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100 Years of Mussorgsky/Ravel’s ‘Pictures’: Exhibition is Still Open

Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann's "The Great Gate of Kiev."
Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann's "The Great Gate of Kiev." By Courtesy of Viktor Hartmann
By Leigh M. Wilson, Contributing Writer

Most have heard the famous opening of Mussorgsky/Ravel’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” with its regal brass chorale used in films, TV, video games, and even as WWE entrance music. This year, we mark the 100th anniversary of Maurice Ravel’s celebrated 1922 orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” for solo piano. For a century now, audiences have sprinted to concert halls to hear the musical depiction of an art museum experience, as the piece walks from painting to painting and culminates in the famous “Great Gate of Kiev.” This week especially, the piece has received attention on social media for its mention of Kiev amidst 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’s, tells a story about memory, and works to stir up Russian pride, all under the guise of music about paintings. And while “Pictures” has many meanings, world events may add another, which Mussorgsky certainly would have disagreed with: Ukrainian pride.

Russian architect and painter Viktor Hartmann was one of the originators of Russian Revivalist design, which restyled elements of medieval Russian architecture and took inspiration from traditional Russian folk 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 Russian national sound, including Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui. Stasov set up a memorial exhibition in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1874, featuring more than 400 of Hartmann’s works, a great many of which are lost today.

It was this exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky to write “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a ten-movement suite for piano, with descriptions of each piece written by Stasov.

Each of the movements describes one of Hartmann’s works, with sections of walking music (“Promenades”) in between the movements, meant to simulate the museum experience. Each Promenade has a different character, meant to show Mussorgsky’s mixed feelings as he walks through a museum full of his dead friend’s works. “Pictures at an Exhibition” was an obscure piece until 1922, when conductor and publisher Serge Koussevitzky and composer Maurice Ravel brought attention to it again in Paris. What results from their excitement is Ravel’s famous 1922 orchestration, praised for its wide range of musical colors, which breathed life back into the work. One hundred years later, the piece is still one of the most frequently performed works by orchestras worldwide.

Though Hartmann was primarily an architect, Mussorgsky chose to memorialize just one architectural drawing (“The Great Gate of Kiev”), opting instead to showcase Hartmann’s catalog as a painter, which included travel sketches, craft designs, and a costume sketch for a ballet. Many of the original artworks are lost, but looking at images of the ones we know, it’s easy to be momentarily underwhelmed.

Other pieces of painting-inspired classical music take great works of art like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (which became one of Respighi’s “Three Botticelli Pictures”) or Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (which is said to have inspired Debussy’s “La Mer”). Hartmann’s “Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells,” in contrast, is a sketch of the front and profile views of a dancer in a chicken egg costume, as it was a model for a real ballet costume at the Bolshoi Theater. “The Great Gate of Kiev” is similarly 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 in explaining the piece, being familiar with the art itself isn’t particularly important to understanding the work. Mussorgsky and Ravel didn’t immortalize Hartmann as much as they immortalized the experience of mourning Hartmann. While the “picture music” gets its due attention, the ingenuity of the piece lies in the “walking music,” beginning with its famous trumpet solo and brass chorale, its more reflective subsequent treatments, and finally merging with the “picture music” in the “Catacombs,” as if the gallery observer now finds themself in the art itself.

It is difficult to tell a cohesive story with music only, which is why orchestras generally make bad theater troupes and composers with a story to tell generally gravitate towards opera or ballet. “Pictures,” however, is special for its very successful storytelling of someone remembering a friend while they walk through a gallery of artwork, taking time to reflect in between paintings. This makes the piece an attractive and unique member of the orchestral canon, somewhere in between tone poem, theme and variations, and symphonic suite.

While “Pictures” is lauded for its timelessness, it is also necessarily an artifact from its historical moment. Hartmann’s Russian Revivalist style in designing a clock in the image of Baba Yaga’s storied 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 antisemitism in the Russian Empire. Historical depictions like these require thoughtful treatments from orchestras playing “Pictures” in the 21st century. More, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is from a time of Russian imperialism and is evidence of Hartmann and Mussorgsky’s national pride, complicated by those this week using it as a symbol of anti-Russian imperialism and Ukrainian patriotism.

For a century, “Pictures” has consistently drawn big audiences to concert halls. Though the music is steeped in the culture of nineteenth-century Russia and the orchestration very specific to early twentieth-century Paris, we have begun to reinterpret “The Great Gate of Kiev,” the crown jewel of the piece, as a tribute to an independent Ukraine. Next time you hear it — which will probably be soon — please wish “Pictures” a happy birthday.

—Staff writer Leigh M. Wilson can be reached at leigh.wilson@thecrimson.com.

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