Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel

MODEST PETROVICH MUSSORGSKY

BORN: March 21, 1839. Karevo, in the province of Pskov, Russia

DIED: March 28, 1881. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: June 1874, and completed on the 22nd of that month. Maurice Ravel received a commission from Serge Koussevitzky to orchestrate the work, which he executed during the summer of 1922 in Lyons‑la‑Forêt

WORLD PREMIERE: (Ravel’s orchestration) October 19, 1922. Serge Koussevitzky conducted in Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1930. Alfred Hertz led. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Charles Dutoit conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, bass drum, rattle, whip, cymbals, triangle, tam‑tam, glockenspiel, bell, xylophone, celesta, two harps, and strings

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY In 1922 the French composer Maurice Ravel told the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky about this set of fascinating piano pieces. Koussevitzky, his enthusiasm fired, asked Ravel to orchestrate them. It was through this orchestration, and through Koussevitzky's frequent and brilliant performances, that Pictures at an Exhibition became an indispensable repertory item. Ravel was not the first to orchestrate the Pictures, and since his version many others have transcribed them, but I cannot imagine Ravel's version ever being displaced. It is a model of what we would ask for in technical brilliance, imaginative insight, and concern for the original composer.

The pictures are Victor Hartmann's. He was a close and important friend to Mussorgsky, and his death at only thirty‑nine in the summer of 1873 caused the composer profound and tearing grief. The critic Vladimir Stasov organized a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann's drawings, paintings, and architectural sketches in Saint 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 MUSIC That roving music which opens the suite he calls the Promenade.

Gnomus—According to Stasov, this represents "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 this 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.

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 added 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, given in Saint Petersburg in 1871 (no connection with George du Maurier's novel, which was not published until 1893). In this scene, child dancers portray 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 Shmuel—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; he seems later to have added the names of Goldenberg and Shmuel.

The Marketplace 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—The picture shows the interior of a catacomb in Paris with Hartmann, a friend, and a guide with a lamp. The music falls into two sections, Sepulcrum romanum (Roman Sepulchers) and Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a ghostly transformation of the Promenade.

The Hut on Fowls' Legs—A clock in fourteenth‑century style, in the shape of a hut with cocks' 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, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

LISTEN AGAIN: Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London/Decca Jubilee)

(October 2019)