Max’s lessons

Modest Mussorgsky / Pictures at an Exhibition

Lesson 1

Modest Mussorgsky wrote his most famous work inspired by the paintings of his close friend Viktor Hartmann, a Russian architect and painter. Viktor Aleksandrovich Hartmann was born on April 23, 1834, in Saint Petersburg. Both of his parents died before he turned four years old, so he was raised by his aunt, Luiza Ivanovna Gemilian, the wife of a well-known architect in Petrograd. As a twelve-year-old boy, Hartmann was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Mines, where, according to his friends, he excelled in drawing caricatures of his professors. After six years at this school, he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts, from which he graduated with great success. In 1864, he got married and went abroad. He mostly lived in France but frequently visited Germany and Poland. Most of the watercolors, including around ten that inspired Mussorgsky, come from this period. Hartmann belonged to a group of Russian artists known as the “Men of the Sixties,” which refers to a period in the 19th century when they were mainly inspired by Slavic motifs and customs from medieval Russia. This movement later developed into the circle around Mily Balakirev, where, in 1870, Hartmann met Vladimir Stasov, the director of the Department of Fine Arts at the Imperial Library and an influential critic at the time. Modest Mussorgsky was also a part of this circle. After Hartmann’s premature death, Stasov organized a memorial exhibition with great personal enthusiasm, featuring around 400 of Hartmann’s works. The exhibition took place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Petrograd. The works exhibited on this occasion were mostly owned by friends and acquaintances, and it is interesting that little is known about their fate today. Specifically, only about 65 works out of the approximately 400 exhibited at that exhibition, which inspired Modest Mussorgsky to write his “Pictures at an Exhibition,” are known to exist. As often happens, Modest Mussorgsky’s masterpiece went unnoticed during his lifetime; it only sparked interest in 1922 thanks to an orchestral transcription prepared by Maurice Ravel, commissioned by Sergei Koussevitzky, who was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the time. Ravel brilliantly transposed “Pictures at an Exhibition,” already known as an orchestrator and composer, and through a specific synergy that combined fantastic programmatic elements with his personal Impressionistic style, he created a work that remains a unique achievement to this day. This is expressed through orchestration and a distinctive tonal color that beautifully captures Modest Mussorgsky’s visionary program. “Pictures at an Exhibition” gradually became a personal landmark on the repertoire of every pianist. This cycle became their favorite choice only after the orchestral version was performed in Paris in 1922 and its score was published in 1930. Through “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgsky attempted to depict scenes from ten of Hartmann’s paintings using musical means. The “Promenade” that we hear at the beginning portrays the composer walking from picture to picture. It appears as a reaction or anticipation of the subsequent movements: “Gnomus,” “The Old Castle,” “Tuileries,” “Bydlo,” “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” “Two Jews: Rich and Poor,” “The Market at Limoges,” “Catacombs,” “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga),” and “The Great Gate of Kiev.” In this lecture, I will try to present some of my conclusions and impressions regarding the atmosphere and story behind each musical and visual scene in this work. These are impressions that have greatly helped me shape the final form of my interpretation. Of course, this is a personal interpretation carried out through heuristic methods that consider the facts and arguments related to the composer and his body of work. The lecture is intended to serve as a guide and recommendation for the methodology and artistic approach in studying any piano literature. Promenade As mentioned in the introduction, the Promenades in “Pictures at an Exhibition” represent the composer’s personal perspective, an intimate point of view from the first person, reacting to the impressions experienced or anticipating what follows in the musical flow. The artist’s walk through the exhibition space, the movement that leads the artist from one picture to another in the form of this work, represents the structural framework or sketch from which the other pieces of the cycle arise and connect. The Promenades give rise to a network of impressions that encompass an extraordinary number of visual scenes. In this work that I am analyzing in this lecture, we will find ideas and passages that depict social or status differences between the poor and the rich through the musical description of an unfortunate beggar, a lamenting poor Jew, and the powerful and defiant Samuel Goldenberg. Additionally, we can observe the spread and influence of various religious denominations, from west to east, through the Catholic mysticism expressed in “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua” to the tolling of Orthodox bells and Byzantine chants in “The Great Gate of Kiev,” as well as the evocation of Klezmer ornamentation found in the aforementioned piece about the two Jews. Furthermore, in this cycle, we recognize an interesting journey through time, where the composer uses music to portray old and long-forgotten scenes of the Old Castle, as well as vivid and immediate events from the present, such as in the pieces “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” or “The Market at Limoges.” Therefore, the Promenade is the foundation of all musical events. The first Promenade is vividly marked Allegro giusto, nel modo russico; senza allegrezza, ma poco sostenuto. Thus, it is in the Russian style, evoking grandeur and the striking appearance of Modest Mussorgsky, who was of large stature. The splendid stride, characterized by chordal emphasis that seems to have originated from the impression of traditional a cappella music, in which the soloist’s musical part stands out from the commentary provided by the entire choir throughout the musical flow. Other associations related to the first Promenade include firmness, an expressive national style, opulence, and a richness of colors.

