Most have heard the famous opening of Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, with its royal brass chorale used in movies, television, video games and even as WWE entrance music. This year we mark the 100th anniversary of Maurice Ravel’s famous 1922 orchestration of Modeste Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” for solo piano. For a century now, audiences have flocked to concert halls to hear the musical rendition of an art museum experience, as the play marches from painting to painting and culminates in the famous “Great Gate of Kiev”. This week in particular, the piece drew attention on social media for its mention of Kiev amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Not just music about an art museum, “Pictures at an Exhibition” is music about friendship. It mourns and celebrates a friend of Mussorgsky, tells a story about memory, and works to stir up Russian pride, all under the guise of music on the paintings. And while the “images” have many meanings, world events may add another, which Mussorgsky would certainly have disagreed with: Ukrainian pride.
Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann was one of the originators of Russian revivalist design, which redesigned elements of medieval Russian architecture and drew inspiration from traditional Russian popular culture. In his professional life, he became acquainted with cultural critic Vladimir Stasov and his group of musical mentees, known as “The Five”, a group of composers formed with the aim of creating a national Russian sound, including Modest Mussorgsky , Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui. Stasov held a memorial exhibition in Saint Petersburg in the spring of 1874, displaying over 400 works by Hartmann, many of which are now lost.
It was this exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky to write ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, a suite in ten movements for piano, with descriptions of each piece written by Stasov.
Each of the movements describes one of Hartmann’s works, with marching music sections (“Promenades”) between the movements, intended to simulate the museum experience. Each walk has a different character, meant to show Mussorgsky’s mixed feelings as he strolls through a museum full of works by his late friend. “Pictures at an Exhibition” was an obscure piece until 1922, when conductor and publisher Serge Koussevitzky and composer Maurice Ravel brought it to fame again in Paris. From their enthusiasm stemmed Ravel’s famous orchestration of 1922, hailed for its wide palette of musical colors, which brought the work back to life. One hundred years later, the piece is still one of the most performed works by orchestras around the world.
Although Hartmann was primarily an architect, Mussorgsky chose to commemorate only one architectural drawing (“The Great Gate of Kiev”), opting instead to present Hartmann’s catalog as a painter, which included sketches of travel, craft drawings and a sketch of a costume for a ballet. . Many original works of art are lost, but looking pictures of those we know, it is easy to be momentarily disappointed.
Other pieces of classical music inspired by painting take on great works of art like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (which became one of Respighi’s “Three Pictures of Botticelli”) or “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” by Hokusai (which would have inspired Debussy “La Mer”). Hartmann’s “Ballet of Chickens in Their Shells”, on the other hand, is a sketch of the front and profile views of a dancer in a chicken egg costume, as it was a model for an actual costume. ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre. “The Great Gate of Kiev” is also a design sketch for an architectural competition (the construction of which was canceled). The functional nature of Hartmann’s work makes interpretations of ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ as primarily art-inspired music less compelling.
While program note annotators rush to dig up images of Hartmann’s work when explaining the piece, being familiar with the art itself isn’t particularly important to understanding the work. Mussorgsky and Ravel did not immortalize Hartmann as much as they immortalized Hartmann’s grief experience. While the ‘illustrated music’ receives all the attention it deserves, the piece’s ingenuity lies in the ‘walking music’, beginning with its famous trumpet solo and brass chorale, its later more thoughtful treatments , to finally merge with the “illustrated music” in the “Catacombs”, as if the observer of the gallery now found himself in the art itself.
It’s hard to tell a cohesive story with music alone, which is why orchestras tend to make poor theater troupes, and composers with a story to tell tend to gravitate towards opera or ballet. “Pictures,” however, is special for its highly successful narration of someone reminiscing about a friend as he wanders through a gallery of artwork, taking time to reflect between paintings. This makes the piece an attractive and unique member of the orchestral canon, somewhere between symphonic poem, theme and variations, and symphonic suite.
While “Pictures” is praised for its timelessness, it’s also necessarily an artifact of its historic moment. Hartmann’s Russian revivalist style in designing a clock in the likeness of Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut inspired Mussorgsky’s fearsome movement inspired by the witch-like folk figure. “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” also titled “Two Polish Jews: One Rich and One Poor,” comes from a time of widespread anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. Historical performances like these require thoughtful treatments from orchestras playing “Images” in the 21st century. Moreover, “The Great Gate of Kiev” dates from an era of Russian imperialism and reflects the national pride of Hartmann and Mussorgsky, complicated by those who use it this week as a symbol of anti-Russian imperialism and Ukrainian patriotism.
For a century, “Pictures” has consistently attracted large audiences to concert halls. If the music is imbued with the culture of 19th century Russia and the orchestration very specific to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, we have begun to reinterpret “La Grande Porte de Kiev”, the jewel of the piece, as a tribute to an independent Ukraine. Next time you hear it – which will probably be soon – please wish “Images” a happy birthday.
—Editor Leigh M. Wilson can be reached at [email protected]