Pictures at an Exhibition
for Chamber Orchestra
The Peaceable Kingdom 8’
Grand Canyon of the Colorado River 8’
Untitled (aka Black and blue on Terra Cotta) 8’20”
Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (aka The Gross Clinic) 5’25”
Fair Weather (aka Le Beau Temps) 8’50”
Road and Trees 9’
The Life Line 5’45”
When we think about music inspired by paintings, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Respighi’s Three Botticelli Pictures usually come to mind. Those composers created brilliant, colorful scores which largely depict the paintings themselves. Moussorgsky carries the gallery conceit further by adding promenade theme to represent the viewer walking through the exhibit. For his own Pictures at an Exhibition, composer Dirk Brossé has taken a different approach. Over many visits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brossé selected seven paintings which fired his imagination and inspired him look beyond the painting, and the music represents his own reactions to or reflections on the paintings. The paintings he selected are all by American artists, but span a wide range of periods and styles. Their diversity allows him to create a distinct musical language for each painting.
The works featured in Brossé selections are The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1826), Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross ‘The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins (1875), The Life Line by Winslow Homer (1884), The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River by Thomas Moran (1892), Fair Weather by Man Ray (1939), Untitled by Mark Rothko (1955), and Road and Trees by Edward Hopper (1962).
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Edward Hicks – The Peaceable Kingdom (1826)
Hicks was a commercial painter and Quaker preacher in Philadelphia who began painting pictures for personal expression and as gifts to family and friends. He painted some sixty versions of The Peaceable Kingdom, a popular Quaker metaphor, and depicts both the allegorical figures of a child and docile beasts, and William Penn negotiating a treaty with the native Lenni Lenape. Brossé imagines the difficulties of Penn and the Lenape, who were divided both culturally and linguistically, in coming to an accord. He represents the Lenape with a Native American-inspired melody played on reproductions of traditional instruments – the movement opens with Brossé playing a double flute – and the Englishmen with a jig, a dance tune of the common people. The orchestra members make encouraging sounds that might be understood in any language, and the two musical themes slowly come together as the two parties achieve a peaceful understanding.
Thomas Eakins – Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross “The Gross Clinic” (1875)
With its matter-of-fact realism in the depiction of a surgical incision, blood and nudity, The Gross Clinic caused something of a scandal when it was submitted to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and it was exiled to an Army hospital. Despite the outward calm, Brossé imagines undercurrents of tension and emotion – the anxiety of the woman who averts her face (the patient’s mother?), the nervousness of the surgeon’s assistants, the heightened awareness of Gross himself, who knows that any procedure might suddenly present unexpected complications (an insight provided by Brossé’s daughter, who is a surgeon herself). These become the rhythm of a heartbeat, which threads its way through a musical language that is Late Romantic, but with an ambiguous tonality.
Winslow Homer – The Life Line (1884)
This dramatic painting shows a woman being rescued from a foundering ship using a breeches buoy. This is essentially a life ring fitted with a harness and which is pulled along a rope suspended between ship and shore. Neither the ship from which she is being rescued nor the crew on shore pulling her to safety is seen; even the face of the man holding her is obscured. It is just the woman surrounded by the raging seas. Brossé tries to put himself into the mind of the woman. The music is dominated by the violence of the ocean, with the rhythm of the international distress signal, SOS, embedded in it. It is unclear if the woman is conscious or unconscious, alive or dead, but the final chords indicate that Brossé believes she has been saved.
Thomas Moran – The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River (1892)
It took a huge canvas – nearly 4½ by 8 feet – for Moran to do justice to the immense grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Brossé employs equally large gestures in a very cinematographic approach to this painting. Music soars as the stunning beauty of the landscape is revealed as if by a camera suspended over the canyons. The camera moves down, piercing the clouds and the mist over the waters and even the river itself. At the bottom of its descent, Brossé begins a hymn of praise in the low strings. This forms a cantus firmus (a fixed harmonic pattern) over which the melody is layered, and as the camera pulls back the music swells to a glorious conclusion.
Man Ray – Fair Weather (1939)
The painting presents a surrealistic dreamscape, but one which teeters on the edge of nightmare. It is dominated by the figure of Harlequin from the Commedia dell’Arte, but is otherwise filled with bizarre, incongruous images – trident-shaped trees, a math book, a pool table, mythical beasts fighting on the roof, lovers embracing in the shadows. Brossé sees humor in the painting, but tinged with tragedy – some of the images seem to presage the coming World War II. He gives each of the objects in the painting its own theme, and the music is informed by jazz and ragtime elements in which snatches of the Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise appear.
Mark Rothko – Untitled (1955)
Mark Rothko wrote extensively about the removing the distraction of representational objects from his paintings, and the use of large, flat, monochromatic shapes, and this abstract features a large irregular black square atop a smaller blue rectangle. Brossé has divided the orchestra into two ensembles to represent the black and blue shapes. Each produces its own sound cloud, with music that is unstructured and aleatoric (proceeding at the discretion of the individual players), but presenting discernable textures like brush strokes.
Edward Hopper – Road and Trees (1962)
Hopper’s painting features a dense forest, a deserted road and an empty field. It gave Brossé the sense of an unchanging landscape, such as you might see from the window of a train. The repetitive quality of the landscape suggested a minimalist approach to the music. The musical texture is introspective and meditative, almost mesmerizing.
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2(2nd also pic) 222 / 2200 / hp / timp + 1 percussion* / strings
native American percussion (frame drum, log drum, skin drum, water drum) – field drum – vibraslap – tam tam (also bowed) – glockenspiel – tambourine – snare drum – triangle –
suspended cymbal (also bowed) – crotales (also bowed) – 2 bongo – wind chimes – small drum set (rods) – bass drum – Indian temple bell – ratchet – temple blocks – cowbell –
Commissioned by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
World premiere by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, conducted by Dirk Brossé on May 14, 2010, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia
AVAILABLE SCORES & ORCHESTRAL MATERIALS
Available on a rental base form the composer
Live recording by The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia available
Works for Orchestra / Chamber Orchestra