Pictures at an Exhibition
This article is about the original suite by Modest Mussorgsky and its orchestral arrangements. For other uses, see Pictures at an Exhibition (disambiguation).
Mussorgsky in 1874
Pictures at an Exhibition (Russian: Картинки с выставки – Воспоминание о Викторе Гартмане, romanized: Kartínki s výstavki – Vospominániye o Víktore Gártmane, lit. ‘Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann’, French: Tableaux d’une exposition) is a suite of ten pieces (plus a recurring, varied Promenade) composed for piano by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874.
The suite is Mussorgsky’s most famous piano composition, and has become a showpiece for virtuosopianists. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel’s 1922 version for full symphony orchestra being by far the most recorded and performed.
Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873)
It was probably in 1868 that Mussorgsky first met artist, architect, and designer Viktor Hartmann, not long after the latter’s return to Russia from abroad. Both men were devoted to the cause of an intrinsically Russian art and quickly became friends. They likely met in the home of the influential critic Vladimir Stasov, who followed both of their careers with interest. According to Stasov’s testimony, in 1868, Hartmann gave Mussorgsky two of the pictures that later formed the basis of Pictures at an Exhibition. In 1870, Mussorgsky dedicated the second song (“In the Corner”) of the cycle The Nursery to Hartmann. Stasov remarked that Hartmann loved Mussorgsky’s compositions, and particularly liked the “Scene by the Fountain” in his opera Boris Godunov. Mussorgsky abandoned the scene in his original 1869 version, but at the requests of Stasov and Hartmann, he reworked it for Act 3 in his revision of 1872.
The years 1873–74 are associated with the staging of Boris Godunov, the zenith of Mussorgsky’s career as a composer—at least from the standpoint of public acclaim. Mussorgsky’s distant relative, friend, and roommate during this period, Arseniy Golenishchev-Kutuzov, describing the January 1874 premiere of the opera, remarked: “During the winter, there were, I think, nine performances, and each time the theatre was sold out, each time the public tumultuously called for Mussorgsky.” The composer’s triumph was overshadowed, however, by the critical drubbing he received in the press. Other circumstances conspired to dampen Mussorgsky’s spirits. The disintegration of The Mighty Handful and their failure to understand his artistic goals contributed to the isolation he experienced as an outsider in Saint Petersburg’s musical establishment. Golenishchev-Kutuzov wrote: “[The Mighty Handful’s] banner was held by Mussorgsky alone; all the other members had left it and pursued his own path …”
Hartmann’s sudden death on 4 August 1873 from an aneurysm shook Mussorgsky along with others in Russia’s art world. The loss of the artist, aged only 39, plunged the composer into deep despair. Stasov helped to organize a memorial exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works in the Imperial Academy of Artsin Saint Petersburg in February and March 1874. Mussorgsky lent to the exhibition the two pictures Hartmann had given him, and viewed the show in person. Later in June, two-thirds of the way through composing his song cycle, Sunless, Mussorgsky was inspired to compose Pictures at an Exhibition, quickly completing the score in three weeks (2–22 June 1874). In a letter to Stasov (see photo), probably written on 12 June 1874, he describes his progress:
Mussorgsky’s letter to Stasov, written while composing Pictures
My dear généralissime, Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled—sounds and ideas hung in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th No.—the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and steadily. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned …
The music depicts his tour of the exhibition, with each of the ten numbers of the suite serving as a musical illustration of an individual work by Hartmann.
Five days after finishing the composition, he wrote on the title page of the manuscript a tribute to Vladimir Stasov, to whom the work is dedicated. One month later, he added an indication that he intended to have it published.
Golenishchev-Kutuzov gives the following (perhaps biased) account of the work’s reception among Mussorgsky’s friends and colleagues and an explanation for his failure to follow through on his plans to publish it:
Soon, with the composition of the musical illustrations for Pictures from an Exhibition by the architect Hartmann, he reached the acme of that musical radicalism, to whose ‘new shores’ and to whose ‘unfathomed depths’ the admirers of his ‘Peepshows’ and ‘Savishnas’ had pushed him so diligently. In music for these illustrations, as Mussorgsky called them, he represented [chicks], children, Baba Yaga in her wooden house on chicken legs, catacombs, gates, and even rattling carts. All this was not done jokingly, but ‘seriously’.
There was no end to the enthusiasm shown by his devotees; but many of Mussorgsky’s friends, on the other hand, and especially the comrade composers, were seriously puzzled and, listening to the ‘novelty,’ shook their heads in bewilderment. Naturally, Mussorgsky noticed their bewilderment and seemed to feel that he ‘had gone too far.’ He set the illustrations aside without even trying to publish them. Mussorgsky devoted himself exclusively to Khovanshchina.
