Modest Mussorgsky
Born March 21, 1839, in Karevo, Russia
Died March 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia
Orchestrated by Maurice Ravel
3 flutes, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celeste, 2 harps, strings
Performance time
35 minutes
Ravel’s orchestration premiered on October 19, 1922, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Last Performed by the TSO
September 24, 2023

Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a musical depiction of an 1874 exhibition of artwork by architect and painter Viktor Hartmann following his sudden death. Originally written as a powerfully raw piano suite, the work was polished by the composer’s colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later orchestrated by French impressionist Maurice Ravel. One can imagine the composer himself walking through the exhibit in the lumbering “Promenade,” which serves as a transition from movement to movement. The grotesquely lurching “Gnomus” depicts Hartmann’s sketch for a gnome nutcracker. “Il vecchio castello” (“The Old Castle”) is taken from a watercolor of a troubadour singing before a medieval castle, deftly orchestrated by Ravel as a bassoon and alto saxophone duet. Following a brief Promenade, Mussorgsky depicts the Parisian park “Tuileries” swarming with children and their nurses. The subsequent “Bydło” portrays a heavy wooden cart drawn by two oxen; Ravel’s orchestration accentuates the crescendo-diminuendo dynamic, as though the cart were approaching then passing the listener on the road before receding into the distance. Hartmann’s costume design for a ballet yields the quirky “Ballet of Chicks in Their Shells,” in which child dancers portray songbirds “enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor, with canary heads put on like helmets.” “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle” comes from two discriminatory sketches of Jewish people from Mussorgsky’s own collection; the use of augmented second intervals approximates Jewish modes such as the Phrygian dominant scale.

Turning to central France, “The Marketplace at Limoges” illustrates the hustle and bustle of the titular market. The atmosphere could hardly be further different from that of the ghostly “Catacombae,” in which Hartman explores the Catacombs under the streets of Paris. The music is cast into two sections, Sepulcrum romanum (Roman Sepulchers) and Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language), a wraithlike restatement of the Promenade. Hartman’s drawing of a grotesquely ornate clock, fashioned in the shape of a hut with rooster heads and on chicken legs, reminded Mussorgsky of Baba Yaga, a witchlike being from Slavic folklore. Taking as her abode a similar “Hut on Fowls’ Legs,” Baba Yaga pursued her victims by flying about in a mortar, her wild ride being depicted in Mussorgsky’s composition. Finally, Hartman designed a monumental stone gate to commemorate Tsar Alexander II’s narrow escape from assassination, winning a national competition before plans for construction ultimately fell through. But Mussorgsky’s grandiose “The Great Gate of Kyiv” hints at how the monument might have turned out. The massive grandeur of the main theme is enhanced by Ravel’s imitation of Russian reed organs and Slavic bells. In the concluding pages, the Promenade returns for a final resplendent bow.

Benjamin P. Skoronski