top of page

Program Notes: Pictures at an Exhibition

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Friday, November 22, 2019 at 8:00PM

Saturday, November 23, 2019 at 8:00PM

HINDEMITH Concert Music for Strings and Brass, op. 50

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, op. 10

MUSSORGSKY, orch. RAVEL Pictures at an Exhibition


composer Paul Hindemith photo
Paul Hindemith


Born November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany

Died December 28, 1963, Frankfurt, Germany

Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Op. 50

The title Concert Music has a characteristically Hindemithian ring, one that underscores the composer’s proclivity towards “objectivity.” Anyone else might have called the piece a symphony (and, indeed, it has been referred to as his “Boston Symphony” on rare occasions), but to Hindemith it was just “Concert Music,” much as his string of concertos with chamber orchestra in the 1920s had each been named Chamber Music and his concerto for piano left-hand was titled Piano Music with Orchestra. In fact, this is one of four pieces Hindemith called Concert Music, each for different forces and all clustered in the period 1926–30.

The Opus 50 Concert Music is divided into two parts. The First Part comprises two connected sections, of which the second section is notably brief; and the Second Part has three sections, of which the first and third stand as vaguely symmetrical fast sections bookending a slow center. The unusual instrumentation of strings and brass inspires Hindemith to set them often in textural opposition. So it is at the opening, where the brass play a stentorian, slow-moving melody, against which the strings announce vivacious, athletically leaping material, often in dotted rhythms. Balance can be a problem if the brass let loose at full throttle (their parts are marked fortissimo, after all), and so it is for good reason that the score asks that the strings be as numerous as possible. A neo-Baroque flavor sometimes shines through this movement, as if it were a latter-day concerto grosso fueled by counterpoint, but one that had outgrown the limits of that early genre. Then, too, the boldness of the brass writing may call to mind the sonic power of Bruckner, who in certain ways was an aesthetic ancestor of Hindemith’s. Suddenly the tempo slows—this is the second section—and the strings and brass reverse roles. Now it is the strings that sing the distended opening melody (violins, violas, and cellos in unison), against which the brasses intone accompanying chords. At the very end the brass unleash a golden phrase of potentially transcendent power, and the movement ends emphatically in C-sharp major, which was the key it had started in eight minutes earlier, even if it may not have crossed our minds very much in the meantime.

Part Two opens with three biting chords, after which the strings busy themselves with a fugato of scherzo character. A second theme draws out a more lyrical character from the strings. The tempo slows for the middle section, in which the strings play in elongated phrases; we might think of the entire second movement as a take on the classic scherzo-trio-scherzo idea. The strings establish a yearning, perhaps nostalgic character, but the brasses subvert this with more sinister suggestions. The quick tempo returns and with it a transformation of the scurrying fugato music. A coda wraps things up, beginning with a fanfare from the brasses and incorporating a few blue-note references that make us suspect Hindemith had been thumbing through Gershwin’s symphonic jazz compositions of the immediately preceding years.

First performance: April 3, 1931, Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra

First and most recent SLSO performance: October 2-3, 1970, Walter Susskind conducting

Scoring: 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, strings

Performance time: Approximately 17 minutes

Notes by James Keller.


Composer Sergei Prokofiev photo
Sergei Prokofiev


Born April 23, 1891, Sontsivka, Ukraine

Died March 5, 1953, Moscow, Russia

Piano Concerto No. 1

A Tragedy

In 1914 Prokofiev walked onto the stage of the St. Petersburg Conservatory for his final examination. He’d received a poor rating for composition but that didn’t bother him (he thought many of his classes were a complete waste of time). When it came to performance, however, he was determined to win a first on piano, the Rubinstein Prize no less.

He was convinced he could win if he played his own concerto. “While I might not be able to compete successfully in performance of a classical concerto,” he later wrote, “there was a chance that my own might impress the examiners by its novelty of technique; they simply would not be able to judge whether I was playing it well or not! On the other hand, even if I did not win, the defeat would be less mortifying since no one would know whether I lost because the concerto was bad or because my performance was faulty.”

Prokofiev had already written two piano concertos. He chose the First, claiming that “the Second would have sounded too outlandish within the Conservatory walls.” Even so, the First created a stir of its own. The examiners refused his choice, then conceded on condition that Prokofiev provide copies of the piano score. With the assistance of the publisher Jurgenson, that condition was met. “When I came out on the stage,” wrote Prokofiev, “the first thing I saw was my concerto spread out on 20 laps—an unforgettable sight for a composer who has just begun to appear in print!”

