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Part Two. 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 in 1925.

Photograph of Ravel in 1925.

How Unfaithful Is Ravel to Mussorgsky?

Should we view Ravel's orchestration of Pictures At An Exhibition, a gift from conductor Koussevitsky in the form of a commission, as an opportunity to indulge himself by way of Mussorgsky's sensitive and visionary work for solo piano? Or, should it be regarded as a fond tribute that doesn't quite hit the spot? Either way, Ravel takes Mussorgsky's often brooding, ground-in-the-dirt suite and paints it several shades lighter in sanitised colours, trying out assorted solo instruments for bare melodic lines.

Let's look at how Ravel handled the second half of Mussorgsky's eclipsed masterpiece.

Mussorgsky Bydlo

Mussorsky Bydlo

Bydlo is Russian for oxen, and the ox in Hartmann's lost picture lumbers its way pulling an oxcart.

In my imagination, the oxen's eyes are soulful, enduring a life full of servitude, yolked to unremitting wretchedness as peasants desperately try to make a living from the land. They cry out this tune as they toil, a collective sob from Mussorgsky and the destitute. The heavy hoof-fall and strain of moving the cart, the wheels barely rotating in the mud, is clearly evident in Mussorgsky's leaden writing..

There are two schools of though on how to play it, starting quietly, as if the oxcart is in the distance, building up to the point when it passes by, fading away again, back out of sight. The alternative is that the oxcart starts in full view, the ground shaking as it shudders along and disappears. However, Mussorgsky's own score marks the opening of Bydlo fortissimo, the immediacy of the cart and its owner shaking the ground, and finishing pianissimo.

The music should be stark, an appeal by Mussorgsky, one-time landowner, to those further up the social scale to take notice of the plight of the former serf.

To listen to Mussorgsky's Bydlo click on the video at 9.54.

Ravel Bydlo

Ravel Bydlo

There should be no soft corners to Bydlo. Ravel glosses over the sheer back-breakingly relentless drudgery that was the peasant's lot, starving, freezing and worked to death, looked down on like the animals he tried his best to care for. The strings are too full, though they can be effective in bringing out the pathos embedded in Mussorgsky's yearning for a better life, or conceivably, release from life?

The song is sung to keep the driver going, not an educated, trained voice, but raw, willing him and the oxcart on. It should haunt the singer and the listener. Ravel's version is full of poignancy and I do love it, but it's more with chorus in mind than the individual's perspective here, as a community of hopelessness. There's nothing wrong with that, I simply bear in mind it isn't Mussorgsky's view here.

Any orchestration, no matter how well and sympathetically it's done cannot replace the unadorned bareness of the piano, as soon as instruments are added, it softens and weakens. Mussorgsky rips open the chest of this peasant trudging through the grime so you can see the strain on his wretched heart and smell the mud caked on the worn out boots, the downtrodden folk melody wrapping the poor ox driver in misery.

If you are seeking an example of utter desolation look no further, Mussorgsky's connection and empathy with this broken man is palpable.

To listen to Ravel's Bydlo click on the video at 12.00.

Mussorgsky Promenade IV

Mussorgsky Promenade IV

Coming as it does after the exhaustion of Bydlo, the contrast from soily grind to the floaty and barely moving ephemera begins the Promenade, though it has not forgotten the picture; it stays with the viewer as they move on to the theatre of entertainment and frivolity, out of the peasant's reach.

To hear Mussorgsky's Promenade click on the video at 12.23.

Ravel Promenade VI

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Ravel Promenade VI

The opening of this Promenade is exquisite, beautifully orchestrated in delicate flutes and plaintive oboes, moving away from the serious nature and compassion the viewer is leaving behind, still reverberating in the lower strings, as they are pulled towards the world of the privileged.

To hear Ravel's Promenade click on the video at 14.59.

Viktor Hartmann's Sketch for the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

The exhibition described the painting: “Canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor. Instead of headdress, canary heads put on like helmets down to the neck.”

The exhibition described the painting: “Canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor. Instead of headdress, canary heads put on like helmets down to the neck.”

Mussorgsky Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

Mussorgsky Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

Eat your heart out, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky matches anything he could magic up for the medium of dance with Hartmann's little sketch for ballet costumes.

Hartmann had produced an illustration for a scene in an upcoming ballet, Trilbi, to be staged by the Bolshoi Ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa with music by Yuli Gerber.1 Two figures, encased in egg costumes, head, arms and legs sticking out, looking rather idiotic as the emerging chicks. The chicks' stuttering steps are captured in ungainly wobbles, falling over themselves as they try out their untested feet in a picked-out ascending scale.

The trilling middle section is a brave attempt by the chicks at sophistication, but inexperience soon returns and they are once again teetering towards collapse. In this musical depiction of Hartmann's amusing watercolour, you can hear the hard glinting of the double trilling and imagine it orchestrated, so lets examine what Ravel did with it.

To hear Mussorgsky's Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks click on the video at 13.05.

Mussorgsky's Autograph Score of the First Bars of Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.


Ravel Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

Ravel Ballet of Unhatched Chicks

The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is the most successful of Ravel's interpretations. He brings the rickety music to instrumental life by the clicking grace notes of the flutes, though it is all a little predictable, a bit on the safe side.

What's lacking is a sense of the ridiculous. Ravel's Ballet of Unhatched Chicks is perhaps too sophisticated, neat and tidy. When you think of the heavy table of delights an orchestra has to offer, a farcical flick here and there wouldn't go amiss. On the long held note where one can easily see a giddy chick wavering on one leg only to collapse in a heap, Ravel could have trilled on a lark-about muted trumpet - tying it in to the next section.

The middle trilling delight is given over to strings, a wonderful contrast. Perhaps, if I were to put in my pennyworth, the strings could have been seasoned with a shake of celesta so it's not gone too soft boiled egg.

