The orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition that you’ll hear at this weekend’s performance of “Masterworks 2: The Great Gate” was composed in 1922 and premiered later that year in Paris; but the origins of the first Pictures at an Exhibition — originally a ten-movement piano suite — go back nearly 50 years before that first performance and its history is marked by a series of significant friendships.
The original Pictures at an Exhibition was created by 19th-century Russia’s resident bad boy composer, Modest Mussorgsky. A brilliant but often undisciplined composer, a lifelong alcoholic, a challenging personality…Mussorgsky was your textbook archetypal tortured genius (his portrait here speaks for itself).
Tchaikovsky once somewhat brutally described Mussorgsky as such: “In talent he is perhaps superior to [his colleagues], but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness.”
One of the “The Five” or the “Mighty Handful,” Mussorgsky was at the very center of Russian nationalism in instrumental music and, as such, was at the center of Russia’s newly thriving art scene. In the age of cultural nationalism, Russia (like many non-German nations in the mid- to late 19th century) was vying to establish cultural individuality; leveraging art as a cultural asset meant that there were a lot more artistic opportunities going around for the exciting and closely knit art scenes. Russia’s inner circle of artists was no exception and, when Viktor Hartmann died suddenly at the age of 39, the unexpected loss of a colleague sent shockwaves through the small community.
An architect and painter, Hartmann was particularly close to Modest Mussorgsky in the years before his passing. After his death, over 400 of Hartmann’s works were displayed in February and March 1874 at Saint Petersburg’s Academy of Fine Arts. Mussorgsky visited this exhibition several times and, inspired by his friend’s work, composed the ten movements of Pictures at an Exhibition over a period of just two weeks. Each movement was inspired by one of Hartmann’s works (many of which have been lost over time) which varied in subject from the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, the Russian fairytale villain of Baba Yaga, Paris’s catacombs, and, of course, his great gate in Kiev (which would become the most famous movement of Mussorgsky’s composition).
Like many of Mussorgsky’s works, Pictures at an Exhibition would go mostly unnoticed until long after the composer’s own death in 1881. The work was eventually published as a modified ten-movement work for piano by Mussorgsky’s friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another member of “The Five” and orchestrator of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Several orchestration attempts were made over the years to translate the piano work for a full orchestra, but the most popular would be completed by French composer Maurice Ravel. Ravel discovered the work for piano and, intrigued by its unique style, shared it with his friend and Russian-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky.
Koussevitzky would go on to commission an orchestration from Ravel, resulting in the popular concert piece we have today, which is considered to be one of the greatest orchestral works of all time.
Friendship, collaboration, and community all had significant roles in the story of Pictures at an Exhibition and directly contributed to the incredibly colorful and fantastical work that has become a beloved staple in symphonic repertoire ever since its premiere over a century ago.
Experience Mussorgsky’s homage to his friend and Ravel’s contribution to the Russian nationalist style alongside Ravel’s own jazzy piano concerto and Ukrainian composer Silvestrov’s Evening Serenade this Saturday at our afternoon matinee or evening performance at First Baptist Church of Asheville.
“Masterworks 2: The Great Gate” will be held on Saturday, October 21, 2023, at the First Baptist Church of Asheville, with performances at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased online at www.AshevilleSymphony.org, by calling the Asheville Symphony box office at (828) 254-7046, or in person at 27 College Place, Suite 100, in Asheville.
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