RAVEL / MUSORGSKY – Tableaux d’une exposition & Ma mère l’oye

In late 18th-century Russia, due to emerging nationalism eagerly in search of a unique ethnic identity, the traditional repertoire of folk music enjoyed a heightened interest. The ‘discovery’ of this heritage gave rise to the idea that newly composed music, if it wanted to be genuinely ‘Russian’, would have to be rooted in that folk music. The composer’s job was to mould this precious material into a refined artistic creation.

Viktor Alexandrowitsch Hartmann (1834-1873), for one, considered the integration of the Russian national spirit into the arts as the highest artistic ideal. He was a creative jack-of-all-trades – an architect, a designer, a graphic artist, a painter and a craftsman – and as such highly admired by Vladimir Stasov, an influential art critic who devoted many essays to Hartmann, whom he admired as the most important pillar of the Russian ‘Renaissance’. Stasov was also the touchstone and pivot of the Mighty Handful, a group of five composers, counting in addition to Modest Musorgsky also Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Stasov was the vital link between Hartmann and Musorgsky: not only as the living liaison between the composer and the artist, but also as the one who took the initiative for the commemorative special exhibition of Hartmann’s oeuvre shortly after his untimely death.

Thanks to Stasov’s commitment the exhibition Pictures at an Exhibition — To the Memory of Viktor Hartmann was organized in St Petersburg, with architectural plans, costume designs, stage settings, utensils and artifacts, free sketches and aquarelles which through their diversity were evidence of Hartmann’s original spirit. One of the visitors was Musorgsky; of The Five, he probably felt closest to Hartmann‘s oeuvre, sharing the latter’s fascination with Russian folklore and its specific, rich coloration.

Stasov’s role in the genetic history of Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition (originally entitled Hartmann) was for that matter not exhausted: while the composer was carried away by inspiration to compose a series of musical tableaux, managing to write down his piano suite in merely three weeks’ time, Stasov was his touchstone. Consequently the final result was dedicated to Stasov, who supervised and introduced the first edition, published five years after Musorgsky‘s death and amended by Rimsky-Korsakov. Stasov’s commentaries on Hartmann’s works that inspired the composition were to be reprinted edition after edition, particularly since almost half of them had been lost in the meantime.

At his visit of the exhibition Musorgsky let his gaze dwell on 11 works. However, he did not transpose them straight ahead from image to sound: Pictures at an Exhibition transcends illustrative programme music, being rather a self-willed composition driven by exciting contrasts. In some of the parts the link with Hartmann’s oeuvre is conspicuous: Catacombs is a splendid, but uncanny sketch with Hartmann in the crypts of Paris, surrounded by pale skeletons and an odour of silent corruption, captured by Musorgsky in naked, raw chords. The section Cum mortuis in lingua mortua was annotated by the composer as follows: The creative spirit of Hartmann leads me to the skulls, invoking them. Thereupon, the skulls began to glow softly. The impressive sight of The Great Gate of Kiev — a fantastic sketch by Hartmann that, like many of his works, was never executed — is echoed in the accompaniment by obbligato bells. In The Tuileries we hear the children from Hartmann’s picture playing, laughing and squabbling in the gardens of Paris, while Hartmann’s costume designs for the ballet Trilby inspired Musorgsky to compose his Ballet of the Chickens in Their Shells as a musical equivalent of busy scratching and charming cheeping.

Linking other parts of the suite to Hartmann’s oeuvre is less evident. The pictorial inspiration for some of the musical sections cannot even be determined at all, as Hartmann is known to have made different versions of the same theme, or else because the original works have not yet been — and probably never will be — traced. The Old Castle is supposed to show a medieval castle with a troubadour in an Italian landscape, but no illustration corresponds to this description. For The Gnome, too, we only have Stasov’s word that the idea originated in a design for a nutcracker, shaped as a grotesque dwarf with deformed legs. In other cases problems lie in ill-fitting details or vagueness. Bydło, for instance, is Musorgsky‘s impression of a Polish oxcart, but neither the diabolic atmosphere nor the coachman — both suggested by the composer — are visible on Hartmann’s picture. Musorgsky‘s scene with gossiping women in The Marketplace in Limoges cannot be traced to any of Hartmann’s sketches of this town.

Baba-Yaga, then, is based on a design for a clock shaped like a hut on fowl’s legs, according to a Russian folktale the home of the witch Baba-Yaga. In Musorgsky‘s fantasy this man-eating sorceress, specialized in pulverizing children’s bones in a stone pot, fumingly speeds through the air on her broomstick. Musorgsky is probably going farthest in his manipulation of Hartmann’s materials in Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuyle: here he combines two portraits (the rich and the begging Jew) into a polarized dialogue, the former figure on top of things in the treble of the orchestral score, the latter stumbling in the bass line. A masterly display of dramatic skills! Allegedly the portraits once belonged to Musorgsky himself, and were lent out by him to the exhibition. The issues remain complex, though: did Musorgsky really take his cue from these works, or were the characters mainly figments of his own imagination?

That certainly is true for the Promenade which serves as the opening of the suite and recurs in shortened and changed shapes. Here we accompany the composer on his walk to and throughout the exhibition hall. The theme of the Promenade has also been incorporated into Cum mortuis in lingua mortua and The Great Gate of Kiev, where it turns into a hymn with a patriotic slant.

