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Hearing Pictures at an Exhibition

March 5, 2013

When Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's architect friend Viktor Hartmann died of an aneuryism in 1873, Mussorgsky felt compelled to pay musical homage to Hartmann's imaginative ideas and designs. He conceived the programmatic "Pictures at an Exhibition" as a narrative--Mussorgsky strolling from frame to frame, regarding and hearing the music of each of the pieces.

Here are the first couple of bars of the repeated 'strolling' music that links all the pieces of "Pictures at an Exhibition":  

 
It sounds like this: (This is Valergy Gergiev with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.)

 
The whole work is a fine tribute to a friend and as brilliantly evocative as program music gets. And actually, it's enormously touching to think that this is what can come from friendship--sheer artistry that exceeds the artistic vision that it also honors. Plus, Mussorgsky loved writing it. In a letter to a friend he said, "Hartmann is seething as Boris [his opera, Boris Godunov] seethed, — sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper.....My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it's well turned."

He wrote the piece for piano and seemed content with it that way. But in 1922 Maurice Ravel had his way with it, creating an orchestral version and today that's how most people know "Pictures at an Exhibition." And it's a grand piece, with that opening horn solo you heard above and ending with a clashing rush of bells and cymbals, timpani and horns.

And yet, I saw pianist Vladimir Feltsman perform it on Sunday afternoon and I'm not sure I'll ever need to hear the orchestral version again (though I am, in fact, attending a performance of it this Saturday). Feltsman's "Pictures" was transcendent. It was as if he were channeling Mussorgsky, as if his hands were on the piano, but the rest of him were hovering elsewhere, hanging with Big Modest, looking at Hartmann's works and hearing the music of them. And yes, the way Feltsman played, Mussorgsky's physiognomy could be seen in the interludes.

If you want to hear Feltsman play it, just go to www.classicalmusicarchives.com (my favorite website) and search for a recording. Then close your eyes and listen to the pictures!

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.