In Saint Petersburg in the 1860s a group of friends, the Могучая кучка (Moguchaya kuchka) which is roughly translated as “the Five” or “The Mighty Handful” met together for drink and discussion about Music and Philosophy not unlike The Inklings did with literature and poetry a generation later.
These Russian composers all lived in St Petersburg and most all had day jobs. They worked to establish a distinctly Russian sound. We could go into their unique musical ideas or their other philosophical concerns here, but I want to draw attention to perhaps their most famous member – Modest Mussorgsky. His music was quite popular with the people, but the critics hated it because it refused to follow the conventions of Western music of the time (think Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, et al). The funny thing is that was precisely his point. The Five wanted a distinctly Russian sound and resisted the pull to merely imitate Western European models.
The piece I have in mind today is his most well-known work, Pictures at an Exhibition. The real story here is the inspiration behind it. Mussorgsky was best friends with the artist, architect, and designer Viktor Hartmann. They never got the opportunity to collaborate on, but Viktor’s sudden death from an aneurism at the young age of 39 sent Mussorgsky back into battle with life and reality and the darkness that had stalked him all his adult life. His weapon was alcohol, but his solace was composition, as opposed to what he thought of as the mindless civil service position he worked at to keep his head above water. So, for a short three weeks, there was clarity for Mussorgsky; clarity brought about by the deep love he had for his now deceased friend.
Vladimir Stasov, art critic and mentor to The Five, put together a memorial retrospective of Hartmann’s work. Mussorgsky even loaned a couple of paintings given to him by Hartmann to the event. After attending the memorial, Mussorgsky was inspired to write a piece as a tribute to his friend and his work. He wrote in the deep language of love, a tribute to their friendship. Originally written as a virtuoso piano piece, like most of Mussorgsky’s compositions it is known in a different form, as most of his works were either left unfinished or were “corrected” by his friends after his death who felt his idiosyncrasies as a composer were due to his lack of instruction and thus needed fixing. Today the Ravel orchestration is the most popular version of Pictures, but I prefer the original piano version. In it, one can easily follow Mussorgsky’s thoughts as he was buoyed by inspiration.
Each piece is in response to a piece of art on display. It is as if Mussorgsky was carried away in conversation with his beloved friend. The utterly charming touch is the use of a tune he called Promenade to connect the pieces. In it you can imagine his steps to depict his travel between paintings. He wrote to Stasov about the piece “my physiognomy can be seen in the interludes.” What a delightful genius.
Let us begin and travel with Mussorgsky as he pays homage to his friendship with Hartmann.
You can listen here, in a poetic performance by gifted Russian pianist Sviatislov Richter:
Stasov describes this as Mussorgsky “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly in order to come close to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” He then approaches the first piece of art to be depicted:
No. 1 “The Gnome”
Stasov describes this as “a sketch depicting a little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs.” Listen as the gnome scurries about. Unfortunately, the sketch, like several of the works on which these pieces are based, is lost.
Mussorgsky walks leisurely to the next piece to catch his eye:
No. 2 “The Old Castle”
This painting is also lost, but we can imagine a melancholy troubadour singing and strumming his lute as we walks the streets of a medieval castle.
Mussorgsky seems to walk more heavily here – and with a weighty purpose, perhaps as a contrast to the next painting he encounters:
No. 3 “Tuileries (Children’s Quarrel after Games)”
The Tuileries is a garden in Paris. Again the original painting is lost, but it is easy to imagine children playing and arguing, running past the full skirts of their attentive nannies on a glorious summer day
No. 4 “Cattle”
The lumbering of an ox-drawn cart as it travels down a country road.
Notice how each appearance promenade theme sets a different mood.
No. 5 “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks”
Finally a picture! This movement is based on Hatmann’s costume design of chicks in their shells for a ballet performance:
No. 6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle”
This is a description of “Two Jews: Rich and Poor” (Stasov) depicted in contrasting themes. The two portraits on which this movement is founded were given to Mussorgsky by Hartmann and loaned to the exhibition by the composer.
This statement of the Promenade is almost identical to the opening.
No. 7 “Limoges. The Market (The Great News)”
Again, the painting is lost. The critic Stasov describes this as “French women quarrelling violently in the market.” Mussorgsky originally included a dialogue in French for the two women, but then thought better of it.
No. 8 “Catacombs (Roman Tomb)”
Two gentlemen in top hats are led by a guide into the catacombs of Rome. The play of shadows against walls filled with ancient skulls and bones is chilling.
No. 9 “The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)”
This picture is actually a design for a mantle clock in the shape of a log cabin that sits on chicken legs after the legend of the dwelling of the evil witch Baba Yaga. Mussorgsky depicts her flying wildly about in her preferred means of travel – a mortar and pestle! The piece functions as a kind of scherzo that leads directly into the last movement:
No. 10 “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev)”
This piece is based on another design by Hartmann, this time for a proposed memorial to Tsar Alexander II that was never built. The massive celebratory nature of the structure (commemorating the Tsar’s escape from an assassination plot) is reflected in the massive chords and sounds that seem to transcend the wood and strings of a single piano.
Kate Thomsen Gremillion resides in Newport Beach, CA. After pursuing a music degree at Trinity University and Indiana University she currently studies at HBU in the Master of Arts in Apologetics program. She is a full time homeschooling mother of four, two of whom have graduated to college (Cornell and LMU). She is also a professional singer performing regularly with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale. Kate gives regular recitals in Art Song and Opera and conducts the St Matthew’s Choristers at St Matthews Anglican Church in Newport Beach where they study Latin, Liturgy and Music. Her newest projects are the establishing of The Children’s Conservatory at St Matthew’s Montessori school and… as a contributing writer to Literary Life!