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Mussorgsky (1839-1881)/Ravel (1875-1937) - Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest 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. 

As 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! 

In 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. 

Why, 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. 

The 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 “desperate” incandescence. 

Promenade 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! 

The 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? 

Promenade 2. Chastened, he moves on, a pensive solo horn alternating with equally pensive woodwind, calming the mood for . . . 

The 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? 

Promenade 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: 

In 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 dart mischievously. 

Bydlo. 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 eye. 

Promenade 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. 

Ballet 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. 

Two 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 nearer purple). 

[Promenade 5 - often omitted in some arrangements]

The 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 . . . 

The 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 . . . 

Cum 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. 

The 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. 

The 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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