Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
Canary Chicks in their Shells; a Costume Sketch for Gerber's Ballet Trilbi by Victor Hartmann (Institute of Russian Literature, Pushkin House, Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg)
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle
A Rich Jew in a Fur Hat by Victor Hartmann (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle
A Poor Jew by Victor Hartmann (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)
Paris Catacombs including Hartmann, V. Kenel and guide with lantern, by Victor Hartmann (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)
The Hut on Fowl's Legs
Baba-Yaga’s Hut on Hen’s Legs; Sketch for a Clock in Russian Style by Victor Hartmann (National Library of Russia)
The Great Gate of Kiev
Design for Kiev City Gate: Main Façade by Victor Hartmann (Institute of Russian Literature, Pushkin House, Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg)
Mussorgsky on Composer of the Week
Modest Mussorgsky is BBC Radio 3's Composer of the Week from Monday 26 October 2009.Mussorgsky on Composer of the Week
The programmes include other arrangements of movements from Pictures at an Exhibition (for 2 accordions, guitar and Moog synthesiser) and the complete original piano version.
Online Video Library - Pictures at an Exhibition
View a complete performance of the work, a detailed analysis, and a discussion of the background to the music.Video Library
These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.Sign up and get the Discovering Music Listening Notes sent by email
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky orchestrated by Maurice Ravel
In Russia during the 1860s, Balakirev gave four other amateur musicians lessons in the craft of composition. Balakirev was by profession a mathematician, Rimsky- Korsakov followed a career as a sailor, Borodin was a chemist and Cui and Mussorgsky had both been soldiers.
The aim of the group was to write Nationalistic music that was essentially Russian in flavour and not influenced by the prevailing taste for Germanic composers. The group became known as ‘The Mighty Handful’ or the ‘Russian Five.’
Modest Mussorgsky came from a well to do family and was the son of a rich Russian landowner. As his grandfather had been in the Imperial Guards, Mussorgsky was sent to a military academy. However, he also studied the piano becoming a brilliant performer and made friends with many Russian musicians including Balakirev. As a result of this, Mussorgsky gave up his military aspirations to pursue a career as a composer. As this occupation was precarious and paid little money, Mussorgsky had to take on a government office job just to make ends meet.
Following the death of his mother, Mussorgsky’s life became marred by bouts of excessive drinking. He lost his government post and died at the relatively young age of 42 in a charity hospital.
His music was often left incomplete and was criticised for being brash and crude. His friend Rimsky-Korsakov was left to complete and orchestrate much of the music and to iron out the many errors and roughness of Mussorgsky’s orchestrations. It seems that Mussorgsky composed on the spur of the moment and was not concerned about achieving perfection in his scores. As Tchaikovsky said of him,
‘As far as talent is concerned, Mussorgsky is the most important of them all, but he never seeks perfection. He is convinced of his own genius and seems proud of his ignorance….But truly his absolutely original talent is shown everywhere in his music. He speaks a new language’.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Following the death in 1873 of Mussorgsky’s friend Victor Hartmann, who had been a famous artist, architect and stage designer, a memorial exhibition was staged showing hundreds of pictures, drawings and sketches. Mussorgsky attended the exhibition and was inspired by what he saw to compose ten solo piano pieces, each describing one of the exhibits in music. This was to be his only large scale piano work and was later orchestrated in the version we commonly hear today by Maurice Ravel. Linking most of the movements is a Promenade (from the French verb promenader meaning to stroll), rather like a prelude designed to take the listener from one picture on to the next. Some paintings were clearly next to each other in the gallery as they lack this musical promenade link!
Notes on the Music
NOTES ON THE MUSIC:
The music in the opening movement demonstrates the use of the orchestra in sections. A solo trumpet announces a fanfare like figure that is then answered in a call and response style by the brass section of four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. It is also interesting to note that the theme is in 5/4 time alternating with 6/4 time. This five beat rhythm pattern is a characteristic of Russian folk music .The opening contrasts a solo monophonic texture with full harmony in a homophonic texture.
The regular straight crotchet rhythms of most of the movement provide a solid feel of a stately ‘left- right’ walking motion to carry the listener from one picture to the next
The music depicts a goblin like creature that shuffles along, rather like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings! The repeated scrabbling seven note quaver phrases in octaves heard throughout the music in the lower strings and lower woodwind, suggest the wild movements of the creature. Listen out for some effective percussive effects on the cymbals, rattle and whip! Eerie glissandi (sliding) effects can also be heard on the violins. Trills and slides feature in the music too. The movement ends with a flourish as the Gnome scampers away.
The Old Castle:
The picture here is of a troubadour singing outside a medieval castle. To create this medieval flavour, Mussorgsky uses a drone-like accompaniment and the repeated tonic notes (G sharp) form a tonic pedal underpinning the musical texture. The haunting ‘song’ of the troubadour is played on an alto saxophone. The melody is actually modal and again this helps create a folk like feel to the music.
