Pictures of an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky

The grand orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition began as a ten movement piano suite written in 1874 “in remembrance of Viktor Hartmann,” an architect and artist who happened to be a personal friend of Mussorgsky’s. They had met in 1862 and both shared a commitment to Russian nationalism.  The composer never considered orchestrating the piano score, which was left to many others to have a turn at it. He was quite content leaving the work simply as an “album series.”

His “album series” excited many future composers who saw irresistible potential and fodder for orchestral iterations and assorted arrangements. These included those of Lucien Cailliet, Leopold Stokowski, Mikhail Tushmalov, Henry Wood, Leo Funtek, Giuseppe Becce (a very truncated version). Walter Goehr, the pianist Leonid Leonardi, a chamber version by Chao Ching-Wen, a version for Brass Ensemble by Elgar Howarth, and an adaptation for classical guitar by Kazuhito Hamashita. Ten different composers were engaged to write one movement each by the Amadeus Orchestra of the UK which was first performed in 2012. Also, a version emerged by Peter Breiner for large orchestra in 2012. Leonard Slatkin took a turn at it with two compendium versions.

And the list is long for arrangements of different performing groups such as jazz orchestra, organ, pipe organ, metal bands, euphonium and tuba quartet, band, glass harp, punk-jazz band, and saxophone choir also exist, just to name a few.

After Hartmann’s sudden death at age 39, the critic Valadimir Stassov organized a memorial art exhibition in the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The exhibition feature 400 Hartmann drawings, costumes, architectural designs, sketches for ornamental house objects and watercolors.

Six weeks after visiting this tribute, Mussorgsky completed his own musical tour of the exhibition, and wrote to Vladimir Stassov, “My dear generalissimie, Hartmann is seething as Boris seethed…sounds and ideas hand in my head and I can barely manage to scribble them on paper…. The transitions are good on the Promenade…I want to work more quickly and reliably…. so far, I think it is well tuned.” Boris refers to the composer’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov, which he completed in 1869. The work bore the working title Hartmann and was later changed.

Vivid pictorialization and textural variety within the piano score caught the ear of Serge Koussevitsky, and he commissioned Maurice Ravel to create an orchestral version which was premiered at the Paris Opera on October 19, 1922. Acclaim was immediate, not only for the amazing musical spectacle, but also for the fabulous orchestration which Ravel produced.  For source, Ravel had relied on the edited piano score by Rimsky-Korsakov after the composer’s death.

Pictures at an Exhibition begins with a steadily moving Promenade (walking section) in which “Mussorgsky depicts himself roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at time sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” (Stassov) It is mainly slow because Mussorgsky weighed about 300 pounds.

We arrive first at The Gnome clumsily running with crooked legs” which is represented by a grotesque Nutcracker originally designed by Hartmann as a Christmas present for children. Note the sudden starts and stops as The Gnome flails about in his movements. A savage ending completes this section.

We move again via the Promenade, marked “moderato commodo assai e con delicatezza” to the watercolor  Il Vecchio Castello (The Old Castle), wherein we view a troubadour singing (sadly) to his beloved in front of the medieval building. The troubadour, who is unsuccessful in wooing his sweetheart, is represented by the doleful tones of alto saxophone. The music ends quietly with throbbing rhythms.

We re-enter the Promenade, marked “moderato non tanto, pesamente” leading to a picture of the beautiful Tuileries in Paris.  A tiny, tri-partite scherzo depicts children playing amid scolding nannies. The music moves lightly, quickly, full of sparkle and delight.

Bydlo depicts a huge Polish cart drawn by oxen. The heaviness of the cart and the oxen is presented via solo tuba and slowly moving orchestration thumping in 4/4 meter. The music quiets as the cart moves away at the close.

The Promenade resumes now marked “tranquillo before we arrive at the light- hearted Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells for which Hartmann had designed costumes featuring eggshells with bright yellow canary heads for the ballet The Elf of Argyle or Trillby.  Quick chirps unmistakably represent the energetic chicks who bounce happily amid winds and pizzicato strings.

The Ravel version omits the Promenade theme at this point. A dramatic introduction presents the section titled Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. (Per Stasov “Two Jews: rich and poor.”)  These two portraits were owned by Mussorgsky and had been loaned to the retrospective of Hartmann’s works.

Limoges-The Marketplace brings forth “French women quarrelling violently in the market.”

Catacombs, per Stasov, notes, “Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern.  There are two sections: Largo and Andante. Mussorgsky wrote in the score, “The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls glow softly from within.”

The Promenade theme re-emerges within the context of the Andante. The scary Hut on Fowl’s Legs referencing Baba-Yaga (a fearsome witch in Russian folklore who lives on the edge of a forest) is one of the most exciting elements within the musical “exhibition.” The hut has no windows or doors, and spins around in frightening behavior. For this section, Mussorgsky’s music begins Allegro con brioferoce before moving into an andante mosso section.  Stasov wrote, “Hartmann’s drawing depicted a clock in the form of Baba-Yaga’s hut.  Mussorgsky added the witch’s flight in the mortar.”  A coda leads to the final movement, The Great Gates of Kiev.

The final movement is marked maestoso con grandezza, based on the sketch which was Hartmann’s design for the city gates at Kiev, conceived “in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet.” It was inspired as a tribute to old Russia, a piece of heartfelt nationalism.  The music opens with an expansion of the opening promenade, includes a baptismal hymn from the Russian Orthodox faith, and moves steadily to an enormous climax and glorious tribute colored by tubular bells to Tsar Alexander II who had survived a nearly successful assassination.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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