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Pictures at an Exhibition: Revealed

Canadian pianist Robert Silverman presents a theater performance at Brock University

On Wednesday March 17, at 7:30pm, Robert Silverman, dean of Canadian touring classical pianists, whose career spans more than five decades, presents a lecture/performance titled “Politics, Culture, the Nature of Genius and the Case of the Missing Oxcart.” The free event at the Sean O’Sullivan theatre in the Thistle Complex at Brock University in St. Catharine’s, Ontario features a performance of the original piano version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the mostly frequently performed classical music works in North America, that is, in the 1922 orchestration of the work by French composer Maurice Ravel. There are over a dozen other orchestral arrangements of the work, and in a memorable BPO concert back in the 1995, former BPO music director Max Valdez programmed a performance that included movements from several different versions. The original piano version by Mussorgsky has enjoyed nowhere near the overwhelming popularity of Ravel’s masterfully orchestrated version.

Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition, his best known composition for piano, in just six weeks. His friend, the architect and painter Viktor Hartmann, had died suddenly from an aneurysm at the age of 39, and in 1874 the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg mounted an exhibition of over 400 his drawings and watercolors Mussorgsky’s music uses a “promenade” theme to effectively link the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition. Many of Hartmann’s works from that exhibit are now lost, though several have been identified by researchers.

“I started learning the Pictures as a teen-ager,” Silverman told Artvoice, “but actually have only recently come back to it. I’m very much on the side of those who treat this piece as a very serious work of art, written by a composer who, most of the time, knew exactly what he wanted, rather than as a display piece that allows the pianist to throw in a lot of orchestral effects so as to make it sound like the Ravel orchestration.” Silverman, who taught for 30 years at the University of British Columbia, often speaks at his recitals, but, as he says, “I go out of my way to avoid sounding professorial.” He added that “showing the Hartmann drawings seemed to be a natural, and I have used artwork also in discussing Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage.”

While certain of the known works by Hartmann that have survived can be confidently cited as the pieces that inspired specific movements in Pictures at an Exhibition, others are more problematical. Silverman’s research has uncovered two more, and one of these is Bydlo (Cattle) more commonly known as the Ox-Cart, and, as Silverman observed, “It is not even mentioned in the exhibition’s catalogue. A letter Mussorgsky wrote to the curator seems to indicate the title is a code for a nasty Hartmann drawing depicting something quite different, so as to get the piece under the state censors’ radar.”

Silverman confronts the thorny problem of Mussorgsky’s anti-Semitism directly: “Russians idealized the biblical Hebrews with their almost invincible heroes,” he noted, “calling them ‘Yevrei,’ while concurrently dismissing as ‘Zhidy’ the Diaspora Jews they encountered on city streets, and especially the shtetl Jews they occasionally saw traveling on trains. Modeste Mussorgsky was as vitriolic an anti-Semite as ever cheered on a pogrom, yet a Mogen David hovers directly over his head on his gravestone. Furthermore, Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuyle, one of the most disturbing pieces in the cycle, is a far more graphical picture of two ‘Zhidy’ than anything Wagner ever came up with, yet it was none other than Mussorgsky who owned those two paintings.”

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