Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition composed by Modest Petrovitch Mussorgsky
"Dante" Sonata composed by Franz Liszt
Isolde's Liebestod composed by Richard Wagner, transcribed by Franz Liszt
Performed by Barry Douglas, 1987, RCA

Review by Tim

In 1873 the artist and architect Victor Hartmann died at the premature age of 39. Although he was an artist of energy and talent, today his name would hardly be known, were it not for the inspiration his friendship provided to that strange and moody genius of Russian music, Modest Mussorgsky. The two had met three years before at the home of their mutual friend, Vladimir Stassov, and had quickly recognized in each other a sympathy of aim and purpose.

Hartmann was part of a growing movement of artists and craftsmen whose aim was to develop a new aesthetic, based on traditional Russian designs and motifs. Eschewing the classical architecture of Europe, Hartmann designed structures based on medieval and contemporary folk styles. And what Hartmann and his colleagues were to architecture, Mili Balakirev and his circle (which included Mussorgsky) were to music.

Mussorgsky was devastated by Hartmann's death. In a letter to Stassov, who was then out of the country, the composer's grief poured out in a spate of wild and bitter words:

"This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such cases; 'He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live'…Away with such wisdom! When 'he' has not lived in vain, but has created - one must be a rascal to revel in the comforting thought that 'he' can create no more. No, one cannot and must not be comforted, there can be and must be no consolation - it is a rotten morality!"

- from Moussorgsky by Oskar van Riesmann
translated by Paul England
Tudor Publishing, 1935

Mussorgsky nonetheless found his consolation or, at least, a certain amount of catharsis. Stassov, on his return to St Petersburg, organized a memorial exhibit in Hartmann's honor, featuring his dead friend's drawings and watercolors. Upon attending this exhibition, which opened early in 1874, Mussorgsky experienced an almost overwhelming torrent of inspiration:
"Hartmann is bubbling over, just as Boris did. Ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord, like the roast pigeons in the story - I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put it all down on paper fast enough."

- from Moussorgsky

The composer's "feast" resulted in a series of musical sketches for the piano, taken from ten of the roughly four hundred pictures displayed at the exhibition. The sketches are introduced and linked by a series of Promenades, variations on a theme that depict the composer's stately and somewhat ponderous progress from one exhibit to the next. "My own physiognomy peeps out all through the intermezzos," Mussorgsky wrote with a sort of rueful self-deprecation. The ten sketches are as follows:

The Gnome
Based on Hartmann's design for a Christmas tree nutcracker, the music depicts a grotesque little imp creeping through a murky background, pausing, lunging suddenly from the shadows, performing a mad, spastic dance.
The Old Castle
While studying architecture in Italy, Hartmann painted a watercolor of an unidentified medieval tower. A minstrel with a lute was sketched in before the gates, perhaps to indicate the scale. The theme here has an introspective, melancholy beauty.
Subtitled "Children Quarreling at Play", the music depicts a walk in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris, where nurses bring the children in their charge to play. Mussorgsky had a tender regard for children, which is reflected in the music.
The title is the Polish word for "cattle":
In a letter of Musorgsky's to Stassov, written in June, 1874, just before the "Pictures" were completed, the composer calls this movement Sandomirzsko Bydlo, ie, "Cattle at Sandomir", and adds that the picture represents a wagon, "but the wagon is not inscribed on the music; that is purely between us".

- from "Victor Hartmann and Modeste Musorgsky", by Alfred Frankenstein
Published in The Musical Quarterly, July, 1939

Hartmann's sketch depicted a Polish dray, drawn by a team of oxen. The music is eloquent of the steady, powerful pull of the beasts.
Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
This is a costume design for the ballet Trilby, choreographed by Marius Petipa, with music by Julius Gerber. The ballet contains a scene in which children dance as chicks in their shells. The music suggests an aimless, uncoordinated , almost Brownian movement, that nevertheless hints of an underlying pattern.
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle
Hartmann's sketches depict a pair of Jews from Sandomir, in Poland; one richly dressed, the other in rags. Mussorgsky sets up a musical colloquy between the two. The rich man's theme is overbearing and pompous, with dire overtones, heedless of the poor man's wheedling entreaties. Gradually both themes merge, the rich man's theme drowning out the poor man's.
Limoges - The Market
The music recreates the bustle depicted by Hartmann's drawing of French women haggling and gossiping in a market.
A slow succession of deep, mournful chords limns this self-portrait of Hartmann and two accomplices exploring the old Roman catacombs in Paris. The music modulates into a dolorous variation of the Promenade, over which the composer inscribed in the original manuscript Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in a dead language), followed in Russian by "Hartmann's creative spirit leads me to the place of skulls, and calls to them - the skulls begin to glow faintly from within."
The Hut on Hen's Legs
The witch Baba Yaga is a familiar figure in Russian folklore. She lives in the woods in a little hut that turns round and round on chicken legs, and flies about in a magical mortar, within which she grinds human bones. Victor Hartmann designed an ornate clock in the shape of Baba Yaga's hut. However, Mussorgsky's music begins with the wild flight of the witch's mortar, the witch herself peering over the rim. She disappears into the forest, whereupon the music alters momentarily to a slow, eerie passage: the witch's hut stalking through the dim woods on fowl's legs. Suddenly the witch flies forth again, careening through the air and into the final sketch.
The Great Gate of Kiev
This sketch was Hartmann's entry in a competition to design a great gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander II's miraculous escape from an assassination attempt. The project was never carried through for lack of funds. Hartmann had designed a gate in the shape of a great Slavonic helmet, with a chapel over the main arch, and a bell tower to the side. The music, a variation on the Promenade, follows a grand and stately procession through the gate.
Although Pictures is one of Mussorgsky's greatest works, it was largely ignored, and was not published until six years after the author's death. It languished for decades, until Maurice Ravel orchestrated it in 1922. Ravel's transcription is by far the most popular version of this work. With the full palette of a symphony orchestra to draw on, the clarity of the images is unsurprising. What is astounding is that the original score asserts these images every bit as clearly, using the single voice of the piano.

Barry Douglas turns in a truly wonderful interpretation of this suite. The New York Times reported that he had "stunned the Soviet audience" with his performance of Pictures at the Eighth International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1986, and he eventually carried away the gold medal, the first Westerner to do so since Van Cliburn's performance in 1958. Since I first collected this work (originally on vinyl, later on CD), I have made a point of acquiring Douglas' other recordings whenever I could find them. I've never been disappointed.

Two other works are included on this recording, and I'll touch on them briefly. Franz Liszt's 'Dante' Sonata is a chilling work that will raise the hair on the back of your neck. It was inspired by a poem written by Victor Hugo that compares the fate of the tortured souls in Dante's Inferno with the earthly lot of most men and women. Liszt however ends the sonata on a note of redemption and hope.

The final selection on this recording is Isolde's Liebestod. Liszt's transcription for piano of Wagner's final aria in Tristan und Isolde is as powerful as it is graceful.

Images for Pictures at an Exhibition