Skip to page content


Composed: 1874; orch. 1922

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones (1st = tenor tuba), tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, chimes, cymbals, gong, orchestra bells, ratchet, snare drum, slapstick, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 10, 1930, Artur Rodzinski conducting

About this Piece

Inasmuch as the profession of music was held in very low esteem in the middle and upper echelons of Russian society in the 19th century, many musically talented young men were forced by their families to seek careers in “respectable” occupations, such as medicine, chemistry, law, the navy, etc. Although anxious to pursue the study of music, Modest Mussorgsky was trained for government service, and had to forage around as best he could for a musical education. Considering the limitations under which he actually composed – an insecure grasp of musical form, of traditional harmony, and of orchestration – it is no wonder he suffered from profound insecurity. A victim of alcoholism, he died at 46, but still was able to leave a remarkably rich legacy of music – authentic, bold, earthy, intensely vivid Russian music.

Pictures at an Exhibition proved to be a welcome rarity in Mussorgsky’s anguished experience – a composition born quickly and virtually painlessly. Reporting to his friend Vladimir Stassov about the progress of the suite he was writing for piano (Pictures’ original medium), Mussorgsky exulted: “Ideas, melodies, come to me of their own accord. Like roast pigeons in the story, I gorge and gorge and over-eat myself. I can hardly manage to put it all down on paper fast enough.” The fevered inspiration was activated by a posthumous exhibit in 1874 of watercolors and drawings by the composer’s dear friend, Victor Hartmann, who had died suddenly the previous year at the age of 39. Mussorgsky’s enthusiastic and reverent homage to Hartmann is a series of musical depictions of ten of the artist’s canvasses, all of which hang as vividly in aural space as their visual progenitors occupied physical space.

As heard most often in present-day performances, Pictures wears the opulent apparel designed by Maurice Ravel, who was urged by conductor Serge Koussevitzky to make an orchestral transcription of the piano set, which he did in 1922. The results, perhaps surprisingly, do honor to both composers: The elegant Frenchman has not deprived the music of its realistic muscle, bizarre imagery, or intensity, but has heightened them through the use of marvelously apt instrumentation.

Pictures begins with, and several of its sections are preceded by, a striding Promenade theme – so Russian in its irregular rhythm and modal inflection – which portrays the composer walking, rather heavily, through the gallery.

Promenade: Trumpets alone present the Promenade theme, after which the full orchestra joins them for the most extended statement of the theme’s several subsequent appearances.

Gnomus: The Hartmann sketch is of a carved wooden nutcracker in the form of a wizened gnome who breaks the shells in his jaws. The music lurches, twitches, and snaps grotesquely.

Promenade: Horn initiates the theme in a gentle mood and the wind choir follows suit.

Il vecchio castello: Hartmann’s old castle is in Italy. Bassoons evoke a lonely scene: A troubador (English horn) sings a sad song, at first to a lute-like accompaniment in violas and cellos.

Promenade: trumpet and trombones with full orchestra.

Tuileries: The scene is set immediately with taunting wind chords and sassy string figures, and then Mussorgsky’s children prank, quarrel, and frolic spiritedly in the famous Parisian gardens.

Bydlo (Cattle): A Polish peasant drives an oxcart whose wheels lumber along steadily (with rhythmic regularity) and painfully (heavy-laden melody in brass).

Promenade: Winds, beginning with flutes, then in turn oboes and bassoons, do the walking, this time with tranquil steps.

Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks: The Hartmann chicks are the ballet dancers in eggshell costumes. Mussorgsky moves from oxcart to fowlyard with disarming ease.

Two Polish Jews, One Rich, the Other Poor: The names Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle were later additions to the title of this section, having no authority in Mussorgsky’s score. The composer satirizes the pair through haughty pronouncements from the patriarch (winds and strings) and nervous subservience from the beggar (stuttering trumpets).

Limoges, the Market Place: The bustle and excitement of peasant women in the French city’s market are brilliantly depicted.

Catacombs: The music trudges through the ancient catacombs in Rome on the way to a mournful, minor-key statement of the Promenade theme, titled by Mussorgsky, in Latin – Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the dead in a dead language).

The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga): Baba Yaga, a witch who lives in a hut supported by chicken legs, rides through the air demonically with Mussorgsky’s best Bald Mountain pictorialism.

The Great Gate of Kiev: Ceremonial grandeur, priestly chanting, the clanging of bells, and the Promenade theme create a singularly majestic canvas that is as conspicuously Russian to the ear as Hartmann’s fanciful picture of the Gate is to the eye.

— Orrin Howard