Overall, Ravel is that little bit too safe, a bit too predictable, missing an opportunity for really letting his hair down, splatting the paint about a bit more and as there's no Promenade bridging the antics of the chicks and the waiting Jews, Mussorgsky could easily be poking more fun at the sombre seriousness of two stereotypes. Did the paint land on them at the start, I wonder?

To hear Ravel's Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks click on the video at 15.43.

Marius Petipa 1818-1910

Photograph of Petipa in 1898.

Photograph of Petipa in 1898.

Hartmann's Paintings of Jew in a Fur Cap (Rich Jew) and Poor Jew


Mussorgsky Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle

Mussorgsky Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle

They are rich Jew, poor Jew, fat cat successful Goldenberg, down at heel Schmuÿle, a schmuck, or so it's implied by the choice of names. It's not one picture but two, Mussorgsky amalgataing them into one setting to play out the derisive contrast on the keyboard.

The slow pompous gait, heavy with the recognisable minor thirds so redolent of Jewish melodies, sets Goldenberg apart from the supplicant Schmuÿle who is forcibly slapped down by the unsympathetic affluent Jew. Fittingly, Goldenberg's callous theme follows speech pattern and Schmuÿle, desperate in his ragged attire, slumped by walls of imprisoning poverty, despised and callously dismissed, has nowhere to turn except face downwards, flattened by an ugly bloated parody of kletzmer. In other words, you might wear the conceited trappings of wealth, but you're but a step away from the shtetl and you don't even look after one of your own.

I sense a certain irony. The alarming painting by Ilya Repin of Mussorgsky, who was hospitalised at the generosity of his friends, a few days prior to his death from a stroke brought on by alcoholism,2 bears a rueful resemblance to the dishevelled Schmuÿle, his predisposition to drink thwarting his own frustratingly enormous and highly individualistic potential.

To hear Mussorgsky's Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle click on 14.09.

Ravel Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle

Ravel Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle

Now that's more like it. The dug-in unison strings characterise the intransigent Samuel Goldenberg, a flash of cymbals, like the swish of a heavy cape, a flourish to his entrance. He may be holding a silk purse but he's still a sow's ear, and the wheedling of the clarinet and subsequent oboe, begging with a reedy voice is almost pulling at the hem of the well-to-do passer-by.

The poor Jew's distress escalates with trumpets, muted to emasculate the sound. Any fleeting thoughts of a heraldic fight are suppressed by means of poverty, the rich Jew cutting across in contempt, and as the resignation of inevitable defeat falls to its knees, the undercutting strings have their way, and the last spiteful word. Truly down, and out.

To hear Ravel's Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle click on 17.06.

Oil Painting of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin

Painting of Mussorgsky a few days before his death.

Painting of Mussorgsky a few days before his death.

Mussorgsky Promenade V

Mussorsgsky Promenade V

Harking back to the opening Promenade, this, the fifth, is the fulcrum of the work, and a sort of entra'cte before the second half. Decisive and bold it swings steadfastly on, arriving at the market in Limoges.

To hear Mussorgsky's Promenade V click on the video at 16.11.

Ravel Promenade V

Ravel Promenade V

I do like the fullness of Ravel's orchestration in this Promenade; the only quirk that bothers me is the prominent dotted accompaniment in the strings during the second half of the melody. It brings nothing to the score, in fact it detracts, breaking up the strong lean lines like a knot in an otherwise substantial straight-grained plank of wood.

To listen to Promenade V click on the video at 19.30.

Modern-Day Limoges Market


Mussorgsky Limoges, The Market

Mussorgsky Limoges, The Market

Again we have no painting to refer to but the hustle and bustle transports you to the wide square of Limoges city on market day, the haggling, the confrontations, the transactions, traders promoting their goods, all bagged up in Mussorgsky's vignette.

It's in the great tradition of bringing a chorus together in one large space, as you'd find in an opera. It's a frenetic knockabout scene, crowds squeezing round favoured stands, scurrying to and fro, a mélange of buying and selling, chatting and choosing, the type of spectacle Stravinsky was later to able to take a bite from to open his ballet Petroushka. A hint of what's to come in The Hut on Hen's Legs briefly calls out. Church bells ring in celebration just to add to the general throng before descending from plein air into the catacombs.

To hear Mussorgsky's Limoges, The Market click on the video at 17.36

Ravel Limoges, The Market

Ravel Limoges, The Market

Another of the more successful orchestrations, probably because the circus-like chasing-one's-tail merriment of a crowd lends itself to a spot of indulgence where one can open the box of delights and shower the score with all manner of goodies. And Ravel doesn't disappoint.

It's a show stopper and the bites of accents stand out aided and abetted by the percussion section and the busy-busy-busy of the market square swarms, ebbing and flowing, and time hares by in rip roaring commotion. A Ravel's bird's eye view of the comings and goings of Limoges' shoppers, a fantastical galop through a snapshot of everyday life.

To hear Ravel's Limoges, The Market click on the video at 20.44.

Mussorgsky Overshadowed By Ravel

In the third part, we compare Ravel's orchestration of Pictures At An Exhibition with Mussorgsky's primeval dark, stark piano solo, and examine how Mussorgsky has been eclipsed by conventional instrumentation which isn't necessarily faithful to the original. Click here to read on.


1 Wikipedia

2 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


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

Hi Flourish. What a lovely comment. It's taken me 2- 3 months on and off to write this article, there was so much to consider. The more I thought about it, the more there was to think about! I could write more, but I think this is the limit for an article (split into three as there was so much I wanted to say). Thanks for taking the time to read it.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 11, 2018:

I’m glad you are available to provide an interpretation. Between gnomes, oxen, and the market I’m stunned at all you are picking up.

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