The second piece, titled “Gnome,” begins abruptly and without preparation, evoking surprise and fear due to its strong and unsettling imagery. Hartmann’s painting represents a costume sketch for the evil dwarf Chernomor from Pushkin’s poem “Ruslan and Ludmila.” Therefore, it is not just a mere figurative representation of a dwarf, but through the conceptual design of the costume, particularly the menacing pose and expression on the face with wide- open eyes and a huge gray beard being spread apart by the dwarf’s hand, it provokes the character’s nature from Pushkin’s poem. It should be noted that Musorgsky evidently used Hartmann’s drawings, sketches, and paintings merely as a starting point and foundation for his own fantasies. In many cases, Hartmann’s works have a sketch-like style, serving as precise instructions, as seen in the case of the Gnome. The caricatural nature of these works served as simplified and clear visual instructions or references for the costume and set designers. Thus, some of these pieces do not necessarily contain the deeper meaning and character that we can hear in Musorgsky’s transposition. Therefore, one can conclude that the composer, being in contact with Hartmann’s works, was emotionally stirred and excited (we know from his friends’ letters that Hartmann’s death deeply affected him). This is further supported by the problem of alcoholism, which certainly influenced the heightened sensitivity and lack of composure of the great composer. Hartmann’s sketch of the evil gnome, depicting him spreading his gray beard to better reveal the patterns on his attire, is for Modest Mussorgsky evidently something much more significant. In Mussorgsky’s interpretation, the dwarf, by spreading his beard with his hand, reveals his evil nature, the appearance of his unfortunate physiognomy that causes horror and fear in the composer. In the musical flow, we recognize chromatic movements, sudden melodic turns that serve to surprise and frighten. In the middle section, written in a piano dynamic, we sense the deceitfulness of the evil dwarf Chernomor. The chromatic waves in the left hand depict agitated breathing, and the final passage represents a scream and escape from the unpleasant impression that this Hartmann painting produced in the composer.

Lesson 2

The promenade that follows calms the exciting musical event from the Gnome and prepares the next astonishing musical scene that transports us, as if in a time kaleidoscope, to a long-gone era – the time of an old castle in Italy. The melody of the promenade is presented on the piano, and in this version, we can discern the initial musical depiction of church bells – a sign and symbol of tranquility and serenity. “Old Castle” The musical flow of the piece “Old Castle” is based on a six-eight rhythm of the Siciliana, where the hypnotic repetition of the bass evokes an ancient dance that was once performed in the now empty and abandoned halls of the building. Furthermore, the constant buzzing of the bass conjures echoes and reverberations in the empty, deserted rooms. It can also represent the ticking of a clock – the relentless passage of time. In the upper voice, there is a melancholic and fleeting ornamental melody of a minstrel singing about the former glory of the people who once lived in the now deserted castle. This mournful melody is interrupted at the end of the piece, as if lacking the strength to continue. It slowly fades away and disappears. The fate of the castle is to preserve the memory of times long past. In this piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” we find a coherent world of musical meanings that seems frozen in an unchanging and constant rhythm, enchanting the scene. Its movement is slow and languid, harmony is dependent on the bass tone, and the character of the music is melancholic and contemplative. Even on the level of musical verticality, we find significant content – from the tones belonging to the melody to the harmonic voices, all the way to the omnipresent and unchanging bass. We gaze into an abyss, into some long-forgotten beginning. In this way, the position of aging and transience is evoked. Through the glimpse of that abyss, Musorgsky evokes the inevitability of aging and transience of all living and non-living things in this world.

