Posted in Research for Project 2 Examples

Example 4 Reseach, Part 5: Inspiration behind Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

My quest for more musical structures and forms carried me yet to another voyage. This time it lead me to the 19th century “New Russian School” and introduced me to one among its five composers of “The Mighty Handful”, and what is perhaps his most famous, slightly unpianistic (Russ:1), piano composition.

On 4th August, in 1873, Modest Mussorgsky lost his close friend, the architect, painter and designer, Victor Hartmann (Fig. 1), who died very suddenly of an aneurysm at the age of 39.

Fig. 1. Hartman and Mussorgsky

It was a terrible loss for him. He wrote in a letter to Stasov, a respected Russian critic:

“This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such cases: ‘He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live.’ True … but how many men have the luck to be remembered?” (Nagachavskaya, )

As Bricard (2002: 9) writes, his mourning was perhaps also accompanied by guilt, as “he felt in part responsible because he did not recognize the symptoms of a previous attack, which had occurred while walking home with him.” 

In the winter and spring next year, Memorial Exhibition of Hartmann‘s paintings was held. Mussorgsky visited this exhibition and not long after composed his Pictures at an Exhibition, which “represents Mussorgsky’s resolve to pay homage to his beloved friend by recreating his paintings and drawings in a set of musical illustrations,” and even the working title of this piano suite was titled Hartmann. (Bricard, 2002: 9)

Hartmann was primarily an architect, but painting and sketching were his main interest. Unlike Mussorgsky, he traveled throughout Europe and lived for several years in Italy, France, Germany, and Poland, where he was developing his artistic skills. This foreign tour resulted in watercolors and sketches that inspired Mussorgsky, as six of these were a part of the ten Pictures at an Exhibition. Around 400 works were displayed at the Memorial Exhibition:

“One-half of these drawings show nothing typical of an architect. They are all lively, elegant sketches by a genre-painter, the majority depicting scenes, characters and figures out of everyday life, captured in the middle of everything going on around them: on streets and in the churches, in Parisian catacombs and Polish monasteries, in Roman alleys and villages around Limoges. There are carnival characters a la Gavarni, workers in smocks, priests with umbrellas under their arms riding mules, [an] elderly French woman at prayer, Jews smiling from under their skull caps, Parisian rag-pickers. . . landscapes with scenic ruins, magnificently done with a panorama of the city.” (Nagachevskaya,)

Today, there are less than 100 of these. However, as Orlova (200: 173-174) writes:

“The piano suite Kartinki s vystavski is one of Mussorgsky’s greatest works. It is far from being a simple “illustration” of Hartmann’s drawings. It is a profoundly philosophical work, a mediation on life and death, on history, on the people and on man in general.”

Even though these sketches portray the countries and people from Hartmann’s travels abroad, Mussorgsky in his music “infused into them a unifying Russian component”. Here, “the culture and emotions of the Russian people are seen through a musical lens trained on Hartmann’s suggestive scenes.” But, it’s interesting to note that the titles of this programmatic cycle, which are in different languages, might symbolically refer to Hartmann’s travels and his destinations.

Mussorgsky’s way of artistic depiction also differs from Hartmann’s:

“His music speaks to us of fairy tales, the drama of everyday life, death, animals, human personalities, children and monuments in a dialogue that is simple, direct and unrestricted by traditional rules and conventions … one has impression of “hearing” reality.” This realism of Mussorgsky’s music contrasts the ornamental traits of Hartmann’s work.

Mussorgsky arranged his piano suite in a very interesting way. (Fig. 2a) There are several interpretations, among them Bobrovsky’s, where he explains that first half of the cycle is a kind of “mirror image” of the second half. (Russ: 32) (Fig. 2b)

exhibition 1.PNG

Fig. 2a. The structure of the piece with the original titles


Fig. 2b. Mirror image-like structure

The circle starts with an introductory theme – Promenade, which thereafter, occurs six more times with different variations in color, tone and character, alternating between the Pictures in a symmetrical way. (Fig. 2a) In the manuscript, the first three recurrences are without titles, and Mussorgsky referred to them in his letter to Stasov as Intermezzi. The fourth is again titled Promenade and has the same characteristics as the introductory Promenade. The rest of the recurrences is incorporated into the Pictures.

