Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Notes by TŌN flutist Rebecca Tutunick

Inspiration From Grief
Grief has inspired some of the most monumental pieces across all art forms. For Modest Mussorgsky, loss spurred what is one of his most well-known pieces in the repertory. Following the young death of Victor Hartmann, an architect and artist, Vladimir Stasov organized a posthumous exhibition of Hartmann’s works in the spring of 1874. After attending the exhibition, Hartmann’s close friend Mussorgsky was quickly inspired to create a tribute to his departed friend, and by that June, Pictures at an Exhibition was complete.

An Array of Arrangements
Pictures at an Exhibition was composed as a piano suite, and though Mussorgsky never orchestrated his piece, many felt the music called for varied timbral colors. Pictures at an Exhibition has been transformed to fit most any setting. One of my own favorite musical memories was in my junior year of high school, performing Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for full marching band. Leonard Slatkin, whom we are honored to have here with us today, is among those who have reorchestrated this monumental work. He took Maurice Ravel’s famous orchestral arrangement, identified what Ravel changed or removed from Mussorgsky’s composition, and then altered the writing to better reflect the original piano score.

A Tour of the Exhibition
Mussorgsky places the listener in his own shoes as he walks through Stasov’s exhibition of Hartmann’s works, stopping at pictures that catch his attention, and at times, taking a moment to think back on his dear friend. The work begins with a Promenade, which leads Mussorgsky into the gallery. The themes heard within this introduction will return to reflect the movement as he walks from picture to picture. Mussorgsky takes the listener through eleven images, two of which are combined into one musical representation, ending with the movement that much of the audience will be anxiously waiting for! “The Great Gate of Kiev” is the most well-known excerpt of Pictures at an Exhibition, with its wonderfully majestic melodies and imitations of Russian reed organs and carillon bells. Though much of Hartmann’s artistic output did not survive, Mussorgsky brings his work to life musically, for us all to admire.