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Pictures at an Exhibition

About the Work

Modeste Mussorgsky
Quick Look Composer: Modeste Mussorgsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonidas Kavakos, conductor & violin: Works by J.S. Bach, Mussorgsky, & Sibelius May 14 - 16, 2015
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Though the history of the Russian nation extends far back into the mists of time, the country's cultural life is of relatively recent origin. Russian interest in art, music and theater dates only from the time of Peter the Great (1672-1725), the powerful monarch who coaxed his country into the modern world by importing ideas, technology and skilled practitioners from western Europe. To fuel the nation's musical life, Peter, Catherine and their successors depended on a steady stream of well-compensated German, French and Italian artists who brought their latest tonal wares to the magnificent capital city of St. Petersburg. This tradition of imported music continued well into the 19th century: Berlioz, for example, enjoyed greater success in Russia than he did in his native France; Verdi composed La Forza del Destino on a commission from St. Petersburg, where it was first performed.

In the years around 1850, with the spirit of nationalism sweeping across Europe, several young Russian artists banded together to rid their art of foreign influences in order to establish a distinctive nationalist character for their works. Leading this movement was a group of composers known as "The Five," whose members included Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Among the allies that The Five found in other fields was the artist and architect Victor Hartmann, with whom Mussorgsky became close personal friends. Hartmann's premature death at 39 stunned the composer and the entire Russian artistic community. Vladimir Stassov, a noted critic and the journalistic champion of the Russian arts movement, organized a memorial exhibit of Hartmann's work in February 1874, and it was under the inspiration of that showing that Mussorgsky conceived his Pictures at an Exhibition.

At the time of the exhibit, Mussorgsky was engaged in preparations for the first public performance of his opera Boris Godunov and he was unable to devote any time to his Pictures until early summer. When he took up the piece in June, he worked with unaccustomed speed. "‘Hartmann' is bubbling over, just as Boris did," he wrote to a friend. "Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music-I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough." The movements mostly depict sketches, watercolors and architectural designs shown publicly at the Hartmann exhibit, though Mussorgsky based two or three sections on canvases that he had been shown privately by the artist before his death. The composer linked his sketches together with a musical "Promenade" in which he depicted his own rotund self shuffling-in an uneven meter-from one picture to the next. Though Mussorgsky was not given to much excitement over his own creations, he took special delight in this one. Especially in the masterful transcription for orchestra that Maurice Ravel did in 1922 for the Parisian concerts of conductor Serge Koussevitzky, it is a work of vivid impact to which listeners and performers alike can return with undiminished pleasure.

Promenade. According to Stassov, this recurring section depicts Mussorgsky "roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and, at times sadly, thinking of his friend."

The Gnome. Hartmann's drawing is for a fantastic wooden nutcracker representing a gnome who gives off savage shrieks while he waddles about on short, bandy legs.

The Old Castle. A troubadour (represented by the saxophone) sings a doleful lament before a foreboding, ruined ancient fortress.

Tuileries. Mussorgsky's subtitle is "Dispute of the Children after Play." Hartmann's picture shows a corner of the famous Parisian garden filled with nursemaids and their youthful charges.

Bydlo. Hartmann's picture depicts a rugged wagon drawn by oxen. The peasant driver sings a plaintive melody (solo tuba) heard first from afar, then close-by, before the cart passes away into the distance.

Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells. Hartmann's costume design for the 1871 fantasy ballet Trilby shows dancers enclosed in enormous egg shells, with only their arms, legs and heads protruding.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. The title was given to the music by Stassov. Mussorgsky originally called this movement "Two Jews: one rich, the other poor." It was inspired by a pair of pictures which Hartmann presented to the composer showing two residents of the Warsaw ghetto, one rich and pompous (a weighty unison for strings and winds), the other poor and complaining (muted trumpet). Mussorgsky based both themes on incantations he had heard on visits to Jewish synagogues.

Limoges, le marché (La grande nouvelle). A lively sketch of a bustling market, with animated conversations flying among the female vendors.

Catacombs. Cum mortuis in lingua mortua. Hartmann's drawing shows him being led by a guide with a lantern through cavernous underground tombs. The movement's second section, bearing a title which translates as "With the Dead in a Dead Language," is a mysterious transformation of the Promenade theme.

The Hut on Fowl's Legs. Hartmann's sketch is a design for an elaborate clock suggested by Baba-Yaga, the fearsome witch of Russian folklore who eats human bones she has ground into paste with her mortar and pestle. She also can fly through the air in her fantastic mortar, and Mussorgsky's music suggests a wild, midnight ride.

The Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky's grand conclusion to his suite was inspired by Hartmann's plan for a gateway for the city of Kiev in the massive old Russian style crowned with a cupola in the shape of a Slavic warrior's helmet. The majestic music suggests both the imposing bulk of the edifice (never built, incidentally) and a brilliant procession passing through its arches. The work ends with a heroic statement of the Promenade theme and a jubilant pealing of the great bells of the city.