When the Russian architect Viktor Hartmann died at the age of forty in 1873, a special exhibition of his works was organized in St. Petersburg to commemorate such a genius figure. Vladimir Stassov, who was an honoured critic and friend to both Mussorgsky and Hartmann, oversaw the exhibition. More than four hundred examples of Hartmann’s work, including various sketches, drawings and paintings, were put on display. Mussorgsky who had visited the exhibition early in 1874 decided to create a musical memorial in honour of his dear friend. Writing to Stassov about his new project, Mussorgsky said, “Hartmann is bubbling over, just as Boris [Godunov] did.”
The project in question blossomed into a piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, which Mussorgsky began on June 2, 1874. Working at a feverish pitch, the score was complete within the next three weeks. The suite was immediately hailed by the composer’s friends, particularly Stassov. Yet the suite was not performed often during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, as it is tremendously difficult. As Michael Russ has pointed out in his comprehensive study of the suite, “not that moments of real pianism are not present, particularly in ‘Tuileries’ and ‘Limoges’ with their sparkling writing”, nevertheless Russ counters that “demands on the pianist are often more of a matter of awkwardness than virtuosity.”1 The suite was not even published until five years after the composer’s death, but the music had fallen into obscurity after Mussorgsky’s death. It is when Maurice Ravel orchestrated the suite in 1922 did Pictures came to be known to the general audience. The urtext edition of Mussorgsky’s original suite had to wait until 1931.
Pictures at an Exhibition includes musical portraits of eleven of Hartmann’s works and five “Promenades.” This recurring theme, marked “nel modo russico” (“in the Russian manner”) is a personification of Mussorgsky, as he wandered from picture to picture. In terms of musical structure, the “Promenade” frames the entire suite; its variations serve as interludes between Nos. 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 6 and 7. It is also transformed into a poignant commentary in the latter half of No. 8. Russ has rightly observed that “Mussorgsky tends to focus on something or somebody depicted within the picture rather than being directly concerned with the art-work itself .”
”Gnomus” (The gnome) is a drawing for a nutcracker, with gnarly legs and a wide jaw. It was designed as an ornament for the Christmas tree by Hartmann. The music lurches, twitches, and snaps grotesquely, suggesting the gnome’s “droll movements” and “savage shrieks”, not unlike Gollum in JRR Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings.
“Il Vecchio Castello” (The old castle) depicts a medieval castle before which stands a singing troubadour. The mournful melody is played over a G-sharp pedal of 107 bars, invoking the accompaniment of the guitar or lute.
“Tuileries” is a Parisian garden frequented by children and their nannies. Mussorgsky depicts the “quarrelling of children” with a quick exchange of short phrases. It shows the composer’s gift of capturing the intonation of human speech through purely musical means.
“Bydlo” is the Polish word for cattle. The picture dated back to 1868, when Hartmann spent a month in the historic Polish town of Sandomierz. The vehicle portrayed is a crude ox-drawn wagon with wheels made from solid wooden discs. Mussorgsky’s music vividly depicts the tread of hooves as the wagon lumbers along.
“The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” is inspired by one of Hartmann’s costume designs for the ballet Trilby, choregraphed by Marius Petipa. Here, children dancers dressed as “canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor”. Mussorgsky emulates the sound of the chicks with chirping grace notes.
“Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuÿle” were originally two separate drawings by Hartmann, which Mussorgsky kept among his private collections. The portraits depicted “a rich Jew wearing a fur hat” and “a poor Jew: Sandomierz”. Mussorgsky fashioned these into a single movement, creating a dialogue between the haughty patriarch, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle the beggar. The “conversation” ends abruptly when Goldenberg rudely dismisses the whining Schmuÿle.
Hartmann’s lively drawing of “The market at Limoges” depicts the animated chattering between French wives. The picture translates into a frivolous scherzo under Mussorgsky’s pen. The composer even penned snatches of their gossip on the margin of his manuscript, which includes the recovering of a loss cow and a new set of false teeth for one of the matrons. The movement is interrupted by a forceful dissonant chord.
“Catacombs” (A Roman Sepulchre) are underground ossuaries in Paris, which hold the remains of about six million people. Stassov remarked in the exhibition catalogue that in the picture, “Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern.” The macabre mood carried into the next section “Con mortuis in lingua morta” (With the dead in a dead language). Mussorgsky noted that “The spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls and invokes them: the skulls begin to glow faintly”.
“Baba Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” stems from Hartmann’s design of a clock. Mussorgsky’s music conjures up the image of the fearsome Baba Yaga – a child-devouring witch from Russian fairy tales, who transports herself on mortar and flies on a flaming bloom.
“The Great Gate of Kiev” was Hartmann’s design for a monumental structure. Although the gate was never built, its sketch revealed an extraordinary bell-tower in the shape of a gigantic helmet. Mussorgsky represented the sounds heard around a Russian public monument through the quotation of an Orthodox hymn and the kaleidoscopic echoing of bells. The Promenade theme is reprised one last time in the most majestic manner, bringing the suite to a magnificent conclusion.