In August, Mussorgsky completed the last two songs of Sunless and then resumed work on Khovanshchina, composing the prelude to Act 1 (“Dawn on the Moscow River”) in September.
Cover of first edition
As with most of Mussorgsky’s works, Pictures at an Exhibition has a complicated publication history. Although composed very rapidly, during June 1874, the work did not appear in print until 1886, five years after the composer’s death, when an edition by the composer’s friend and colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakovwas published. This edition, however, was not a completely accurate representation of Mussorgsky’s score but presented a revised text that contained a number of errors and misreadings.
Only in 1931, marking the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, was Pictures at an Exhibition published in a scholarly edition in agreement with his manuscript, to be included in Volume 8 of Pavel Lamm’s M. P. Mussorgsky: Complete Collected Works (1939).
In 1940, the Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola published an important critical edition of Mussorgsky’s work with extensive commentary.
Mussorgsky’s hand-written manuscript was published in facsimile in 1975.
YearEditorPublisherNotes1886Nikolay Rimsky-KorsakovV. Bessel and Co., Saint PetersburgRevised edition 1931Pavel LammMuzgiz, MoscowRestoration of the composer’s score 1975—Muzïka, MoscowFacsimile of the composer’s manuscript
Mussorgsky based his musical material on drawings and watercolours by Hartmann produced mostly during the artist’s travels abroad. Locales include Italy, France, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Today most of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibition are lost, making it impossible to be sure in many cases which Hartmann works Mussorgsky had in mind.
Arts critic Alfred Frankenstein gave an account of Hartmann, with reproductions of his pictures, in the article “Victor Hartmann and Modeste Mussorgsky” in The Musical Quarterly(July 1939). Frankenstein claimed to have identified seven pictures by catalogue number, corresponding to:
“Tuileries” (now lost)”Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks””Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” (Frankenstein suggested two separate portraits, still extant, as the basis for “Two Jews: Rich and Poor”)”Catacombs””The Hut on Hen’s Legs””The Bogatyr Gates”
The surviving works that can be shown with certainty to have been used by Mussorgsky in assembling his suite, along with their titles, are as follows:
MovementTitleTitle (English)Picture5. Ballet of the Unhatched ChicksЭскизы театральных костюмов к балету “Трильби”Sketches of theatre costumes for the ballet Trilby 6. “Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuÿle”Еврей в меховой шапке. СандомирJew in a fur cap. Sandomierz Сандомирский [еврей]Sandomierz [Jew] 8. Catacombs (Roman Tomb)Парижские катакомбы (с фигурами В. А. Гартмана, В. А. Кенеля и проводника, держащего фонарь)Paris Catacombs(with the figures of V. A. Hartmann, V. A. Kenel, and a guide holding a lantern) 9. The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)Избушка Бабы-Яги на курьих ножках. Часы в русском стилеThe hut of Baba-Yaga on hen’s legs. Clock in the Russian style 10. The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)Проект городских ворот в Киеве. Главный фасадProject for city gates in Kiev. Main façade
Note: Mussorgsky owned the two pictures that together inspired No. 6, the so-called “Two Jews”. The title of No. 6b, as provided by the Soviet editors of his letters, is Сандомирский [еврей] (Sandomirskiy [yevrey] or Sandomierz [Jew]). The bracketed word yevrey (lit. “Hebrew”) is the sanitized form of the actual word in the title, very likely the derogatory epithet жид (zhid or yid).
Vladimir Stasov’s program, identified below, and the six known extant pictures suggest the ten pieces that make up the suite correspond to eleven pictures by Hartmann, with “Samuel Goldenberg und Schmuÿle” accounting for two. The five Promenades are not numbered with the ten pictures and consist in the composer’s manuscript of two titled movements and three untitled interludes appended to the 1st, 2nd, and 4th pictures (see Pavel Lamm’s 1931 edition ).
Mussorgsky links the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition. Two Promenade movements stand as portals to the suite’s main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, colour, and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed. A turn is taken in the work at the “Catacombae” when the Promenade theme stops functioning as merely a linking device and becomes, in “Cum mortuis”, an integral element of the movement itself. The theme reaches its apotheosis in the suite’s finale, “The Bogatyr Gates”.
The first two movements of the suite—one grand, one grotesque—find mirrored counterparts, and apotheoses, at the end. The suite traces a journey that begins at an art exhibition, but the line between observer and observed vanishes at the Catacombs when the journey takes on a different character.
The table below shows the order of movements.
No.Title in scoreEnglish translationKeyMeterTempoPromenadeB♭major5