Max’s beautiful drawing representing a synthesis of impressions from two pieces from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.

Promenade 3

Using the new version of the promenade, which follows the composer- observer, he snapped out of his contemplative mood. With determined steps, he moves towards the next painting.


Children playing in Tuileries Park. The music depicts the chaos, running, and screaming of the children playing. In the intonation of the repeated first interval, we can recognize the typical childlike exuberance or mockery, which implies a characteristic simplified musical gesture that emphasizes defiance in victory or similar emotions in all European languages. It’s a kind of teasing that is used in the game. In the Serbian-speaking area, there are characteristic examples found in many teasing phrases used for boasting or mocking.

Lesson 3

Bidlo The next piece seems intentionally designed to completely change the timbre and style of the music. If the previous piece was characterized by chaos, movement, and variety, this one reduces everything to the arduous and laborious turning of the wheels that carry hay. The bass movement is heavy and monotonous. It involves an inversion of the initial interval from the previous piece. It has been transposed to the bass register, melodically inverted, and now presented with a forte dynamic. The melody in the right hand portrays the life of laborers, workers who perform repetitive and difficult tasks. It is difficult to move, containing a primitive invention that gravitates towards the tonic note. This also implies simplicity in a broader sense – people engaged in hard field work consume simple food and drink basic wine. They have no time for reflection and artistic meditation. This piece is conceived as a film sequence or a scene observed from a real or imagined internal point of view. The carts suddenly appear in the frame, and then we follow their passage and disappearance into the distance. Eventually, this composition fades into the distance. Musorgsky employs the effect of disappearing into perspective, in which the figurativeness of the observed object gradually disintegrates into unrecognizability.

Chicken Dance in Eggshells The piece “Chicken Dance in Eggshells” was created as a reaction to Hartmann’s 17 costume and set designs for Gerber’s ballet Trilby. The dance of the unhatched chicks is portrayed through alternating pizzicato notes that evoke abundance and the constant bustling of tiny chicks. In the middle section, the characteristic comical movement of the young chicks’ tails is depicted with trills. In this musical scene, one can witness Musorgsky’s incredible ability to depict a scene through music. According to Victor Hartmann’s costume sketches, children from the Russian Imperial Ballet School were supposed to have masks resembling chicken heads on their heads and perform in costumes representing eggshells from which they had just hatched.

Max’s incredible drawing of the mother-chicken and her small chicklets! 🙂

Two Jews – Rich and Poor – In the piece “Two Jews – Rich and Poor,” Musorgsky introduces into the musical flow two characteristically contrasting musical motifs that are actually musical personifications of the rich and poor Jews. The music that serves as a leitmotif for the rich character has a pompous and, I would say, falsely dignified character. It is intoned in unison, evoking the narrative of an important and wealthy person. In contrast, the music for the poor is unstable, reminiscent of begging, and melismatic to evoke sympathy. It is a kind of lamentation or mourning that speaks of misfortune and sorrow. In the final section of the piece, these two characteristically opposing musical discourses merge and sound harmonious – at least in a musical context.

