Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Tonight you will hear Ravel’s masterly orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite: Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky was one of the Russian “Five” with a deep belief in Nationalism in art in all its forms. He was a close friend of artist Victor Hartmann who died in 1873. A Memorial Hartmann Exhibition was organised by Stassov the following year in St. Petersburg, and Mussorgsky quickly set to work on his suite, which he completed on 22nd June 1874. He dedicated it to Stassov in memory of “our dear” Victor. Ironically Hartmann was well travelled and many pictures were sketched abroad. The suite was published and performed in 1886 five years after Mussorgsky’s death.

The suite opens with the first Promenade introduced by the brass in 5/4 and 6/4. It is easy to imagine a person wandering, gazing, stepping back etc, surveying the exhibits.

GNOMUS – Represents a deformed gnome drawn for a toy nutcracker.

A slower, quieter Promenade leads to:

IL VECCHIO CASTELLO – Woodwind and a saxophone depict a troubadour singing quietly in front of a medieval castle in Italy. The theme is then taken up by the rest of the orchestra, with a steady bass beat throughout.

A more robust Promenade leads to:

TUILERIES – Referring of course to the gardens in Paris where children are playing and squabbling.

BYDLO is a Polish wagon drawn by oxen. The brass has the tune whilst heavy chords in the bass illustrate this cumbersome vehicle.

A further Promenade ends with a taster of what is to come:

BALLET OF UNHATCHED CHICKS – A scene in the ballet TRILBY for which Hartmann designed the costumes and sets, when it was staged in St.Petersburg in 1871.

SAMUEL GOLDENBERG & SCHMUYLE – Mussorgsky owned two pencil sketches of Polish Jews: one rich, one poor, which he lent to the Exhibition.

LIMOGES-LE MARCHE – French women excitedly gossiping at the market. One can easily imagine the picture from this sparkling music.

CATACOMBAE – Represents the catacombs in Paris in spite of the sub title ”Sepulchrum Romanum”. Played entirely by the wind. Heavy chords are followed by a quiet, more tuneful passage.

CON MORTUIS IN LINGUA MORTUA – Here Mussorgsky is reminded of his late friend with a ghostly restatement, in the minor, of the Promenade music.

LA CABANE SUR LES PATTES DE POULES – The Hut on Hen’s Legs. Baba-Yaga, according to Russian legend, was a witch who hunted in a red-hot mortar, which she flew with a pestle – quite mad!! This leads to:

LA GRANDE PORTE DE KIEW – Unfortunately Hartmann’s drawing for an impressive archway into the city of Kiev was never used. The music has a Russian feel of a great entrance. Towards the end a Russian Orthodox chant is included, together with peals of bells.