Pictures at an Exhibition

News 10 February 2022
James Mayhew

News Story

By James Mayhew

I have always loved the narrative potential of music, its ability to draw the listener in, and whisper in our ears… Once Upon a time. “Programmatic” music, tone poems, musical pictures - these are all different ways of telling a story in sound. As a child, my parents had just a few old records, and it was often the illustrated sleeves that attracted me first; I knew nothing about classical music. But I soon discovered a world of imagination and story. Through music like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, or Rossini’s William Tell overture, I was swept away to faraway places, and mythical realms.

I never imagined painting to music would become such an important part of my job. Mostly, I am illustrating and writing books for children, a solitary task that has served me well for over 30 years. But through music, I have discovered the joys of collaboration, of sharing the stage with brilliant musicians, and experiencing the excitement of interacting with an audience.

It all began when I published a collection of Russian stories, “Koshka’s Tales” loosely inspired by the music of Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov etc. Baba Yaga was in the book, so Mussorgsky’s Pictures were an influence too. I was invited by an orchestra to paint live to performances of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Stravinsky’s Firebird. I had to develop a whole new way of painting for the theatre: bolder, faster, and as silent as possible. By using gouache and inks, I created compositions quite unlike anything I’d ever done before, all projected onto a big screen. Since then I’ve collaborated with many other orchestras, ensembles, and even soloists. I’m constantly rethinking what I paint - however rehearsed I am, it always feels different on the day, with a different conductor or orchestra, a different venue. I am always hearing new things - nothing beats hearing this music live.

Through these concerts I have discovered all sorts of fascinating folk lore and myth, I’ve enjoyed music I’d never listened to before, and fallen in love with composers I’d thought I didn’t enjoy. But one work has remained central throughout: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Mussorgsky’s mighty masterpiece would be the perfect match for what I do. I had always wanted to be an artist, so it’s always a joy to reinterpret, as art, this extraordinary composition, which so brilliantly celebrates art through music. Although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve painted along to this score, I never tire of it. From the piano original, to the many different orchestrations, with Ravel’s great interpretation at the summit, this 30 minutes in a musical art gallery is always a wonderful escape. It is a challenge - oh, how I wish for a few more bars of The Market Place in Limogue - but this is dazzling, colourful music, and by the time we reach The Great Gate at Kiev, it just carries me, and my paintbrush, to the end.