The Colburn Orchestra Plays Mussorgsky - 'Pictures at an Exhibition'

For the full performance, which includes Berlioz, Dvořák and Mussorgsky, click here.

Pictures at an Exhibition
1874, for solo piano; Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel in 1942
by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky (top), Maurice Ravel (bottom)In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the subsequent dissolution of many of its multi-nation empires, 19th- century Europe was swept up in a wave of nationalism that spread across the entire continent. In the 1850s, Russia's involvement in the nationalist movement was readily apparent in its artistic scene. When Peter the Great ruled the country, he sought to bring Russia up to speed with its Western European neighbors by importing great artistic talents to St. Petersburg from the cultural centers of Italy, France and Germany. This tradition continued well into the nationalist era, with famous Western composers like Berlioz and Verdi traveling to St. Petersburg to premier their works. In the 1850s, disenchanted with the dominance of Western culture in Russia and overcome with a deep nationalistic fervor, a group of Russian artists united to create a national art that was free from Western influence. Five composers rose to the forefront of this movement. These men, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov were at the time christened as "The Mighty Handful" by prominent critic Vladimir Stasov and are known today simply as "The Five."

As a member of this group, Mussorgsky was not only a prime player in the forging of a new Russian musical identity, but he was also able to actively participate in the larger Russian artistic community. It was through this participation that he came to know the artist Victor Hartmann. Stasov introduced Mussorgsky and Hartmann in 1870 and the two became fast friends, sharing an interest in recapturing intrinsically Russian qualities in their respective art forms. When Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, he left an unfillable hole in the Russian arts community. In honor of the artist, Stasov and others organized an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann's works to be held in St. Petersburg in February and March of 1874. It is from this exhibition that the titular pictures were culled for Mussorgsky's 1874 composition "Kartinki s vïstavki" ("Pictures at an Exhibition").

Pictures at an Exhibition was originally composed for solo piano and serves as a musical representation of a viewer's journey through an exhibit. The version you will be hearing today is a 1942 orchestration by French composer, Maurice Ravel. The opening movement, entitled Promenade, shows the viewer walking into the gallery to view the first piece of art. When the Promenade movement recurs throughout the piece, it indicates the viewer moving from one painting to the next. The Promenade theme recalls a Russian folk melody in its simplicity and its use of asymmetric meter.

The first movement, Gnomus (The Gnome), depicts a lost design for a nutcracker formed from a gnome with large teeth, "clumsily running with crooked legs." The movements of the gnome can be heard in the lurching quality of the music, which starts and stops in a seemingly random manner.

After an interlude of the Promenade theme, the second movement, The Old Castle, depicts another lost picture of Hartmann's, this time showing a medieval castle and a troubadour who sings a melancholy song. This theme can be heard in the bassoon and alto saxophone melodies.

Another Promenade interlude leads to a lively movement entitled Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play). This painting, also lost today, showed the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre in Paris with a group of children playing under the supervision of their nursemaids.

The next movement, Bydlo (Cattle), is derived from a picture of oxen pulling a cart. The movement begins softly in a piano dynamic before building to a climactic forte and receding once again to piano, as though the cart is passing by the listener on the street.

The Promenade theme is heard once again before an effervescent movement called Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. Hartmann's picture for this movement survives today. It shows a costume design for the 1870 ballet Trilby. Through Ravel's expert use of quirky, ornamented woodwind melodies, the listener can easily imagine the unhatched chicks dancing across the stage.

The next movement, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (originally entitled by Stasov Two Polish Jews: One Rich, One Poor), is likely based on two separate extant portraits of inhabitants of the Warsaw ghettos, one rich and one poor. One can hear the pomposity of the rich man in the tutti melody at the beginning and end of the movement. The poor man complaining about his lot in life can be heard in the rattling trumpet melody in the middle section.

We hear the Promenade again as the viewer moves on to the next picture in the exhibition, The Market at Limoges (The Great News). Stasov described this movement as, "French women quarreling violently in the market." Their arguments can be heard in the snide melodies that are passed between the woodwinds.

Without pause, the listener moves onto the next movement, which consist of two pieces, The Catacombs and Cum Mortuis in Lingua Morta (With the Dead in a Dead Language). The first section depicts Hartmann's painting of himself traveling through the Parisian catacombs with a lantern. The second section presents an eerie variation on the Promenade theme, perhaps leading the listener on his own journey through the catacombs.

After this mysterious interlude, the leader is plunged into the raucous movement, The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga). This extant drawing shows Hartmann's design for a clock in the form of Baba-Yaga's hut on fowl's legs. Baba-Yaga is a terrifying figure in Russian folklore, a witch who grinds human bones to a paste and eats them.

The climactic upwards scales of the previous movement suddenly give way to a glorious and triumphant choral movement called The Great Gate of Kiev. The picture that inspired this movement survives today and is an architectural plan for a monumental gateway into the city of Kiev in honor of Tsar Alexander II. The Great Gate is designed in the ancient Russian style, with a colorful cupola adorning the top, shaped like a Slavonic warrior's helmet.

Written by Briana Lehman, bassoonist in the Artist Diploma program of the Colburn Conservatory of Music.

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