“His desire was to relate his art as closely as possible to life, especially that of the Russian masses, to nourish it on events and to employ it as a means for communicating human experience.” These words, from the indispensable Grove Concise Dictionary of Music, describe the artistic aims of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). At times a loner and a collaborator, an artist and a bureaucrat, he emerged from a military upbringing to become a member of “The Five”, a group of Russian composers dedicated to promoting distinctly Russian music. He died at age 42 after losing a lifelong battle with alcoholism. He left behind many unfinished work which were completed (and somewhat recomposed) by his friend Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. His most enduring contributions to the musical canon include the opera Boris Godunov, the piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition, and the symphonic poem Night on Bald Mountain.
Dallas Symphony Orchestra Kids Page about Mussorgsky – colorful, fun, and informative. Includes an edited recording of the Ravel version of “Great Gate of Kiev”.
Written in 1874, Pictures at an Exhibition is a program piece that imagines a person looking a series of paintings at an exhibit in an art gallery. It is a recreation of a memorial exhibition given in 1873 of the works of Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, a close friend of Mussorgsky’s who had died unexpectedly 3 years prior at age 39. Each movement of the suite presents a musical depiction of one of Hartmann’s works. These are often separated by the “Promenade” theme, which depicts the viewer walking between paintings.
The Wikipedia article on Pictures covers all the bases, including mention of the several arrangements that exist and copies of most of the original pictures that inspired Mussorgsky. Highly recommended!
At Columbia, we’ve only ever done select movement of this. In the past, it’s been “The Great Gate of Kiev” and “The Hut of Baba Yaga” (look for the video links below). This time, it’s “Gnomus”. Here’s an excellent orchestral version (Ravel’s famous orchestration) with the Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Here’s a different version of “Gnomus”, for string orchestra, that features animation based on the paintings that Mussorgsky was supposedly looking at at this legendary exhibition:
This video features a fantastically expressive conductor doing the last two movements, “The Hut of Baba Yaga” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”. These two are what we will play in April’s concert. Unforunately the embedding has been disabled, but please go watch – it’s very much worth it!!