In 1873, Victor Hartman, a Russian artist and architect, died at the age of 39.
Early the following year in St. Petersburg, critic and art historian Vladimir Stasov organized a memorial exhibit of about 400 of Hartman’s pencil sketches, watercolors and architectural drawings. A close friend of Hartman, a young composer, attended the show and was struck by a lightning blot of inspiration. He wrote, “Ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music…I can hardly manage to put it all down on paper fast enough.”
The composer’s name was Modest Mussorgsky, and everything he put down on paper became Pictures At An Exhibition.
Many people may not know that Mussorgsky actually wrote the work for solo piano. (The late, great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter referred to it as the “best Russian work for piano, amen.”) Many orchestrations have been done since the original version of the work was first published in 1886 (5 years after Mussorgsky’s death and 12 years after it was completed). Of these, Maurice Ravel’s, from 1922, is far and away the most popular. (Its first performance was by the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
Pictures is a suite made up of ten movements–each inspired by one of Hartman’s works– interwoven with a recurring Promenade theme that’s meant to suggest the exhibition viewer meandering from work to work.
The finale, “The Great Gate of Kiev”, is my favorite part of the piece. Mussorgsky’s point of departure was Hartman’s entry in a competition to design a gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1866.
The design features a cupola in the shape of a Slavic warrior’s helmet (not a typical onion dome), a bell tower, and a chapel in the space above the largest, central arch. The gate was never built, due either to lack of funds, or perhaps to the Tsar’s reluctance to be reminded of his brush with death (assassins were ultimately successful in 1881.)
The majesty of this movement invokes both the imposing bulk of the gate itself, as well as the stately processions of people who would pass through the gate to enter the city. While some would no doubt disagree with me, for this particular movement, the solo piano version just can’t compete with Ravel’s orchestration in conveying the requisite sense of grandeur. For this, particularly in the final measures, the brass and percussion are indispensable.
In this performance of the Ravel orchestration, Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Of note, this particular video includes, in addition to the “The Great Gate of Kiev”, the movement that precedes it, “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba-Yagá).” “Gate” starts at 3:24 with the majestic main theme in E-flat major. At 4:29, we hear a second more solemn theme, in A-flat minor, based on a Russian Orthodox hymn. These two themes then alternate through the rest of the movement. At 6:14, those tower bells we’ve seen in the watercolor begin to ring. At 7:28 we begin the glorious home stretch (see my earlier comment re: brass and percussion) and at 7:50 I feel as though some burden has been lifted.
Whenever I listen to this, in my mind I’m the lucky one crashing the cymbals at the end. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
Bonus: The aforementioned Sviatoslav Richter made what many consider the definitive recording of the solo piano version of Pictures At An Exhibition in 1958. Here he is playing the final two movements, “Baba-Yagá” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”. You can compare and contrast with the Dudamel performance.
Trivia tidbit: The prog rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer released their own interpretation of Pictures in 1972. While I like some of their other albums, I can’t say I’m a fan of this one (“The Great Gate of Kiev” with lyrics?!). Interested readers can find samples aplenty on YouTube or iTunes.