Pictures at an Exhibition
Duration: 35 minutes
Composer – Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
The History – The suite is Mussorgsky’s most-famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for pianists. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel ‘s 1922 version for full symphony orchestra being by far the most recorded and performed.
The composition is based on pictures by the artist, architect, and designer Viktor Hartmann. It was probably in 1868 that Mussorgsky first met Hartmann, not long after the latter’s return to Russia from abroad. Both men were devoted to the cause of an intrinsically Russian art and quickly became friends. They likely met in the home of the influential critic Vladimir Stasov, who followed both of their careers with interest. Hartmann’s sudden death on 4 August 1873 from an aneurysm shook Mussorgsky along with others in Russia’s art world. The loss of the artist, aged only 39, plunged the composer into deep despair. Stasov helped to organize a memorial exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in the Imperial Academy of the Arts in Saint Petersburg in February and March 1874. Mussorgsky lent to the exhibition the two pictures Hartmann had given him, and viewed the show in person. Mussorgsky was inspired to compose Pictures at an Exhibition, quickly completing the score in three weeks. The music depicts his tour of the exhibition, with each of the ten numbers of the suite serving as a musical illustration of an individual work by Hartmann.
Following the opening “Promenade,” the first four movements, or “pictures,” in order of appearance, are: “The Gnome,” a depiction of an awkward dwarf conveyed through irregular rhythms and forceful outbursts; “The Old Castle,” a solemn and lyrical portrayal of a medieval troubadour singing on the grounds of a grand castle; “Tuileries,” a sprightly sketch of children at play in the well-known Tuileries Gardens in Paris; and “Cattle,” a ponderous characterization of the lumbering of a large Polish ox cart.
The scampering fifth movement, “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” represents a costume design by Hartmann for a children’s ballet. The sixth scene evokes an image of “Two Jews: One Rich, One Poor” through the interplay of a strident melody in the lower register and a twittering chantlike theme in the upper. The folksy and cheerful quality of the seventh movement, “The Market at Limoges,” is neutralized by the eighth, “The Catacombs,” which casts an eerie shadow with ominous chords and variations on the recurring intermezzo.
The last two scenes of Pictures at an Exhibition are the most renowned. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” is a nightmarish portrayal of the cackling witch Baba-Yaga on the prowl for her prey. She charges—bounding in a virtuosic passage in octaves—right into the tenth and final picture, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” With a depiction of Hartmann’s sketch of a proposed city gate topped by cupolas in which carillons ring, Mussorgsky brings the piece to a majestic close.
The World – 1874 A group of young painters, Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, gives their first exhibition, at the studio of the photographer Nadar in Paris. Louis Leroy ‘s critical review of it published on April 25 gives rise to the term Impressionism for the movement, with reference to Claude Monet’s Impression: Sunrise.
In New Orleans, former Confederate Army members of the White League temporarily drive Republican Governor William P. Kellogg from office, replacing him with former Democratic Governor. John McEnery. U.S. Army troops restore Kellogg to office five days later.
The Chicago Fire of 1874 burns down 47 acres of the city, destroying 812 buildings, killing 20, and resulting in the fire insurance industry demanding municipal reforms from Chicago’s city council.
Sonata, S. 178 b minor
The Composer – Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
The History – The B Minor Piano Sonata was completed in 1853 and published in 1854 with a dedication to Robert Schumann. No other work of Liszt’s has attracted anywhere near the amount of scholarly attention paid to the Sonata in B minor. It has provoked a wide range of divergent theories from those of its admirers who feel compelled to search for hidden meanings. It has been described as a musical depiction of the Faust legend, autobiographical, or that it is based on the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The Sonata unfolds in approximately 30 minutes of unbroken music. While its distinct movements are rolled into one, the entire work is encompassed within an overarching sonata form — exposition, development, and recapitulation. Liszt effectively composed a sonata within a sonata, which is part of the work’s uniqueness, and he was quite economical with his thematic material. The first page contains three motive ideas that provide the basis for nearly all that follows, with the ideas being transformed throughout.
The first theme is a descending scale marked sotto voce; full of ominous undertow. It reappears at crucial points in the work’s structure. This leads immediately to a jagged, forceful motif in octaves. This is quickly followed by a hammering marcato motif in the left hand. A dialogue ensues, with mounting energy, until reaching the noble Grandioso material in D major. Liszt transforms the “marcato” motif into a lyrical melody later. The slow movement, an Andante sostenuto, is the centerpiece of the Sonata. This fully-fledged movement, in compound ternary form, features, in quick succession, a number of themes heard earlier in the Sonata in a tour de force of thematic economy. The final recapitulatory section is launched by a driving fugato of contrapuntal skill which leads to the compressed return of the opening material. Calling upon every intellectual resource and fully exploiting the pianist’s technical arsenal, it is at this point where a performer’s concentration might wane. But this final section has just begun, and a pianist needs to have reserved fuel in their tank if he is to turn in a successful performance of the Sonata. Each of the sections are examples of Classical forms, which means that this piece is one of the first instances of Double-function form, a musical piece which has two classical forms happening at the same time; one containing other. Already in 1851 Liszt experimented with a non-programmatic “four-movements-in-one” form in an extended work for piano solo called Grosses Concert-Solo.
The World – 1853 U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrives in Edo Bay, Japan, with a request for a trade treaty.
Gadsden Purchase: The United States buys approximately 77,000 square kilometers (30,000 sq mi) of land from Mexico, to facilitate railroad building in the Southwest.
Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore premieres, in performance at Teatro Apollo in Rome.