“The recurring promenades give structure to the cycle and serve as interludes that bind the Pictures at an Exhibition together.”

Nagachevskaya writes that, at first, only one Picture is placed between Promenades (I), (II), and (III). Then, the scheme changes; two Pictures are now placed between Promenades (III), (IV), and (V). Two more Pictures are heard before the music of Promenade appears again. This time, Promenade becomes part of the Picture (Con mortuis in lingua mortua). Then, in the closing Picture (The Great Gate of Kiev) the intonations of Promenade are heard again.

Although the theme itself is independent of Hartmann’s material and represent Mussorgsky himself reflecting on the exhibition, the variations still convey his changing impressions in the context of viewing Hartmann’s art, as he moves from one picture to the next. The rhythmic alternation between 5/4 and 6/4, which depicts Mussorgsky as he walks back and forth from one painting to another. Although, it might remind of “the awkward and clumsy gait of the portly composer”, listening to the promenades, I can easily imagine anyone else leisurely going about an exhibition. It is a special walk, one that wanders without a clear direction and lacks a focused pace, where any next step can slow down or accelerate when one becomes distracted by a certain art piece.

After the introductory promenade comes the first character piece with highly chromatic texture, the little gnome which (N, 64) as Stasov’s comment describes: “clumsily walking on deformed legs”. The title for this piece is Gnomus in Latin, which is appropriate because it might “emphasize the supernatural, fantastic, and mysterious character” (Nagachevskaya, 44) of the piece. The gnome depicts a child’s plaything that Hartmann designed – a carved wooden nutcracker for a Christmas tree. (Fig. 4) This ornament was in the shape of a gnome and a nut is put into his mouth to crack.


Fig. 4. Hartmann’s nutcracker

Von Riesemann writes that the piece paints a “. . . dwarf who waddles with awkward steps on his short, bandy legs; the grotesque jumps of the music, and the clumsy, crawling movements with which these are interspersed, are forcibly suggestive.” However, as Nagachevskaya points out, this is quite a shallow interpretation that only focuses on Mussorgsky’s imitation of the jumps, awkward steps, and clumsiness of the character without introducing the listeners to the Gnome’s inner world.

Fried writes that:

“Mussorgsky’s piece is grotesque, with a touch of tragedy, a convincing example of the “humanization” of a ridiculous prototype. In the music, which portrays the dwarf’s awkward leaps and bizarre grimaces, are heard cries of suffering, moans and entreaties. The gnome is related to other characters in Mussorgsky’s works where behind an ugly outward appearance one senses a living and suffering soul…”

The second picture of the cycle is Il vecchio castello – the old castle. Von Riesemann, write that it represents “. . . an old tower of the Middle Ages, before which a minstrel sings his song, a long, unspeakably melancholy melody.” Many take it to be based on Hartmann’s sketch of the old French Cathedral Tower in Périgueux. (Fig. 5) However, some point out that if the composer wanted to depict the old French cathedral from Hartmann’s sketch, he could have chosen a French title for this.


Fig. 5 Hartmann’s Cathedral Tower in Périgueux

Bicard mentions that Italian title suggests that this was one of Hartmann’s watercolor sketches done in Italy, but as Russ comments that, while there are some architectural sketches from France in the exhibition catalog, none are from Italy.