After a dazzling performance and a long and stormy adjudication session, Prokofiev won, although Glazunov, chairman of the examiners, “flatly refused to announce the results of the voting, which, he declared, encouraged a ‘harmful trend’.” In the end he read the results in a flat, toneless mumble. But the harm was already done, although not as Glazunov imagined: Prokofiev-the-pianist was soon to surrender to Prokofiev-the-composer, equally authoritative and virtuosic.

The critical response to the concerto ranged from admiration for its stylistic novelty and energetic rhythms to claims that it sounded “like a lot of lunatics racing about.” Yet for all its youthful energy, this concerto by a 20-year-old shows remarkable maturity in style and structure.

Like his First Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto began life as a single-movement concertino. On the surface it appears that Prokofiev adopted the traditional three-movement concerto structure (fast—slow—fast) as the music metamorphosed into something much longer. Closer listening, however, reveals that his conception of a single-movement work was retained. The final effect was achieved by layering the characteristic tempo changes of a multi-movement concerto over a larger sonata-form structure that underpins the whole piece.

The concerto indulges in mercurial shifts of mood and tempo, from the opening grandeur of the Allegro brioso to its perky second theme and the nostalgia of the Andante assai. The glue holding it together is the exultant main theme that begins the concerto: soloist and orchestra plunging in together with just the barest of preliminaries—three accented chords.

The solo writing features all the gestures of which Prokofiev-the-pianist was so fond: massive chordal effects, wide, angular leaps, relentless octave passages and rapid legato runs. But the concerto is no mere bravura showpiece. Its sophistication can be heard not just in Prokofiev’s grasp of structure and his clever balancing of piano and orchestra but in the clearly recognizable stylistic gestures that mark the language of Prokofiev-the-composer. (Even in this early work Prokofiev was already building his style on several “basic lines” that he himself identified: a classical approach to structure, piquant harmonies searching for expressive effect, rhythmic momentum, and a reflective lyricism based on an unerring melodic instinct.) Prokofiev considered the concerto his “first more or less mature composition as regards conception and fulfilment.” At the same time the concerto retains its aura of youthful genius, and as Prokofiev-the-pianist proved in 1914, its high spirits, energy and compelling charm are truly winning.

First performance: July 25, 1912, in Moscow, Konstantin Saradzhev conducting with

the composer as soloist

First SLSO performance: November 11, 1961, Edouard van Remoortel conducting with

Walter Hautzig as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: November 24, 1991, Leonard Slatkin conducting with Emanuel Ax as soloist

Scoring: solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, strings

Performance time: Approximately 16 minutes

Notes by Yvonne Frindle.


Composer Modest Mussorgsky and Composer Maurice Ravel
Modest Mussorgsky (L) and Maurice Ravel (R)


Born March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia

Died March 28, 1881, Saint Petersburg, Russia


Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France

Died December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is piano music, but it has inspired more orchestrations and arrangements than possibly any other piece of music. And it was one of these—Ravel’s brilliant and sophisticated orchestration from 1922—that brought this remarkable music to widespread public attention decades before it entered the piano recital repertoire courtesy of champions Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter.

Mussorgsky never intended to orchestrate Pictures at an Exhibition, and yet many musicians have felt that this vivid music called for orchestral colors. Among them have been conductors Henry Wood (who withdrew his 1915 effort after Ravel’s was published) and Leopold Stokowski, as well as Serge Koussevitzky, whose instructions to Ravel were that the orchestration be in the style of Rimsky-Korsakov, the one composer who, surprisingly, didn’t attempt the task.

Ravel didn’t have access to Mussorgsky’s original music from 1874—only the 1886 edition by Rimsky-Korsakov, compromised by misreadings and errors—but as best he could he aimed for fidelity to Mussorgsky’s style, sublimating his own. It’s no accident that his orchestration was praised for not sounding like his ballet Daphnis. Similarly, and despite Koussevitzky’s instructions, Ravel avoided the showy and exotic glamour heard in Scheherazade.

The exhibition of the title was a memorial in honor of Mussorgsky’s friend, the architect and artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died in 1873, at the age of 39. As an architect he was notoriously bad at constructing “ordinary, everyday things” but, given palaces or “fantastic” structures, his artist’s imagination was capable of astonishing creativity.

