Music Post: Picture this – variations on Moussorgsky


Modest Moussorgsky (1839-1881) was one week past his 42nd birthday when he died of a grand mal seizure from alcohol withdrawal.

He was the first to go of the Russian “Mighty Handful” nationalist school that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cesar Cui and the leader Mily Balakirev. One can argue that Rimsky and Borodin were greater composers overall, but Moussorgsky was the most unique, the most individual, of the Five.

His masterpiece “Pictures at an Exhibition” was composed for solo piano but has been arranged for other resources more than two dozen times, with the Ravel version for full orchestra more popular and more often performed even than the original. Yet even people who never heard it any other way tend to be impressed when they finally hear the original.

Composers admire it for the depth and breadth of feeling, for the cool chords, and for the architecture, with pieces about individual paintings and sketches linked by a “Promenade” theme that represents the composer strolling or trudging through a friend’s posthumous art exhibition, the theme subjected to variations, depicting changes in the composer’s mood as he reflects on what his friend painted or drew.

This was no fantasy like Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.” The friend and the exhibition were real.

Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873) was an architect who died of an aneurysm at 39 shortly after returning from a sea voyage. He was introduced to the Five in 1870 and immediately became friends with Moussorgsky. The exhibition of his paintings and sketches, at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, occurred a few months after his death in 1874. Moussorgsky went, walking from painting to painting and reflecting on each one, and that’s when the idea for “Pictures” came to him.

Each movement other than the “Promenade” sections is based on a single drawing or painting (few still extant) except for “The Rich Jew and the Poor Jew,” also known as “Samuel Goldenberg and Schumuyle,” which is based on two different pictures both of which Moussorgsky himself owned.

There are five versions of “Promenade,” two that are parsed as free-standing pieces and three more that are introductions to new movements. This is one of the most brilliant decisions Moussorgsky made: he understood that the theme needed to be inserted some more but didn’t need full repetition. Some of the variations depict the composer’s mood changes in a handful of bars. Using it more briefly also makes it the more welcome when it unexpectedly pops up as a theme in “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

Moussorgsky wrote 10 pieces, plus the interstitial “Promenade” pages, in 20 days.

A fascinating aspect of the “Promenade” theme is that it takes 11 beats – Moussorgsky alternates measures of 5/4 and 6/4 but later uses 5/4, 6/4 and 7/4 – with the first note sounding, to someone not reading the score, like a pick-up.

We now know Moussorgsky thought the work was good and intended to publish it, but didn’t, after mixed reaction from his friends: some loved it but his composer colleagues, whose opjnion meant more to him, seemed more bemused by it.

The first publication, for which we have Rimsky-Korsakov to thank, came in 1886, 12 years after the exhibition and five years after Moussorgsky’s own death. The next edition came in 1931 on the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death and corrected several errors in the original score.

Rimsky often gets a posthumous diss for “fixing” some of the amateur Moussorgsky’s harmonies, in this and other works, but in fairness to him it is very clear that he admired his friend’s weird music and did plenty to put it before the public. Even after he “went pro” and became a conservatory professor Rimsky still held onto some of his Fiveness.

The composer and conductor Mikhail Tushmalov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, orchestrated much but not all of the piano suite and it was performed in 1891. He left out all but one of the “Promenades” as well as Gnomus,” “Tuileries” and “The Oxcart,” also known at the time as “Cattle.”

Henry Wood did an orchestration in 1915 and recorded it in 1920. He used only the first “Promenade” and made extensive changes to all movements including an organ in “Great Gate of Kiev.”

Leon Funtek orchestrated the entire suite without cuts in 1922.

Maurice Ravel did the same, more or less, also in 1922, on a commission by Serge Koussevitsky. Some liner notes say he didn’t change a note, but he did leave out one “Promenade,” between “The Rich Jew and the Poor Jew” and “Limoges.” Koussevitsky owned exclusive rights to the Ravel arrangement for several years, so other conductors and publishing houses began commissioning other arrangements that they could use.

Ravel student Leonidas Leonardi was first out of the box in 1924, using a bigger orchestra.

Lucien Cailliet did one for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1937, omitting “Gnomus.”

By then Koussevitsky’s exclusive rights to the Ravel version had expired, but that didn’t keep Leopold Stokowski from orchestrating it himself. The first of his three recordings came in 1939.

More recently Vladimir Ashkenazy has done his own version, and Leonard Slatkin has done a paste-up of the various versions, giving lectures from the stage on the differences among them.

The Emerson Lake & Palmer version came out in 1971.

Tomita synthed it in 1975.

In 1997 Mekong Delta did a rock band version closer than ELP to the original.

Literally dozens of versions exist for other resources from concert band down to duets of various instruments.

I have done an entire show on various “Pictures” before – two or three years ago, I think – but decided it was time to do another one after acquiring the Mekong Delta version, a version of the Yaron Gottfried Jazz Trio, and an arrangement by Trio Solisti.

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