Mussorgsky’s Pictures

I’m always surprised that some still believe that Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition is the ‘original’ version. Mussorgsky’s original composition for piano was written 50 years before Ravel’s colorful orchestral score. In fact, there were three versions made for orchestra before Ravel was commissioned by Koussevitsky to orchestrate it for the Boston Symphony in 1922.

In 1977, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble recorded Elgar Howarth’s epic arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition for large brass ensemble. He used the same instrumentation as Gunther Schuller’s historic Symphony for Brass and Percussion (643.12 + 2 perc) with the thought that the two pieces would complement one another nicely in brass programs. If you’re going to hire that many cats to play one half of a program, you might as well find a way to use them for the whole program.

Howarth’s arrangement is masterful, and the chart and its performance by PJBE were groundbreaking. I also very much appreciate the fact that, especially early on, the prevailing dogma of Philip Jones and the record producers with whom he worked at ARGO was to essentially put up a couple of microphones in a good room and capture performances. Those early PJBE recordings were not spotless, but they were exciting and musical.

In the summer of 1978, inspired by Howarth’s version and very much wanting to play the piece, I decided to make a quintet version from the orchestral score (I wasn’t aware of the copyright law or of the provenance of the piece). I did work my way through the entire piece, by hand on Judy Green score paper and got it on the stands in front of some of my friends. Some of it worked, most of it didn’t. There are several brass quintet versions in circulation now, and I have heard it performed live and really well twice by really good quintets.

No, thank you. Too many notes, not enough color contrast realistically available in a quintet.

Getting asked to play 6th trumpet on Pictures is like getting the call to play tuba on the New World Symphony

If I have any quarrel with the Howarth version, it’s that it tends to be top heavy – juicy parts for the 1st and 2nd player in every section with diminishing returns for the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th player. The brass band informed arranging style tends to favor the first chair. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not the way I want to write. It’s also my impression that, once Gary decided to use this instrumentation, he was sometimes stuck for what to do with all those voices. I don’t mean that to be as critical as it sounds; I’ve often found myself in a quandary as to how to best use resources, and sometimes the ‘extra’ players are just going to be eye candy (well, at least the extra tuba player).

In the early 90’s, after gaining some experience writing for large brass ensemble, and wanting to make a more practical version, I started working on a version for double quintet working entirely from the piano score. I seem to recall finishing that project, but it never got played. After developing some Finale skills, I committed some of my work on the double quintet version to digital form and began revising it for 444.12 + 2 percussion.

Boulder Brass premiered the entire work in the spring of 1998 and played a portion of it again that summer on the opening concert of the International Trombone Festival in Boulder.

I had four main goals when writing a ‘new’ large brass ensemble version:

  1. To remain as faithful as possible to Mussorgsky’s original piano score.
  2. To find practical solutions for some of the more pianistic effects.
  3. To limit the influence of the Ravel version as much as possible.
  4. To make every player in the ensemble feel vested in the outcome.

Regarding the Ravel influence – Ravel was a genius. I admire his music very much and deeply appreciate the skill and craftsmanship he brought to his orchestration not only of his own music but the music of others. His orchestration of Pictures is a masterpiece and has certainly withstood the test of time. It is among the most recorded of all orchestral works.

You probably guessed there was a ‘but’ coming. Perhaps it is heresy to say so, but Pictures is not Ravel’s best work. I believe it was done quickly, relying heavily on Ravel’s innate skills and techniques readily at hand in his toolbox. It is very French (use of the saxophone and the french tuba in C); certainly not very Russian in the way the brass and woodwinds are scored and voiced.

Ravel also inexplicably omitted the 5th promenade which, as Howarth noted in his program notes, is structurally important to the entire work. What Howarth didn’t write in his program note (perhaps there was a space consideration) is why this is true. Most of the pictures in this particular exhibition are preceded by a version of the promenade theme. This includes a movement not titled as a promenade – Con mortuis in lingua mortua – which is an eerie, minor key version that precedes Baba Yaga and is followed by the grandest of all the versions of the promenade, The Great Gate of Kiev. The fifth promenade (which precedes The Market at Limoges) marks the halfway point in the entire exhibition. It also incorporates a neat segue from promenade to Limoges featuring a novel augmented ending of the promenade theme.

Next we’ll tear apart some of the pianistic effects.

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