For Saxophone Choir
I cannot recall exactly when I first determined to play “Pictures at an Exhibition" on piano. The name popped into my head one day from somewhere and, after a cursory internet search, I decided that I had to play it. I have always been drawn to large-scale, multi-movement works and, though I knew little about it, this piece somehow called to me. I eventually ended up preparing the piano version for recital, as I felt a deep emotional connection to the work.. It is this same connection that inspired me to transcribe the piece for both wind ensemble and clarinet choir.
Dr. Chien-Kwan Lin, the Professor of Saxophone at the Eastman School of Music, founded the Eastman Saxophone Project in 2010. Intended from the start to be a unique and unprecedented ensemble, ESP performs all of its concerts without conductor from memory. Despite this (or because of it?), ESP has rapidly become internationally renowned.
Following last December's Holiday Sing (which included the Eastman Clarinet Choir's performance of my Hanukkah medley), Chien-Kwan approached me and asked if I would be interested in arranging for ESP. Of course I assented - but what to arrange? I knew I wasn't limited in scope (ESP has previously performed "The Pines of Rome" and "The Rite of Spring"), so I sent Chien-Kwan a list of options. He asked me to arrange "An American in Paris" for their fall 2017 program and "Pictures at an Exhibition" for their spring 2018 program.
Moussorgsky is one of the “Mighty Five” Russian composers to follow in Tchaikovsky’s grand footsteps – the other four being Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Although un-trained in the conservatory sense, Tchaikovsky himself recognized that “his talent is perhaps the most remarkable of all these”. However, he was little regarded by his colleagues for his lack of formal training.
The year is 1874. Moussorgsky’s good friend Victor A. Hartmann has just unexpectedly died at the age of 39, perhaps of an aneurysm. An architect, Hartmann was well-traveled and had strong interests in painting and sketching. An exhibition of his work was held in late winter and early spring at the St. Petersburg Architectural Association. While there, Moussorgsky conceived of this homage to the memory of Hartmann. There are eleven pictures represented in ten movements; however, but six of these survive to the present day. In between are interspersed “Promenades” – representative of Moussorgsky visiting the gallery and displaying his various emotions in between the viewings of different pictures. Ultimately, Moussorgsky’s masterwork treats in its entirety with the overwhelming grief – and of reconciliation with its finality.
After Moussorgsky’s death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov set out to “clean” and publish Moussorgsky’s work. Despite Moussorgsky’s statement that “with whatever shortcomings my music is born, with them it must live if it is to live at all”, Rimsky-Korsakov tried to force them into the conservatory training he had received. Serge Koussevitzky, well known to fans of the BSO, commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate the suite in 1922. Ravel orchestrated the published Rimsky-Korsakov edition, and it is this orchestral version that is best-known by audiences today. The edition before you returns to Moussorgsky’s original autograph as closely as possible.
The opening “Promenade” is written in alternating 5/4 and 6/4, depicting the awkward travelling of the corpulent composer – who weighed in at over 200 pounds. Decisive in mood, Moussorgsky has just entered the exhibit in order to pay tribute to his lost friend.
The first picture, “Gnomus”, is meant to depict a wooden nutcracker for a Christmas tree. The titles of the various pictures are given in various languages according to origins of the pictures. The picture has been lost and its origin is unknown, but Moussorgsky likely associated the clumsy-looking gnome trapped in a wooden body with Latin, a dead language. The music itself is quite awkward, filled with sudden tempo changes and leaps. A low trill near the end leads to a final scrabbling run.
The next “Promenade” is quite introspective. Soft and slow, it is clear that Moussorgsky has been affected by the display.
“Il vecchio Castello” likely describes a watercolor sketch of an old castle done as Hartmann was travelling through Italy as he was studying architecture. Throughout the entire piece, a pedal point is heard – the note G# is sustained in the bass. Above this firm foundation, melodies and colors float along. The emotion is that of had and lost – the inhabitants of the castle no longer known, Hartmann soon to fade into the depths of history.
The third appearance of the “Promenade” theme is short – just eight bars – and grand in character.