Either way, Hartmann’s drawing of the old French cathedral could have inspired Mussorgsky, but his creative imagination turned the initial architectural sketch into a romantic ballad from an ancient time. Golovinsky and Sabinina suggest that “The Old Castle is not just a musical Picture, but rather a scene . . .  a troubadour sings an ancient song, alternating the vocal stanzas with a sad and monotonous instrumental ritornello.” (Nagachevskaya) Schnitke also considers this composition a rare combination of creative finding and inspiration, logically organized into a sophisticated form, which combines elements of rondo, ritornello, and free variations listeners may imagine mysterious ruins that silently keep their dark secrets. Nagachevskaya writes that it shows a story of dramatic events, told by a third person, a troubadour who, being inspired by the view of this deserted place, sings a ballad accompanying himself on a lute.

Next Picture is the Tuileries (Dispute d’enfants après juex) and the French title of this little scherzo translated to children quarrelling after play. Stasov tells that this little scherzo is based on a picture of children with their young nurse, playing in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and von Riesemann states that “. . . Hartmann’s picture shows a walk in the Tuileries gardens in Paris, crowded with playing children and their nurses.” On contrary, Russ says that the illustration of the Tuileries gardens has vanished with one listed in the exhibition catalogue as ‘Tuileries Garden, crayons’. Seroff, in turn, suggests a different sketch: “. . . Moussorgsky’s free development of Hartmann’s pencil drawing of one corner of a garden, deserted, and without children.” Russ though insists that the children were probably a small detail from which Mussorgsky’s musical representation grew out.

Nagachevskaya (96) point out that “Even though there is no correlative drawing by Hartmann available, Mussorgsky’s music is certainly visually evocative. One may imagine a scene in a famous Parisian garden where young children are arguing at play. At a certain moment, when the quarrel becomes too loud, one of the nurses perhaps interferes and calms the agitated children down, reestablishing the happy environment.”

Schnitke claims that due to specific melodic intonations and plagal harmonies the music of the Tuileries sounds Russian. Houbov, confirms and insists that in spite of Mussorgsky’s French setting for this Picture, the action rather takes place in the famous Letnii Sad (Summer Garden) in St. Petersburg, and the children in the argument are not French but Russian.

It’s interesting to note that Mussorgsky was liked by and was popular with children. Stasov’s daughter writes about Mussorgsky visiting, when she was seven years old:


Russ also points out that there was a certain childishness in Mussorgsky’s character – his constant use of rather silly nicknames, his obsession with food and fascination with fairy-tales, that he never quite matured, also mentioning that “His interest in the ways of children is reflected in a number of pieces, most notably The Nursery.”

Next Picture is the Bydlo. In his letter to Stasov, Mussorgsky wrote, “No 4. right between the eyes ‘Sandomirzsko bydlo’ (le télégue) [the cart] (le télégue, of course, is not named in the title, just between us).” The locale for this picture is Sandomir, an ancient city in Poland with many architectural monuments, which Hartmann visited before his return to Russia. (Bicard, 11)  Fried mentions that it contained more Ukrainian rather than Polish national elements. Bicard says that: “Heavy, reiterated left-hand chords that depict a huge cart rumbling down the road accompany it. Moussorgsky intended the appearance of the wagon to be a surprise, which is why the cart is not named in the title and there is a ff in the beginning…  Rimsky-Korsakov ruined this surprise by changing Moussorgsky’s original dynamic to a p.”

As the cart was mentioned in the letter, Stasov suggested that this piece is about a huge peasant dray on the enormous wheels driven by oxen. However, there is another meaning to bydlo, as Lopouhov writes, “. . . it is one of the offensive names for the Russian peasantry.” Nagachevskaya mentions that “At the time when Mussorgsky was composing his suite, truthful observations about the horrible life of the serfs were neither welcomed nor encouraged by the monarchical authorities. The composer, therefore, had to express his thoughts and emotions through symbols and metaphors … Bydlo goes far beyond the naturalistic imitation of the wooden cart and the oxen that pulled it.”

