, to be
judged on its own merits.
felicities of Ravel's orchestral art are too numerous to detail here. The
following resumé is, literally, a guide, because the work’s
layout resembles a stroll round the exhibition, with the recurring “promenade”
representing Mussorgsky's reflections on the exhibits - and his lost friend.
In this latter respect, I find it particularly significant that after Limoges
the work suddenly clouds over, becomes less of a “stroll” and more of a
progression - through blackness, limbo and lurid nightmare, emerging into
1. Ravel's abiding interest in ancient forms probably prompted his
use of a ceremonial solo trumpet and brass chorale - though it's almost
as if the composer has entered in the train of a pride of civic dignitaries!
Gnome. Mussorgsky's glowering interpretation of this curious sketch
for a toy nutcracker shaped like “a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed
legs”, reinforced by Ravel's clacking xylophone, weird string effects and
ponderous brass, generates a menace not normally expected from a design
for a Christmas tree bauble. Does the warped allusion to the promenade
at the climax represent the composer suffering the guilt of bereavement?
2. Chastened, he moves on, a pensive solo horn alternating with equally
pensive woodwind, calming the mood for . . .
Old Castle. Hartmann's painting focuses on a troubador singing before
the castle. Ravel colours in the singer using a saxophone, which back in
the twenties was (and today still is) appropriately associated with popular
music. The soulful lyric gradually becomes disfigured by strangely dissonant
surges: is his unease rekindled by some disquieting aspect of this picture?
3. The composer wrenches himself away, his thoughts a turmoil of trumpet
and miry black bass, stirred by descant violins, until he is abruptly diverted
(horns and pizzicato strings) by another painting:
the Tuileries Gardens. In this fanciful little scherzo, chattering
woodwind echo the squabbling of wobbly infants at play. The trio (on strings)
is meant to suggest gossiping nannies, amongst which the woodwind kiddies
Refreshed, the composer admires Hartmann's illustration of a Polish ox-cart
(its sheer bulk perceptively represented by solo euphonium) lumbering past
in an earth-shaking climax before receding into the distances of the mind's
4. Dazed by the primitive power of this basic form of transport, the
composer wanders, lost in thoughts coloured by high woodwind and celeste.
The impression resonates in horns and basses, the next picture gradually
intruding on his consciousness.
of the Unhatched Chicks. This is from sketches for the decor of the
ballet Trilbi. The fledglings in question are canaries (not that
it makes the slightest difference). Even more comical than the Tuileries,
this is for me the one passage where the piano “wins” hands down, although
Ravel's supremely filigree scoring remains an absolute delight.
Polish Jews, Rich and Poor (a.k.a. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle)
. . . are two pencil drawings, gifts to Mussorgsky from Hartmann. The “Rich”
resounds in corpulent unison strings and woodwind, the “Poor” wheedles
on emaciated muted trumpet. They coalesce, a second trumpet joining for
the climax (observe the trumpeters: the second will look pink, the first
5 - often omitted in some arrangements]
Market Place at Limoges. At the heart of the exhibition, pictures
come thick and fast. The bitching women of the bustling market place gabble
furiously in music of astonishing virtuosity, Ravel splashing flashes of
brilliant colours across his aural canvas. The composer turns, and is stunned
to confront . . .
Catacombs (Sepulchrum Romanum). Hartmann pictured himself within a
fearsome vision of the subterranean passages of Paris. Ravel transmutes
Mussorgsky's piano chords into colossal pillars of brass, bloodcurdlingly
baleful (perhaps surprisingly, preserving the characteristic pianistic
split chords). The mesmerised composer, in . . .
Mortuis in Lingua Mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language) . . . imagines
himself inside the picture. This most introspective promenade is
both nadir and core of the work: Mussorgsky communes with his dead friend's
soul. In the manuscript, he explained, “The creative spirit of the dead
Hartmann leads me towards skulls, but apostrophises them - the skulls
are illuminated from within.” Ravel's scoring is chilling: a glacial tremolando,
the promenade creeping on woodwind, then descending into the blackest bass
over which the tremolandos slither like worms. Through melancholy sighs,
the scene fades onto gentle catharsis.
Hut on Fowls' Legs. The composer is rocked by another grotesque, a
drawing of an elaborately carved clock representing Baba Yaga, the legendary
tiny witch who feasts on human bones. Mussorgsky's imagination runs amok,
releasing her to soar, screeching, through storm clouds. Ravel likewise
abandons subtlety, letting rip with fusillades of big orchestral guns.
Great Gate of Kiev. Finally, sketches Hartmann made for a projected
(but never realised) monumental gate with a cupola shaped like a slavonic
helmet. Mussorgsky's music, even without Ravel's sumptuous enlargement,
suggests something greater than Hartmann's modest design. The themes, redolent
of Russian Orthodox chants, eventually combine with the promenade. It's
almost as if, having mourned in the Cum Mortuis, this picture had
evoked a reassuring vision of passing with his friend (and maybe a couple
of bottles of vodka?) through the great gate of paradise itself - a catharsis
on the very grandest scale! Ravel's scoring is massive indeed, but cunningly
stratified so that the preparatory climaxes do not upstage the denouement
- a veritable coruscation of clanging bells and searing tamtam.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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