Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ravel - Pictures at an Exhibition

I. PROMENADE: Allegro giusto, nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto

A stately stroll into the gallery, played by a solo trumpet, is the initial image. This opening theme will be heard in several guises throughout the suite, usually serving as the bridge between musical pictures. Once the trumpets pronouncement is complete, the other trumpets, horns, and tuba respond in an equally regal manner, the richness of the brass instruments blending to create an impressive wall of sound. This pattern of announce and respond is repeated several times as the movement unfolds. When the strings join, they add a tremendous elegance, building gradually to an expansive outburst, then pulling back as the excitement wanes. But it quickly rebuilds, heightened by glorious horn calls in the midst of the orchestras huge sound. A fabulous chorus featuring the brass instruments alone literally rumbles, preceding one final phrase played by the entire orchestra before the movements abrupt end.

II. GNOMUS: Vivo (1:39)

This portrait of a limping dwarf and his grotesque movements begins with the clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contra-bassoon, violas, cellos, and basses in unison loudly blurting out an angry statement, followed immediately by the horns reacting and quickly fading away. The music seems to have trouble developing a flow; like the dwarf, its movement is jerky, starting and stopping, then coming to a complete halt.

A new theme, more steady but still jerky, begins featuring the flutes, oboes, and a hollow-sounding xylophone. It is haunting and creeps along deliberately, abruptly stopped by two nasty comments from the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, cellos, and basses. Mysterious sounds created by the celesta, clarinet, harp, first violins, and the violas and cellos sliding up and down their strings quietly mimic the new theme.

Slow and heavy are the key qualities as the wind instruments plod through each note, accentuated by the pounding of the bass drum, like the resounding steps of Bigfoot. The somewhat discordant sound of the winds only underlines the ugliness of this section. With each passing phrase the volume and intensity increase, eventually leading to a gripping eruption, straining to become wild. A loud clap, played by the wood block, stops everything until the bass clarinet quietly trills, restarting the mysterious theme with the xylophone. Two brassy, harsh blares from the horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba launch a wicked race to the finish.

III. PROMENADE: Moderao commodo e con delicotezza (4:24)

It is time to stroll to another painting, and Mussorgsky returns to the first movements melody played initially by the horn, this time less powerful, more delicate and pensive. The oboe, clarinets, bassoon, and the flutes carry the melody for most of the movement joined only at the very end by the violins


Muted cellos introduce a sorrowful solo for the bassoons. The saxophone assumes the melody, its hollow tone eerier than the bassoons, languorous but not lethargic as it moves steadily, pushed by repeated notes in the cellos. The violins, also muted, stir the stillness before the oboe and saxophones share a strange, short duet.

The pace seems to slow down as the intensity diminishes until the flutes and clarinet take the lead and steadily restore the intensity. But this, too, fades away, leaving the bassoon quietly playing what had been the steady beat of the cellos introducing the muted violins. One last, sensuous saxophone solo shrouded in haze restates this movements main theme and fades away. The void is broken by a final cry from the saxophone, like a last gasp, that slowly dissipates.

V. PROMENADE Moderato non tanto, pesante (9:33)

The trumpet calls us to stroll to the next work joined by the lowest voices in the orchestra, cellos, basses, bass clarinet, bassoons, and contrabassoon, making this walk ponderous. When the upper strings and wind instruments are added, the mood brightens. The promenade stops suddenly and ends with a delicate three-note call.

VI. LES TUILERIES: Allegretto non troppo, capriccioso (10:00)

This delicate movement is a depiction of children and their governesses at play in The Tuileries, the famous Paris park. An octet of woodwinds starts out capriciously, the mood happy and light, especially in the passages given to the flutes and oboes. The violins change the melody and slow the pace. This section is fluid and a little quirky; an image of children playing a game of hide-and-seek is suggested. A single chime from the triangle restarts the woodwind octet and a repeat of the initial happy melody, followed by another abrupt ending.

