Pictures at an Exhibition was originally written by Mussorgsky in 1874 as a group of pieces for Piano. The pictures in question were mainly watercolours, painted by Victor Hartman, a friend of the composer, who had died the previous year. The piece is meant to encapsulate the feeling of walking round an exhibition –- the recurring "promenade" acts as an interlude between the different "sketches" and depicts the visitor himself.
On a personal note, I love the Ravel orchestrated version of the work, which is the version that most people know. Specifically, as a Saxophonist (an out of practice one, I must add), the use of the instrument in the classical repertoire is fairly rare –- but it’s orchestration in this piece is sublime.
"Pictures at an Exhibition" has since been transcribed to various orchestral and instrumental versions –- including one with added words by Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Following is a personal view of Ravel’s orchestrated version:
Promenade (Time Signature: mainly 5/4, Key: B flat major)
The opening "movement" or "sketch" is the idée fixe of the piece. We are awakened by a softly accented solo Trumpet, interspersed with rich brass in full harmony. The String section soon joins in and the key changes lead to a crescendo and then immediate piano section with Oboe and other Woodwind. The final section is a tumultuous crescendo with the full orchestra firstly in unision with the key melody and then diversifying into a triumphant fully harmonised recapitulation of the theme which ends the introduction on a resolute note. This theme is based on the pentatonic scale, often seen in folk music - Mussorgsky had added the heading "in a Russian rustic style" to the title of the sketch.
Gnomus (Time Signature: 3/4. Key: E flat minor)
Strings open this piece with staccato percussion underneath. They are answered by a softer melody with the Flute being prominent. The overall picture is of a rather grotesque Gnome figure and the eerie String melody does hint at a sense of evil and mischief. The pauses in the music add to the sense of uncertainty. The ending is explosive, creating the impression of a sudden disappearance of this odd character.
Promenade (Time Signature: mainly 5/4, Key: A flat major.)
The idée fixe returns, this time much calmer and pensive in it's manner –- a question and answer between Brass and Woodwind.
The Old Castle (Time Signature: 6/8. Key: G sharp minor.)
This piece creates the atmosphere of a lonely isolated castle and it certainly has a medieval feel to it. The Tenor Saxophone which plays the haunting, dark lullabyesque melody could almost be seen as a troubabdour serenading a princess in a tower. In 6/8 time, the Double Bass is scarcely audible with its soft percussive repetitions. The melody is picked up and then relinquished by various solo instruments in turn –- the Oboe, the Flute before returning once again to the Sax.
Promenade (Time Signature: mainly 5/4, Key: B major.)
A repeat of our main theme again –- this time very resolute with striding Bass and Strings –- the Trumpet again taking up the melody.
Tuileries (Time Signature: 4/4 Key: B major.)
This sketch depicting the Tuileries gardens by the Louvre in Paris was sub-titled "children squabbling after play". The children are heard here as Oboe and Flute –- the music is airy and lighthearted.
Bydlo – The Polish Ox Wagon (Time Signature: 2/4. Key: G sharp minor.)
This acts as a contrast to the previous joyful dance. The Tuba takes the weary solo at the beginning, vividly painting the picture of the wagon being slowly and painfully dragged through the mud. The Strings enter around the ninth bar with a slightly more uplifting theme –- although this leads directly back to the minor key and a harrowing, fortissimo section with Snare Drum rattling in the background. The intense crescendo is once more diminished until we hear the solo Tuba again accompanied by soft Bass Strings.
Promenade (Time Signature: mainly 5/4, Key: D minor.)
The promenade this time is sorrowful, in the minor key.
The Ballet of the Newly-hatched chicks (Time Signature: 2/4. Key: F major.)
The mood is broken suddenly by this sketch –- a "scherzo" which means joke –- and this is the atmosphere created. The Flutes introduce with an almost half-hearted trill to be answered by ascending Bassoon with syncopated Clarinets. The original painting was a design for a ballet called "Trilbi" which was produced in St.Petersburg in 1876. The Corps de Ballet were dressed as Canary chicks still half in their shells.
Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle (Time Signature: 4/4 Key: B flat minor.)
This is a sketch of contrasts. Two men, one rich the other poor. Samuel Goldenburg, the rich man, is depicted with the broad, full sound of Strings in unison. Schmuyle is portrayed with the whining tinny sound of a Trumpet. The two melodies, once stated separately, appear together and it is the rich sound of the strings which bring the sketch to an end.
Limoges - The Market Place (Time Signature: 4/4 Key: Eflat major.)
We return to a more optimistic sound – another "scherzo" –- this time fully orchestrated depicting the busy bustling market at Limoges. The interplay between Strings and Woodwind recreates the sounds of shouting, gossiping and movement. Mussorgsky had even noted down imagined conversations on his original score.
Catacombe Sepulchrum Romanum (Time Signature: 3/4. Key: B minor.)
We are plunged, without a break, into this dark, macabre piece. Again, the setting is Paris, but this time below the ground in the Catacombs. The original painting was based on Victor Hugo’s description of the Catacombs in Les Misérables and we hear full heavy Brass and Woodwind –- alternating bars of loud and soft to create a heady, haunting and troubling atmosphere.
Cum Mortuis In Lingua Mortua / Promenade (Time Signature: 6/4. Key: B minor.)
This movement follows directly on from the last. Translated it means "I speak of the dead in a dead language" and it is largely based on the Promenade idée fixe –- this time transposed to the minor and marked "Con Lamento" with tremolo Strings supporting a melody taken this time by Woodwind and Brass alternately. Mussorgsky had written the following on his original manuscript "The creative genius of the late Hartman leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow."
The Hut standing on Fowl'd Legs (Time Signature: 2/4. Key: C major.)
This was another of Hartmann’s designs –- this time for a clock based on the hut that Baba-Yaga, the witch of death from Russian mythology, lived in. The music here is fierce with accentuated Strings creating an erratic rhythm –- increasing in it’s ferocity and thickness, leading to a defiant melody from the Brass. Then trailing off into a piano section with Woodwind and Strings, creating a sinister mood. Once again, the erratic Strings take up the lead with the Brass refrain following.
The Great Gate of Kiev (Time Signature: 2/4. Key: E flat major.)
The thick, vast chords that introduce this piece are beautiful and intense. The Gateway was again a design by Hartmann, this time to celebrate Tsar Alexander II’s escape from assassination in 1866. The design was elaborate and vast in scale and ultimately never built. The theme to introduce us to the gates is the one we have heard throughout –- the Promenade, but this time celebratory with cascading Strings and a rich melody from the Brass and Woodwind. There are brief episodes of contemplation from the Flutes, Clarinets and Oboes and a darker minor section with Bass Brass, but this soon gives way to an uplifting melody from the Strings and Trumpets heard over the top. The result is triumphant and resolute, with a Gong sounding out the first beat of each bar.
The incredible mixture of moods and vivid painting of the pictures with music makes this one of my favourite pieces and probably one of the first pieces of "classical" music that I really loved. Ravel’s orchestration is on a very large scale –- making use of many instruments not normally present in a standard ensemble – Saxophone, Harp and an array of Percussion instruments.
Interestingly, I remember seeing this piece performed live on television once with a "live artist" who, whilst the music played, sketched his interpretation onto paper which was, in turn, displayed on an overhead projector for the audience to watch. This for me explains the magic of the piece, with each sketch or movement, you find yourself painting your own interpretations in your mind.
Apologies for any misinterpretations of the music -- this is simply my own personal analysis!