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Part Three. Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition: Why You Should Listen With Two Sets of Ears

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937

Photograph of Ravel 1925.

Photograph of Ravel 1925.

In The Final Section, Does Ravel Match Up To Mussorgsky?

As we set off on the final leg of our journey through Pictures At An Exhibition, we find ourselves in an underworld of catacombs, death and a nightmarish fairy tale land. By invoking these settings, Mussorgsky is able to infuse alarm, fear and shock before emerging into the sunlit magnificence of the final picture. Does Ravel captivate each mood as cleverly as Mussorgsky?

Hartmann's Painting of the Paris Catacombs


Mussorgsky Sepulchrum Romanum

Mussorgsky Sepulchrum Romanum

Although the title is Sepulchrum Romanum, the picture it alludes to is of the Paris catacombs as painted by Hartmann. Murky and mysterious, explored with a guide carrying a simple lantern. Hartmann himself is one of the two visitors.1

An underground glowering counterpart to the Great Gates of Kiev,which are to come, the expanse of thunderous chords are its own gateway to the catacombs. The major sevenths loom large once more as promenaders are now immersed in the bowels of Paris, about to take a tour between tombs rather than pictures, an entirely different underground exhibition to the one in the carefully illuminated hall showing off the paintings in the best light.

The wandering Wagnerian doom-laden quality of the chords, written without the guiding handrail of a key signature, tipping over from resolution to non-resolution and back again, a nervous, not-sure-what-is-round-the-corner passage of uncertainty, resolves into the Cum mortius in lingua mortua.

To hear Mussorgsky's Sepulchure Romanum click on the video at 18.47.

Ravel Sepulchrum Romanum

Ravel Sepulchrum Romanum

The one thing about orchestrating Sepulchrum Romanum, is it's possible to crescendo on the long held chords, and that is a negative for the piano's capability. I'm glad Ravel chose not to include strings, except for double bass, or for that matter piercing oboes and flutes; subterranean colours pulse around the sunken burial chambers of the Paris catacombs.

To listen to Ravel's Sepulchrum Romanum click on the video at 20.44.

Mussorgsky During His Time as a Military Officer

Photograph of Mussorgsky in uniform during his time in military service. United States Public Domain.

Photograph of Mussorgsky in uniform during his time in military service. United States Public Domain.

Mussorgsky Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

Mussorgsky Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

The opening Promenade theme is lifted gently as if by angels up into the heavens,strained through a filter of purity to achieve an openness of heart. Tremolos in the right hand ring like little handbells whilst underneath a hymn is given up as a prayer honouring the recently visited dead.

To listen to Mussorgsky's Cum mortuis in lingua mortua click on the video at 20.16.

Ravel Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

Ravel Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

I fully understand the spooky tremolandi provided by the strings Ravel has opted for, but it's not handbells. But then it is an interpretation of a scene after all, and everyone's entitled to envisage that scenario, and the jumpy agitation brought on by a claustrophobic labyrinth of unfamiliarity is as legitimate as any fantasy I have in my head. And it works.

Who can guess what's creeping round, the eerie casts of faint light from the guide's weak lantern snatching brief glimpses of half-seen images. It's worthy of some black and white horror movie, Bela Lugosi about to suddenly appear in with deadly intent. Then it all changes and we come out to the embrace of a Tchaikovsky-style romantic aside - think of his Overture-Fantasie Romeo and Juliet, first performed four years earlier in 1870.

To hear Ravel's Cum mortius in lingua mortua click on the video at 37.46.

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Viktor Hartmann's Design For The Hut on Hen's Legs


Mussorgsky The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)

Mussorgsky The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)

Jarring and jagged, Baba Yaga's explosively dissonant appearance, larger than life, overfills the quiet space vacated by Cum mortius in lingua mortua. You wouldn't be surprised if Baba Yaga's shrieking figure tore out of the canvas, landing heavily on the floor of the exhibition hall, wreaking havoc on the onlookers.

Baba Yaga, the notorious Russian witch lives in a house standing on hen's legs. The impossible hut, though, has its own malevolent personality, its windows serving as eyes and able to move about on it's fowl legs and confounding the visitor by swinging round so as not to reveal any door.2

Hartmann's picture is a design for an ornamental clock based on the folk tale, Mussorgsky embracing Baba Yaga's characteristics in a violently dissonant whirlwind as she propels herself in her pestle, flying round the exhibition hall like a bull in a china shop. The thorny leaps of major and minor sevenths scatter the people calmly going about studying the pictures, whilst Baba Yaga does her worst as a frenzied mad woman shrieking in uncontrolled derangement, leaving the bystanders breathless.

She scrambles recklessly downhill in spindly legs, disappearing from view, secretively planning some terrible mischief. The awkward angular intervals continue, hushed augmented fourths, before chaos descends again before approaching The Great Gates of Kiev.

To hear Mussorgsky's Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga) click on the video at 21.57.

