Continuing my look at “Pictures at an Exhibition”, I picked one of the movements for which we still have the original image. At the memorial exhibition of the works of Viktor Hartmann, there were several sketches of ballet costumes he designed. The title of the music inspired by one of these images is variously translated as “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” or, “ The Ballet of the Chickens in their Eggs”. The sketch was made in 1870, portraying some costumes for children to be worn in a ballet entitled “Trilby”. The choreography of the ballet was done by Marius Petipa, music by Julius Gerber, and the plot of the evening taken from a short story by the Frenchman Charles Nodier. There were four sketches of the costumes included in the exhibition, and the one that caught Mussorgsky’s eye was described in the catalog as “Canary-Chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armour. Instead of a head dress, canary heads, put on like helmets, down to the neck”.
When someone says “Russian” music, or mentions a “Russian” sound, people often think of that low, bass heavy, dark, “Slavic” sort of atmosphere. There are certainly several parts of “Pictures” that deliver on that prototypical Russian flavor. “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is not one of those pieces. This is light, high-pitched music that squeaks and squawks like small birds. The dancers for this part of the ballet were to be children, and the music is clearly connected to the image from the Harmann Sketch. Here is the original piano version.
The musical aesthetic at work here is one of Realism. This is Mussorgsky portraying in music the details and image he has gotten from the sketch. That sounds simple, but is really a very important point in context. There are no sonata forms in “Pictures”, or fugues, or any sort of Germanic artistic value placed on balance and symmetry. This is Russian music, and for the Russian Realists at the time “true beauty resides in life and the primary purpose of art is to reproduce reality”. In his realism, Mussorgsky was also a true musical Populist of the Russian people. “Pictures” could have included any number of images from the large exhibition, but the ones he chose to use included peasant Fairy Tale images (Baba Yaga), and things that affected the peasant people. Images like a children’s plaything (Gnomus), disputes between children at play (Tuileries), the contrast of rich and poor persons (“Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuyle”), death (Catacombae), women quarreling in the market (Limoges le marche’), as well as our children dancing the “Ballet of the Unhatched” Chicks”. This is not Beethoven nor the generation of German Romantics portraying their individual expression of the artist as hero (themselves usually). This is Populist Modest portraying his Russian image of Russian people and lives, using the musical language and syntax of his native Russia in the form of folk music and phrasing/harmony derived from folk music.
Here is the same music, in our most familiar version orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (orch. Ravel)
In the previous post, I shared some of the different orchestrations of the original piano music. In addition to being orchestrated to over 20 different versions for orchestra, “Pictures” has been transcribed for all sorts of musical ensembles. Sometimes people have transcribed the entire collection of miniatures, and other times have picked only one or two pieces to mutate for their purposes. I have collected a selection here for us to sample our short ballet in different guises.
Here is the movement for woodwind quintet.
As a brass player, I have spent many hours in rehearsal and performance in concert bands. There are some good pieces of music written for concert band, and a lot of great and famous music that has been transcribed for concert band. One of the strange idiosyncrasies of my musical life is the large number of concert band performances I have played in, but rarely do I attend one. I have only a handful of recordings of wind bands and wind ensembles, and a virtual mountain of other music. Clearly, wind bands are more fun for me to play in than to listen to. Here is our ballet transcribed for concert band.
When I started writing last week about “Pictures at an Exhibition”, my old friend Mike contributed priceless information in the comments. Mike, as you remember, is a fellow composer and my musical brother from another mother. He pointed out that the English progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer had performed a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”. I confess I had never heard this version before last week. I’m beginning to realize I should listen to a bit more of the output of ELP, because I completely enjoyed their take on “Pictures”. Here is this complete album of their performance, with thanks, respect and gratitude to Mike for his insight. I wonder if Mike could have produced a version with his heavy metal band, Ugly But Proud? Well, I know he could have, if only there were enough hours in the day.