Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”

I have always enjoyed Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. It means even more now that I know the story behind it.

The composition was originally written for the piano in 1874, and then in 1922, Maurice Ravel arranged it for orchestra. I was listening to WGBH’S “Classical Performance Podcast”  awhile back, and the pianist Alexander Ghindin was featured, playing this piece. Here he is, in an excerpt of a 2007 performance. The whole composition is nearly a half hour long.

Every time I hear the opening notes, the “Promenade” repeated at various intervals, I think of all the visits I have made to museums over the years in various places, wandering the halls and going into the various exhibition rooms. Pictures is a tribute to Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, an artist who had passed away unexpectedly at a young age. The composer attended an exhibition of 400 of his works. When he returned home, he set the memories of the paintings and drawings to music. They include “The Gnome,” “The Old Castle Troubadour,” “Children and Their Parisian Nurse,” the polish ox art in the marketplace, “The Ballet of the Eggs and Shells,” “The Catacombs,” “Baba Yaga,” a Russian witch of folklore, and “The Stone Gate at Kiev.” The Kennedy Center offers a better background summary than I can.

Here is a bit of Maurice Ravel’s arrangement:

A brief search alerted me to books about Pictures, putting it in historical context. The 2009 novel of the same name by Sara Houghteling is inspired by the music, but tells a different story.


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