Modest Mussorgsky ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’: A Grand Musical Illustration

Day M is upon us and what an absolute treat I have for you today readers. I have been asked on a few separate occasions now whether I will be doing Mahler today, but to comply with my rules I shall not be doing Mahler because as part of this challenge I am to look into new composers who I have not written about before. I shall, of course, in due time write more Mahler blogs so watch this space! Never fear though, I have an equally as exciting composer and work to discuss with you today and I am so sure that you’ll know parts of it and if not, that doesn’t matter, this is about the exploration of new works! Therefore, today’s M blog is on the Russian giant, Modest Mussorgsky! I shall be looking into the fantastic programmatic cycle of ten character pieces entitled, Pictures at an Exhibition. 

Modest Mussorgsky was born in 1839 in Karevo (south of Saint Petersburg). His family owned lots of land, which made them incredibly wealthy. His mother was a self-taught pianist, who began teaching him the piano at age 6. Mussorgsky thrived learning the piano, and he soon became incredibly proficient. Mussorgsky and his family moved into the heart of Saint Petersburg when he was 13 so that both Mussorgsky and his brother would renew the family tradition of military services. Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School of the Guards age 13. It has been documented that it was at this time that began Mussorgsky’s eventual path towards alcoholism (which he struggled with in abundance later in life). Music was still a large part of his life, and he still performed piano for the other cadets. In 1856 he graduated after studying German philosophy at the Cadet School.

The same year that he graduated, Mussorgsky met Alexander Borodin (another composing great). Both men served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg. Mussorgsky also crossed paths with another prolific Russian composer – Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who saw a lot of potential in Mussorgsky. Dargomyzhsky introduced Mussorgsky to Russian cultural life, as well as another prolific Russian composer, Mily Balakirev. With his help, Mussorgsky was able to learn and start composing works for other ensembles, instead of just for piano. Mussorgsky, under the watchful eye of Balakirev, devoted his life to music entirely. Around 1860, Mussorgsky suffered some sort of personal crisis, which little is known about, however, this seemed to affect his work for a period afterwards.

By about 1863, Mussorgsky had freed himself from the influences of Balakirev and he became a self-taught composer. He became very interested in artistic realism within his music, which enabled him to create a ‘true’ Russian sound. 1865 saw Mussorgsky take a downward spiral after the death of his mother, which is when he had his first run in with alcoholism. Two years later he completed the first orchestral version of his famous work, Night on Bald Mountain. However, Balakirev refused to conduct it, which led to it never being performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime. After his family lost half of their land, Mussorgsky became a civil servant in Saint Petersburg. The period following this is known as Mussorgsky’s ‘peak’ in his musical career. He composed his most successful opera Boris Godunov within this period. The reviews for this opera were very positive and this lead to the absolute peak of his career. At this point, Mussorgsky was in a group known as “The Five”, which included the composers: Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

After this peak came a noticeable decline in Mussorgsky’s life and works. ‘The Five’ began to disintegrate and he began suffering from fits due to his persistent alcoholism. Mussorgsky still had some creative output in the early-mid 1870’s, when he composed Sunless and Pictures at an Exhibition. Due to his ever-worsening addiction to alcohol and with the illnesses that came with the heavy drinking, Mussorgsky was dismissed from government service in 1880. Things got so bad that Mussorgsky had resorted to begging for money so he could live. In 1881 he suffered four seizures in rapid succession. He was put in hospital, which gave him a bed and food and drink while he recovered. A week after his 42nd birthday, however, Mussorgsky was dead. He was buried at the Tikhvin Cemetery (although after the reconstruction in 1937, his tomb now lay under a bus stop!).

Mussorgsky had a very troubled life, however his music was striking and relied on Russian music themes and romanticism. His music has inspired later composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. It is interesting that Mussorgsky’s work has claimed much more fame since his death, than it did within his lifetime.

Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874, and is perhaps Mussorgsky’s most popular and performed pieces in the modern-day. It was originally composed as a piano suite, however, the more famous and popular version is an arrangement for a full orchestra by Maurice Ravel. In my music discussion I shall be referring to the orchestral version (however, I shall add a link to a video with the piano version). This programmatic cycle was written as a dedication to Viktor Hartmann, who was a Russian artist and architect and friend of Mussorgsky. He suddenly died in 1873, which affected Mussorgsky quite severely. His death affected many people within Russia’s art world, and they organised an exhibition of Hartmann’s work, which Mussorgsky contributed some personal works to. Seeing Hartmann’s works and becoming inspired, Mussorgsky wrote Pictures at an Exhibition in June 1874 (which is pretty incredible!). So therefore the music depicts a tour of an art collection – namely works from Hartmann. Mussorgsky based the music on drawings and watercolours that Hartmann had produced on his travels abroad. Countries such as Poland and Italy are among the many that Hartmann visited. Sadly, most of the pictures from that Hartmann exhibition have been lost, which makes it increasingly difficult to pinpoint which works Mussorgsky had in mind whilst composing. Mussorgsky has linked the suite’s movements so that it replicates a viewer’s progress through an art exhibition.

The cycle has 10 movements (plus short interludes) which are played in succession with no breaks. I shall list below the movements as they are heard, with the influences from other countries bracketed:

Promenade (I) (French)

I. Gnomus (Latin)

Promenade (II)

II. Il Vecchio Castello (Italian) 

Promenade (III)

III. Tuileries (based on  Dispute d’enfants aprés jeux) (French)

IV. Bydlo (Russian)

Promenade (IV)

V. Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells (Russian)

VI. Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuyle (Yiddish)

Promenade (V)

VII. Limoges. Le marché (based on Lad grande nouvelle) (French)

VIII. Catacombae (based on sepulcrum Romanum) (Latin)

IX. The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs (based on Baba-Yaga) (Russian)

X. The Bogatyr Gate in the Capital City of Kiev (Russian)

The relationship between the names of the movements and the musical content is intriguing as some do not seem to add up. For instance, the Promenade movements use the French title, even though the music is distinctly in a Russian folkloristic style. On the other hand, some choices of titles fit perfectly with the themes, which can be seen in the movement entitled Gnomus. The choice to use Latin here correlates with the emphasis on the supernatural and mysterious character within this movement. Upon further inspection, Pictures at an Exhibition has been purposefully arranged to run in a certain order. There seem to be four main procedures that Mussorgsky used to organise the cycle and these are as follows:

I. The organisation of the pictures into categories in accordance to their programmatic content.

II. Identifying and unifying themes between the Pictures

III. Using a transitional piece (Promenade)

IV. Alternating each Picture by contrast (fast/slow, loud/quiet, joyful/dramatic)

It has been suggested that the first half of the cycle acts as a mirror image of the second half. Thus, the Pictures are essentially paired by their programmatic content. The ideas and themes of fantastic characters and creatures and mysterious pieces are lined up and given a respective ‘answer’ or ‘partner’ within the second half of the cycle. However, the Picture entitled, Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells is the only piece that does not have a partnering movement, it is alone in the centre of the cycle. So this would be the pairing as follows (using the English translations):

Promenade – Russian Piece – X. The Great Gate of Kiev

I. The Gnome – Fantastic Character – IX. The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs

II. The Old Castle – Mystical Piece – VIII. The Catacombs

III. The Tuileries – French everyday life – VII. The Market Place in Limoges

IV. Cattle – Tragedy of the Poor – VI. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (Two Polish Jews)

V. Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells – Joke

Additionally, the specific key relationships between the pieces could be seen as unifying the cycle. For example the first Promenade is in Bb major and the final movement The Great Gate of Kiev is in Eb major, which is the dominant key. However, the cycle does not always comply with this idea of unification, and a lot of the time it is quite unpredictable. Below is a breakdown of the different tonalities of the movements:

