Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Promenade [00:00]

In this first piece Mussorgsky makes his presence known through this motivic musical self-portrait: this main theme and its motives are at once wonderful, ironic, sad and at the same time funny, bitter and at the same time sweet. The whole work is devoted to portraying his “physiognomy,” with this title theme outlining the often conflicting components of his inner soul, a logical soul structured here by his identification with Russian Choral songs. The theme frames the drama’s narrative through the appearance of Mussorgsky’s various states of mind via use of alternating minor and major keys, diverse registers, and different characters and sonorities.

Gnome [1:27]

Relying on intuitive, ingenious imagery, Mussorgsky presents a timely and fantastical Interpretation of Hartmann’s European Gnome. Since Russian mythology is absent of this image, Mussorgsky relies on writings from a panoply of European philosophers and writers, filtered through the consciousness of his native, national Russian soil to form his unique creative vision. Refracting sketches of Russian folklore characters, including images of “evil spirit”, he uses his mastery of parody and satire to create a comprehensive picture of a folk-tale dwarf.

Mussorgsky then transports us to the next Picture using a light, “swinging” promenade. [4:06]

Old Castle [5:08]

This work opens with the stark image of a medieval Italian castle. An allegory of old stone, the sadness of decay, it is a metaphoric farewell to Mussorgsky’s dearly missed friend Hartmann, the artist behind the pictures. Played out from the composer’s imagination is a sensuous saga of the once vibrant castle’s lost life. This melody, based on the popular motifs of Neapolitan Italian tarantellas, plays out the dance of the ballad over a pulsing tambourine beat in the bass. Layered melodies from Mussorgsky’s soul join musical imageries to transport us from the exhilaration of life to the sad, readily interpretable funereal bell’s “Farewell to Life.”

An energetic self-portrayal plays out the Promenade in a manner reminiscent of modern rock to break the dramatic mood.  [8:26]

Tuileries [9:00]

Drawing with music, Mussorgsky uses his great heart to treat us with his cinematic sketch of young children’s richly intimate, sensitive inner world played out through a cycle of an ancient Russian game. We are treated to a glimpse of their youthful world’s rich poignancy as boy-girl pairs chase after each other, while the person who is “It” allegorically “burns” until he or she tags another. We hear the exhilaration of the playful chase, the pause of the tagging, the fleeting light of brief childhood romance before the chase resumes again.

Cattle [10:02]

Thematically rooted in the Belarusian-Polish folk tradition, Mussorgsky creates an interesting, but tragic, folk sketch. Drawing inspiration from Hartmann, the artist musically paints a folk allegory about oxen pulling a roughly constructed, unevenly worn cart with gnarled wheels as it rolls tiredly along crude unpaved gullies. The composer’s imagination plays out thoughts and intentions from his inner psyche for us to examine and compare through the lens of our own life experiences; to reflect on our fate as laborers, as humans fated to share the “eternal yoke.”


Burdened by heavy emotion, a tearful harmonic progression evolves from misery, to contemplation of life, to humor, gradually walking us toward a new mood of comedy and conversation.

The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks [14.20]

Demanding fragility and controlled virtuosity, Mussorgsky humorously uses sound to cinematically imitate nature in this surreal work. Inspired by Hartmann’s ballet sketches, and conscious of the timeless chicken and egg proverb, the composer’s poignant song sensitively describes the plight, pecking, hatching, the uncertain gait of the chicks, all the while exposing his devilish sense of humor. We are led away from the coop as the work concludes with a rooster’s cry.

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle [15:20]

Rooted in Jewish folk melodies, this piece is intensely personal, self-reflective, and humanistic in its considerate, introspective portrait of two Jewish men of opposing means and character, and of the tragic conflict this engenders. It is a commentary on the lamentable chasm between the rich and poor, and is inspired by a combination of Mussorgsky’s own Russian experiences and the images of Polish Jews drawn by Hartmann.

Promenade [17:48]

Instead of repeating himself, Mussorgsky expands his self-portrait. He shows himself to be mentally strengthened by his having passed through the previous tragic dialogue with the spirit of a loved one. He proceeds to walk us thematically through the gallery towards the finale with a vitally transformed mind and spirit.

Limoges  [19:19]

Set in an open market, this picture draws on Mussorgsky’s humanity and mastery of cinematic satire. His music combines comedy and commentary about the sometime-silliness of humanity with a call for virtuosity. The clamoring Scherzo describes the tumult of the scene, the artistic imagery of the gossips, and parades our incorrigible humanity as the work accelerates to its close.

Catacombs  [20:48]

Mussorgsky, consumed by the permanent and irreversible loss of his friend Hartmann, paints in music the confrontation of his own mortality as well as that of humanity with death. He portrays how the sadness of death has driven him to despair. He shares an imagined encounter with his deceased friend in “the other world.” This work is an epic monument to the Russian soul which ends with a portrayal of the composer’s own experience of enlightenment and tranquility.

Baba Yaga [24:28]

Unlike his reference to mythology in the Gnome, this piece is rooted in Mussorgsky’s deep physiological understanding and sense of evil. The character “Baba Yaga,” is an apotheosis of everything dark in the Russian soul – aggressiveness, meanness, everything untoward that dwells in the soul of every person, and in particular, of Russian persons. This piece prefigures the exit into eternal light that occurs in the next part of the exhibit.

Finale – The Golden Gates of Kiev [27:57]

Unable to rationalize the death of his friend Hartmann, the Finale is the story of how faith revealed to Mussorgsky a way to gain relief from despair. Greatly inspired through the pictures by these revelations, he faces his inner fears and doubts, allowing him to generally overcome them. Using musical quotations from Slavonic prayer songs (including bell ringing), his ascension is played out – emerging from the depths of evil and the hardships of life, he enters a place where there is nothing but light, where there is no evil. With a grand Promenade, he walks into the light – a victory of understanding over ignorance – an apotheosis of good and happiness. The composer’s transformation completes with a ringing of the golden bell.

English CD Notes Prepared by Todd & Svetlana Harris

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