Mussorgsky was born the son of a landowner. He showed early promise as a pianist, and under his mother’s tuition was proficient enough at the age of nine to play a John Field piano concerto. Composing seemed to come naturally to him. Despite the boy’s apparent artistic gifts, it was decided that he should follow a military career. He was eventually commissioned into a Guards regiment, from which he resigned at the first opportunity. He set himself to composing, taking lessons from Balakirev, one of the “mighty handful” of radical 19th century Russian composers.
Pressing financial matters caused him to join the Civil Service, only to be soon dismissed. He later rejoined for a short period. Between jobs he managed to compose two operatic masterpieces, Boris Godunov and Khovantschina. He did not enjoy good health, being an epileptic and later an alcoholic.
In 1874, Mussorgsky visited the retrospective exhibition in St. Petersburg of his friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect, artist and stage designer, who had died recently at the age of thirty-nine. Mussorgsky subsequently translated ten of the pictures into a piano suite. The “pictures” are linked by intermezzi, or “Promenades”, to use Mussorgsky’s own term. Receiving a commission from Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ravel (who was very adept at orchestrating his own piano compositions), responded with his orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”. The first performance was in Boston in 1922.
Ravel’s orchestration is conceived on the grand scale, calling for a very large orchestra including two harps, celeste, xylophone and a battery of percussion instruments.
The Promenade theme is immediately announced by the trumpets, which are soon joined in turn by french horns, tuba, trombone, strings and woodwind. The theme is based on the old pentatonic scale of five whole tones which is widely used in folk music. Mussorgsky added the heading “in a Russian rustic style”.
The time signature alternates between 5/4 and 6/4, thus giving an unsteady rhythm. Perhaps Mussorgsky wished to draw attention to his own shuffling gait as he propelled his not inconsiderable bulk around the exhibition.
An explosive opening is followed by music which alternates between calm and bad-tempered outbursts. Together with the irregular phrasing, this represents perhaps a grotesque’s hurried and halting limb movements. The irregularly-spaced pauses add to the tension.
This is half the length of the opening one and in a contemplative mood. The theme is given to the woodwind and a half cadence leads directly to:
THE OLD CASTLE
Without a great stretch of the imagination, one can conceive that Mussorgsky heard the song of a troubadour serenading beneath a window set in the walls of that grim castle. (Shades perhaps of Blondel searching for his master Richard the Lionheart, captured on his way home from the Crusades.)
This movement is in a lilting 6/8 tempo and is lightly scored for woodwind and strings. Instead of a lute, Ravel provides the troubadour to great effect in the form of a tenor saxophone, a stranger to the 1920’s symphony orchestra.
A heavy-footed eight-bar promenade leads to:
Sub-titled “children squabbling after play”, this picture is set in the famous Parisian gardens. We hear the children watched over by their dutiful nannies. Eventually the children fall asleep, exhausted.
The music is marked “Capriccioso”, with the woodwind taking their full share of the semiquaver passages. This leads directly to:
BYDLO – THE POLISH OX WAGON
The music invokes the picture of the lumbering heavy wooden cart’s progress towards our vantage point. Passing, it rumbles on into the mists of time.
The nine-bar opening theme is entrusted to the tuba, pianissimo, leading to a mighty orchestral tutti and subsequent demise.
Tranquillity reigns, only to be broken by:
THE BALLET OF THE NEWLY-HATCHED CHICKS
A “scherzo” movement lightly scored. This Hartmann painting was a design for a Petipa ballet entitled Trilby (no connection with du Maurier) which was produced in St. Petersburg in 1876. In the ballet, the children of the Corps de Ballet dance in the costume of canary chicks in their shells.
SAMUEL GOLDBERG AND SCHMUYLE
Rich man in his finery and poor man in his tatters. Mussorgsky in his musical portayal must have conceived these two characters as creditor and debtor: the one holding out for his pound of flesh, and the other pleading and wheedling for time to pay. This is depicted musically by “acciaccaturas” and “appoggiaturas” placed before semiquaver triplets and quavers respectively on fortissimo high trumpets.
(In the original piano score a Promenade now intervenes, but this is omitted in Ravel’s orchestration.)
LIMOGES – THE MARKET PLACE
A “scherzo” movement for full orchestra, with prominent interplay between wind and strings brilliantly depicting the hustle and bustle and chatter of a southern French town’s market place.
Dramatically, and without a break, Mussorgsky plunges his listeners into the gloom of the:
CATACOMBE SEPULCHRUM ROMANUM
These catacombs are found under the pavements of Paris. Chromatically set in B minor, ponderously slow with alternating bars of loud and soft (sound and echo?), Ravel’s sparse orchestration for woodwind and brass sends a cold shiver down one’s spine.
The original picture is said to depict Hartmann himself exploring the catacombs by lantern light, with the shimmering light reflecting from the assembled skulls of the departed.
Following directly is the movement headed CUM MORTUIS IN LINGUA MORTUA – “I speak of the dead in a dead language”. Mussorgsky here makes use of his Promenade theme, now in the minor and marked “Con Lamento”. This is perhaps the composer’s brief requiem for his late artist friend.
In the original piano score the theme is in the left hand, with demi-semiquaver tremolos centred on F# in the right hand. Ravel’s orchestration is correspondingly sparse, with only a few discreet notes from the brass. The tremolos are given to the higher strings, with the theme mainly in the woodwind.
THE HUT STANDING ON FOWLS’ LEGS
One of Hartmann’s more fanciful designs was for a clock in the style of a witch’s hut standing on chickens’ legs. This caused Mussorgsky to invoke the spirit of Baba-yaga of Russian folklore. When not at home, she traditionally rides the heavens astride a pestle and mortar.
From the outset the music is fierce, with erratic rhythms. Up and up and onward the witch flies, with the music all the while gaining momentum until she rests (andante molto interlude). All of a sudden she rises with ever increasing intensity until she is halted by the vision of:
THE GREAT GATE OF KIEV
The gateway was Hartmann’s design for a ceremonial city gate to celebrate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from assassination in 1866. Massive in conception, with an adjacent bell tower topped with a helmet-shaped cupola, the gateway was never built.
The celebratory music opens with the brass and bassoons proudly sounding a broadened version of the Promenade theme which, at the 22nd bar, the whole panoply of the orchestra joins. Two brief chorales interrupt, but soon yield in turn to the celebratory music which spans the whole range of orchestral colour. The piece is rounded off with a thirteen-bar coda, the apotheosis of the promenade theme.