Last updated August 30, 2018.
Tableaux d’une Exposition (Pictures at an Exhibition)
Modest Mussorgsky (composer)
Reworked for Orchestra: 1922 (by Ravel)
First Performance: October 19, 1923
Live Rock Performance by ELP: March 26, 1971
Sales: 0.5 million in US (ELP)
Peak: 10 US, 3 UK (ELP)
Quotable: From piano suite to orchestral work to “one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era.” – Bruce Eder, All Music Guide
When Viktor Hartmann, an architect and stage designer, died in 1873, librarian and critic Vladimir Stasov arranged a memorial showcasing Hartmann’s work. Mussorgsky, a friend of Hartmann, was moved to compose a piano suite. In the century since Pictures at an Exhibition debuted, more than a dozen versions have been made, “but none that challenge the finesse, subtlety, and cumulative impact of Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937), made for Sergey Koussevitzky” RD who premiered his version on October 19, 1923 in Paris and made the first recording of Exhibition in 1930. RD A version with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (arranged by Ravel) was recorded in 1951 and has been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame and Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
“Ravel left out only one of the Promenades” RD while developing a score which included “triple winds, alto saxophone, two harps, and lots of percussion.” RD “A more heavily scored ‘Promenade’ introduces Tuileries, the famous Parisian garden, with winds reproducing the ‘dispute of children after play’ in B major. Bydlo with solo tuba follows lumberingly in duple meter – Hartmann’s sketch of a Polish ox-cart on large wooden wheels. Following a tranquil ‘Promenade’ for winds and low-strings, Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells is a ‘scherzino’ in F major, illustrating children’s’ costumes from which legs protrude.” RD.
“Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle was Stasov’s euphemistic title for a pair of drawings Hartmann called ‘Two Polish Jews, one rich, one poor.’ While Goldenberg pontificates weightily, the solo trumpet natters obsequiously in triplets. The ensuing Marketplace at Limoges is another scherzino, where marketing women gossip and quarrel.” RD
“Without pause, solemn brass chords transport us to Catacombs beneath Paris, where Hartmann sketched himself and two companions. The scene continues with Cum mortuis in lingua morta: ‘skulls begin to glow dimly from within.’ Another ‘Promenade,’ in effect a ‘Requiescat,’ leads to The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a clock shaped as the witch Baba Yaga’s hut, from which she flies astride a mortar, used to mash human bones into paste. The Great Gate of Kiev concludes without a break – a contest design commemorating Tsar Aleksandr’s escape from assassins. On one side is a bell tower, and in the middle a cupola shaped like an old Bogatir helmet. Processional music in E flat includes a grandiose expansion of the ‘Promenade’ theme, leading to an awesome climax punctuated by bass drum, tubular bells, and tam-tam.” RD
Years later, Pictures at an Exhibition was significant as “one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who never heard of composer Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of…Victor Hartmann.” BE Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s recording of Pictures, “with its bracing live ambience and blazing pyrotechnics, was the album that put the group over.” BE “It wasn’t the first treatment of a classical piece in this manner…but it was the first to reach a mass audience or get heavy radio play.” BE It “made a fairly compelling case for adapting classical pieces in this way” BE “and introduced the notion of ‘classical rock’ to millions of listeners.” BE
“It worked on several levels that allowed widely divergent audiences to embrace it – with the added stimulus of certain controlled substances, it teased the brain with its mix of melody and heavy rock, and for anyone with some musical knowledge, serious or casual, it was a sufficiently bold use of Mussorgsky’s original to stimulate hours of delightful listening.” BE
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