“Tuileries (Dispute d’enfants après jeux)” depicts French children squabbling after play. Playful melodies run up and down. A slower middle section sounds as if a nanny admonishes the children for fighting. But, they laugh and the arguments start right back up again.
“Bydlo” is taken from a painting done in Sandomir, Poland. The autograph clearly shows the movement as beginning at fortissimo. Along with strong chords in the left hand, a cart is depicted along with the cattle named in the title. However, Rimsky-Korsakov changed the dynamic to piano, which is preserved in Ravel’s orchestration. The cart appears in its full glory in this edition, along with the eastern European folk song sung by the cart driver.
The fourth “Promenade” is the most emotionally fraught yet far, beginning very soft but growing passionately before leveling off at the end.
A short transition leads into “Balet Nevylupivshikhsya Ptentsov”, the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. This watercolor sketch is the first one in the suite that still survives.
The title “‘Samuel’ Goldenberg und ‘Schmuÿle’” is actually a combination of two insulting Jewish stereotypes. “Samuel” Goldenberg represents a rich Jew who puts on airs and speaks arrogantly. “Schmuÿle” represents a Diaspora Jew who is poor and greedy, chanting and praying in the synagogue. By the end of the movement, the two themes are combined, as if to say that no matter how many airs are put in, all Jews are still poor little “Schmuÿles”. At the time, Moussorgsky tended to be anti-Semitic against present Jews but highly admired the biblical heroes from the Old Testament. Although many have apologized for his anti-Semitism by cleaning the title to “Two Jews, One Rich, the Other Poor”, I feel it is important to keep the original title for historical purposes.
The “Promenade” theme now makes its final official appearance. The setting is very similar to the very first, but is expanded in range and sonority. A sustained tone leads directly to the next movement.
“Limoges. Le marché (La grande nouvelle)” depicts a French marketplace. Although Hartmann painted many works in Limoges, none are known to be of a market – it is likely that Moussorgsky invented it from thin air. Within the movement, the chatter of the market-goers is easy to hear, arguments and squabbles raging back and forth as “The Big News” is announced.
“Catacombae (Sepulcrum romanum)” depicts the inside of the Roman burial chamber underneath Paris. This painting actually survives, currently residing at Leningrad, and depicts Hartmann himself being given a tour. This is the first time in the suite that death is specifically addressed. Alternating chords at fortissimo and piano give a strong echo effect. There is little melody or tonal center throughout the movement.
“Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” proceeds directly from the previous movement. Moussorgsky notes: “A Latin text: with the dead in a dead language. Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me toward the skulls and addresses them – a pale light radiates from the interior of the skulls.” A high, etheral line accompanies a theme that is eerily familiar. The “Promenade” theme has returned unexpectedly, an elegy to the late Hartmann.
An abrupt transition gives way to “Izbushka na Kur’ikh Nozhkakh (Baba Yaga)” – The Hut on Hen’s Legs. The witch of Russian folklore, Baba Yaga rides not on a broom but rather on a mortar driven by a pestle. She carries a broom to cover her trail. Her hut is on hen’s legs, allowing it to turn in any direction to lure innocent people in so she can eat them and crush their bones. Hartmann’s sketch of a clock based off of this legend still survives. A driving tempo and large leaps in the first and last sections are set off by a colorful, evocative slow section in the middle.
The final movement, “Bogatyrskie Vorota (vo stol nom gorode vo Kieve)” depicts a gate for the city of Kiev. Hartmann entered a contest to construct a commemorative city gate. Unfortunately, the contest was called off, but Hartmann and history are left with what he considered his finest work. He called it “The Bogatyr Gate” in honor of the historic Russian heroes that supposedly lived in Kiev. This movement is the longest of the cycle and the most grand. The opening theme is stated decisively. Immediately following, a Russian hymn – “As You Are Baptized in Christ” – is stated at piano, specifically marked to be without expression – a hymn to Hartmann. This is followed again by the main theme, now with rising and falling octaves accompanying it before the hymn returns – now at fortissimo. A third motif follows, recalling the ringing of triumphant bells from the tower on the gate – and the tune they call out is none other than the opening “Promenade”, its final appearance. The main theme of this movement appears twice more, bringing the work to a fitting end.