Following Bydlo is a scherzino – another little scherzo portraying the chicks, which according to Houbov, Mussorgsky composed, inspired by Hartmann’s illustration (Fig. 6) of a chick costume designed by Victor Hartmann for the ballet Trilby. It is unclear whether Mussorgsky wrote this title in Russian or in French. Schnitke presents the title of this Picture in both languages: in Russian – it is Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and in French – Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells.


Fig. 6. Hartmann’s chick costume

Oscar von Riesemann calls it a “. . . ‘Scherzino’ of the greatest charm.” Lopouhov defines this piece as a scherzino-humoresque. Schnitke identifies it as masterful and tasteful miniature and suggests that Mussorgsky tried to reproduce the embryonic life of the unhatched chicks through his music. Lopouhov, however, claims that the chicks do come out of their shells in order to perform their ballet dance. Nagachevskaya writes that: “Even though the researchers may disagree on whether Mussorgsky intended to reproduce the embryonic life of the chicks or picture their first steps into the world, the performer’s task is to reveal the composer’s unparalleled fantasy by reproducing on the piano the rocking of the eggs, the chicks’ convulsive motions, their impatient chirping, clumsy steps, and their first attempts to try their wings.”

This is true, especially in the upper registers of the piano, where the composition skillfully imitates the clucking of chickens and the fluttering of their feathers. (Bricard)

Next picture is the caricature of two Jewish men – “Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuyle”. In 1868, while traveling through Poland, Hartmann drew the portraits of two Jewish men (Fig. 7) from the small town of Sandomir. One of these men was rich and the other poor. In Hartmann’s paintings the rich man looks self-assured, proud, and full of dignity. The poor man, on the contrary, looks feeble and frail. He dejectedly sits in the street wearing rags with his head hung low, holding nothing but a stick in his hands. Upon his return to Russia, Hartmann gave both of these drawings to Mussorgsky because the latter liked them very much.

Fig. 7. Hartmann’s portraits of two Jewish men, Samuel and Schmuyle

The music, as Bicard describes, uses these two Jewish stereotypes into one representation. In the opening section with the decisive and highly ornamented theme, the first speaks in an imperative and assertive fashion. The second speaks in the second section – chanting high voice used during ritual davening – praying in synagogue. In the final section, the first and second theme are fused together.

There are two different perceptions about the psychological meaning and content of this piece. Western and Russian scholars could be divided in two groups: one group claims that this piece is a caricature or a grotesquerie. The other, rather merciful, group states that this piece is about a personal tragedy that reveals a deep social drama.

Next Picture is the wonderful portrayal of French Market Place in Limoges, with women that are furiously gossiping, chattering and quarrelling behind their carts. Bicard mentions that Hartamnn painted many watercolors in the town of Minoges, most of them of the famous cathedral. There are nearly 75 listed in the Exhibition Catalogue, but according to Lopouhov, there is no record that Hartmann drew a sketch of a market place. They were probably Moussorgsky’s invention and he left two introductory notes in French, although these were crossed out:

Houbov calls this piece a grotesquerie, while Nagachevskaya disagrees and says that the assertion is doubtful because grotesquerie implies mockery, caricature, and ugly exaggeration. She insists that Mussorgsky, on the contrary, smiles and laughs with the characters in this Picture and encourages the performer to do the same. She says that even when these women’s heated debate reaches its peak, the music never becomes violent or frightening. “Mussorgsky shows us a small episode from the everyday life of these women.”

Golovinsky and Sabinina describe this Picture as a scherzo. Nagachevskaya mentions that scherzos were usually written in triple meter, but Limoges is in 4/4 time (except for the eight bars in the middle of the piece, where the meter temporarily changes to 3/4 time), although I know there are cases such as Beethoven’s scherzo in his piano sonata no that is written in 2/4. Schnitke classifies this piece as a very special toccata, because of its programmatic content where this piece develops as a theatrical scene and lacks the monotonous and mechanical quality often characteristic of many instrumental pieces written in this genre. Nagachevskaya adds that Limoges may also be identified as a humoresque because it is a short, lively piece, filled with good humor. Riesemann gives a very accurate description in my opinion, that this piece is a “study in intonation” in which the composer masterfully imitates human voices and the intonations of speech.

