Part One. Ravel's "Pictures at an Exhibition": Why You Should Listen With Two Sets of Ears.

Updated on September 12, 2018
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four and is a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937

Photograph of Ravel in 1925.
Photograph of Ravel in 1925. | Source

Not Everyone Loves Ravel's Orchestration

Before I go on to describe the complexities and brilliance of Ravel's orchestration, I must tell you that there are those who would say the time he lavished on it was not well spent (the celebrated pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy being one of them).1

I have a foot in both camps. No, I'm not sitting on the fence, I have divided the original and Ravel's masterpiece (and it undoubtedly is) into two parties.

Born the year after Pictures At An Exhibition was completed, Ravel's musical style fell into the brackets of the more restrained neoclassicism of Le Tombeau de Couperin and the Sonatine for piano and the exotic brilliance favoured by Rimsky-Korsakov. It is with the latter that Ravel overlays Mussorgsky's most famous work. Ironically, its popularity was born out of Ravel's fêted orchestration.

Modest Mussorgsky 1839-1881

Mussorgsky in 1874, the year of Pictures At An Exhbition.
Mussorgsky in 1874, the year of Pictures At An Exhbition. | Source

Discovering Mussorgsky for Himself

The first time I heard Pictures at an Exhibition without any input from Ravel was actually not that long ago. I was astounded. This was not the work with which I was familiar! It was dark, brooding, melancholic. Simply put, it was not the same piece. Bowled over, I was never going to listen to the Ravel ever again with the same ears. I was literally on a critical path.

Now I think, this was Ravel superimposing his own will and style on a work he obviously had a great passion for, but he wasn't slavishly faithful to Mussorgsky's dark, intentions. But it is of great magnitude, in the hands of one of the world's best handler of idiomatic writing for instruments, of ultimate confidence and the most lavish textbook of orchestral scoring any budding composer or arranger can refer to. A How To Guide. Tasty morsels, illuminated under a microscope.

My job here is to overturn this state of affairs, to urge you to listen to authenticity. There are moments when the imagination of Ravel overshadows Mussorgsky's dark, at times murky and downright ugly intentions, and the misshapen keys are not evident. The trappings and immeasurable choice Ravel has dipped his many toes into have been too tempting to resist, and not always to the good, at the expense of the hard hitting yet compassionate Mussorgsky.

In some ways I'd like to un-Ravel Ravel, but to be honest if you can distinguish between Mussorgsky's own unique, at times primeval, piano solo with its sidestepping unconventional harmonic progressions and a transcription where Ravel, who I have no doubt loved the work, makes it more Ravel than Mussorgsky, then you can listen to it as a work in its own right.

But until you have listened to the Mussorgsky - the Mussorgsky minus Ravel - only then are you equipped and armed to make a judgement. If you only know Pictures At An Exhibition in its Ravel-orchestrated form then prepare to be astonished.

Ravel's Ideas Are Not Necessarily Mussorgsky's

So what are the reasons am I so ambivalent about one of the most famous orchestrations one composer has made of another's? Of course, I'm not going to go through it with a fine toothcomb, bar by bar, but signpost a few pointers. It's easy to be blinded by the Hollywood-style hype of glamour and excess Ravel delights in and think it's the definitive version. Strip it back. Read the book for yourself. Mussorgsky isn't the book of the film, it's the opposite way round.

There are sublime moments from Ravel and were he at the equivalent of the Oscars he'd be on the short list, and a very likely winner, but there is always going to be something missing, something not quite satisfying, but if you haven't bothered to read the book you'll come away thinking, 'This is marvellous! How can this be surpassed?' Oh, but it can.

The tragedy of it is that many classical music-loving listeners have never even heard the action packed original. For one thing It's not played that often on the concert platform, and fiendishly difficult to play, though nowadays it's brought out more than it used to. And so it should be.

Viktor Hartmann 1834-1873


Viktor Hartmann and His Paintings

In 1873, aged only 39, Viktor Hartmann, artist and friend of Mussorgsky, died suddenly. Mussorgsky was devastated, writing in a letter to the prominent critic Vladimir Stasov:

"My dear friend, what a terrible blow! “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life” – and creatures like Hartmann must die!" …2

An exhibition of Hartmann's work was arranged and it was after visiting the show that Mussorgsky wrote Pictures At An Exhibition for piano solo, using just ten of the pictures as inspiration.

Vladimir Stasov 1824-1906

Painting of Stassov by Ilya Repin
Painting of Stassov by Ilya Repin | Source

The Promenades of Pictures At An Exhibition

Unifying the whole work are the Promenades. Officially there are five of them. They are loose in terms of regular bar lines, diverging in terms of length, pitch, and mood, and varying in key.

The familiar opening Promenade strides into the exhibition by way of a purposeful major key, but two of them are more reflective turning to the introspective minor due to the effect they have on the viewer.

They are the internal pictures within the visitor, the connective tissue binding the work together in an arcing pattern. As integral unifying sections, there is a mirror effect with the substantial fifth Promenade at the heart of the work.

Mussorgsky Promenade I

Mussorgsky Promenade I

This is the walk of a determined individual, strides brimming with confidence, shoulders back looking straight ahead at the picture he has in his sights. The octave repetitions have a clarity of diction lost in Ravel.

Ravel Pictures Promenade I

Ravel Promenade I

Unfortunately Ravel's first Promenade has the distinct opening of some American film set on the prairie, the lone trumpet calling over the flat plain. The strings don't quite deliver the hard edge required, they're damped, woolly, a mattress that doesn't quite support the body, sagging in the middle, and covered with fitted polyester sheets that have endured countless cycles through the washing machine rather than freshly laundered crisp cotton hotel flats with sharp envelope corners.

