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Commentary on "Pictures at an Exhibition"-Great Works Response
In 1873, Modest Mussorgsky's artist friend, Victor Hartmann, passed away. Mussorgsky was disappointed that Hartmann was never able to see his concept paintings of architecture come to life. Without a legacy in permanent stone, Hartmann was sure to be forgotten. To commemorate his friend, Mussorgsky wrote a suite of piano pieces inspired by several of Hartmann's works. Much of the original artwork has been lost, but "Pictures at an Exhibition" has endured to provide legacy for and interest in both artists.

Personally, I always appreciate when a composer introduces the main theme of a song right away. It gives me a concrete line to listen for and compare throughout the piece. Mussorgsky does just that. The first 13 notes played are the original statement of a simple, yet elegant theme. This theme is heard again countless times throughout. With the exception of two of the suites, the theme is used to signify the spectator traveling from one area of the exhibition to another.

In most cases, the promenade supplies a contrast to the movements before and after. The pictures presented at an exhibition affect the visitor, but do not dictate his existence. Accordingly, the promenade is often affected by the mood of the movement, but rarely continues the theme of the movement. Much as a man walking through a museum, the pace of the promenade changes in different rooms. A perfect example of this is the third promenade, between the painting of the castle and that of the gardens. As he leaves the castle, he walks tall and proud, but when he turns the corner and sees the beautiful garden, he pauses and asks what this is.

The ninth movement is built around a stretched version of the promenade theme, perhaps meant to symbolize the death of Mussorgsky's friend. Even though it is given its own title, it could be argued that this movement is actually a promenade. The rest of the suite has the promenade every one or two movements, and if the ninth movement is called a promenade, this pattern holds throughout the piece. It is as if the picture of the skulls in the "Catacombae" reminded the spectator of death, and the slow walk away is the spectator reminiscing about those loved ones that have passed on. This description is especially appropriate when considering that the title "Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" translates to "With the dead in a dead language."

The most descriptive movement in the suite is the sixth, entitled "Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor." In this movement, Mussorgsky describes a scene involving the two men depicted. The rich man enters first, with a grand flourish on the lower notes. This man is very proud, stately, standing tall and erect above his inferiors. Enter the poor man. His music is played timidly on the upper notes of the piano. The repetitive whiny trill depicts him going from person to person begging for a small crust of bread or perhaps a few coins.

As he approaches the rich man, he gains a touch of courage. He asks the rich man for alms and perhaps tries to use some poor man's craft to help himself to the other's wealth. The rich man insists that this beggar leave his presence, but the poor man is persistent. The scene is dominated by the rich man as the poor man either darts around him or openly pleads for his mercy. Suddenly, the commotion pauses. The poor man skulks off, disappointed, and the rich man prepares to continue on his way. The last chords show the rich man abruptly whisking around to exit, still proud and arrogant as before.

Throughout the suite, Mussorgsky does a magnificent job of describing to us the pictures of the exhibition. Some of the movements do not speak as much as the others, but overall, the feelings invoked by the various pictures are captured and presented in the form of a well-structured, timeless piece of music. uploaded Wed March 03 2004 at 9:22 AM
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