Some thoughts on The Pictures

Hartmann, Viktor; sketch of costumes for the ballet Trilby; possibly the basis of Number 5 "Балет невылупившихся птенцов" (Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks)

Modest Mussorgsky composed his Pictures at an exhibition as a piano solo work after seeing a picture show. (1)

The composition's structure is a kind of braid of two interwoven strands: one is a formal theme-and-variations on the theme of “Promenade”; it serves a kind of straight vertical pole around which there climbs the other strand of the piece, an unruly creeper. This creeper is a kind of quodlibet, that is, a succession of structurally unrelated tone sketches – or mini-sketches; or better yet – miniatures – each representing a different picture at the show. So we have a neat succession of tableaux: the theme followed by a miniature followed by variation I followed by another miniature followed by variation II followed by another miniature; and so forth. (Structure is good, simple structure is best). (2)

Think of this structure as architectural: that of a typical museum, with long straight airy main hall off which various doors lead left and right to a succession of small rooms where the art is displayed; something along the lines of the Italian Renaissance Gallery at the Louvre or the Long Wing at the Venetian Accademia. The theme-and-variations is the long main hall; the miniatures are the paintings in the side-rooms. Seeing the whole exhibition involves much weaving left and right and numerous returns to the main hall – the theme and its variations.

The main hall is the best known melody of the piece, the Promenade. Its first appearance – the opening of the exhibition – is exuberant, celebratory, and not a little triumphant. The impression is quite unmistakable: a beautiful airy high-ceilinged hall, well lit by daylight falling through tall windows on a sunny day; simply milling with a huge crowd of immaculately dressed, coiffed, and perfumed beautiful people, strutting and checking each other out. The invitations were hell to get, the tickets prohibitive; the exhibition is an exercise in gate-keeping, it separates the wheat from the chaff, the elite from the plebs; it is no mean feat just being there, included. A spot of self-congratulation is definitely permitted.

(The atmosphere is not a little snobbish: among the paintings a fair number are French-themed; the garden of Tuilleries; a festival at Limoges; innocent enough, except that there is a strong whiff of display about any Russian painter painting landscapes in France (cost, passports, visas). But it is also escapist: sitting in a Parisian café drinking coffee has long been the preferred vision of paradise among all children of political and economic oppression).

The Promenade is the best known fragment of the whole work, incessantly anthologized; unsurprisingly: triumphalism sells not only in Russia; it is a universally popular emotion (perhaps more so with grocers and builders than princes and kings). But each return to the promenade is different; one’s mood is affected by the paintings one has just seen; the triumphalism disappears, replaced by sadness, or meditative reflection, or light-hearted delight. It is as if each time returning to the promenade, one saw it in a different light, the weather having, Russian-like, changed. Any picture gallery-goer will recognize this phenomenon instantly: going from picture to picture in an art gallery is like that: a kaleidoscopic sampling of moods.

The Pictures can be broadly categorized as being western (Tuilleries, Limoges) and eastern (Baba Yaga’s hut, Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle). I am not enough of a musicologist to say for sure, but my impression is that the western tableaux sound western: it is good, solid – and rather ordinary – French music; a Franck or a Berlioz or a Respighi could have written it. It is the eastern pieces which are really interesting: they have steep melodies which sound to us as unstable and wild; strange moods of malicious child-play; and ornamentation recognizably un-western (e.g. two-note arpeggio entering). In time, Mussorgsky’s successors, Shostakovich and Prokofiev will build a whole new classical edifice on these ideas and their western critics, wishing to invent a collective name for these strange phenomena, will call them ironic, or sarcastic, or jeering. Until this day they retain a flavor of strangeness. How would these elements have sounded in a Viennese or Parisian salon of the early nineteenth century? Frightening? Barbarous? It is quite likely that they would not have been permitted. Mussorgsky cracked the lid of that box but the disasters which followed have not been without their pleasures.

These elements are of course Musorgski’s native music; no wonder he does it well; but he brings it up here, in this “western” picture gallery, not only because he can: it has the effect of garishly and expensively dressed young people speaking loudly in Russian in the lobby of George V. (Or Mickiewicz praising the clouds and rain of Polish sky while sitting under the divine azure of Naples which he deprecates as boring). The original picture exhibition was a deliberate juxtaposition of east and west; Mussorgsky could not have escape it if he had wanted to; which he didn’t: a Russian’s raison d’etre, it seems, is to be thus divided, internally juxtaposed; to love the west, but then dismiss it as trivial; to despise the east as barbarous yet to be mystified by (and proud of) the presumed (probably pretended) mysteries of its darkness. Sometimes one gets the impression that any Russian who joins either one side or the other ceases to be Russian in the word’s proper sense.

The Pictures were composed within a 10 period in 1874; but were not published until twelve years later (and seven years after their composer’s death); and their great career has not really begun until 1890’s when various composers began transcribing them for various kinds of ensembles (Wikipedia lists more than 70 transcriptions); the most famous being the 1922 by Ravel.

Personally, I feel best in the piano solo version; being less well known, it is, like Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, a place to hide from the vulgar plebs in my elitist self: thanks to its existence, I am free to confess to the liking a popular work; I like it, but, as it were, differently. Richter played it wonderfully well in Sofia in 1958.

PS. And Kissin plays it badly.

(1) The show was an 1874 exhibition held at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg in honor of Russian architect, graphic and stage designer Viktor Hartmann. Various efforts have been made to identify the pictures shown at the exhibition, but mostly without success. Most appear to have been lost. Here are a few. (The association with Bydło, a Japanese idea, seems to me rather -- ahem -- exotic).

(2) My analysis is intentionally unlearned. The Wikipedia article points out, probably correctly that “for all the variety individual movements display in musical invention, each springs from a kernel in the opening melody. The Promenade theme provides distinctive "cells" of two and three notes that generate themes and accompaniment figures throughout the piece”. If so, then two strands of the braid aren't really separate.


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