VII. BYDLO: Sempre moderato pesante (11:10)

If you have ever wondered how a composer might portray an ox wagon with huge wheels, heres your chance! Weight is the key, and the lower voices including the bassoons, contrabassoon, cellos, and basses accompany a tuba solo. While the tuba surprises with its melodic ability, the other instruments plod along relentlessly. When the violins, violas, and harp join, the mood lightens somewhat, but still has its restrained quality suggestive of prisoners marching, hopeful but most probably doomed. This steady march grows as more instruments are added, and when the snare drum joins, the feeling that this is a desperate death march becomes overwhelming.

Soon the march seems to move on, the sound growing softer, and the tuba resumes its sad melody, again plodding. One weak reprise by the muted, distant horn is heard, just before the movement ends, exhausted.

VIII. PROMENADE: Tranquillo (13:42)

Three flutes and two clarinets begin this tranquil reprise of the stroll music. They are replaced by the oboes and bassoons continuing this atmosphere of total calm. But there is a sudden mood swing, and the calm changes to strain and darkness. The melody stops, and this promenade ends with a short, giddy, final comment.

IX. BALLET DES POUSSINS DANS LES COQUES: Scherzino: Vivo leggiero (14:22)

Mussorgskys inspiration for this movement was a drawing of a scene from the ballet Trithy, oddly titled Ballet of the Chickens in Their Shells. The pace is fast as it scurries about, light and delicate, especially in the flutes and oboes. A sustained chord, sounding strangely like cartoon music, leads to a repeat of the movements first few seconds.

After the repeat the flutes and bassoons play a strange duet while the violins trill relentlessly, like chirping birds. Briefly the violins take the lead, but the unstoppable, annoying flutes reprise the movements opening, and the flutes, oboes, and piccolo chirpingly bring this pecking to an end.


There is no promenade before we encounter this depiction of a conversation between two Jewish men, one rich and one poor. The introduction is heavy, with a distinctly Slavic/Gypsy tone created by the strings, the English horn, clarinets, and bassoons, although it is the rich string sound that is predominant. A rapid-fire, sniping solo trumpet accompanied only by the oboes and clarinets contrasts with the somber opening. Sneering, the trumpet seems to be hurling insults while the horns add to the tension.

Angrily, the strings, clarinets, bassoons, and contrabassoon answer the trumpet. Now the weighty first theme and the sniping, rude second theme are heard together as the argument grows louder and continues until it is abruptly cut off. A new theme played by the oboes and first violins fills the silence; it is sullen and plaintive. Reminders of the argument crop up occasionally as this movement grinds to its conclusion.

XI. LIMOGESLE MARCHE: Allegretto vivo sempre scherzando (18:12)

Another argument, this one among women in a market, is the theme of this fast movement; from the outset the horns establish one voice, and the violins answer with another. (The violins may remind you of the Pick a Little, Peck a Little number from the show The Music Man.) The music is busy and flighty and seems to bounce around out of control. A sudden stop silences everyone, then the music resumes even more frantically, a truly wild scene filled with hysteria. A final race brings the argument to a screeching halt, and we are thrust directly into the next movement.


A startling change occurs as the flighty fight in the market is replaced by the ponderous reality of mortality and the catacombs. The source of this movement was a drawing of Hartmann himself exploring the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern. The heavier instruments, primarily the trombones, tuba, and horns, solemnly announce our arrival at this hallowed burial area, The chords are sustained, swelling and receding like the music for a gothic horror movie. The only trace of light is provided by the solo trumpet and its forgiving melody slicing through the somber brass. But angrily the other brass instruments bring back the horror movie music. This attack quiets, and one final blast, leading to an eerie rumble from the tam-tam, ends the visit to the catacombs.

XIII. CUM MORTUIS IN LINGUA MORTUA: Andante non troppo, con lamento (21:30)

This movement bears the creepy heading Speaking to the Dead in a Dead Language, an image Mussorgsky conjured up by himself inspired by Hartmanns creative spirit leading the composer to the skulls in the catacombs. He speaks to them and they slowly become illuminated from within, an interesting premise for a musical composition,

Extremely quiet, muted violins play a sustained chord introducing the oboes and English horn, who play a slowed-down variation of the original promenade theme. The violins, now joined by the violas, tremble while the bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, cellos, and basses take the melody from the oboes. The low, slow-moving voices combined with the shaky upper strings yield a creepy sound reminiscent of a graveyard scene in a horror movie.

