Pictures at an Exhibition: Composer & Movements

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever walked through an art gallery? Can music be used to convey the images you might see? The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky thought so. In this lesson, we'll discuss Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

The Composer

Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881) created music to express the character of his homeland and he had a challenging working style. Self-trained and determined to break away from traditional European musical forms like symphonies, he experimented with melody and wrote works with dissonance (where notes clash with each other) and unusual harmonies. Among them are Night on Bald Mountain, a tone poem that depicts witches and demons at a Sabbath. It's moody, eerie and effectively dramatic! Mussorgsky also rarely finished anything he wrote. This led to other musicians later reworking his compositions and finishing pieces he had abandoned.

Portrait of Modest Mussorgsky
Portrait of Mussorgsky

Pictures at an Exhibition: How the Work Came About

Mussorgsky composed Pictures at an Exhibition following the death of his friend, artist Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann was only 39 when he died in 1873 and the loss affected Mussorgsky greatly. The following year, a commemorative exhibit of Hartmann's work was held in St. Petersburg. It included paintings of scenes in Russia and abroad, pencil sketches, architectural drawings, and costume design. Mussorgsky attended the exhibit and this piece reflects that experience.

Each movement suggests an artwork at the show, and Mussorgsky wove the movements into a cohesive whole. He originally composed it for piano, but audiences today know it as an orchestral piece (we'll get to why later). It's a musical portrait of the composer walking through the exhibit. Sometimes he ambles slowly, other times he hurries to look closer at an image or think about his lost friend.

The Movements: One through Six

Pictures at an Exhibition begins with the Promenade, where the composer enters the exhibit and begins to view the artwork. This movement includes the Promenade theme that you'll hear throughout the composition.

Then we move to Gnomus, or The Gnome, based on a picture of an ugly dwarf-shaped nutcracker. In the music you can hear the gnome's shrieks and cackles as well as his stomping footsteps. After a brief reintroduction of the Promenade, we then hear The Old Castle, based on a watercolor of a singer performing by an old castle. It's quieter and more atmospheric.

After another brief snippet of the Promenade, we move to the Tuileries, written to evoke an image of the famous Paris gardens. It's lighter and quicker and sounds like scampering children. Then on to Bydlo (Polish for cattle), based on a picture of a wagon pulled by oxen. Listen to this movement and you can hear the cart and ox plod slowly toward you. Then it's the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells, based on costumes designs for a ballet. It's quick, light, and flighty. This image still exists, so you can see what inspired Mussorgsky.

Hartmann costume design of chick in egg, image that Mussorgsky saw in 1874
Hartmann sketch of chicken

The Movements: Seven through Twelve

The seventh movement is Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle, based on portraits of two Jewish men, one wealthy and one from a ghetto. You can hear the contrasting musical portraits in shifting tones and tempos. Mussorgsky owned the pictures on which this movement is based.

Next, we go to the The Marketplace at Limoges, based on watercolor sketches of the activity at a market. This is followed by the Catacombs, based on a dark toned watercolor painting of the burial area underneath Paris, complete with a wall of skulls. It's slow and somber and moves through a sub-section titled Con mortuis in lingua mortua (which means speaking of the dead in a dead language), a phrase Moussorgsky wrote on the manuscript as he restated a soft, mournful version of the Promenade theme.

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