The Tuileries used to be the gardens of the French Royal Palace. The Palace was later destroyed and these gardens became a fashionable venue for Parisians to enjoy.
The music is a Scherzo and Trio which is ternary form (ABA structure), in which the first section repeats. Mussorgsky writes a fast scherzo in which the music depicts children running around, chatting and playing games. The music features fast semiquaver passages particularly in the flutes and oboes. The middle B section, by contrast, is more reflective and the strings play a refrained melody more akin to the world of adults in conversation or strolling casually through the gardens.
Bydlo (The Ox Cart):
The picture here shows a lumbering peasant driving home his ox-cart after a hard day’s work. The music brings the picture to life by starting very softly yet pesante (heavy) then building to a massive fortissimo (very loud) as more instruments are gradually added to the orchestral texture. The illusion is of the ox-cart approaching the listener, then the music gradually dies away again as the oxcart seems to pass off into the distance again.
The relentless quavers and crotchets from the basses of the orchestra imitate the slow plodding feet of the peasant. These parts are in octaves and when the folk like tune comes in the tuba in bar 1, it creates a homophonic texture. The tuba cleverly depicts the heavy plodding of the weary peasant drawing his ox-cart. As more instruments join in with the tune, the musical texture increases in parts until we have an fff rendition of the folk like melody in octaves by full orchestra over the persistently plodding quaver bass line. As the music quietens down, the solo tuba returns again as at the start of the piece.
Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks:
Canary Chicks in their Shells;
a Costume Sketch for Gerber’s Ballet Trilbi
This movement is a Scherzo and Trio (ABA) structure entitled ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ The orchestration is light and delicate with some ‘clucking’ sounds created with the acciaccaturas on the flutes and oboes. There is quite a lot of chromatic writing too which adds a sense of spice to the music. The music is fast and helps to conjure up an image of a ballet scene, in which the chicks are furiously pecking their way out of the shells.
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle:
A Rich Jew in a Fur Hat
A Poor Jew
The music depicts paintings of two Polish Jews - one rich and one poor, who engage in conversation on a street corner. Samuel Goldenberg’s strong voice is represented by the unison strings and woodwind (at the opening of the movement). In contrast to this, the whining muted trumpets imitate the pleadings of the destitute Schmuÿle.
Limoges – the market
The market place at Limoges is a hive of feverish activity! Housewives quarrel with market traders who are crying out for customers to buy their wares. The music uses lots of quick rhythms – mainly semiquavers and the strings, woodwind and brass can be heard in a musical dialoguing texture. The melodies soar up and down in scalic fashion and the majority of the movement is performed at a loud dynamic level.
Following a change of time signature from 4/4 to 3/4, the music subsides to a piano dynamic before a gradual crescendo as the music reaches fff and demisemiquavers patterns prevail. The music ascends skywards to run abruptly into the low blast of trombones and tuba which herald the murky depths of the music of Catacombs.
Paris Catacombs (including Hartmann,
V. Kenel and guide with lantern)
Hartmann’s drawing shows a guide holding up a lamp as the artist and a friend explore the Catacombs beneath the city of Paris.
Skulls – detail
This movement is scored mainly for brass and comprises chordal, almost hymn-like music in a stark homophonic texture.
The Hut on Fowl’s Legs:
Baba-Yaga’s Hut on Hen’s Legs;
Sketch for a Clock in Russian Style
The picture here represented a clock in the form of a cottage belonging to the Russian witch Baba Yaga. Perched on top of the hut were two cockerels’ heads and the whole thing stood on fowls’ legs. The hut could fly away and pursue its prey whenever the witch so desired. The music pictures the witch taking flight and pursuing her victim. The opening pounding rhythms suggest movement of the hut, played in strong octaves. The trumpet fanfare like figure suggests a triumphal war cry as the hut takes off.
The hut loses speed and lands again as the witch continues to stalk her victim (represented in the music by the opening hopping phrases accompanied by sinister sounding trembling woodwind).
Sudden fortissimo chords on violins, celesta, harp and xylophone send the hut off again and a dramatic chord represents the victim being seized by the witch. The music from the first section then returns as the hut takes off and the music goes straight into the final picture:
The Great Gate of Kiev
Design for Kiev City Gate: Main Façade
Hartmann’s design was to include an elaborate Gate topped with a dome in the shape of a Slavonic helmet. The whole structure was to be made of stone and contain a small church. The Great Gate was to commemorate the escape of Czar Alexander II from an assassination attempt on April 4th, 1866 and was due to be a commission from Kiev City Council. However the gate was never built!
The music combines two Russian melodies. The opening great fortissimo chorale is set in a homophonic texture and contrasts with a pianissimo plainchant like melody which gives the impression of a quasi religious procession. The reprise of the main tune adds tubular bells imitating the bells of Kiev ringing out across the city. The triumphant effect is enhanced by scalic passages on the violins.
Pictures by Victor Hartmann