Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition Program Notes
Like other members of The Mighty Handful (Rimsky-Korsakoff, Borodin, et al), Modest Mussorgsky aimed to create a Russian musical sound. As a very young child, he’d been drawn to the piano, musically retelling his nanny’s Russian tales. In St. Petersburg, he met composers Cui and Balakirev, resigning his military commission to pursue composition. Aside from Pictures, Mussorgsky’s popular works include the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain (featured in Disney’s Fantasia) and the opera Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky composed this piano suite in memory of his friend, artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, who died unexpectedly of an aneurysm aged 39. Pictures is inspired by some of the more than 75 works shown at a Hartmann exhibition the next year, with several movements linked by a Promenade (walking) theme. Sadly, not all the pictures survived, and it’s not always clear which picture Mussorgsky describes. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned French composer Maurice Ravel’s orchestration, which remains the most popular of over thirty orchestrations.
A trumpet solo opens the first Promenade, in Russian Manner,dz as the viewer (possibly Mussorgsky) walks between pictures.
The sinister and mysterious Gnomus (gnome) is an arresting first artwork.
A more subdued Promenade, Dzwith delicacy, leads to –
An Old Castle, evoking ghostly nobility with a slow minor-key dance form a troubadour sings, and Ravel’s orchestration features an Alto saxophone solo. One wonders if Mussorgsky was familiar with Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 The Fall of the House of Usher, with its melancholy castle and dramatic end?
A Promenade, this time heavy, transforms the mood, into:
Tuileries. Capriciously, children play in the 17th Century Parisian garden. Chasing each other around statues and the garden’s circular pools, their laughter and songs are heard before they run away – as if called to dinner!
In Bydlo (cattle), an ox pulls a heavy cart into view before fading into the distance. Ravel created a famous solo for the tuba repertory.
A tranquil Promenade ends with hints of quiet but frenetic activity.
For The Ballet of the Chicks in their shells, Hartmann had sketched costumes, which, shaped like eggs, were probably challenging to dance in.
In Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyl, Mussorgsky depicts two paintings of Polish Jews, drawing on unfortunate stereotypes with what is nonetheless a great compositional style. Goldberg is imperious and unforgiving – maybe reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Shylock. The other is a pathetic, pleading figure. It is clear who, in Mussorgsky’s mind, has the last word!
In Limoges – The Market Place, Mussorgsky’s manuscript sketched the humorous dialog of gossiping market-goers: The Big News…runaway cow…new porcelain dentures… and Mr. De Panta-Pantaléons obtrusive nose, [which] remains as red as a pony!
The Roman Catacombs is Hartmann’s watercolor self-portrait, standing with two others in catacombs under Paris. Shadowy darkness is conveyed by ambiguous harmonies and sustained chords. The greatest detail in the painting is the neatly stacked pile of human skulls.
With the Dead in a Dead Language is a eulogic return of the Promenade theme, which seems to reach some kind of peace at the end. The B-major conclusion, and Ravel’s ascending harp chords, are reminiscent of the closing of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet (1872). If there is a programmatic arc to Mussorgsky’s memorial suite, it is strongest here: the next movement concerns time.
Hartmann’s sketch for a Baba Yaga clock, The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, is the inspiration for the penultimate movement: the terrifying children’s tales about a witch with a flying mortar-and-pestle, which she used to pulverize bones. Not only that, she lived in a house with giant chicken-legs! Mussorgsky makes use of dissonant intervals (the major seventh, and tritone, used in Russian folk music to signify a villain). The ferocious music even evokes the tic-tock of Hartmann’s clock. A central Andante is a brief respite before the chase is on again, before a sudden transformation:
The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann had submitted a design for a massive city gate to a competition. (It was in honor of the Czar’s lucky escape from his first assassination attempt, but was quietly shelved.) A grand structure, with bells and an onion dome, is evoked in Ravel’s orchestration by actual ringing bells. Its theme transforms itself into the Promenade melody. Twice, woodwinds quietly turn to fragments of the Russian Orthodox hymn As You are Baptized in Christ, before the thrilling conclusion, a grand rendition of the Promenade theme.
Born: March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died: March 28, 1881, Saint Petersburg, Russia