Much has been said and written about the nationalistically inspired realism and the folkish roots of the music. Connecting with Russian folklore was of great importance for Musorgsky, even though he approached this heritage intuitively rather than theoretically. Other distinctive characteristics of the suite are the inspiration he drew from historical repertoires, the visual connotations which empower the score with the suggestive impact of a movie score, and the dynamic sequence of dramatically divergent scenes. However, Musorgsky‘s brilliance resides first and foremost in his skill to forge his varied colour palette and mosaic of stories into a gripping tale, cemented by the Promenade. The balance is masterly, the composer’s narrative convincing. Nevertheless, for the average Russian Hartmann was no tin god, Musorgsky no idol, and Pictures at an Exhibition no ready-to-eat chunk of entertainment: initially the composition was hardly appreciated at all. However, after the first (posthumous) edition it soon became one of Musorgsky‘s most beloved works. The first one to venture an adaptation was Mikhail Tushmalov in 1886, followed by Leopold Stokowski, Lucien Cailliet, Walter Goehr, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Leonard Slatkin. If you feel like it, you can listen to versions for brass band, Latin jazz ensemble or punk, glass harp, percussion, guitar or saxophone choir, as well as acquire the album with the same title by rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The most famous adaptation is indubitably the one by Maurice Ravel, commissioned in 1920 by composer/conductor/editor Serge Koussevitzky. With his orchestration Ravel further pursued Musorgsky‘s innovative line, exploring all possibilities of the modern orchestra: witness the saxophone solo in The Old Castle, the tuba solo in Bydło, and the muted trumpet in Schmuyle.

Koussevitzky had requested from Ravel an orchestration in the vein of Rimsky- Korsakov – a demand that the composer largely tended to ignore, preferring a more personal, stubborn and solid style. Even so, he did not entirely manage to elude his colleague’s influence: for lack of Musorgsky‘s original score he had no choice but to use Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition as his point of departure.

And that left its traces: thus the crescendo at the approach of the oxcart is the work of the editor, while Musorgsky himself had indicated a fortissimo. It is not difficult to analyse where Rimsky-Korsakov or Ravel took over from Musorgsky‘s original score. However, quite a few other questions about Pictures at an Exhibition remain unanswered: what did the lost works of Hartmann look like? Why were not all of Stasov’s descriptions included in the exhibition catalogue? And why was Musorgsky so attracted by this oeuvre, which reveals the hand of a craftsman endowed with fantasy, but nevertheless is often no match for the dynamic and sensitive score?

These questions continue to feed the debate for musicologists and melomaniac detectives. However, the most intriguing thing in this context is perhaps that the composition stands up in its own right even without explications or references. In this respect the following words of Musorgsky‘s biographer Calvocoressi (1908) can serve as a conclusion: “the musical result remains as interesting even if one ignores all commentaries. And also the most exacting people will agree that, once this condition has been fulfilled, the music is good – no matter whether it is imitative, descriptive or representational.”


The same holds true of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye, a suite that was not inspired by images, but by words. Ravel wrote the five compositions for Mimie and Jean, the two children of artist Cyprian Godebski, drawing without restraint on the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, Comtesse d’Aulnoy and Marie Leprince de Beaumont. A couple of months after the premiere (20 April 1910), Ravel orchestrated the suite. In the subsequent year (1911) he added an extra scene, a prelude and interludes at the request of impresario Jacques Rouche, who fancied the piece as ballet music.

The orchestra suite opens with Sleeping Beauty‘s Pavan: in this evocation of the Sleeping Beauty princess Florine is presented as a sleepwalking figure. Little Tom Thumb, or Petit Poucet, is seized during his ramble through the woods, leaving behind bread crumbs in vain; in Ravel’s score he is given the musical shape of an oboe, while eager birds chirp in the parts for the woodwinds. The story about Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas is less known but as steeped in fantasy: a princess who was transmogrified by a sorceress into an ugly girl travels in the company of a serpent to the country of the “Pagodas” – small creatures with bodies of jewels. Ravel takes advantage of pentatonic scales and percussion instruments (xylophone, woodblocks, celesta) to create an unmistakable Oriental scenery. In Conversations of Beauty and the Beast – a dialogue between a graciously waltzing clarinet and a growling contrabassoon – the music snaps it up at the most dramatic moment: Beauty agrees to marry the Beast, and suddenly sees no horrible monster but a handsome prince (due to a flourish with the magic wand in the parts for harp and percussion)! The Fairy Garden symbolizes the happy end: a dapper princely couple is waived off by a fairy on the way to a long and happy life.

With this world of castles and witchcraft Ravel reveals a less conspicuous side of his sophisticated personality: he was very fond of children’s games, broke a lance for unbridled fantasy and for the uninhibited observation by children, as well as being fascinated with the transcendent innocence of childhood. Perhaps his preference for adapting existing compositions can be understood from this vantage point: did he not take advantage, in doing so, of the opportunity to time and again re-discover the music from a fresh, new perspective and with a spontaneous approach? At any rate the works recorded here testify to the incomparable results of this approach: rich and intense pages chockfull of technically supreme musical ingenuity and the creative superabundance of a musical genius who remained eternally young.

Sofie Taes – Jos van Immerseel

Translation: Joris Duytschaever

© Outhere Music