MODEST MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel)
Premiered: St. Petersburg, Russia, 1886 (piano suite); Paris, France, 1922 (Ravel orchestration)
Introduction: Promenade; Gnomus; Promenade; Il Vecchio Castello; Promenade; Tuileries; Bydło; Promenade; Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks; Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (Two Jews); Limoges; Catacombs - cum mortuis in lingua mortua; The Little Hut on Chicken’s Legs; The Great Gate of Kiev
One of Mussorgsky’s closest friends was the slightly older artist and would-be architect Viktor Hartmann, who shared not only Mussorgsky’s drinking problem but also his fairly terrifying politics and a blazing disdain for the dandified likes of Tchaikovsky. Hartmann dropped dead at 39 from a dissected aneurysm, brought about by his suicidal drinking. Mussorgsky, who would himself die in alcoholic convulsions at 42, may have seen this as a premonition. He owned a handful of Hartmann’s drawings, and hit on the idea of a piano suite depicting a tour of a Hartmann exhibition. Pictures At An Exhibition is appallingly difficult piano music, and was not heard in the composer’s lifetime; Mussorgsky did not play it on his own last, booze-addled recital tour in 1879. But Pictures is one of the very few works that he actually finished, and survives in his weirdly exquisite manuscript; a man who many swore they never saw sober had musical handwriting clearer than some engravings.
Heard on the piano, Pictures seems strangely pre-orchestrated, so rich are its textures and timbres. However, the piano original is so daunting that the work was first heard in a partial orchestration by the publisher’s nephew, Mikhail Tushmalov. Many other orchestrations followed, culminating in 1922 with Ravel’s, commissioned by Serge Koussivitzky. Ravel worked from a very dubious edition of the music that had been “edited” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky “corrected” many of what he believed to be Mussorgsky’s “mistakes” that were nothing of the sort.
Many of Hartmann’s original works are now lost, and are known only from Mussorgsky’s work. The various pictures are linked by the famous recurring Promenade, a slightly lopsided fanfare which represents the composer himself walking round the gallery. After our first glimpse of the composer, we are thrown into the bad-fairytale world of the malevolent Gnomus. The Promenade then ambles over to an old Italian castle, evoked, surprisingly in 1922, by a long saxophone solo. The Promenade then takes us to see children playing in the Parisian Tuileries Garden (one of the lost pictures), before we confront the gigantic ox-cart of Bydło. Mussorgsky’s original presents the cart fortissimo, then makes it recede into the distance; Rimsky’s version, and therefore Ravel’s, does the opposite. The unhatched chicks of the next picture were characters in the ballet Trilby, and were actors in very odd, Disneyish costumes. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle, alas, were something far darker; the English subtitle “two Jews” conceals the use of a word we cannot print here, and the attitude that goes with it. Mussorgsky at one stage stated outright what the women were arguing about in the Limoges market, but changed his mind, leaving a straightforward scherzo. In the Catacombs, the composer meets the dead Hartmann and talks with him – “with the dead in a dead language,” so the Promenade has itself now become a ghostly figure in the musical picture. The “hut on hen’s legs” was actually a clock – and Baba Yaga herself is a close relative of Gnomus. The Great Gate of Kiev was a prize-winning design for a ceremonial gate to celebrate the Tsar’s survival after an assassination attempt; Ukraine nationalism (the reason for the attack in the first place) saw to it that it was never built. Ironically, the specter of the hated Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture looms large as the Promenade reaches its apotheosis. In the piano version, the audience sees the additional spectacle of a musician struggling with a serious lack of fingers; Ravel, possibly the greatest pianist of the great composers, takes this one opportunity to add a few notes of his own to Mussorgsky’s original.
There have been over fifty orchestrations and other arrangements of the Mussorgsky Pictures, but the Ravel is unique as the authentic merging of two geniuses, with a third (Rimsky) just visible in the background. Mussorgsky wrote the novel, but Ravel shot the movie.