I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), best known for his opera, Boris Godunov, and also for Pictures at an Exhibition.
Mussorgsky had a friend named Viktor Hartmann who was an artist and architect. Both men were devoted to the cause of intrinsically Russian-style art.
Hartmann died from an aneurysm in 1873. The sudden loss of the artist, only thirty-nine years old, shook Mussorgsky along with others in Russia’s art world. An exhibition of over 400 Hartmann works was held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February and March of 1874. Mussorgsky lent works from his personal collection to the exhibit and viewed the show in person. Inspired by the experience, he composed Pictures at an Exhibition in six weeks. The music depicts an imaginary tour of an art collection. Titles of individual movements allude to works by Hartmann. (Click on the images below to enlarge and see captions.)
Mussorgsky based his musical material on drawings and watercolors by Hartmann produced mostly during the artist’s travels through Poland, France and Italy; the final movement depicts an architectural design for the capital city of Ukraine. Today most of the pictures from the Hartmann exhibit are lost, making it impossible to be sure in many cases which Hartmann works Mussorgsky had in mind. Musicologist Alfred Frankenstein, in a 1939 article for The Musical Quarterly, claimed to have identified seven of the pictures.
Here is the music the above paintings inspired:
Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks
Hut on Fowl’s Legs
Did you catch on that in Russian folklore, Baba Yaga is a witch?
Great Gate of Kiev
Mussorgsky links the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition. Two “Promenade” movements stand as portals to the suite’s main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking.
Mussorgsky wrote the suite for piano. The French composer, Maurice Ravel, arranged it for orchestra.
After composing Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky succumbed to deep depression and drank heavily. Undoubtedly, the alcoholic lifestyle contributed to his death at age 42.
A print of this portrait, painted by Ilya Repin shortly before Mussorgsky’s death, hung in my classroom when I taught elementary general music. My students often commented how scary this painting is, opening up a conversation about the dangers of alcohol abuse.