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Modest Mussorgsky / Orch. Maurice Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition, Op. 35

Pictures at an Exhibition, Op. 35  
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) / Orch. Maurice Ravel


THE STORY

Originally a piano suite, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition invites audiences to join the composer on a journey through a gallery of ten short pieces. One senses the observative posture of Mussorgsky’s gait in the recurring “Preamble” interlude, which “does not hurry, but observes attentively.” As the composer quipped to a friend: “My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes.”

Inspiring the ten-movement suite was the sudden death of Mussorgsky’s close friend, the architect and artist Viktor Hartmann, in 1873. The loss of the talented artist prompted several close friends to put on an exhibition in his honor, to which Mussorgsky contributed several works Hartmann had given him. The exhibition of 400 of Hartmann’s works in St. Petersburg in February and March of 1874 inspired Mussorgsky to compose a musical homage that summer, and Pictures saw its completion within a short three weeks. Ordinary, commonplace scenes of life permeate Mussorgsky’s Pictures: children quarrelling in a garden, the labored movement of an oxcart, business, death, fantasy, love, and the glorification of Kiev. Undergirding the seemingly disparate sequence of pictures is an overarching continuity fulfilled at the arrival of the final triumphant tableaux.

Whereas Mussorgsky conceived the work for piano, Ravel arranged the suite for orchestra in 1922, nearly four decades after the composer’s death. The orchestral arrangement of Pictures reflects Ravel’s deep respect for Mussorgsky. Subtle gradations of expression such as dynamics, articulation markings, expressive devices (glissando, mutes, flutter-tonguing, pizzicato, open strings, bowing) are exclusively Ravel’s interpretation.


LISTEN FOR

  • The gallant Promenade that returns throughout the piece as the listener strolls alongside Mussorgsky through the exhibition 
  • Mussorgsky’s fantastical and sometimes grotesque portrayal of Hartmann’s Christmas nutcracker, The Gnome 
  • The alto saxophone of the troubadour’s song in The Old Castle (Ravel’s nod to the French jazz craze of the 1920s)  
  • In Tuileries, the staccato flute and oboe that imitate the children’s banter and bubbling chromatic lines in the clarinets that portray the children throwing up their hands in innocent confusion 
  • A lumbering yet noble tuba solo in Cattle, quietly approaching from afar and by the end of the movement, ambling away into the distant horizon
  • In Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells, a lighthearted movement led primarily by upper winds in ABA form; the B or Trio section features trills in violins and horns  
  • The depiction of contrasting speech patterns in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, with the rich man represented by a resonant and deep bass and the poor man a high-pitched, trembling muted trumpet  
  • The bustling activity of The Marketplace of Limoges: all families of the orchestra participate in the lively bartering of goods 
  • Full brass dissonances of Catacombs that signal the gravitas of death, followed by the return of a varied Promenade-theme in Cum mortuis in lingua mortua that transforms darkness into light  
  • The angularity of climbing and crashing lines, tracing the mythical witch Baba Yaga’s wild ride through the woods in The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, as she searches for children to prey upon   
  • The grand E-flat major hymn of The Great Gate of Kiev, birthplace of Russian Christianity, followed by tolling bells that draw the suite to a glorious close  

INSTRUMENTATION

Three flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, celesta, strings