Listen Magazine Feature

A Portrait of the Artist

Pianist Paul Wyse repaints Pictures at an Exhibition.

By Robert Hillinck


PORTRAITURE, A SUBGENRE of still life, seeks to capture the world, depicting its subjects as they are. What’s more, these paintings — and the men and women who paint them — try to represent, in a finite number of brushstrokes, something meaningful about a living and breathing subject with a unique personality. This feat requires both dizzying technical command and impressive shows of both empathy and patience.

Music, though it requires similar technique and sensitivity, cannot hope for the same level of representational fidelity. Simply put, the most beautiful series of notes cannot represent people, or picture anything in the real world for that matter — they don’t signify anything other than themselves. This is not for lack of trying, however, and great art has certainly come about as a result. Take Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Op. 36 or Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, Op. 43: both have music intended to characterize, if not represent, the composers’ friends.Save


Mussorgsky was part of a group known as “The Five.” These prominent nineteenth-century composers were based in St. Petersburg and were intent on creating an inherently Russian style of classical music, as opposed to merely imitating Western European style. Viktor Hartmann was a prolific architect and painter who shared Mussorgsky’s desire to create great Russian art, and the two quickly became close friends. Following Hartmann’s sudden death in 1873, an exhibition of over four hundred of his sketches, stage designs and architectural studies was displayed in the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. Upon visiting the exhibit in honor of his late friend, Mussorgsky was so greatly moved that he immediately set upon composing a new work that would eventually be titled Pictures at an Exhibition.

‘It’s clear to me that Mussorgsky wanted a lot of things smeared or blurred — as much as you would in a painting.’

Nowhere in Mussorgsky’s ouevre is the characterization of his music better seen than in this masterwork for solo piano, which has become a showpiece for vitruosos and has been an iconic part of Russian culture for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

A musical portraitist in his own right, Wyse is both a classically trained pianist and a master painter whose portraits hang in distinguished collections across North America. Pictures at an Exhibition is the focus and title of his latest work, a one-of-a-kind piano for Steinway & Sons.

Taking over four years to create, the collaboration is the most recent example of Steinway & Sons commissioning art case pianos, many of which now reside in major museums and art collections around the world. Wyse re-created the original Hartmann paintings that inspired Mussorgsky to write the piece and painted them on the piano — reconstituting, in a sense, the eponymous exhibition.

Many of those paintings have been lost, however, prompting Wyse to pore over descriptive letters, and — more importantly — Mussorgsky’s score to imagine what the original might have looked like. “Having studied and played and been inspired by the music in a non-visual way, it’s interesting to reconstruct from a pianist’s imagination what these pictures might have looked like, what the mood was like, and how that picture might have been experienced. It translates very easily back into the picture. Mussorgsky’s music is very visual to begin with, so there’s a natural fluency back and forth between art and music that I felt very comfortable with.”

By using the music as a tool to access Hartmann’s paintings, Wyse believes he actually learned more about Mussorgsky. “Funnily it worked the other way, towards my better understanding of the music rather than the music being totally explicit about what I had to paint.” In particular, he’s convinced that Mussorgsky wanted more gestures in the music to be less exact, and that the technical clarity of contemporary piano playing is actually a great disservice to Pictures at an Exhibition. “It’s clear to me that Mussorgsky wanted a lot of things smeared or blurred — as much as you would in a painting. A lot of the rushes of notes that conservatory students practice to be clear and brilliant were meant to be smeared together the way you would blend colors together to create an effect. For some reason we’ve become so afraid of that in modern piano playing, that it might be messy or unclean.”

These realizations, and the wedding of Wyse’s experience as both a pianist and a painter have caused him to totally reevaluate his approach to Mussorgsky. “The way I play the piece now has changed quite a bit from how I used to before this project. I’m not afraid to create an echo effect with the pedal or to use a scale as a kind of streak in the music as opposed to a series of pearled notes. When I work in paint, areas of blur are an intrinsic part of the character, and approaching Mussorgsky from that artistic standpoint has brought me to the conviction that the music was intended to be that way, too.”

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.


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