On This Day (March 26)…ELP Takes Us To an Exhibition

We’re gonna give you “Pictures at an Exhibition!”

Keith Emerson, opening words of Pictures at an Exhibition

Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed at Newcastle City Hall on this day in 1971.

Retrieved from here.

ELP’s interpretation and performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s classic tone poem on this night was later released as their album Pictures at an Exhibition. This was their first live album, not to mention only their third album overall.

Cover of the album. Retrieved from here.

The original work by Mussorgsky was a song cycle for solo piano paying homage to an art exhibition composed the works of his friend, Viktor Hartmann, who died suddenly in 1873. The exhibition was put together in Hartmann’s honor the next spring, and the piece was written after Mussorgsky visited it. However, it was not published until Mussorgsky’s death.

The piece became extremely popular, especially after orchestrations were created and performed. Keith Emerson himself first heard the piece in orchestrated form; reportedly, after the concert, he rushed to find the score so that he could adapt it for piano—completely unaware that that was its original form!

Viktor Hartmann’s The Hut on Hen’s Legs. This inspired a movement of the piece. Retrieved from here.

Despite having the same name, the piece deviates significantly from Mussorgsky’s original work. One big difference, obviously, is an addition of a sparse lyrical cycle by Greg Lake, who sang over four of the eleven listed movements of the piece. As usual for this period in Lake’s writing, huge concepts were discussed in a very short time, in this case time, fate, and the nature of life and death.

The second major difference is within the music itself. As with many of ELP’s adaptations of other works, this adaptation takes significant liberties with the original. For instance, Mussorgsky’s work features five Promenades performed in four different keys. ELP only performed three promenades in a single key (B-flat Major). In the 90s when they revisited and re-recorded an abridged version of the piece piece, however, one promenade was modulated down. This was the second one, which Greg Lake sang over.

The pictures themselves are different as well. Mussorgsky’s work focuses on ten paintings by Hartmann. ELP adapted only three paintings themselves in more-or-less original form: “The Gnome”, “The Hut on Hen’s Legs”/“The Hut of Baba Yaga”, and “The Great Gates of Kiev”. One other piece, “The Old Castle”, was completely different in the original piece and the ELP adaptation despite having similar titles. Greg Lake’s ballad, “The Sage”, sounds more like the original version of “The Old Castle” than does ELP’s version. I have yet to figure out why ELP’s movement was titled the same way. ELP’s take also included a Blues Variation. While there is no way of knowing what Modest Mussorgsky would think of this new version of his piece, I like to think that he’d salute a trio of fellow musical radicals who thought as little of the rules of music of any genre as he himself did.

As a point of interest, thanks to the pipe organ interpretation of the first “Promenade”, all three of ELP’s albums to this date featured pipe organ on a piece! This makes the group a likely source of inspiration to ELP’s fellow prog rock titans, the band Yes; they included a pipe organ interlude in “Close to the Edge” inspired by hearing organ on another rock album at the time. Trilogy would be the first album not to include pipe organ in any form.

How about some more music?

Greg Lake before ELP’s take on “Nutrocker”, Pictures at an Exhibition

The recording also features ELP’s version of “Nutrocker”, an adaptation of a march from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker originally by B. Bumble and the Stingers. While nothing else was recorded, it sounds based on some recollections of people there that there was more music in between. This would have been during the band’s Tarkus Tour, during which they usually also played the title track of their forthcoming album, as well as “Take a Pebble”, “Rondo”, “Knife-Edge” and “The Barbarian”. Given there are very few field recordings from this first leg of the tour, however, there’s no way of saying for sure what went on beyond what is shared on the record.

I talk more about Newcastle City Hall, where the group performed, here.

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  • Edit on 2020-05-11: added information.
  • Edit on 2020-09-17: Optimized for new site

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