Mussorgsky Gnomus

Mussorgsky Gnomus

By their very nature gnomes are devious, untrustworthy, on the dark side, here steeped in a swamp of E flat minor. At once here, then gone in a flash.

The push at the start, landing on the G flat, a G flat stab of wickedness, is of derision, planning the next cunning move. It's about disorientation and displacement, the grip on tonality tenuous. The gnome manipulates you into a corner where you'd rather not be, uncomfortable, trapped by way of angular jumps and sneaky augmented 4th intervals, mirrored later on in that other frightening character, Baba Yaga.

Although one's perception of a gnome may be of a heavy set creature, unwieldy, with a rocking gait, there are many types of gnome, and Mussorgsky's has enough agility to confound.

To hear Mussorgsky's Gnomus, play the video at 1.28.

Ravel Gnomus

Ravel Gnomus

My heart sinks when I hear the Ravel at the start of Gnomus, the basses lack the quickwittedness Mussorgsky calls for. Maybe if he'd chosen one bassoon and a solo double bass it might have worked, but a whole section of basses is too gallumping.

The strange glissandi from the strings is quite an inventive touch and, while it's not strictly in the piano part, it does lend a slippery-slidiness to the nature of the gnome. Nevertheless, overall I don't experience the creepiness and quiet stealth that a solo piano delivers, nor in the final bars, the quick flit as up a flight of stone steps, disappearing from view. Ravel's orchestra is carrying a weighty backpack running up a mountain on some army exercise.

To hear Ravel's Gnomus play the video at 2.58.

The rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer were inspired after hearing the orchestral version of Pictures At An Exhibition to write a version of their own using four of the paintings plus a new painting by Lake.

Mussorgsky's Autograph Score for the Beginning of Gnomus


Mussorgsky Promenade II

Mussorsky Promenade II

The Promenade has changed from the opening determined pace, quiet, inquisitive and whimsical, as the observer contemplates the next, inward looking picture.

To hear Mussorgsky's Promenade II click on the video at 3.43.

Ravel Promenade II

Ravel Promenade II

In this Promenade, I can happily accommodate Ravel, the slower, questioning pace, realised in softened pastoral tones.

To hear Ravel's Promenade II click on the video at 5.23.

Mussorgsky Il Vecchio Castello

Mussorgsky Il Vecchio Castello

Throughout the introverted ll Vecchio Castello is the unremitting G sharp ostinato rhythm dom-de-dom-de-dom-de-dom.

The tired washed out manner of the musical delivery, with its continual bell-tolling undertone suggests walking through a wasteland of broken stone and past glory, the ruination of what once was, of a great building left to crumble.

As the observer wanders round half standing walls and overgrown vegetation, they don't rage in protest at a glorious edifice which still might have been proudly standing - the dynamics rise only slightly - but is saddened by the strong reduced to ineffectiveness, a shell of the former self, the breaking off of the melody nearing the end symbolising the incomplete relic.

To hear Mussorgsky's Il Vecchio Castello click on the video at 4.35.

Ravel Il Vecchio Castello

Ravel Il Vecchio Castello

A saxophone leads with the tune, soft, like the strings that follow. All too often romanticism intervenes, an uninvited lushness and worse, the pointed ostinato bass is lost most of the time, as if the bare soil that should show through thin grass has been overgrown.

To hear Ravel's Il Vecchio Castello click o the video at 6.14.

Mussorgsky Promenade III

Mussorgsky Promenade III

Mussorgsky returns to the decisive articulation of the opening Promenade, notched up a semitone, the melodic ball palmed to and fro from right hand to left, the final bars forming the basis of the Tulleries to follow.

To hear Mussorgsky's Promenade III click on the video at 8.34.

Ravel Promenade III

“Life, wherever it reveals itself; truth, no matter how bitter; bold, sincere speech with people—these are my leaven, these are what I want, this is where I am afraid of missing the mark.”

― Modest Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky As Painter On the Keyboard

In Parts Two and Three we can admire how Mussorgsky hits the mark in Bydlo, getting inside the head of the peasant accompanying the oxcart, and how he creates the violent world of The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga) on the piano better than any orchestral version can conjure up.

Discover why his alcoholism aligned him with the Poor Jew and how Ravel's intuition and orchestral solutions fell short of piercing man's soul, preferring instrumental brilliance to the bottomless pit that is the human psyche. Click here to read on.


1 Portland Youth Philharmonic

2 Korshcmin

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Frances Metcalfe


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      • profile image

        Nancy Hinchliff 

        20 months ago

        Having been a music major in college and music teacher, I am very familiar with Ravel and with his Pictures at an Exhibition. I played it for my children, as well as The Mother Goose Suite, which they loved. My daughter called it " the Munner Goose Sweet".

        Your article is extremely comprehensive; I can tell you did your research. One suggestion: I think it would help readers who have little or no musical background or experience, if you could simplify your article's structure and focus on smaller increments of the story you are trying to tell.

      • Frances Metcalfe profile imageAUTHOR

        Frances Metcalfe 

        20 months ago from The Limousin, France

        Thank you Flourish. Hopefully everyone will be able to pick up the contrasts in the Ravel and Mussorgsky Pictures At An Exhibition - they come from different viewpoints.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image


        20 months ago from USA

        Following your guidance I can hear the contrast although I’m completely unfamiliar with the works.


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