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Pictures at an Exhibition

Ravel's orchestral imagination melds magically with Mussorgsky’s responses to his friend Victor Hartmann’s images.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born at Karevo, District of Pskov, on March 21, 1839, and died in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1881. He composed Pictures at an Exhibition as a set of piano pieces in June 1874. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) made his orchestral transcription in the summer of 1922 for Serge Koussevitzky, who introduced the Ravel version at one of his own concerts in Paris on October 22, 1922, and led the American premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra early in his first Boston season, on November 7 and 8, 1924, in Symphony Hall.

The score of Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, bells, triangle, tam-tam, cymbals, rattle, whip, side drum, bass drum), celesta, 2 harps, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Pictures at an Exhibition is about 33 minutes long.

It was Ravel, the Frenchman, who told Serge Koussevitzky, the Russian, about these fascinating pieces and fired his enthusiasm. At the time, around 1922, the Pictures at an Exhibition were quite unknown, and the Russian publishing house of Bessel, which had issued them in 1886 in a version heavily edited by Rimsky-Korsakov, had so little faith in them that it had no difficulty going along with Koussevitzky’s stipulation that Ravel’s transcription should be reserved for a number of years for his exclusive use, since clearly there was nothing in it for the publishers. In the event, the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures quickly became a Koussevitzky specialty, and his frequent and brilliant performances, especially his fantastic 1930 recording with the Boston Symphony, turned the work into an indispensable repertory item. What would particularly have pleased Ravel is the way the popularity of “his” Pictures led pianists to rediscover Mussorgsky’s.

At that, Ravel was not the first musician to orchestrate Pictures at an Exhibition, having been anticipated by Mikhail Tushmalov in 1891 (his version also being tampered with by Rimsky-Korsakov, who conducted the first performance) and by Sir Henry J. Wood in 1920. During the time that Ravel’s score was available only to Koussevitzky, an orchestration appeared by Leonidas Leonardi (“whose idea of the art,” remarked a contemporary critic, “is very remote”), and later there were scorings by Leopold Stokowski, Lucien Cailliet (the uncredited ghostwriter of many orchestrations attributed to Stokowski, though the Pictures do seem to be Stokowski’s own), and Walter Goehr—not to forget the electronic version by Tomita, Elgar Howarth’s transcription for the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, the Yamashita reduction for solo guitar, Keith Emerson’s rock presentation, and Vladimir Horowitz’s own rethinking for piano.

In this whole scene, Ravel’s edition is the time-tested survivor, and for good reason: he is Mussorgsky’s peer, and his transcription stands as a model of what we would ask for in such an enterprise by way of technical brilliance, imaginative insight, and concern for Mussorgsky’s own name.

The Pictures are “really” Victor Hartmann’s. He was a close and important friend to Mussorgsky, and his death at only 39 in the summer of 1873 was an occasion of profound and tearing grief for the composer. The critic Stasov organized a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s drawings, paintings, and architectural sketches in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1874, and by June 22, Mussorgsky, having worked at high intensity and speed, completed his tribute to his friend. He imagined himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The roving music, which opens the suite, he calls “Promenade,” and his designation of it as being “nel modo russico” is a redundancy.

Gnomus: According to Stasov, “a child’s plaything, fashioned, after Hartmann’s design in wood, for the Christmas tree at the Artists’ Club...It is something in the style of the fabled Nutcracker, the nuts being inserted into the gnome’s mouth. The gnome accompanies his droll movements with savage shrieks.”

Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle): There was no item by that title in the exhibition, but it presumably refers to one of several architectural watercolors done on a trip of Hartmann’s to Italy. Stasov tells us that the piece represents a medieval castle with a troubadour standing before it. Ravel decided basically to make his orchestra the size of the one Rimsky-Korsakov used in his edition of his opera Boris Godunov, the most famous of earlier orchestrations of Mussorgsky, but not, alas, as honorable as Ravel’s. He went beyond those bounds in adding percussion and, most remarkably, in his inspired use of the alto saxophone here. In this movement, Ravel makes one of his rare compositional changes, adding an extra measure of accompaniment between the first two phrases of the melody.

Tuileries: The park in Paris, swarming with children and their nurses. Mussorgsky reaches this picture by way of a Promenade.

Bydlo: The word is Polish for cattle. Mussorgsky explained to Stasov that the picture represents an ox-drawn wagon with enormous wheels, but adding that “the wagon is not inscribed on the music; that is purely between us.”

Ballet of Chicks in their Shells: A costume design for a ballet, Trilby, with choreography by Petipa and music by Gerber, and given in St. Petersburg in 1871 (no connection with George du Maurier’s famous novel, which was not published until 1893). A scene with child dancers was de rigueur in a Petipa spectacular. Here we have canaries “enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor, with canary heads put on like helmets.” The ballet is preceded by a short Promenade.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle: Mussorgsky owned two drawings by Hartmann entitled “A rich Jew wearing a fur hat” and “A poor Jew: Sandomierz.” Hartmann had spent a month of 1868 at Sandomierz in Poland. Mussorgsky’s manuscript has no title, and Stasov provided one, “Two Polish Jews, one rich, one poor,” and he seems later to have added the names of Goldenberg and Schmuyle. Another small alteration here: Mussorgsky ends with a long note, but Ravel has his Goldenberg dismiss the whining Schmuyle more abruptly.

The Market at Limoges: Mussorgsky jots some imagined conversation in the margin of the manuscript: “Great news! M. de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow…Mme. de Remboursac has just acquired a beautiful new set of teeth, while M. de Pantaleon’s nose, which is in his way, is as much as ever the color of a peony.” With a great rush of wind, Mussorgsky plunges us directly into the

Catacombae. Sepulcrum Romanum: The picture shows the interior of catacombs in Paris with Hartmann, a friend, and a guide with a lamp. Mussorgsky adds this marginal note: “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards skulls, apostrophizes them—the skulls are illuminated gently from within.”

Con mortuis in lingua mortua (Among the dead in the language of the dead): A ghostly transformation of the Promenade, to be played “con lamento.”

The Hut on Chicken Legs: A clock in 14th-century style, in the shape of a hut with cock’s heads and on chicken legs, done in metal. Mussorgsky associated this with the witch Baba-Yaga, who flew about in a mortar in chase of her victims.

The Great Gate of Kiev: A design for a series of stone gates that were to have replaced the wooden city gates, “to commemorate the event of April 4, 1886.” The “event” was the escape of Tsar Alexander II from assassination. The gates were never built, and Mussorgsky’s majestic vision seems quite removed from Hartmann’s plan for a structure decorated with tinted brick, with the Imperial eagle on top, and, to one side, a three-story belfry with a cupola in the shape of a Slavic helmet.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.