Promenade (I) – Bb major

I. The Gnome – Eb minor

II. The Old Castle – Ab major

Promenade (II) – B major

III. Tuileries – B major

IV. Cattle – G# minor

Promenade (IV) – D minor

V. Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells – F major

VI. Two Polish Jews – Bb minor

Promenade (V) – Bb major

VII. The Market Place in Limoges – Eb major

VIII. The Catacombs – B minor

IX. The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs – C major

X. The Great Gate of Kiev – Eb major

To move around to a lot of these keys Mussorgsky has used a singular movement, Promenade to lead us into the next movement. The use of the Promenade movements creates a symmetrical effect between the Promenades and the Pictures. The appearance of the Promenades seem to be again constructed in a certain way. To begin with, only one Picture comes between the Promenades (so movements I, II and III). The scheme changes slightly and two Pictures are heard before another Promenade. Next the Promenade becomes a part of the Picture (VIII. The Catacombs). Movement IX (The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs) is the longest movement of them all, which holds back the promenade. Finally, in the last movement of the cycle, The Great Gate of Kiev incorporates the Promenade within the Picture and thus unifying the cycle. Therefore, the Promenade is used as a unification and tool that is essentially at the heart of the construction.

Each Promenade has its own characteristic within the cycle, whether it involves length, key, dynamic or emotional expression. Promenades I and V are nearly identical as they share the same key and both have similar chordal textures. Below I have outlined the different characteristics of each Promenade:

Promenade I – Bb major, steady tempo, mid-range dynamic

Promenade II – Ab major, serene in effect, quiet in dynamic

Promenade III – B major, very short in length, loud in dynamic, enthusiastic in mood

Promenade IV – D minor, sad in mood, quiet in dynamic

Promenade V – Bb major, steady tempo, loud in dynamic (very grand)

It has been suggested that Mussorgsky purposefully wrote the odd number Promenades as energetic, major interludes and the even numbers as quiet and slow in contrast. Contrasts is a theme that seems to run through the whole of Pictures at an Exhibition as Mussorgsky has also written the odd number Pictures in faster tempos, whereas the even number Pictures are in slower tempos. It is definitely something to listen out for when you take a listen to the cycle!

I am going to conduct the music part of this blog slightly differently to normal. I’m not going to give you a step-by-step guide on the music, but instead I will explain the key features of the movements and the ideas behind theme. I feel that this cycle is to be interpreted by you first and foremost, and I do not want to make things any more complicated than they already are with this cycle. So now onto the music!

Promenade I

This opening Promenade is perhaps the most famous out of the whole cycle. Its melody and rhythms reflect that of Russian folk songs. It has a simple rhythm which is played in asymmetrical meter (chiefly between 5/4 and 6/4 time). This shift between rhythm is meant to represent walking. Music critic of the time, Vladimir Stasov comments on the story behind the Promenade suggesting that it is Mussorgsky depicting himself “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 departed friend.”

I. The Gnome 

The first official movement of the cycle starts in Eb minor and is in 3/4. It is said that this movement is “a sketch depicting a little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs.” The pace is fairly fast and spritely. A swirling theme is at the heart of this movement. The sketch that this movement was based on has now been lost, however, it is thought to represent a design for a nutcracker with large teeth. The contrasting tempos and frequent stops and starts reflect the movements of the gnome.

Promenade II

The second promenade is in Ab major and again uses asymmetrical rhythms alternating between 5/4 and 6/4. This Promenade is placid and very sweet in emotion. This one is perhaps one of my favourites. It again is depicting a viewer (Mussorgsky perhaps) walking around from one display to the next).

II. The Old Castle 

The second movement is a sombre movement in 6/8 meter. The G# minor tonality gives it a very dark feel. It has been said that this movement depicts a watercolour work by Hartmann of an Italian castle. The medieval castle stands before which a troubadour sings a song. Hartmann used human figures extensively within his works to suggest the scale of a piece of architecture. In the orchestral version the slow melody is played on the alto saxophone.

Promenade III 

The third Promenade is only very brief (8 bars) and is a much thicker texture than that of the previous Promenades. It takes the Promenade theme and creates a more extroverted version of the Russian folk song.

