Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative...The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder.While Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique is the paradigmatic example of this type of music, as this is a family oriented blog (and Berlioz's epic piece relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies of unrequited love), I focus this post on another example of program music which I have used in middle and elementary school curricula: Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed by Modest Mussorgsky as a memorial for his recently deceased artist/architect friend, Victor Hartmann who suddenly and prematurely died at the age of 39 (of an aneurysm). Mussorgsky was devastated by Hartmann's death and a mutual friend of theirs, Vladimir Stassov put a memorial exhibit together at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia, honoring Hartmann that included his drawings, watercolors, and Mussorgsky's music.
Mussorgsky's piece relates ten of the roughly four hundred pictures displayed at the exhibition and are linked by a recurring Promenade theme. The ten "pictures" include:
- Promenade - used to link the 'pictures' the regular pace and irregular meter helps relay the act of a meandering walk.
- Gnomus - The Gnome - believed to be based upon Hartmann's design for a Christmas tree nutcracker displaying large teeth, Mussorgsky's music depicts an impish gnome limping , pausing and lunging to the music
- Il vecchio castello - The Old Castle - based on a watercolor of an unidentified medieval tower with a minstrel and lute sketched outside its gates to help illustrate the scale and grandeur of the castle.
- Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play) - depicts a walk in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris where nurses brought children to play
- Bydlo - Polish for Cattle - depicts a Polish cart on enormous wheels drawn by laboring oxen.
- Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks - based on costume designs of a picturesque scene in the ballet "Triby." The ballet contains a scene of children dancing as chicks in their shells.
- Samual Goldenbert and Schmuyle - (Two Polish Jews) believed to be based upon two separate portraits - one richly dressed, the other in rags. The music portrays them deep in discussion with the rich man's theme overbearing and pompous, and the poor man's one of wheedling and whining.
- The Market at Limoges based on Hartmann's drawing of French women haggling and gossiping at the market.
- Catacombs - depicts Hartmann and two accomplices exploring the old Roman catacombs in Paris.
- Baba-Yaga's Hut on Hen's Legs - the witch Baba Yaga, a familiar character in Russian folklore had a hut in the woods that ran around on chicken legs. Victor Hartmann designed an ornate clock inthe shape of Baba Yaga's hut which was the inspiration for this section. Mussorgsky's music begins with the wild flight of the witch's hut which disappears into the forest and reappears later stalking in thin woods and then flyingoff.
- The Great Gate of Kiev - based on Hartmann's entry in a competition to design a great gate commemorating Tsar Alexander II's miraculous escape from an assassination attempt. Hartmann's design depicts city gates in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a slavonic helmet. His design won the competition but the plans were never completed due to lack of funds.
- Briefly introduce the story and history
- listen to the music - stopping at each segment to name the 'picture' upon which it was based,
- move to the music (march, fly, lumber, limp, work, run, play, etc.)
- draw our own renditions of the art (as suggested by the music),
- write our own stories/poems/comics for each of the musical segments and then
- (with older studetns) research Mussorgsky, Hartmann, Russian period art and literature, and search for Hartmann's remaining sketches.
- discuss the role and compositions of memorials
While most of Hartmann's work has been lost, damaged, or destroyed by time and neglect, here are some online resources that contain some sketches or resources you can use with your children/students:
Emerson Lake & Palmer's rendition of this work:
And a link for a classical guitar rendition:
One of my favorite transcriptions is Vladimir Horowitz's transcription for piano. Absolutely brilliant - it is amazing to hear the depth of sound he creates. Here is an excerpt:
Before closing, here is a list of suggested Program Music, and a few more of my favorites:
- PDQ Bach's 1712 Overture (also lends itself incredibly well to classroom inclusion and lots of smiles)
- Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (and An American in Paris)
- Smetana's Moldau (Vltava) - depicting the journey of the Bohemain river from its source to its merging with the Elbe
- Paul Dukas's The sorcerer's Apprentice - based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's ballad "Der Zauberlehrling" (and found in Disney's Fantasia)
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade
- Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Thanks for the visit. I hope you enjoyed this sojourn. Please leave your comments and I look forward to more visits!