Great Album Reviews: Pictures at an Exhibition (Moussorgsky/Ravel)

Album: Pictures at an Exhibition
Artist: Modeste Moussorgsky (composer), Maurice Ravel (arrangement)
Genre: Classical
Year: 1874/1922


Though originally written as a piano suite in 1874, way before anything like what we think of as an album existed, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this an album.  If you wanted to, you could even call it a concept album.  But whatever you call it, the fact remains that Modeste Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition changed my life.

There are two stories here — mine, and the music’s.

Here’s my story: In 2000, I was in college and playing in a kind of progressive metal band with my friend Robyn, a cellist who went to what was at the time Southwest Texas State University, where she was in the school orchestra.  They had a recital one night, so I went down to be supportive, with no expectations at all.  I sat in front of the cellos and double basses to watch a tiny orchestra, and they began playing Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition.

A few things happened to me during that performance. First, it made me want to write music. I already enjoyed classical music, and I’d produced a CD of piano music by the incomparable Ryan Dawe, but not being a trained musician, classical music always felt too dense for me to really understand in any way that transcended simple, ignorant enjoyment.

But as I watched the double basses playing Moussorgsky/Ravel in San Marcos, Texas, and I paid attention to just to their parts at first, the construction of the thing started to make sense to me.  I found myself suddenly conscious of how these different components breathed through the piece — BIG HORNS, no horns, soft strings, quiet horns, BIG EVERYTHING, just a trumpet, soft counterpoint on the basses, BELLS! — and how the introduction, re-introduction, and evolution of the “Promenade” theme linked everything together into what felt like a narrative.

Second, I *felt* something.  I’d wrapped myself in the melancholy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the frustrated rage of Mozart’s Requiem Mass before, but this was the first time I’d been taken on a deep, really shattering emotional journey by a piece of classical music.

I went home. I put a bunch of synths and stuff on my computer, and I started writing electronic music, ultimately calling the project Mission 13.  I was, you understand, exclusively a drummer up until this point.  No exaggeration, I don’t go to San Marcos that night, there is no Sci-Fi Romance today.

And here is the music’s story: Modeste Moussorgsky was a composer and pianist in 19th century Russia under the czars, and friends with the artist Viktor Hartmann.  Hartmann died suddenly in 1873, and after his death there was an exhibition put together of many of his paintings.  You see where this is going now.

Moussorgsky was shaken by Hartmann’s death. But inspired by that gallery showing of his lost friend’s work, he began a tribute, a composition that mimicked walking through the exhibition.  It begins with the Promenade, walking in. You spend time in front of different paintings, each its own small composition, and you walk between them, each time hearkening back to the Promenade, until finally you reach the last painting, and the last movement of the work, The Great Gate of Kiev.  All the while, the emotion builds so that ultimately there is a tremendous explosion of joy at the beauty before you, mixed with the sadness of the loss you’ve endured to get here. Here’s how it ends:

Listen: the work is so enthralling, that when Svatoslav Richter played it in Sofia, Bulgaria, to an audience of 1500 sick, coughing, sneezing people during a 1958 flu epidemic, there are passages so intense that the audience literally stops coughing.

A few years after I saw that first Pictures at an Exhibition performance, I took Robyn, my cellist friend and former bandmate, to Houston and we watched the Houston Symphony perform it. That entire Southwest Texas orchestra could’ve fit in just the horns section.  I cannot describe how loud, how immersive, how shattering it was. When the lights came up, neither of us could move.  Robyn finally said “I feel like I’m on drugs.”  I kinda did, too.  I felt exhilarated, and broken.

And I can offer no higher praise to the experience of a work of art.

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