Leaving the Limoges market, Mussorgsky takes us to the catacomb as Nagachevskaya describes: “a gloomy Picture depicting the scenes of decay” Once again, the latin title – Catacombae, just like in the gnomus, gives us the supernatural, fantastic, and mysterious character. On his drawing Hartmann presented three men exploring the catacombs. (Fig. 8) According to Russ, one of these men is Hartmann, another is Hartmann’s colleague, and the third man is their guide. Bicard confirms this and adds that the right corner of this drawing shows a pile of human skulls.


Fig. 8. Hartmann’s catacomb in Paris

Mussorgsky divided this musical Picture into two parts and gave them the following Latin titles: sepulcrum Romanum, ‘the Roman tomb’ and Con mortuis in lingua mortua, ‘with the dead in the dead language.’ He added a program note: “The following text should be in Latin: the creative spirit of the late Hartmann leads me to the skulls, appeals to them; the skulls begin to gleam faintly.” As Nagachevskaya writes, upon reading these notes one can assume how greatly Mussorgsky was affected by the death of his beloved friend.

Lopouhov wonders whether Mussorgsky wanted to represent in his Picture the Paris catacombs, in which were stored the bodies of executed people, or a Roman tomb, which is a noble memorial place. Nagachevskaya suggests that because Mussorgsky wrote a subtitle “sepulcrum Romanum” to the first part of the Catacombae, it may not be wrong to presume that Mussorgsky intended to make this scene of decay more noble and to make it a musical monument to his deceased friend. As to the second part of The Catacombs, she says, since Mussorgsky mentioned the gleaming skulls in his manuscript, one nat assumes the composer tried to follow Hartmann’s drawing.

Montague-Nathan writes that “. . . ‘The Catacombs’ is a curiously fantastic number, part of which is based on the ‘Promenade’ theme.” Brown places a much higher value and calls The Catacombs a “chilling piece” and describes it as “. . . a world in which all had seemed dehumanized, disoriented and unpredictable . . .” Russ writes that “. . . ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Con mortuis’ are the most introspective pictures, reflecting the morbid side of Musorgsky at this time.” Shirinian expresses a similar point of view calling it an intimate philosophical reflection about life and death.

Bicard writes that the catacombs symbolize death and the helplessness of humans to fight its inevitability. He mentions how death is a theme in much of Mussorgsky’s work and that he almost had a pathological fascination with it. The slow, sustained chords that alternate between ff and p give the effect of an echo in the cave. There is little or no melody and no key signature which gives a vague tonality, while the dead in a dead language is a lyrical theme, a variant of promenade theme with a challenging right-hand tremolo. Bicard says that it almost serves as an epilogue, to me, however, it seems almost like a goodbye and rest in peace, as Mussorgsky departs from the painting.

Next is Baba Yaga, a witch that is one of the most popular characters from Old Russian fairy tales. Bicard describes that she rides through the woods on a mortar, driven by a pestle and uses a broom to eliminate traces of her path. Her hut is on chicken claws, which enable her to turn in either direction to lure an approaching person into her house, where she eats them and crushes their bones in the mortar with her pestle. Hartmann’s drawing that is thought to inspire the piece is a design for a Russian 14th-century clock. (Fig. 9)


Fig. 9. Hartmann’s clock

According to Brown, “. . . the witch’s pendulum begins the frantic ticking that determines the pace of her ride.” Russ states that “ If the metronome marking is correct, then the indication ♪=120 leaves each bar with a duration of exactly one second; this, and the mechanical rhythm, gives the impression of a giant clock.” Shlifshtein suggests that the musical Picture is only about Baba-Yaga, her frenzied flight, and her mysterious magic spells, similarly Trembovelsky, says that this musical piece is based on the composer’s imagination and there is no direct connection between Hartmann’s model and Mussorgsky’s representation. Houbov reconciles these two opinions and states that Hartmann’s image got transformed in Mussorgsky’s mind into a vast and fantastic story of Baba Yaga.

