Modest Mussorgsky-Maurice Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

Writing about music worries me. I have virtually no credentials as a musician or music journalist. My experience studying and producing music amounts to: one year of playing clarinet in sixth grade band, three years of choir in middle school, a semester of piano in college, two years of violin with my first daughter beginning at age 39 and one year of studying guitar with my second daughter in my late forties. Oh yes, I almost forgot-in high school I taught myself to play “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susannah!,” “Swanee River,” and the Polish national anthem on the harmonica. Truth be told, however, I have trouble naming the notes on the treble clef.

What’s more, I am scared to perform. That fear goes back to my sixth grade band experience and the clarinet. I got stuck with the clarinet, which was a hand-me-down from my sister who had played it in high school. I hated it for a very simple reason-I could not read music. Someone in my family decided I didn’t need private, lessons. “Oh, it’s an easy instrument,” I remember someone saying. “He’ll pick it up in band class.”

Needless to say, I didn’t. Band class became a daily humiliation as my classmates, many of whom did have private lessons, quickly outstripped me. I soon started inventing strategies to get out of playing-forgetting to bring my instrument to school or feigning a head or stomach ache. One particularly humiliating day, when I “forgot” my clarinet, my music teacher told me to substitute for the bass drum player who was out sick that day. The music started. I picked up the drumstick and started beating out a rhythm. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the march everyone else played. The teacher furiously tapped the podium with his baton and said:

“Kurt! What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. Following along?”

“Following along?” he asked. “Where? Look at the music.” I squinted at the page on the stand in front of me. It might have been a mess of dots and lines as far as I was concerned. Mark Balin, on the snare drum next to me, came to my rescue. He pointed to the bass line.

“See it?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, smiling and nodding at the teacher, who picked up the baton and gave the downbeat to start again. I think I was even worse and everyone laughed. Fortunately the teacher, who was a nice man, indicated I could return to my seat. It was degrading, sure, but oddly enough the trauma did not kill my appreciation for all music-just band music. Especially anything with horns, since they were always the best–and noisiest players.

What’s funny for me now, is that I didn’t realize until writing this piece to day that this incident resulted in my dislike for most brass and band music. Baroque trumpet concertos send me up the wall, and I usually walk the other way at Christmas time when some brass quintet sets up in the nearby shopping mall and butchers some sacred carol.

Freudian psychologists say that all you have to do is realize the true root of your neurosis and it will suddenly evaporate. To test that, I tried dusting off a few old disks that I heard in high school to see if the truth had, indeed, set me free. The piece I chose was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In high school this piece was “rediscovered” in a way when the rock group, Emerson, Lake and Palmer did a synthesizer-based version of the Pictures. Though it captivated hordes of screaming adolescents in the early 1970s, thankfully this piece has been allowed to die a quiet death.

While written for piano by the composer, the symphonic version that you hear now was actually orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, about forty years after Mussorgsky’s death. The orchestral piece starts out with a rousing brass section that represents the general impression the composer had walking into an exhibition of paintings by his friend, a little-remembered artist named Victor Hartmann. I am pleased to say that though sometimes a bit brooding, there are some quite memorable melodies in this piece. And though the opening phrase is much quoted, to the point of being a bit hackneyed, it still is good for rousing the spirits.

So my little test seems to have proved Freud correct. Mussorgsky has cured me. My fear of brass music, caused by childhood performance anxiety has all but evaporated. I’m a changed man. Still I have to tell you, I’m not going to push my luck, so I’ll leave the Canadian Brass for another day


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

One Response to Modest Mussorgsky-Maurice Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

  1. Pingback: Photo Card Place » Blog Archive » Pictures of maurice ravel

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