Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (original piano version; 1874); Мусоргский, «Картины на выставке» (оригинальная версия для фортепиано, 1874)

 

 

“Pictures at an Exhibition” (Russian: Картинки с выставки – Воспоминание о Викторе Гартмане; literally, “Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann”; French: Tableaux d’une exposition) is a suite of ten pieces (plus a recurring, varied Promenade) composed for the piano by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (Russian: Модест Петрович Мусоргский) in 1874.

The suite is Mussorgsky’s most famous piano composition. It has become further known through various orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel’s arrangement being by far the most recorded and performed.

 

 

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As noted in a Wikipedia entry:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modest_Mussorgsky

 

Contemporary opinions of Mussorgsky as a composer have varied from positive to ambiguous to negative. Mussorgsky’s eventual supporters, Stasov and Balakirev, initially registered strongly negative impressions of the composer. Stasov wrote Balakirev, in an 1863 letter, “I have no use for Mussorgsky. His views may tally with mine, but I have never heard him express an intelligent idea. All in him is flabby, dull. He is, it seems to me, a thorough idiot”, and Balakirev agreed: “Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot.”

Mixed impressions were recorded by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, colleagues of Mussorgsky who, unlike him, made their living as composers. Both praised his talent while expressing disappointment with his technique. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that Mussorgsky’s scores included “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation, sometimes a depressing lack of it, unsuccessful scoring of orchestral things… what was needed at the moment was an edition for performance, for practical artistic aims, for familiarization with his enormous talent, not for the study of his personality and artistic transgressions.”

While preparing an edition of Sorochintsï Fair [an opera], Anatoly Lyadov remarked: “It is easy enough to correct Mussorgsky’s irregularities. The only trouble is that when this is done, the character and originality of the music are done away with, and the composer’s individuality vanishes.”

Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck was also critical of Mussorgsky: “Mussorgsky you very rightly call a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the [other members of The Five], but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness. He flaunts his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.”

Western perceptions of Mussorgsky changed with the European premiere of Boris Godunov in 1908. Before the premiere, he was regarded as an eccentric in the west. Critic Edward Dannreuther, wrote, in the 1905 edition of The Oxford History of Music, “Mussorgsky, in his vocal efforts, appears willfully eccentric. His style impresses the Western ear as barbarously ugly.” However, after the premiere, views on Mussorgsky’s music changed drastically. Gerald Abraham, a musicologist, and an authority on Mussorgsky: “As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2017

 

 

 

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Movements

 

1 Promenade

2 No. 1 “The Gnome”

3 Promenade (2nd)

4 No. 2 “The Old Castle”

5 Promenade (3rd)

6 No. 3 “Tuileries (Children’s Quarrel after Games)”

7 No. 4 “Cattle”

8 Promenade (4th)

9 No. 5 “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks”

10 No. 6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”

11 Promenade (5th)

12 No. 7 “Limoges. The Market (The Great News)”

13 No. 8 “Catacombs (Roman Tomb)”\

14. Con mortuis in lingua mortua

15 No. 9 “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”

16 No. 10 “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)”

 

 

 

 

 

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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10 Responses to Mussorgsky, “Pictures at an Exhibition” (original piano version; 1874); Мусоргский, «Картины на выставке» (оригинальная версия для фортепиано, 1874)

  1. elisabethm says:

    Thank you for this interesting piece on Mussorgsky. Actually I’ve listened to him a fair bit lately. I didn’t know he was that controversial, I quite enjoy him.

  2. I’ve liked Mussorgsky since I was a teen and listened -precisely- to his Pictures… (the solo piano version and afterwards, Ravel’s formidable orchestration). I think his only issue was some extreme alcoholism. Aside from this, he was a wonderful composer (just lacking technical learning; a bit like poor Schubert, even if in some lower level than Schubert). Just look at what Shostakovich and Prokovief said about him… (marvels!, and those two were true geniuses as well) . Have you listened to his Songs and Dances of Death?