The final Picture is the Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann entered a competition for a gate that was to be constructed to commemorate the escape of Czar Alexander II from an assassination attempt. Hartmann’s sketch of the gate (Fig. 10) represents a very unusual and asymmetric architectonic structure designed in an Old Russian style. However, the competition was called off and the gate was never built. Bicard mentions that it’s the Bogatyr gate, which refers to mythological Russian heroes that liven in Kiev, whose chief occupation was hunting.


Fig. 10. Hartmann’s plan for city gate

However, according to Seroff, “Moussorgsky’s last picture in his piano suite has nothing photographically resembling Hartmann’s design for the great Gate of Kiev. . . ” Schnitke, claims that musical representation of the Great Gate came closer than ever to Hartmann’s original drawing; the massive chords symbolize the pillars, the church-like design inspired Mussorgsky to introduce the church chant, and the image of the bell tower resulted in the impressive church bell pealing in this musical picture.

Brown points out that “casual observers” depicted in Hartmann’s watercolor become “human participants” in Mussorgsky’s piece. Nagachevskaya confirms this and says that Mussorgsky managed to vividly represent the people in his music through a church choir chanting hymns and a cheerful, even ecstatic crowd celebrating a major event.

This last piece of the cycle incorporates ringing bells, a Russian chorale and the powerful return to the Promenade theme, which binds the whole work together. The folk-like intonations that are present in the music of The Great Gate are also similar to the Promenades. Nagachevskaya says: “In his final Picture Mussorgsky created an apotheosis, an elaborate scene that represents his beloved Russia in its splendor and grandeur.” Bicard in his own words describes that this musical picture is unsurpassed in grandeur and majesty and possesses unquestionable Russian national character.

Before I conclude, I’d like to say that after all this research, I definitely have a new kind of appreciation for this masterpiece. It also affected the way I listen to it. Here is the video of the whole composition:

To conclude, it was a real honor reading about Pictures at an Exhibition and all the inspiration behind it. It is indeed a truly wonderful piece, which I am sure will influence my future work. In my next blog post, I will write about the theme which I will use for my own short suite.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Hartman and Mussorgsky

Fig. 2a. The structure of the piece with the original titles

Fig. 2b. Mirror image-like structure

Fig. 4. Hartmann’s nutcracker

Fig. 5 Hartmann’s Cathedral Tower in Périgueux

Fig. 6. Hartmann’s chick costume

Fig. 7. Hartmann’s portraits of two Jewish men, Samuel and Schmuyle

Fig. 8. Hartmann’s catacomb in Paris

Fig. 9. Hartmann’s clock

Fig. 10. Hartmann’s plan for city gate


Russ, Michael (1992) Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bricard, Nancy (ed.) (2002) Modest Musorgsky. Alfred Music Publishing

Orlova, Aleksandra Anatol’evna (1983) Musorgsky’s Days and Works: A Biography in Documents. Books on Demand

Orlova, Aleksandra Anatol’evna (ed.) (1991) Musorgsky Remembered. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Nagachevskaya, Svetlana (2009) Pictures at an Exhibition: a Reconciliation of Divergent
Perceptions about Mussorgsky’s Renowned Cycle. (PhD) The University of Arizona At:…/azu_etd_10761_sip1_m.pdf

Quick, Matthew (2009) G. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: Identifying the Expressive Narrative through Comparisons with Vocal Literature (PhD) University of Cincinnati

Riesemann, Oskar von (1935) Moussorgsky. New York: Tudor Publishing Co.

Schnittke, Alfred  (1953–1954) “Kartinki s vïstavki’ M. P. Musorgskogo (Opït analiza).” Voprosï muzïkoznaniya 1 pp. 327–57.


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