III. Tulieries 

This movement is upbeat and in 4/4 common time. The picture depicts children playing in the garden. Sadly though, Jardin de Tuileries has now been lost. The main theme of this movement is sweet and innocent, which represent the children and is represented on the oboe.

IV. Bydlo (Cattle)

Movement 4 depicts a Polish cart with gigantic wheels being drawn by an oxen. The dynamic structure of this movement is intriguing as it starts quiet whilst gradually becoming louder, and then after reaching a climax becomes quieter again. The effect of this is supposed to show the oxen-drawn cart coming from a distance, then past the listener (the loud bit), and then going off into the distance. The steady 2/4 tempo keeps this movement moving and the heavy orchestration really gets to the heart of what this movement is about – ‘tragedy of the poor.’

Promenade IV

This fourth instalment of the Promenade is in D minor and is marked “Tranquillo.” The interlude is incredibly reflective and depicts the viewer deep in thought whilst admiring the art in the gallery.

V. The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells

This movement is very fast and upbeat and represents young chicks bouncing around their nest. The key of F major sets this movement up to be very positive and bright. The painting this is based on is Hartmann’s design for the décor of a picturesque scene in the ballet Trilby. 

VI. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle (Two Jews Rich and Poor)

This movement starts in the dark and posthumous key of B minor. The slow tempo of this movement is supposed to represent two Jews – one rich and the other poor. Mussorgsky uses counterpoint within this movement to create a variation on the main theme. He also makes extensive use of augmented second intervals, which reflect that of traditional Jewish music.

Promenade V

This Promenade nearly exactly replicates that of the first time we hear a Promenade. The voicing within the block chords are much more full in this Promenade. Ravel’s orchestrated version does not include this movement sadly.

VII. The Market at Limoges

This movement is said to depict French women who are quarrelling ‘violently’ in the market. The movement is a lively scherzo and is in 4/4 common time. It acts as a segue into the next Picture. 

VIII. The Catacombs

This movement is very much in contrast with the previous as it has now turned minor and the mood has turned rather dark. The work depicts Hartmann representing himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern. The movement is in two parts: Largo and Andante. The largo is a sequence of strong block chords which give a sense of melancholy and gloom. The andante section introduces the Promenade theme into the Picture. 

IX. The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs

This movement is in C minor and in 2/4 time. It is fast and again in a loose scherzo form. The picture is said to represent a clock in the form of Baba Yaga’s (a supernatural creature) hut on fowl’s legs. The witches are also within this depiction. There is also a slower section in the middle of this movement. It is suggested that this movement is actually a grander version of I. The Gnome. The end of this movement leaves no break and heads straight for the final movement. This is by far the longest movement of the cycle.

X. The Great Gate of Kiev 

The final movement of the cycle is another very famous and well-known movement. It is in Eb major and in a grand 4/4 common time meter. The design of this painting was the city gates at Kiev in an ancient Russian style. The movement opens with the grand main theme which reflects that of the main Promenade theme. There is also a secondary section that is very solemn which is based on a Russian Orthodox chant. This movement is in a broad rondo form. The ending to this movement is so incredibly strong and you can’t help but feel some goosebumps when you hear the orchestrated version! This movement is very grand and is the perfect way to end this fantastic cycle of music.

So there we have it, an in-depth exploration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. I hope you have enjoyed today’s offerings as I have worked throughout the day gathering research and analysis for this blog. This is a staple piece in Russian classical music and Mussorgsky is a key composer in Russian history. Have a lovely evening everyone – come back tomorrow to see which composer I choose for day N of my August Alphabet Challenge!

I would like to dedicate this blog to my work mate, Rhiannon Hawkins, who has taught me lots of interesting things about Russia and Russian culture. Thank you for keeping me sane! I hope you enjoy this blog and this cycle of music!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This orchestral version by Chicago Symphony Orchestra is fantastic!

Here is the original piano version!