  3. Very interesting comment, Li. Thanks. The allusion to Schubert intrigued me. Mussorgsky shows, I would think, that formal learning is not the be all and end all for an artist. I got to know “Pictures at an Exhibition” initially in the orchestral version; I prefer the original piano version. It is said that Mussorgsky was a big influence on Shostakovich, one of my favorite twentieth century and favorite Russian composers. I have not listed to the “Songs and Dances of Death.” Must do so. Thanks for letting me know about them. By the way, there is some Shostakovich music on this blog.

  4. Thanks again, Roger. The allusion to Schubert was a bit hyperbolic, since he had formal studies, but the fact is that he lacked the theoretical and technical knowledge that Beethoven (his idol), Mozart, Haydn and (of course!) JS Bach or his older sons had. He began to seriously study counterpoint and fugue in his late times (I think it was his very last year), when he was composing the last two piano sonatas, the last string quartet and the great Quintet for two cellos. He was very aware of his weakness regarding harmony, despite the huge talent he held — as great as any of his admired references.

    As for Shostakovich, I am absolutely in love with and in awe of him. I listen every day to some work or other from him… I posted as well some videos of his works, on my blog or on my sister’s, but the fact is that I have quit posting videos, and most especially, classical music videos; being too immense a subject, and too little attractive to most followers and eventual readers.

    Best wishes

  5. Fascinating comments, Li. Thank you. You obviously have a deep knowledge of music which, I would suspect, surpasses that of most listeners.

    Yesterday, I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist. We share a love of classical music, including Shostakovich. He loves the Eleventh and Twelfth symphonies, and ageees with me that Shostakovich’s Fifth is his masterpiece, ranking with the greatest symphonies ever written. (He doesn’t know the quartets.)

    He said something penetrating about music being more than just notes — I wish I could remember his exact words — and about consciousness being deeper than logical or rational analysis.

    — Roger

  6. You flatter me in excess! Only, I’ve been raised in a family of outcasts and exiles (republican Catalans from a fascist Spain — and even worse, we had Romani descent; which drove some of my elders very close to the Konzentrationslager), who had music, literature and culture in general as its way of making a living. My sister and I were the fortunate sons of an ”orchestra and a library” as my dad sometimes said (wrongly, since my mother was a very good painter).

    Get your ophthalmologist, very seriously, to listen to Shostakovich string quartets! All of them. These are a treasure never heard since Beethoven’s!… In fact, only Schubert, had he lived some most deserved years more, would have written string quartets as great as they did (he wrote, in fact, two or three as great!

    About Shostakovich’s music, let me tell that I heard the Passacaglia (plus the lengthy cadenza) from his 1st Violin concerto when I was some six or seven hours old, since my mother asked to listen to it, and I was naturally at her side. Needless to say, I do not remember this particular audition.

  7. Li — did you mean the Nazi Luger?

  8. Thanks, Li. I have to listen to Shostakovich’s first violin concerto again. I have heard it a couple of times but don’t know it well. Regarding Schubert, I think his quintet in C, opus 163, is his best chamber work.

    You obviously grew up in a family and cultural atmosphere that fostered a unique combination of aesthetic sensitivity and cultural appreciation at two levels, painting and music. With a capacity for making your own judgments and developing your own taates. I admire this.

  9. I meant “Konzentrationslager” (and probably Mauthausen-Gusen, since it was there where most Catalans were sent). I’m used to think of those camps with their German name. I’m sorry.

    Also I made a mistake at the end, where I wrote six or seven years old. I meant “hours” old). As far as I’ve been told, that concerto was the very first music I heard in this life. Music full of pain and anguish and not very adequate for kids, by the way.

  10. Thanks, Li. I tool got to appreciate classical music very young, which I think was important in my development. One of the first pieces I recall was Mozart’s symphony no. 40. I loved the beginning.

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