Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky, 1839-1881. Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Completed 1874 (Mussorgsky), and 1922 (Ravel). Scored for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English Horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, tympani, glockenspiel, chimes, triangle, tam-tam, rattle, whip, cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings.

One of Modest Mussorgsky's closest companions was Victor Hartmann, an architect and occasional painter. Mussorgsky was devastated by Hartmann's untimely death at age 39. His anguish was increased by guilt, because he had been walking with Hartmann a few weeks earlier when the artist was forced to stop and rest against a wall, and Mussorgsky had pretended nothing was wrong for fear of frightening his friend.

The following year (1874), an exhibition was organized in honor of Hartmann, and Mussorgsky's visit to that show became the most famous gallery stroll of all time, Pictures at an Exhibition. This masterful piano suite illustrates ten of Hartmann's images, with a recurring ``Promenade'' theme to illustrate the viewer's progress from painting to painting.

However, Mussorgsky's collection has a little-known secret: of the ten pictures illustrated, only three actually appeared in the exhibition that he attended: The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (from a costume design), Baba Yaga's Hut, and The Great Gate of Kiev (from a design that was never built). Of the others, most of were based on pencil drawings, some from Mussorgsky's private collection and others that he had seen elsewhere. The Gnome was a design for a toy nutcracker; Tuileries was a scene of an empty garden (with no quarreling children); Bydlo (Polish for ``cattle'') was probably a drawing of an oxcart; Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle were separate drawings; and the Catacombs were a somewhat fanciful drawing that pictured the artist in the Paris tombs. Finally, two images ( The Old Castle and The Market Place at Limoges) seem to have been invented by the composer out of whole cloth.

We now come to Ravel, the master orchestrater. Mussorgsky's piano writing in the suite is as picturesque as can be, achieving mystery, frenzy, humor, and grandeur. It is a work that cries out for orchestral color, and several subsequent composers have been unable to resist the challenge. The first appears to have been the Russian Toushmalov, but the greatest arrangement is unquestionably Ravel's. A man who would spend hours interviewing instrumentalists to discover new possibilities, yet who had a talent for absorbing different styles, he was the perfect candidate to turn the piano suite into a concert-hall showpiece. In every movement, he selected precisely the right combination of instruments needed to duplicate Mussorgsky's original atmosphere, rising to a grand and glorious finale that leaves the listener feeling as if he had traveled to Kiev specifically to stand in front of that majestic, tragically nonexistent gate.

© 1999, Geoff Kuenning

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