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Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks

November 4, 2018: Alessio Bax, piano

Vladimir Stasov, who championed everything “progressive” and “truly Russian” in all forms of art, held gatherings of painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers at his home, and it was probably there in 1870 that Musorgsky met the lively architect, designer, and painter Victor Alexandrovich Hartmann. The great friendship that sprang up was cut short, however, when three years later Hartmann died suddenly of an aneurism. It was the grief-stricken Musorgsky who informed Stasov in Vienna by an almost incoherent letter that paraphrased King Lear: “What a terrible blow! ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,’—and creatures like Hartmann must die!”

In Hartmann’s honor, Stasov organized a memorial exhibition for the spring of 1874 that featured not only watercolors and drawings, but architectural sketches and designs for jewelry, useful objects, stage sets, and costumes. The display inspired Musorgsky’s famous Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano piece that depicts ten works in the exhibition, with an eleventh recurring “picture,” Promenade, which portrays the composer himself walking through the gallery.

Uncharacteristically enthusiastic about his progress, Musorgsky completed the entire composition in a single burst of twenty days. He dedicated the work to Stasov, who penned a preface to the original edition that describes the artworks that Musorgsky depicted—essential, since many of the items disappeared after the exhibition was dismantled.

In its original piano version, Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition had been somewhat overlooked, but the work was immensely popularized by Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of 1922. That exposure rekindled interest in the piano original, which wonderfully documents Musorgsky’s belief in the elemental power of sheer inspiration, which for him took precedence over harmonic, structural, and pianistic convention.

Today we hear the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, which Stasov’s preface described as “Hartmann’s sketch of costumes for a picturesque scene in the ballet Trilby.” The exhibition catalog describes them as “canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor” with “heads put on like helmets.” Fortunately, this sketch still exists, but Musorgsky’s imagination led him further than costume sketches to depict a delightful pecking spree.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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