program notes by composition > P > Pictures at an Exhibition

Pictures at an Exhibition

Modest Mussorgsky/trans. Mark Hindsley

Pictures at an Exhibition was written by Mussorgsky as a tribute to his close friend and contemporary, architect Viktor Hartmann. The original suite for piano describes the drawings which most impressed him from among some 400 displayed in a memorial exhibition for Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at the age of 39. The pictures are introduced and often interspersed with thematically recurring “promenades”.

Promenade depicts the composer, amid a crowd of visitors, looking around for the most attractive exhibits. It represents variations on a theme of very outspoken Russian characters which are continued in the ensuing promenades.

Gnomus — A design for a nutcracker with huge jaws, in the form of a dwarf clumsily running on crooked legs.

The Old Castle — Watercolor of an Italian castle at night with a troubadour singing in front of it.

The Tuileries — An avenue in the public park and garden in Paris swarming with children and nurses.

Bydlo — A lumbering Polish oxcart approaching, then receding into the horizon.

Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks — Drawing from ballet Trilby .

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle — Drawing of a beggar wheedling a rich man on a street corner in a Polish ghetto.

The Market Place at Limoges — Chatter and haggling of Frenchwomen at market.
Catacombae, Sepulchrum Romanum — Drawing of Hartmann and a friend studying a pile of skulls in a Roman catacomb by the light of a lantern.
Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua — “With the dead in a dead language”. Mussorgsky’s elegy to his friend: “The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls, calls out to them, and the skulls begin to glow faintly”.
The Hut on Fowl’s Legs — Drawing of a bronze clock built in the form of the peculiar home of legendary Russian witch Baba Yaga who uses a pestle to fly around in a mortar. Sounds of a clock and a witch’s chase.
The Great Gate at Kiev — Architectural design for the Bogatyr Gates in Kiev, ancient massive Russian style, surmounted by a slavonic helmet-shaped cupola.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was born into wealth in Russia. He began piano lessons at the age of six from his mother. At military school he learned to improvise on the piano and, it is thought, to drink. One of “The Five"”group of nationalist Russian composers, he was an innovator who strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, writing in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music. He succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 42.

Dr. Mark Hindsley (1905-1999), distinguished longtime Director of Bands at the University of Illinois, transcribed this work for symphonic band.

Last updated on July 6, 2013 by Palatine Concert Band