Thursday, November 02, 2006

Death in Pictures

As today is both All Soul's day and Thursday, I thought I would write about a different branch of mathematics called music. And joining these two topics calls to my mind the very famous "Pictures at an Exhibition" by Moussorgsky.

Moussorgsky wrote "Pictures" as a tribute to his friend Hartmann, an artist, expressing 10 of his paintings in music. Binding them together is the "Promenade" theme, which begins and is repeated throughout "Pictures", representing the nearly Chesterton-size Moussorgsky waddling around looking at Hartmann's works.

One of these pictures is the extremely poignant "Catacombae" and "Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua" which Moussorgsky translated as "with the dead in a dead tongue". Buried in the chords are the notes of the Promenade theme, slow and in a minor key.

As I ponder this fragment of musical death in its setting within the complete work, I recall that it was written for pianoforte - though it may be far better known in its orchestral version arranged by Maurice Ravel. There is another version which has its own striking character - the performance by the incomparable Keith Chapman on the wonderful Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia, using some 33,000 pipes, some as big as 32 feet in length, and the tower chimes with the 12-foot 600 pound "C".

And whether you listen to the organ version, or the Ravel orchestration, or the original performance on piano, you will find (if you listen carefully) that the promenade makes one last appearance.

In the final "picture", called "The Great Gate of Kiev" the musical character changes dramatically at a certain point. The grand triumphant march is hushed, and something of the feeling of the "Catacombae" is recalled as the chords surge back and forth in a restless incompleteness. But then - and how can words really express the music? - but then amid the surging chords comes shining the triumphant promenade theme again, shining like the sun as it did outside Jerusalem on a Sunday just after the full moon of spring so many years ago...
The members of some Eastern sect or secret society or other seemed to have made a scene somewhere; nobody could imagine why. The incident occurred once or twice again and began to arouse irritation out of proportion to its insignificance. It was not exactly what these provincials said; though of course it sounded queer enough. They seemed to be saying that God was dead and that they themselves had seen him die. This might be one of the many manias produced by the despair of the age; only they did not seem particularly despairing. They seem quite unnaturally joyful about it, and gave the reason that the death of God had allowed them to eat him and drink his blood. According to other accounts God was not exactly dead after all; there trailed through the bewildered imagination some sort of fantastic procession of the funeral of God, at which the sun turned black, but which ended with the dead omnipotence breaking out of the tomb and rising again like the sun.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:295-6]
Yes, I usually play "Pictures" on Holy Saturday, because it's fun to look forward to that musical sunrise.

So I think I will play it today too. Our God, you see, knows the way out of the grave. [see CW2:382]


  1. Where Moussorgsky interpreted paintings into his music, Stanton MacDonald Wright interpreted music into his paintings.

    He, along with Morgan Russell (or was is Russell Morgan?), in the early 1900s developed a color theory known as "synchromy; synchromism" in which colors where assigned to musical notes. He would then procede to paint in a particular "scale", using only certain colors that were within the scale. And each "scale" or set of "chords" would better evoke a particluar mood or emotion.

    One of my all-time favorite paintings is on display at the L.A. County Museum of Art ( If you go to their "on line collections" section and search his name you'll be able to see some of his work, including my fav - "Synchromy in Purple".

    I wonder is GKC ever made any analogies between art and music (or color and music)?

  2. Or, you could listen to the Mahler Second, ignoring the somewhat murky 'theology' of the text in the 4th movement, but getting the same general picture.


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