About this Piece
The legend of Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) already alive at the composer's death held that he was a wild, original, but untutored genius, much in need of technical correction. Certainly Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov believed that, and gave himself unstintingly to his friend's work, completing, editing, and arranging many of Mussorgsky's works.
Among these was Pictures at an Exhibition, ironically a piece that Mussorgsky ostensibly finalized himself. Mussorgsky composed Pictures in the summer of 1874 as a suite of solo piano pieces inspired by a retrospective exhibit of watercolors, drawings, and designs by his friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died the previous year. Each of the character pieces captures something of the whimsy and fantasy of a specific Hartmann work, introduced and linked by a "Promenade" that depicts Mussorgsky (or the listener) strolling through the exhibit.
Pictures had followed the premiere of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, which was a popular success. Critics, however, including some whom Mussorgsky counted as friends, continued to find fault with his music. After Mussorgsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov began extensive work on Mussorgsky's music, selflessly but rather short-sightedly preparing performing editions to make Mussorgsky's "colossal talent known, not for studying his personality and his artistic sins."
Rimsky actually made relatively few changes to the solo piano edition of Pictures that he prepared in 1886. He gave the work to his pupil Mikhail Tushmalov (1861-1896), however, to orchestrate for a concert Rimsky conducted in St. Petersburg in 1891. Tushmalov scored only the first of the "Promenades" and omitted three Pictures. According to a 1933 letter from the composer Alexander Glazunov, Rimsky intervened after the first rehearsal, re-orchestrating "The Marketplace at Limoges," the middle section of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs," and the bells in "The Great Gate of Kiev."
Many others have been inspired by Mussorgsky's vigorous music, so colorful in its own right. The orchestrations by Maurice Ravel (1922) and Leopold Stokowski (1939) are probably the adaptations best known in classical circles, but everyone from organists to prog-rock groups have tried to express something new out of Mussorgsky's inspired original.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.