Hearing Pictures → Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony
Listening guide for the 2012 WCFSO Youth Concerts
Nearly a century and a half after his premature death Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky [1839-1881] remains a singular voice in music history. This year’s WCFSO Youth Concerts will approach his unique piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition as a window into his musical world and as a vehicle for thinking about connections between hearing and seeing. In addition to learning about the substance of Mussorgsky’s piece [with a special focus on instrumentation and the orchestra] students will be encouraged to closely examine the rich sensory relationship between aural and visual.
Art and music in Mussorgsky’s Russia
Mussorgksy and his artist friend Viktor Hartmann, whose works inspired Pictures at an Exhibition, shared a keen interest in Russian themes and motifs [as did many of their creative countrymen including the group of composers with whom Mussorgsky associated, The Five]. Their works draw self-consciously on the country’s history and culture, though as is so often the case in 19th-century Russian art the influence of Western European thought and art is inescapable. This duality can be seen in the Hartmann’s works, many of which depict [and were created in] European countries. A classroom exercise could ask students to identify specifically Russian elements in Mussorgsky’s music [as in Track 2 below]. Students may also benefit from the analogous process of thinking about what makes American music sound American.
The orchestra that students will see and hear in April is a product of the 19th century, when a variety of factors including industrial production of wind and brass instruments and an increasing formalization of the conductor’s role encouraged an explosion in the size and diversity of orchestral forces. In just a few decades during the first part of the century the standard orchestra grew from a small number of strings with pairs of rudimentary winds and brass into a large ensemble with 30-plus player string sections balancing significantly larger wind and brass groups and an increasingly diverse percussion arsenal. Classroom activities should include review of the orchestral instruments, their respective numbers in a modern orchestra and their layout onstage.
Pictures at an Exhibition is most commonly heard in the orchestral arrangement prepared by Maurice Ravel in 1922, whose skill with instrumentation made his version the definitive one. We will be performing the very first orchestration of this piece, done in 1886 by Mikhail Tushmalov. Tushmalov was a student of another important late 19th-century Russian composer – and close colleague of Mussorgsky – Rimsky-Korsakov. Classroom exercises might involve listening for various instrumentation techniques used by Tushmalov, many of which are frequently referred to as typically Russian. These include massing of homogenous instruments [as in Tracks 2, 6 & 8] and combinations of distinct sounds from different sections of the orchestra [as in Tracks 2,3 & 6].
Hearing and seeing
Some of the key issues raised by Pictures at Exhibition are implied in its title – what are musical pictures, and how are hearing and seeing connected or distinct? These are great questions for prompting students to think more deeply about musical substance and meaning, especially because visual stimuli are so prevalent in our contemporary world and can serve as effective analogies for abstract musical ideas. Mussorgsky’s work is ideal for this purpose because its musical elements – particularly tempo, key, melodic line and range – can be compared closely to visual aspects of the pictures which inspired it [see below]. If class formats allow students could be encouraged to reverse the line of thinking and create their own visuals from Mussorgsky’s music
Pictures at an Exhibition
Here are the ‘Pictures’ that students will hear in April, presented alongside the Viktor Hartmann pieces [or similar extant ones] that inspired Mussorgsky’s work. Students should be encouraged to draw connections between visual elements of Hartmann’s drawings and paintings – such as color, line, composition and mood – and analogous elements in Mussorgsky’s work. Download the complete WCFSO Youth Concert album [zip, 8 mp3 tracks, 57 mb]
Promenade, original version for piano [Track 1]
This is Mussorgsky’s original setting for solo piano of the first movement of Pictures, which depicts the composer ‘roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.’ The variation of quarter and eight note patterns and the rising and falling melody give musical shape to this peripatetic scene.
Promenade [Track 2]
Tushmalov’s chorale-like orchestration of the Promenade is typically Russian, using groups of like instruments both together and in alternation. This movement offers a great opportunity for students to focus on the sound of the three main sections of melodic instruments in the orchestra – strings, winds and brass.
The Old Castle [Track 3]
The muted growling of the low wind instruments evokes a dark, foreboding scene around an old structure. A shimmering string entrance seems to convey the castle rising into view. By alternating instrumental textures to convey different elements of the scene, Tushmalov echoes Harmann’s use of light and dark to define the planes of his picture.
Ballet of the Chicks [Track 4]
The humorous appearance of Hartmann’s 1870 ballet costumes is echoed in the frantically and ceaselessly bouncing music of this short movement, which Tushmalov scores almost entirely for winds. Student should be encouraged to think about the physical properties of the various wind instruments – and the techniques we use to play them – that facilitate such light and short sounds.
The Marketplace at Limoges [Track 5]
The ceaseless activity of an open-air marketplace is represented here in the constant pulsing of repeated sixteenth notes. Surprises seem to pop up at nearly every turn as this manic rhythmic energy passes through the orchestra, culminating in a headlong rush into the next scene …
Catacombs [Track 6]
Mussorgsky’s slow intonation of a series of minor chords portrays the stark and morbid mood inside an underground catacomb. The darkness of this movement should not come as a surprise – its composer described how ‘the creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly from within’ [perhaps represented by the second theme, which Tushmalov set for the strings]. Finally, with the wistful reappearance of the Promenade, the reality of Hartmann’s death intrudes onto the gallery visit that frames the entire piece.
Baba Yaga [Track 7]
Hartmann’s bizarre image of a huge clock with chicken’s legs inspires this movement, which includes a ferocious introduction in the strings, an odd march featuring the brass and the sound of clock tower bells in the winds. The manic opening scherzo is one of the most virtuosic sections of the piece for pianists playing the original and for orchestras performing any orchestration of the piece, and it returns at the end of the movement as a bridge into the triumphant final movement of the piece.
The Great Gate of Kiev [Track 8]
The grandeur of the final section of Pictures at an Exhibition is a tribute to Hartmann’s finest work, a design for a monumental gate honoring Tsar Alexander II. Mussorgsky’s vibrant mix of musical material gives Tushmalov the opportunity to do some of his most colorful orchestration. A series of brass and wind choirs, punctuated by bright percussion accents, evoke not only Hartmann’s structure but also Mussorgsky’s deep esteem and respect for his friend and colleague.