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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

Paintings in Sound

by Michael Barone
August 28, 2000

Though the descriptive orchestral tone poem was likely an invention of Franz Liszt, the challenge of evoking pictoral images through music has entertained composers for centuries. Clement Jannequin wrote a chanson about an important military victory, thereby innocently spawning a whole genre of “battle pieces,” mostly from Spanish composers. Vivaldi’s Seasons was hardly the first piece of Baroque scene painting (or scene stealing, as has been the case); consider the Biblical Sonatas by Johann Kuhnau or even Bach’s harpsichord caprice On the Departure of His Beloved Brother.

So, when Modest Mussorgsky decided to honor his artist friend Victor Hartmann with a keyboard suite based on several Hartmann paintings, he was working in a well-established tradition. That the musical images of little chicks dancing in their shells, a gloomy and forbidding catacomb, Baba Yaga’s fabled hut supported by four chicken feet, or the grumpy interaction of a rich man and a beggar in a Polish ghetto are far more familiar than their visual prototypes speaks to the power of one composer’s inventive urge.

While some prefer Mussorgsky’s original score for solo piano, most of us came to know these Pictures at an Exhibition through Maurice Ravel’s cinematic orchestration, done up in 1922 on a commission from Serge Koussevitsky. Did you know that other arrangements by Tuschmalow and Henry Wood predate that, and ten subsequent attempts. . . by Leo Funtek, Guiseppe Becce, Leonidas Leonardi, Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Walter Goehr, Serji Gortschakow, Lawrence Leonard, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Thomas Wilbrandt. . . have additionally colored in these memorable canvases.

And that’s just the “normal” orchestral arrangements. Further versions exist for wind orchestra, piano trio, rock band (by Emerson, Lake and Palmer), synthesizer, guitar solo, duo and trio, piano duo and forty-four pianos, plus jazz band, accordion orchestra and traditional Chinese instruments. The mind boggles. So it would seem totally normal for organists to try their hand.

Calvin Hampton may have been among the first to address Mussorgsky from the organ console, followed by Arthur Wills, Oskar Gottlieb Blarr and Jean Guillou. Once the door was opened, others promenaded through, and one of our programs this quarter (#2035) exhibits no fewer than ten different soloists, each of whom has recorded the entire Mussorgsky score. The play on ten different instruments, and are granted one picture per player. Enhancing our gallary walk are several non-Russian evocations. . . of landscapes in the Landais and Provençal regions of France, a country scene complete with thunderstorm (this sort of effect was regularly employed and very popular in instrumental music of past generations), and a sketch of a cathedral procession in Paris. Close your eyes, open your ears, and “see.”

To view the ten Victor Hartmann paintings from which Mussorgsky drew inspiration, visit these excellent Web sites:

document Mussorgsky and Pictures at an Exbition

document Bilder einer Ausstellung