Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2858: HEARING PICTURES

by Roger Kaza

Today, hearing pictures. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Composing music is a game played blindfolded. Poets and painters can evoke not only feelings, but actually describe things: what they look like; what they are. No such luck when your palette is musical tones. Composers must conjure up images with a sort of sonic sleight-of-hand. And it’s one thing for a flute to be a bird, or the timpani imitate a thunderstorm — those not-so-subtle tricks get old pretty fast. What about a whole gallery of subjects? That was the task Modest Mussorgsky took on in 1874, and it fazed him not a bit. In fact, he walked himself, or perhaps you, right into the museum:

Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition.

Modest Mussorgsky
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Now if you’re having trouble deciding if the music’s in two or three, give it up — Mussorgsky changed the meter every measure. It’s a random shuffling gait. Your feet follow your eyes, strolling through the exhibit. The portraits range from gnarly gnomes to grand city gates. Or, for some comic relief: how about a male ballet dancer dressed in a chicken egg?

Ballet of the Chicks in their Eggs from Pictures.

Ballet of the Chicks in their Eggs
Sketch by Hartmann of Ballet Dancer

So, what inspired this amazing portfolio? Tragedy, of course — Mussorgsky was Russian. His dear friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, had died at age 39. To Mussorgsky, it was an unforgivable blow of fate, and he vowed that his friend’s work would live on in music. Mussorgsky and Hartmann were partners in crime. They both believed that Russian art had become derivative, Westernized. It had yet to express its true soul. So Mussorgsky channeled folk melodies and ancient-sounding Slavonic harmonies. Some of those harmonies were so authentic his friends tried to “correct” them later on. But hear them as they are, gloriously strange chord progressions evoking a Russian men’s chorus.

Promenade from Pictures

Maybe you’re wondering why a piano is playing all this music — isn’t Pictures at an Exhibition an orchestral piece? And here’s where things get interesting. Mussorgsky “completed” Hartmann’s unfinished work. And yet his piano version seemed to many like an unfinished work as well. It cried out for more colors, more sonorities. So a half-century later the conductor Serge Koussevitsky commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate it. He succeeded so brilliantly it’s now difficult to imagine the piece any other way. Of the many wonderful moments, I hate to single out just one. But for me, it’s that place in the final movement, The Great Gate of Kiev, where the strolling museum-goer suddenly draws himself and his theme right onto the musical canvas. Take that, poets and painters.

Great Gate of Kiev
The Great Gate of Kiev

I’m Roger Kaza, from the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

There are many other orchestrations and arrangements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures, including those by Sir Henry Wood, Leopold Stokowski, Sergei Gorchakov, Lucien Caillet, and many others. Some feel that Ravel’s version, while brilliant, is too “French” (for example, using a saxophone as a solo instrument) and have tried to recreate a more authentic Russian-sounding orchestration. The Saint Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin once performed a “smorgasbord” compilation of various orchestrations, finishing with Ravel’s. Overall, his version is universally preferred and performed, and for good reason: the orchestrator was a peer, at the same level as the composer.

And it’s one thing for a flute to be a bird, or the timpani imitate a thunderstorm — to be fair, both these “tricks” have been used successfully on multiple occasions, by Rossini, Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and many others.

Wikipedia entry on Pictures at an Exhibition.

Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Musical Examples: Piano excerpts played by Alfred Brendel. Great Gate of Kiev performed by the Saint Louis Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, conductor.

Hearing Pictures was inspired by a marvelously personal reading of the work given by the Hungarian conductor, Gilbert Varga, with the Saint Louis Symphony on January 25-27, 2013. “We must make them see with their ears,” was his remark to the orchestra.

This episode first aired on February 5, 2013.



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2013 by John H. Lienhard.