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Program notes on "Pictures at an Exhibition"
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Copyright © James Boyk 1990, 1998.
All rights reserved.


Explanatory Notes

"Pictures at an Exhibition" was inspired by a posthumous showing of the work of Mussorgsky's artist friend Victor Hartmann. Gnomus was a drawing for a Christmas-tree ornament, a gnome's-head nutcracker whose jaws crack the nut. The Old Castle came from drawings of medieval French castles. Tuileries is the garden in Paris; Bydlo, a Polish ox-cart. The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells came from a watercolor for a children's ballet costume, an eggshell with the child's arms and legs sticking out, and with a chicken's-head helmet. "Samuel" Goldenberg and "Schmuyle" is often subtitled "Two Polish Jews, One Rich, the Other Poor." Hartmann did the two separate portraits in Sandomierz, Poland; Mussorgsky's music dramatically unifies them.

On the score of Limoges, the Marketplace, Mussorgsky wrote some lines which he later crossed out. They're still readable, and too much fun not to share: "Big news! M. de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow 'Fugitive.' But the good ladies of Limoges are not agreed about this, because Mme. de Remboursac has got wonderful porcelain dentures while M. de Panta-Pantaléon is still inconvenienced by his nose which is as red as a peony."

Catacombae was a picture of underground Roman tombs near Paris. Mussorgsky used the phrase Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua to mean "[speaking] with the dead in a dead language." He wrote on the score, "The creative genius of the late Hartmann leads me to the skulls and apostrophizes them. The skulls begin to glow."

Baba-Yaga is a Russian witch who flies in a mortar, propelling herself with the pestle. Her hut runs around on hen's legs, and one hears this "chicken rhythm" in the piece. The Great Gate of Kiev was Hartmann's entry in a design competition for a commemorative gate. He didn't win, but the city didn't build the winning design anyway.


Program Notes
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
       —John Keats

The truth of a musical score lies in that particular beauty which was in the ears of the composer. The piece of music, the work of art, is not the written score but the sounds the composer heard in his imagination. The performer must recreate these from the score in something of the way we might recreate the shape of an object from the shadow it casts.

A purely analytical approach can't work. The performer must bring to the piece an independent musical understanding and the ability to dream the score into sound.

But the dreaming must be guided and constrained by intimate knowledge of what the composer actually wrote. This is why The Harvard Dictionary of Music uses an epigraph from the Talmud: "If you would understand the invisible, look closely at the visible."

I first played "Pictures" many years ago, as an undergraduate. Since then, greater intimacy with the piece lets me dream it more completely and with a better sense of proportion; greater command of its technical difficulties lets me dream it more freely; and personal growth lets me dream it more richly.

Yet I've always wished for a copy of Mussorgsky's handwritten score, to clear up some puzzling things in the usual editions. Finally I got my wish. When I began restudying the piece a year before this performance, I said to a friend at Caltech how much I'd like to have an autograph facsimile, as we call it. I went home that very day and found one in the mail, sent by a friend in Europe with whom I'd had no contact for almost a year!

In the solitary working life of a pianist, it's easy to take this kind of thing as a sign that you're on the right track. More important, the autograph puts you on the right track by letting you see what Mussorgsky actually set down on paper. Gnomus, for instance, portrays a gnome's-head nutcracker. In the autograph score, the music ends with a snapped-off chord which we may hear as the jaws snapping a nut. Most editions have the chord rolled, which destroys the effect.

Bydlo,the Oxcart, begins loudly in some editions and softly in others. For years I began it softly, imagining the cart approaching from a distance. A look at the autograph showed that this was wrong! Mussorgsky marked it fortissimo, very loud. The rude cart and oxen are immediately bearing down on you. The contrast is extreme with Tuileries preceding, a nostalgic picture of an afternoon scene in the famous Parisian gardens, in which you can hear the children taunting each other, "Nyah, nyah," and running about.

The first bar of "Samuel" Goldenberg and "Schmuyle" has a different rhythm from what's shown in the usual editions. The true rhythm is more pompous, more in keeping with the personality it portrays. And in the middle section of Baba-Yaga, just before the loud music starts again, the very lowest note is not a low G, it's an even lower E, more logical in the sequence of the music, and certainly more impressive.

Do these differences really matter? Not individually perhaps; but cumulatively the autograph gives you more confidence of being in touch with Mussorgsky's mind and ear. Freud says somewhere that he preserves even the apparently trivial details of his case histories so that "the reader of independent mind" can draw unbiased conclusions. The performer is supposed to be that reader for the score, so the score had better preserve all the details, too. It's surprising how few editions make the attempt.

The usual view of "Pictures" is that it's merely "a musical charm bracelet," in clarinetist Margaret Thornhill's phrase. Of course, most people know the piece through Ravel's orchestration, which is brilliant and effective, but somehow has none of the moral weight of the piano original.

The piece does show how Mussorgsky, like Dickens, relished life's variety. Look at how the Promenade theme is treated differently each time it appears. Mussorgsky will use a new harmonization even when he could make do with a previous one. To me this shows his willing engagement with each new scene.

But it's the human meaning of the scene that occupies Mussorgsky and provides the emotional truth from which he creates beauty. Not the oxcart, but the life of the driver. Not the old castle, but echoes and evocations of music from its days of habitation. And as my wife Carol points out, not the gate of Kiev for itself, but as the gate to civilization and an end to being pursued by Baba-Yaga.

Like Dickens, Mussorgsky paints with a broad brush yet achieves subtle effects. Like a great novelist, Mussorgsky incorporates all conditions of humanity into a unified personal vision of the world. Under the spell of this vision, we feel that the beauty he has created is indeed "all we need to know."

—James Boyk


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