Mussorgsky/Ravel:Pictures at an Exhibition

Although we regard Mussorgsky today as a major Russian composer and his name is linked with Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin as one of the "Russian Five," to the end of his life, he only regarded himself as being half-educated in music. Many of his compositions were left unfinished. His most well-known work is Pictures at an Exhibition, originally written as a group of piano pieces in 1874. It became almost an overnight concert hall favorite after it was turned into an orchestral work in 1922 by Maurice Ravel, who created his version on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky.

The pictures that inspired the music were mainly watercolours, painted by Mussorgsky’s friend Victor Hartman, who had died in1873. The piece is a musical description of walking around an exhibition of Hartman's paintings. Each of the pieces has a movement conjuring up the mood invoked by the picture, or in some cases even painting the picture in music. Unfortunately, many of the original pictures no longer exist and Mussorgsky's music is all we have to remember them by. The work opens with the Promenade, which throughout the work represents the visitor walking from painting to painting within the exhibition. The Promenade features shifting time signatures throughout, depicting the dawdling, irregular way a visitor to an exhibition would walk around.

The first picture the visitor comes to is Hartman's design for a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome. Although the painting has been lost, we can imagine, through Mussorgsky's music, that the gnome was grotesque-looking. Following the gnome the Promenade leads to The Old CastleThe Tuileries Gardens in Paris. The original picture has been lost here, too, although we do know that it depicted children playing. This movement was subtitled 'Dispute d'enfants après jeux' - 'Children arguing about a game'. The music in this movement contains a lot of falling thirds, which is the sound of the children taunting each other. Bydlo, a farm cart, follows with no Promenade. This depicts a Polish cart being pulled through mud by two oxen. The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells movement was inspired by some designs Hartman had drawn for a ballet, called Trilbi. The costumes were for children dressed as canaries as well as un-hatched chicks. This movement is a playful scherzo. It is also quite short. Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle were two Polish Jews and were originally the subjects of two separate paintings by Hartman. Mussorgrsky combined the essence of the two paintings into one movement, perhaps to emphasize a rich man/poor man contrast. Samuel Goldenburg, probably large, well dressed and rich, is represented by the first tune in the movement. Schmuyle on the other hand is represented by a piercing, troubled-sounding melody played by the trumpet, making him “appear” to be thin and poor. The next picture is of Limoges - the Market. On the original score, Mussorgsky noted some imaginary conversations between trades-people in this bustling market. The scene shifts back to Paris next, to the Roman burial ground - the Catacombs. This is an eerie picture of the artist walking through the catacombs, with piles of human skulls surrounding him. Hartman painted this picture based on Victor Hugo's description of the catacombs in Les Misérables. This leads to the next movement, which doesn't directly describe a picture: Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua, meaning 'With the dead in a dead language'. This is a reflection on death; Mussorgsky wrote in the margin of the score: The creative genius of the late Hartman leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow. The source of light in the catacombs was candles or oil burning in the skulls. Baba-Yaga is the witch of death from Russian mythology. In the story, she lives in The Hut on Fowl's Legs. Hartman painted a design for a clock based on the hut. This is another quite dark movement in the music. Finally we come to the Great Gate of Kiev, Hartman's grand design for a new city gate. Sadly it was never built. The music for this starts with big, long chords, describing the grandness of the gate. This is the 'Promenade' theme again but in strict, 4/4 metre.

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