Emerging from the haze, the oboe and clarinet begin to brighten the mood. The creepiness diminishes, replaced by tranquillity as the harp lightens the tone. One can almost see the dense fog rising, allowing the sun to shine through. Calm prevails, the movement ending softly with a sustained chord that just fades away.

XIV. LA CABANE DE BABA-YAGA SUR DES PATTES DE POULE: Allegro con brio, feroce (23:24)

There is no pause as we are catapulted into a ferocious attack highlighted by the timpani and bass drum. The Hartmann painting inspiring this movement was of a clock in the shape of the legendary Russian witch Baba-Yaga. The beginning starts and stops, seeming to build up energy, the strings, English horn, clarinets, and bassoons snapping out a series of gruff comments. Once the engine gets going, it sounds driven as if possessed, developing relentlessly until the trumpets cut through like the cavalry trying to gain control of a wild situation. But the other brass instruments angrily blare out sustained retorts and the orgiastic excitement continues unabated, eventually growing slower and heavier. Instruments drop out one by one until there is only a solo trumpet left playing a series of eight notes.

The flutes change the mood and begin a free-flowing, gossamer-like solo accompanied only by occasional comments from the bassoons and basses. Mystery abounds, especially when the tuba heavily burps its notes and the response is led by the celesta, xylophone, and harp. (This section may remind you of the music played during the witchs-castle scene in the movie The Wizard of Oz.) As this creepy music fades away, an angular outburst from the flutes, piccolo, oboes, clarinets, xylophone, and violins abruptly snaps everything to attention. But the trembling cellos and basses, and an eerie single tam-tam crash, sap any remaining energy to reach a dead stop.

The silence is shattered by an angry interjection; this is just the first volley in a series of outbursts that reprise the section of the engine getting going. Steadily, with its vulgar blasts, the pace and intensity increase, and as before the trumpets try to cut through the wildness, but are overwhelmed by the witchs power. The violins, screeching demonically, seem to fly up and down over their strings, ending the movement abruptly on a high note.

XV. LA GRANDE PORTE DE KIEV: Allegro allo breve. Maestoso. Con grandezza (26:42)

Without a pause between movements, the final impression begins; this time Mussorgsky drew his inspiration from an architectural design for a large gate in Kiev. The majestic melody, played loudly by the bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, and bass drum, is reminiscent of the Promenade theme that began the work. Now, it is broad and overpowering, and when the rest of the orchestra joins in, led by the crashing cymbal, the sound is even bigger, a fitting musical portrait of the massive Russian structure it depicts.

A sudden quiet takes hold as the clarinets and bassoons play a prayer-like interlude, a tremendous contrast to the power preceding it and the explosion that follows it. Here the brass instruments dominate, while the flutes, oboes, harps, violins, and violas excitedly race through exhilarating passages. Another midphrase interruption silences this most recent eruption, replacing it with a reprise of the prayer-like calm provided by the clarinets and bassoons, with the flutes adding an angelic quality. As the interlude ends, a heavy plodding starts, the lower voices steadly alternating pulses as the second violins and violas rustle, quickening the pace, like a reawakening. The contrast of the flowing string phrases against the heavy plodding creates a bit of tension that begins to resolve when the flutes, piccolo, oboes, and clarinet sneak in. All of this leads to the reemergence of the melody, now more splendid, shining like the sun slowly coming out from behind clouds, growing brighter and brighter by the second.

As if what has already been heard was not powerful enough, there is yet another explosion with the full orchestra reprising the main theme, broader and more majestic than ever. The pace slows dramatically giving plenty of time to bask in the powerful radiance of the sound. One final quieting starts the final push to the end; gradually the sonic power rebuilds, instruments chiming in one by one until a huge explosion featuring the brass instruments takes hold. Unbelievably, the sound grows larger still in another eruption, as the tam-tam, drums, cymbals, and triangle, along with the rest of the orchestra, joyfully reach the final musical image of this stroll through the art gallery.

- Anthony Rudel

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