Salon 1/11/15 – Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky

We’re back!  After a few weeks off for the holidays, our annual Handel’s Messiah salon (see previous blog posts for that write up!), and a guest presentation by Erehwon Yoshikawa on Power Pop, we are back with our traditional Salons!


Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky

Victor Hartmann was a close friend who shared Mussorgsky’s ideals in his own field of architecture and painting.

When Hartmann died in 1874, aged only 39, Mussorgsky was devastated. In abject bitterness, he wrote: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat live on and creatures like Hartmann must die?” But soon his incomprehension took a more constructive tack. The following year saw a memorial exhibit of 400 Hartmann works, including sketches, watercolors and costume designs. Mussorgsky was deeply moved. Seized with inspiration, he quickly reacted to the exhibition by writing a suite of ten piano pieces dedicated to the organizer.

The work opens with a brilliant touch – a “promenade” theme that reemerges throughout as a transition amid the changing moods of the various pictures. By alternating 6/4 and 5/4 time, its regular metric “walking” pace is thrown off-balance and cleverly suggests the hesitant gait of an art-lover strolling through a museum, attracted by upcoming pleasures but hesitant to leave the object at hand without a final glance at a telling detail.

The ten pictures Mussorgsky depicts (interspersed with the Promenade) are:

  1. Promenade
  2. The Gnome – a gnome-shaped nutcracker;
  3. Promenade
  4. The Old Castle – a troubadour plaintively singing outside an ancient castle;
  5. Promenade
  6. The Tuileries – children vigorously playing and quarrelling in a park;
  7. Bydlo – a lumbering wooden Polish ox-cart;
  8. Promenade
  9. Ballet of the Unhatced Chicks – a ballet of peeping chicks as they hatch from their shells;
  10. Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle – an argument between two Warsaw Jews, one haughty and vain, the other poor and garrulous;
  11. Limoges, the Market – shrill women and vendors in a crowded marketplace;
  12. Catacombae (sepulchrum romanum) &
  13. Con Mortuis in Lingua Mortua  –   the eerie, echoing gloom of catacombs beneath Paris;
  14.  The Hut on Fowl’s Legs – the hut of a grotesque bone-chomping witch of Russian folk-lore;
  15.  The Gate of Kiev – a design for an entrance gate to Kiev.


Mussorgsky clearly chose these subjects for the variety of moods they invoked and the opportunities they presented for a wide array of musical depictions.

Alcoholism and severe depression not only cut short Mussorgsky’s life but plagued his most creative years and prevented him from advocating his work, which succumbed to the dismissive attitude of the cultural gatekeepers. Fame came only after his early death at age 42, when well-meaning admirers indulgently undertook to edit his operas in order to correct what they perceived to be artistic flaws, lapses of inspiration and overall carelessness. Only in more recent times have the originals been revived to display their frank elemental power.

The Pictures at an Exhibition met a similar fate. The score remained unpublished until 1886, five years after Moussorgsky’s death. But then, almost immediately, an amazing phenomenon began – while the original version generated little interest among pianists, over two dozen composers were seized by a compulsion to orchestrate it.

By far the most famous was by Maurice Ravel. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky in 1922, his was a propitious choice – Ravel’s version strongly underlines the mood of each piece, from the woodwind chirping of the chicks through the reverberant, dark brass of the catacombs, the percussive terror of the witch and especially the blazing brass and pealing carillons of the finale. Koussevitzky was not only a great conductor but a wise businessman – his deal with Ravel included in five years of exclusive performance rights.




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