From hundreds of drawings, watercolors and designs, Mussorgsky chose ten—some of them showcasing Hartmann’s imagination, others reflecting his travels. His music places the listener at the exhibition itself, promenading from picture to picture in “Russian style” with a lopsided alternation of five- and six-beat groupings. (Mussorgsky said his own profile could be seen in these Promenades.) Then, pausing before each artwork, he takes us into its world.

Many of the gestures in Ravel’s orchestration have become so intimately associated with Mussorgsky’s music that their genius seems inevitable. The first picture, Gnomus (Gnome), was really a caricature—a design for a nutcracker—and Ravel’s colors are grotesque and menacing, featuring the eerie effect of the strings sliding to flute-like harmonics. The Old Castle depicted a medieval castle, with a solitary troubadour included for scale. Mussorgsky places the castle in Italy with a lilting siciliano rhythm but the melody has a mournful Russian character. Ravel, memorably, gives the minstrel a (Belgian-French) saxophone!

The Tuileries painting depicted a group of shrieking children in the palace gardens. Mussorgsky was fond of children (as was Ravel!) and his music captures perfectly the shapes of their speech. Curiously, though, these Parisian children seem to be calling for their nanny in Russian: “Nianya! Nianya!” Ravel’s pristine orchestration features flute, oboe, and clarinets.

In Bydło (Oxen), through no fault of his own, Ravel departed from Mussorgsky’s original, which begins with heavy, thundering chords in the bass register of the piano. What we hear instead is a slow crescendo, emerging from the muted sound of bassoons, tuba, cellos and basses: an ingenious representation of the approach and passing of a Polish ox-drawn wagon.

The design that inspired Mussorgsky’s imaginary Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells survives: a whimsical egg costume. After the fourth and last Promenade, Ravel sets the scene with chirping flutes, fluttering violin trills, and the staccato tapping of chicks at their shells.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle is a pair of portraits depicting two Polish Jews—one rich, one poor. Mussorgsky probably named them himself (the Germanicised “Samuel” for the wealthy Goldenberg and its Yiddish equivalent “Schmuÿle”) and he unites them in a timeless narrative—the poor man begging from a rich one. Goldenberg appears first—assertive and powerful—with (in Ravel’s orchestration) full strings. Then, in a stroke of genius to match the earlier use of the saxophone, Ravel casts a stuttering trumpet as Schmuÿle.

At The Market at Limoges gossip is the primary currency: “Important news,” began Mussorgsky’s scenario, “Monsieur de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow, Fugitive…” A neighbor’s new dentures and another’s bulbous red nose are equally fascinating in this racing and brilliantly colored miniature.

Another surviving painting shows Hartmann himself looking at the Paris catacombs by lanternlight, the inspiration for Catacombs (Sepulchrum romanum) and Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language). Cue gloomy brass sounds. Then, writes Mussorgsky alongside his dodgy Latin, “The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls and invokes them: the skulls begin to glow faintly.” The introspective mood is sustained with an evocation of the Promenade theme in a minor key, which Ravel gives to the oboes and mournful English horn against shivering high strings.

The final pair of pictures brings the music to a climax. Both images reveal Hartmann’s gift for grand and fantastic conceptions: the table clock in the form of Baba Yaga’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs and a competition entry for a city gate with a cupola in the form of a Slavonic helmet. Unlike Western witches, Baba Yaga travels in a mortar propelled by a pestle—her broomstick is for sweeping over her tracks. Mussorgsky portrays Baba Yaga’s ride as much as her dwelling place with this terrifying and inexorable music (and, marked at one bar of music per second, clocklike as well!).

Mussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev conveys an “old heroic Russia” with a Russian Orthodox chant (“As you are baptized in Christ”), which Ravel gives to a choir of clarinets and bassoons in imitation of Russian reed organs. This is interrupted by a characteristically Russian peal of bells, which Ravel gives to everyone except the tubular bells and glockenspiel—these are held in reserve for the Promenade theme as it rings out one last time.

First performance: October 19, 1922, in Paris, Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Paris Opera

First SLSO performance: October 31, 1930, Fernández Arbós conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: April 16, 2016, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, ratchet, snare drum, cymbal, tam tam, triangle, whip, xylophone, 2 harps, celesta, strings

Performance time: Approximately 35 minutes

Notes by Yvonne Frindle.


bottom of page