Skip to page content

Mussorgsky's music was emblematic of the tension between Slavophiles and Westernizers in Russia during the second half of the 19th century. The composer sought Russian solutions to musical challenges, without recourse to western (primarily Germanic) contrapuntal, harmonic, or formal devices. His musical training, which can be described as haphazard at best, came mainly at the hands of his colleagues in the "mighty handful," a collective of five composers (including Rimsky-Korsakov) who revered Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian music, above all others, and sought to create an indigenous Russian school of music. The "handful" were Russian music's Slavophiles, pitted against the Westernizing tendencies of composers such as Anton Rubinstein and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

At the time of Pictures, Mussorgsky had only one other instrumental work, the highly original but discursively argued St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain, to his credit. It showed the strengths of the Slavophile approach in its inventive and unique material, and the weaknesses in its structural shortcomings. (The form in which most audiences know Night on the Bare Mountain today reflects revisions by Mussorgsky as well as what nearly amounts to recomposition by Rimsky.) Pictures addresses the problem of form without sacrificing originality and should be counted, along with Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, as one of the five's great successes.

The impetus for Pictures came from the death of Mussorgsky's close friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann, who died unexpectedly in summer of 1873. The journalist Vladimir Stasov, who knew Mussorgsky well, organized a memorial exhibition of Hartmann's work in February 1874. Pictures preserves Mussorgsky's visit to the exhibition, as he explained in a letter to Stasov later that year: "Hartmann is seething, like Boris seethed. The concept and sounds have hung in the air; now I am ingesting them, and I am so gorging myself that I can scarcely manage to scribble them down on paper. I am composing the fourth number. The links (in the 'promenades') are good…. My physiognomy is evident in these interludes." The original, solo piano version of the work was finished by the end of September, but no public performance took place during the composer's lifetime. In an indication of the work's future, its premiere came on November 30, 1891, when it was performed in an orchestration by Michael Touschmaloff, a student of Rimsky's at the Conservatory. French composer Maurice Ravel's orchestration was commissioned by the wealthy Russian-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered it with the Boston Symphony on October 19, 1922.

The work presents the pictures connected by a series of "Promenades," during which we hear Mussorgsky walking through the gallery, from artwork to artwork. The "Promenades" do the same for the listener, taking us harmonically and (in Ravel's version) orchestrally from one picture to the next.

The first picture, "The Gnome," presents a portrait of a wooden toy gnome filled with musical grotesquerie. Ravel's orchestration, with its emphasis on the orchestra's darker colors, further exaggerates the creature's lurching and slithering.

"The Old Castle" depicts a scene in medieval Italy, as a troubadour (English horn) sings in front of a castle. The movement is reminiscent of a melancholy Russian folk tune, though Mussorgsky makes a nod to the picture's locale by using a siciliano rhythm.

A brief scherzo, "Tuileries" depicts children playing - really rough-housing (the movement's subtitle is "Dispute between Children at Play") - in the Parisian garden of the title. Ravel's orchestration - primarily winds and strings - underlines the light atmosphere.

"Bydlo," Polish for oxcart, follows without interruption, a sharp contrast to the lightness of "Tuileries" with its heavy, lumbering chords representing the turning of the cart's wheels and the footfalls of the oxen pulling it. The cart's drivers sing a dolorous Ukrainian folk song, the somber melody that unfolds over the movement's heavy tread.

The "Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells" was inspired by Hartmann's costume designs for a ballet that included children dressed as eggs. Ravel's orchestration gives the delectable movement a gossamer lightness, with the horn clucking away in the background.

Mussorgsky took two sketches given to him by Hartmann, one of a wealthy Polish Jew, the other of an impoverished Russian one, as the inspiration for "Goldenberg and Schmuyle." Ravel underlines the contrast, giving Goldenberg's music to the strings and Schmuyle's to the trumpet.

Hartmann's sketch of old women quarreling at the market in the French town of Limoges, which the artist visited in 1866, inspired the next movement of Pictures. Mussorgsky originally wrote a program for this section into his manuscript, but later crossed it out: "The big news: Monsieur de Puissangeout has just recovered his cow Fugitive. But the good ladies of Limoges don't care, because Madame de Remboursac has acquired handsome new porcelain dentures, while Monsieur de Panta-Pantaléon is still troubled by his big red nose." Mussorgsky often needed little stories like this to get started, but he clearly realized that "Limoges, the Market Place" was enough, and that listeners would imagine their own goings-on during this little scherzo, a companion musically and atmospherically to "Tuileries."

Death was a theme in many of Mussorgsky's works - his Songs and Dances of Death come immediately to mind - and it dominates the next picture, "Catacombae." The opening presents a progression of dissonant chords (Ravel uses glowering brass here), and "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" (With the dead in a dead language) revisits the Promenade theme, as the skulls in Hartmann's catacombs "begin to glow."

According to Stasov, the next picture "is based on Hartmann's design for a clock in the form of Baba-Yaga's hut on hen's legs, to which Mussorgsky added the ride of the witch in her mortar." The movements is in A-B-A form, with the A section depicting Baba-Yaga's ride (Ravel's unbridled trumpet part is particularly exhilarating), and Mussorgsky underlines the clock aspect with his metronome marking, which indicates a tempo of one bar per second.

The final picture, "The Great Gate of Kiev," begins broadly, with a majestic processional. Mussorgsky also brought in bell sounds (splendidly realized here by Ravel) and a return of the Promenade theme before the movement's resplendent closing pages.

- John Mangum is the Artistic Administrator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

07/07