Pictures at an Exhibition

Hello all,

This week’s music is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.

When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.

After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.

Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:

  • The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
  • The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
  • Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
  • Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
  • Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
  • Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
  • Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
  • Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
  • Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
  • Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
  • Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.

Enjoy!

T

Allemande

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Allemande from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for solo cello, performed by Mischa Maisky.

Bach wrote six suites for solo cello between 1717 and 1723 while living Kothen, Germany. The first suite, a part of which you will hear today, has become the most famous of the six. Each suite consists of six movements that represent common baroque dance forms: prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, minuet/bouree/gavotte, and gigue. An Allemande was a type of German court dance that involved dancers linking arms and making full or partial turns down a line. Visually, the allemande gave the appearance of a large weave or braid. It was performed primarily by German royalty, and there is an air of courtly majesty in the music.

The six cello suites of J.S. Bach are the foundation of the cello repertoire. Every cellist learns them, and every cello competition requires their performance. They vary in complexity, from simple melodies to rumbling chords, and challenge the cellist in nearly every aspect of technical and musical interpretation.

Enjoy!

T

Lyricism Everywhere

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Sonata in C Minor for violin and piano by Edvard Grieg, performed by violinist Julia Fischer and pianist Milana Chernyavska.

Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is probably most famous for his Peer Gynt Suite, but he didn’t see it that way. In his view, his three violin sonatas were his best works because they represented the three stages he went through in his development as a composer. “They represent periods in my development,” he wrote, “the first naïve, rich in ideas; the second national; and the third with a wider horizon.” Of the three sonatas, the third sonata remains the most widely performed.

As a Romantic-era composer, Grieg wrote music that practically bursts with lyricism and drama. The third sonata is no exception. The first movement, for instance, opens with a dark C-minor theme but eventually gives way to two motifs that seem to outdo each other in their tranquility, tenderness, and beauty. Another lyrical theme opens the second movement (although be sure to listen for the dance section Grieg inserts as a surprise). Again, the third movement features a sweet, songful melody that is juxtaposed with a muscular recapitulation of the first movement’s theme. The finale features many of the Norwegian folk tunes Grieg was known to adore.

Enjoy!

T

Kapelmeister

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Sonata in C Major for organ by J.S. Bach, performed by organist Ton Koopman on a Danish organ built in 1746.

We could not do a series on organ music without featuring Bach’s music. As kapelmeister (music director) for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen, Bach wrote weekly organ compositions and performed daily as the court organist. Most historians agree that Bach’s instrumental mastery of the organ was greater than any other instrument. Bach wrote so much organ music that one organist’s attempt to perform all of it took fourteen recitals over five years!

In the late 1720s, Bach wrote six sonatas for organ. (The “six sonatas” thing seems to have been a theme for Bach – he wrote six sonatas for organ, six sonatas for solo cello, and six sonatas for solo violin). The C Major sonata, which you will hear today, is built on a slow-paced theme from one of Bach’s earlier compositions. Bach added fast outer movements to the sonata, effectively sandwiching the recycled theme within two movements of complex and invigorating material.

Enjoy!

T

Kissin plays Rachmaninoff

Hello all,

This week’s music is a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor by the superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin. Soon after his graduation from conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff wrote a series of preludes titled Morceaux de fantaisie. Of these preludes, the C-sharp minor prelude has become the most famous.

The prelude is famous primarily because of the ominous three-chord motif – A, G sharp, and C sharp – that opens the piece. This motif repeats throughout, though Rachmaninoff presents in in several different forms and variations as the piece progresses. Listen for the drop-off from forte to pianissimo near the beginning as Rachmaninoff introduces the main theme. After the theme is introduced, you’ll hear the music increase in speed and energy through a series of chromatic (moving by half-steps) triplets. Rachmaninoff builds this chromatic sequence into a recapitulation of the original motif that dies out to finish the piece.

Enjoy!

T

Quotable Quotations

Hello all,

This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.

A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.

Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”

Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.

Enjoy!

T

American Composers #5 – Amy Beach

Hello all,

This week’s music, continuing in our series on the music of great American composers, is the second movement of Amy Beach’s piano quintet in F-sharp minor, performed by a group of music performance fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts.  

Amy Beach was born in Henniker, New Hampshire in 1867. Unlike most composers, she was almost entirely self-taught. She came to fame in a crop of American composers that included George Chadwick, Arthur Foote, and the legendary Edward MacDowell, whose name is associated with the MacDowell Artist Colony (also in my beautiful home state of New Hampshire :).

