Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky received musical training as a child but made his livelihood as a civil servant in Russian government circles until his dismissal in 1867 due to alcoholism. As one of a group of prominent nineteenth-century Russian composers known as “The Five” who endeavored to create music with a unique Russian musical identity, Mussorgsky used Russian history or folklore as inspiration for much of his music.

Mussorgsky’s most important piano composition is Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), a brilliant and bold suite of ten character pieces (short pieces which express one mood or idea) inspired by a memorial exhibition of paintings and drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann. Mussorgsky evokes the mood, scene, thought, or emotion of each painting with a simple ternary form (ABA). In the suite Mussorgsky achieves mystery, frenzy, humor, and grandeur with his strikingly original and somewhat exotic melodies.

Using a folk-style melody in the Promenade, Mussorgsky depicts himself entering the exhibition and walking through the gallery to the first exhibit. It features shifting time signatures throughout, depicting the dawdling, irregular way a visitor to an exhibition might walk around. Throughout the suite and in the final movement the promenade theme is repeated, but further and further apart, representing a viewer who is being drawn into the works and becoming lost in thought.

Hartmann’s design sketch of a toy nutcracker shaped like “a little gnome walking awkwardly on deformed legs” was the inspiration for Gnomus, a piece in 3/4 with frequent accents and irregular phrase structure.

Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle), based on Hartmann’s painting of a troubadour singing in front of a castle, has a medieval feel created by the sustained bass note that runs through the piece, a Russian “song without words.”

Mussorgsky musically added children chattering, playing, and quarrelling in the Tuileries garden in France (Dispute d’enfants après jeux—Dispute among children after play). Frequent falling thirds mimic the cries and taunts of the children and the figuration creates a playful atmosphere.

Thick, ponderous bass chords and an angular folk-like melody represent the plodding of the Polish oxen as they pull a cart with enormous wheels through the mud in Bydlo.

Hartmann’s costume design sketches for the ballet Trilbi provided the inspiration for Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, a short playful scherzo in the treble range with rapid chords and dissonant grace notes. Percussive treble sounds represent the chicks tapping to break their shells.

Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle are two separate pencil drawings, given as gifts from Hartmann to Mussorgsky. Samuel Goldenberg, probably large, well-dressed, and rich, is represented by the pompous long-phrased melody in the bass while Schmuÿle is represented by a piercing, troubled-sounding melody in the treble with repeated rapid staccato, making him appear to be thin and poor.

Limoges le marché represents a bustling marketplace in Limoges. In the original score, Mussorgsky noted some imaginary calls and shouts between tradespeople.

Hartmann pictured himself by the light of a lantern in the subterranean Catacombae sepulchrum Romanum of Paris surrounded by piles of human skulls. Long sustained chords produce an eerie sonority in Mussorgsky’s picture.

Con mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language) is Mussorgsky’s reflection on death. He wrote in the margin of the score: “The creative genius of the late Hartman leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow with a soft luminousness from within.”

Baba Yaga, the witch of death in Russian mythology, ate human bones and lived in La Cabane sur des pattes de poule (The Hut on Hen’s Legs). Hartman painted a design for an elaborately carved clock based on the hut. Mussorgsky created a dark, spooky movement with tonal ambiguity.

Hartmann drew sketches for a planned, but never built, monumental gate for Tsar Alexander II. In La Porte des Bohatyrs de Kiev (The Knight’s Gate in the Ancient Capital of Kiev) the music begins with big, long chords which musically depict the grandness of the gate and the many people walking through it. The ending is victorious with priests chanting a Russian Orthodox hymn and church bells pealing the Promenade theme.

Orchestrations and arrangements of Mussorgsky’s original piano suite by other musicians and composers, including an orchestral transcription by Maurice Ravel, increased its popularity. Dirk Mommertz, pianist with the Fauré Quartett, created the arrangement on today’s program for piano quartet. “A chamber music ensemble is virtually predestined to present the entire spectrum of sound with piano and strings,” says Mommertz. Berlin Classics states, “The version for piano quartet brings to the work an unexpected palette of colors. The (pieces) are flexible, yet dense; more tangible than when played by a whole orchestra, yet none the less thrilling—works possessing unique soul and intense coloring, with as-yet-unheard facets and turns; works that exhibit great spans of upheaval and fading tranquility.”


Linda Russell, a member of Maine Music Teachers Association and an independent piano teacher, lives in Portland with her longtime spouse.

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