Pictures at an Exhibition

Composer: Modest Mussorgsky (b. 1839 - d. 1881)
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Composer: Modest Mussorgsky (b. 1839 - d. 1881)

Performance date: 01/07/2022

Venue: Bantry House

Composition Year: 1874

Duration: 00:34:44

Recording Engineer: Eduardo Prado, Ergodos

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Anna Fedorova - [piano]

Modest Mussorgsky [1839-1881]

Pictures at an Exhibition [1874]


1. Gnomus


2. Il vecchio castello [The Old Castle]


3. Tuileries – Children quarrelling after play

4. Bydlo [A Polish Ox-cart]


5. Ballet of the unhatched chicks

6. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle [Two Polish Jews, one rich, the other poor]


7. Limoges, the market place

8. Catacombae – Sepulchrum Romanum

Con mortuis in lingua mortua

9. Baba Yaga [The hut on Fowl’s Legs]

10. The Great Gate of Kyiv

Victor Hartman had a huge influence on Mussorgsky’s passionate involvement in the 19th century neo-Russian movement. He was both an architect and a painter and his drawings were based on years of study of medieval Russian ornament. His most famous drawing was his fanciful design for the Kyiv city gate, shaped in the form of a warrior’s helmet with a kokoshnik arch alongside it, complete with great bells. When Hartman died suddenly in July 1873, Mussorgsky was devastated and he joined with Vladimir Stasov in organising a celebration of his friend’s life-work. The posthumous Exhibition consisted of about four hundred watercolours, drawings, sketches, architectural drawings and theatrical and costume designs, all gathered together in St Petersburg a year after his death. It was this Exhibition that inspired Mussorgsky’s magnificent tribute to his friend – originally described as Album Series on the genius architect Hartman. And it was this work, composed in a mere three weeks, more than any other that came to define the new Russian style of composition. 

Appearances can be deceptive, Mussorgsky was lazy, slovenly, heavy-drinking – so much so he died of alcoholism at the age of 42 – full of swagger and explosive energy and yet he was a clear and clever thinker and by far the greatest Russian composer of his generation. Pictures is also deceptive, seemingly a haphazard selection of musical portraits connected only by the famous Promenade, where the far from lightweight composer is depicted ambling around the Exhibition. Clearly the formal Western rules of exposition and development have been thrown to the winds. However the apparent idiosyncrasy of the work conceals a formal unity achieved through almost all of the musical material being derived from the opening Promenade. This powerful theme nel modo russico, senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto is a folk-inspired tune that reaches deep into the Russian imagination. This simple melody throws into relief the visionary, expressionist style of Mussorgsky’s interpretation of Hartman’s pictures. His choice of pictures is calculated both to honour the substantial range of Hartman’s achievement and to show how international his perspective was – picture titles are in French, Latin, Italian, Polish, Yiddish and Russian.

The first picture, Gnomus, is deliberately grotesque, a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome with bow legs designed as an ornament for the Christmas Tree of the Artist’s Club. A second promenade leads to Il vecchio Castello. Hartman’s original is lost but the exhibition catalogue mentions drawings of a French castle with a singing troubadour, so the Italian title is perhaps inspired by the siciliano rhythm. The chiming of a single unchanging bass note throughout the piece evokes an atmosphere of timelessness. A further promenade is broken off in an air of expectancy leading us to a vivid picture of the children quarrelling in the Tuileries gardens. We turn immediately to Bydlo, a massive depiction of a Polish cart drawn by two oxen presented fortissimo before fading into the distance at the end. Another promenade leads us to the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, costume designs for children who appeared as canary chicks in Julius Gerber’s ballet Trilbi; their canary heads, wings and feet protrude from the large eggs that enclose their bodies. Mussorgsky’s vision is in the form of a scherzo and trio, with the trio’s trills suggesting the fluttering of tiny wings. 

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle is a conflation of two drawings by Hartman of two Polish Jews, one rich and one poor. Mussorgsky has them conversing with each other. Another extended promenade – the last one in its original form – leads to the market at Limoges, where the gossiping women compete frantically with each other to be the first with the news about the recovery of a fugitive cow. The argument reaches dizzying proportions before being dramatically silenced by a thunderous chord announcing the descent into Catacombae, the catacombs of Paris where Hartman depicts himself face-to-face with a heap of illuminated skulls. This nightmare brings forth a series of terrible discords that leads directly to a ghostly promenade. Here the right-hand tremolos suggest the flickering lantern – with the dead in a dead language – and by way of explanation in a marginal comment, the creative spirit of the deceased Hartman leads me to the skulls, invokes them, and they silently light up. 

And so we move to the extraordinary climax where the pictures seem to have been left behind. The penultimate piece portrays the terrifying ogress of Russian folk-lore, Baba-Yaga. Hartman’s design for a surreal clock mounted on chicken legs was based on the exotic tale of the witch who lived in a hut on chicken legs deep in the forest. She ate children and ground up their bones with the mortar and pestle that she also used as a bizarre means of transport. The Great Gate of Kyiv is one of the most dramatic finales ever, even more impressive in its original version than in Ravel’s orchestration. Can, we ask, can a piano really make such an overwhelming sound. The bells ring out in triumph from the Great Gate and combine with the ancient hymn, the chant of Znamenny, while the harmony and the melodic shape seem distantly to recall the promenade theme. This is glorious, uplifting, beautiful and even tender music, a picture drawn in sound and a moving tribute to friendship.

Francis Humphrys