Like most American composers of this era, Beach’s writing is quintessentially Romantic, with early strains of late romantic and even pseudo-harmonic characteristics. Her piano quintet is a perfect example of this. In the second movement, which you will hear today, she blends soaring piano solos with delicate textures in the strings, punctuated by what can only be described as Charles Ives-esque harmonic undertones.

Listen for the absolutely stunning return of the cello solo at 6:40. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful melodies ever written by an American composer!

Enjoy,

T

American Composers #3 – Samuel Barber

Hello all,

We are continuing our series on American composers with Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.

Samuel Barber wrote this piece in 1936 as part of a string quartet. The legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, upon hearing it, begged Barber to arrange it for full string orchestra. Toscanini later premiered the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and it became an overnight sensation. It has become renowned as one of the most moving pieces of music in the world. It was played at the memorial services for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President John F. Kennedy, and Albert Einstein.

This piece is powerful because of its simplicity. It is a study in the bare essentials of music. Notice how the melody is only in one instrument at a time. The rest of the instruments provide a held-out chordal background over which the melody floats. It is also powerful because of the tension that it creates. Notice how the harmony and melody never change at the same time; this tug-of-war creates rising tension as the tonal exchange escalates. For those of you who are musically trained, you’ll hear a constant tug-of-war between the tonic, the sub-dominant, and the diminished seventh (or really any form of seventh), which, as I’m sure many of you know, is a perfect formula for increasing musical tension.

As you listen, keep in mind the words from Virgil’s Aeneid that inspired this piece:

A breast-shaped curve of wave begins to whiten

And rise above the surface, then rolling on

Gathers and gathers until it reaches land

Huge as a mountain and crashes among the rocks

With a prodigious roar, and what was deep

Comes churning up from the bottom in mighty swirls.

Enjoy!

T

American Composers #2 – Aaron Copland

Hello all,

This week’s music is “Hoedown,” one of the four dances from American composer Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo. I was very pleased to find a video of the composer himself conducting this piece.

Aaron Copland, nicknamed “The Dean of American Composers,” is one of America’s most well-known musical minds. He composed, conducted, and taught throughout his 90-year life, which spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century. While he wrote many excellent classical works, such as his Third Symphony and his Sonata for Violin and Piano, it is his other works—works he referred to as his “vernacular” works—that have become iconic in the American soundscape. These include his ballet Appalachian Spring, his legendary symphonic composition Fanfare for the Common Man, and his cowboy ballets (Billy the Kid and Rodeo). If any composer has captured the American spirit in music, it is Copland.

Rodeo was the second of Copland’s cowboy ballets. It was, in his view, a recasting of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—but with cowboys. Rodeo follows a lovesick cowgirl’s attempts to capture the attention of the lead cowboy at Burnt Ranch. Copland wrote four dance episodes for the ballet, and “Hoedown” caps off the set with a wonderfully American “yee haw”-style ending. “Hoedown” has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as one of America’s most significant pieces of music.  

Enjoy!

T

A Hymn to the Viola

Hello all,

This week’s music is the String Quartet No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich, performed by the world-famous Borodin Quartet.

It is common knowledge in the musical world that the viola usually gets the short end of the stick. There are entire websites dedicated to “viola jokes” (I’ve tried many of them out on my sister, a violist), and most symphonies include the viola only as an accompaniment voice. So it is therefore somewhat shocking to find a string quartet being referred to as “a hymn to the viola.” That is the nickname that has come to be associated with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13.

We hear the viola right away. The quartet opens with a searing viola solo that reaches to the upper registers of the instrument in a series of 12-tone pitches. This solo sets the tone for the entire work and ushers the other instruments in, one by one, until the solo voice is absorbed in a foreboding, intense texture.

The viola takes the lead again in the third movement, so the middle movement, a scherzo, is the only opportunity for the other instruments to shine. However, instead of giving them soaring solo lines like he gave the viola, Shostakovich has them tapping their bows on the wood of their instruments. Listen for the almost metallic sound of this technique in the middle movement.

I’ll be honest: this is not a relaxing piece of music. It has been described as “harrowing,” “frightening,” and the kind of piece in which “even the most resilient emotional temperament could hardly fail to be at least uncomfortably disturbed.” Most commentators believe this aspect of the work reflects the severe ideological conflicts that Shostakovich was periodically embedded in with the Soviet authorities. Regardless of their cause, however, they make it all the more amazing when, at the very end of the piece, Shostakovich provides us with a very different atmosphere, one that—in my opinion—could be interpreted as symbolizing hope.

Enjoy!

T