Promenade – The repeated, slightly changed promenade from the beginning of the cycle brings the listener or observer’s attention and concentration back, reminding them of the initial enthusiasm and freshness. Limoges Market Technically perhaps the most demanding, the piece “Limoges Market” is presented in repetitive chord progressions and abrupt melodic movements that depict the crowded market, loud haggling, and the hustle and bustle of the square where the market is located. People speak loudly there, negotiating prices in short sentences or recounting current events. Stasov comments on this scene: “French women fiercely argue at the market.” The piece concludes with a hurried passage, as if the people portrayed in this scene suddenly exit in a rush, making way for the next painting.

Lesson 4

Catacombs – Another sudden change of scene – Musorgsky skillfully used abrupt changes in character in the music to enhance the dramatic impact. Once again, the hustle and bustle from the musical representation of the Limoges market abruptly and without preparation gives way to a completely different atmosphere dominated by sounds from the vast corridors of the catacombs. In a way, this contemplation into the depths, downwards and immediately after, in the next promenade, upwards, towards the heavens, represents the composer’s meditation on the theme of death and a dialogue with a prematurely deceased friend, as well as with himself. The piece is titled “Con mortuis in lingua mortua” – “With the dead in a dead language.” Chords in different registers, open harmonic sequences aided by the pedal, alternating fortissimos and pianissimos in dynamics, describe the unknown world of the catacombs, the echoes resonating through those spaces, and the sudden sounds that send shivers down the observer’s spine. Hartmann’s painting depicts people wandering through the underground with the pale light of lamps. It is a self-portrait with a friend and guide through the Parisian catacombs. Visibility is reduced, so the vastness of that world can only be intuited – primarily within the realm of imagination, especially based on the powerful echo that makes it clear to the observer in the darkness that it is an immeasurably large network of tunnels and chambers. It can be freely interpreted that this piece, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is also a description of an internal landscape – the realm of the soul. Promenade The next promenade is, as I have already mentioned, music that describes heavenly, angelic scenes. While the catacombs are depicted with dark musical colors, sudden contrasts, and echoes, in this version of the promenade, the musical flow is presented in a brighter tonal range, with a rhythmic quotation of its theme and a continuous sounding of octave tremolos in the high register, creating a shimmering effect that portrays weightlessness, airiness, and contemplation.

Baba Yaga – In Baba Yaga, Hartmann’s sketch of a clock in the shape of Baba Yaga’s hut standing on bird legs is transformed into a wild and frantic flight. It is evident that the composer’s emotional state is heightened, as he uses music in this piece to evoke fear and dread from the tales of Baba Yaga – the witch who is the Russian counterpart to our Baba Roga, another terrifying creature from the mythology of the South Slavs. In Musorgsky’s Baba Yaga, the witch moves in agile motions in all directions, and the noise produced by her movements blends with the sounds of ringing bells, foreshadowing the next piece in the cycle, which depicts the bells of Kiev. The Great Gate of Kiev The final piece in the cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition” is “The Great Gate of Kiev.”

The finale of the cycle was created as a musical reaction to Hartmann’s watercolor painting of the same name. It was a work with which the painter competed for the visual design of monumental gates in 1869. These gates were intended to be erected in honor of the events of April 4, 1866, when an assassination attempt was made on Alexander II. Hartmann’s project depicted massive gates in the old Russian style. Above them, two enormous granite columns were supporting an arch, three-quarters of which were buried in the ground. The exterior facade was adorned with traditional Russian woodcarving, and at the top was the Russian national symbol – an eagle with spread wings. On the right side, there was a three-story tower with a dome shaped like a Slavic helmet. This design captivated the audience at the time, and Hartmann considered it his most successful work. However, the competition in which Hartmann presented his project was eventually canceled, and the Gates of Kiev were never built. The musical depiction of the Kiev Gate exudes grandeur and a sublime style. Apocryphal mythological superstitions are rejected, and the Russian Orthodox Church is celebrated through evocations of chants, bell ringing, and a description of the grand monument at the gates of Kiev. The final piece in the cycle “Pictures at an Exhibition” celebrates Russia and its traditional heritage in the broadest sense. In this way, it seals the composition that will become the crown jewel of Modest Mussorgsky’s oeuvre and another gem in Russian musical culture.