Ravel The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)

Ravel The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)

The roar of percussion fills the void. Intimidating though the opening is, Ravel doesn't continue to observe the sforzandi of the climbing stepped figuration which should be accented on every alternate quaver. As a result some of the crazed menace that is Baba Yaga is lost, and by reducing the bass to a single line, it partly removes the threatening rumble in pursuance of a sinister goal.

Marking the score pianissimo instead of fortissimo for the descending grace-noted chords, the indiscriminate slapped about confusion Baba Yaga should be creating is diluted. Instead of people getting caught up in her intent, it's like they've parted a way for her while she rows her pestle down the corridor unimpeded instead of the switchback of horror she should bring to the scene.

Of course I am not saying it isn't exciting, it's just not as edge of seat as the piano version. There is that reverberating earthquake resonance from the bottom of the piano that can't be replicated by an orchestra - unless it includes the piano itself - and, well, that rather defeats the object of the exercise.

But the brass calls work backed up with booming percussion and the soft bubbling middle section is suitably muted with flutes and ethereal strings. Try as it might, though, the build up to the Great Gates of Kiev is a tad on the woolly side. It's those strident octave piano chords that lend a tyrannical vibrancy and to cushion it via the orchestra diminishes Baba Yaga's awesome prescence. Somehow we're not quite on red alert.

To hear Ravel's The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga) click on the video at 26.08.

Viktor Hartmann's Painting of a Plan for Gates of Kiev


Mussorgsky The Great Gates of Kiev

Mussorgsky The Great Gates of Kiev

To complete the work is a fusion of Promenade and picture painting, long strides approaching the majestic gate in the manner of the walkabout between exhibition pieces. The great triumphal ending is a mixture of piano chorale, bell tolling and running octaves, fireworks to celebrate the end of the tour,

The 3/2 time signature procession up to the gates, straddling the length and breadth of the keyboard, are thrown wide open welcoming all comers in an expanse of E flat major heavy with pride. But the very start of the Great Gates of Kiev are well under strength. It's a mammoth task to create the full, rounded magnificence and that's where the orchestra has the upper hand. In fact William Kapell's version is the only recording I've heard where the full throttle truly comes off.

To hear Mussorgsky's Great Gates of Kiev click on the video at 24.59.

Ravel The Great Gates of Kiev

Ravel The Great Gates of Kiev

It is a spectacular event, the ending of Pictures At An Exhibition. Ravel makes the most of it, and I'm glad to say, he keeps Russian glory alive. And this part is where Ravel does score in all senses of the word.

Mighty as one can make those huge chords on the piano, there isn't the sustaining heft of full orchestra at the start after the anticipatory build at the end of Baba Yaga's demonic flight for it not to fall away slightly. Mussorgsky has to compromise by not pulling out all the stops until further on, when he does deploy the big guns, so the sound is hollower than Ravel can achieve with the orchestra. Nevertheless, at times I'd have preferred if Ravel had gone a little easier on the brass, and predominated in rich strings, but hey, this is what you call a finale.

To hear Ravel's Great Gates of Kiev click on the video at 30.00.

Mussorgsky or Ravel?

But once you hear the Mussorgsky in the raw, as it were, laid bare, I warrant your perception cannot ever the same. As I hear it, Ravel is that bit too glossy, too sparkly, and hasn't fully penetrated under the blotchy skin of a very troubled Mussorgsky.

That doesn't preclude me thinking when I do hear the Ravel, wow, fantastic orchestration! How can I not? But, it is in isolation from Mussorgsky himself. Ravel must have adored the work, he's just not absolutely true to it.

I suppose one of the overriding and moot point is, would Mussorgsky, had he dried out and gone teetotal, have orchestrated Pictures At An Exhibition? I'm not so sure. Schumann didn't orchestrate his wonderful piano suites, Papillons or Carnaval.

Indeed there are similarities with Carnaval which also starts with a preambule, an idea akin to Pictures At An Exhibition, and a promenade features towards the end of the work. Moreover the second of the cycle, Pierrot strikes a remarkable resemblance in terms of chordal and harmonic style. and as there are tangible tastes of Schumann's German romanticism pocketed here and there throughout Pictures At An Exhibition I'd err on the side of this having been conceived purely for piano.

Nevertheless the temptation to realise Pictures At An Exhibition in orchestral terms is almost overwhelming. I could easily, and in fact can, hear a world of instrumental colour. However it doesn't necessarily follow that Mussorgsky would be elevated overall, and it would also bring into question - should all piano music be orchestrated?

Obviously not. But it doesn't preclude making arrangements of any music, they're always being played, and we shouldn't forget the school's orchestra version of The Great Gates of Kiev. So, I would advocate: listen to the Ravel as a pleasurable indulgence and let the piano speak for itself.


1 Stmoroky

2 Old Russia

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on September 12, 2018:

Hi Flourish. It's satisfying to know I've put over what I wanted to and you could hear it in the comparative videos. Thanks for reading.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 11, 2018:

I liked the frequent comparison between the works and listened for the elements you described. I understand what you mean by “two sets of ears.”

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