Another word for taking a walk in public is promenade and that’s the title of the first piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Maurice Ravel later orchestrated the original piano composition.
Pretend you are taking a silent walk through an art museum. What pictures can you imagine you see? If you'd like to follow along on a journey similar to Mussorgsky's, try this listening guide.
Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells
The inspiration for this music was Hartmann's costume design for a ballet. You'll find a listening guide here or use some simple percussion instruments to play along.
You might also enjoy visual artists Tom Scott's and Natasha Turovsky's animated interpretations of this music.
Looking at the picture, do you expect the music will be light or heavy? Will the tempo be fast or slow? What instruments would you choose for this music if you were Ravel? Now watch and listen to the recording. Were you right?
Promenade: Cum mortius in lingua mortua
The museum visitor now becomes a part of the paintings as Catacombs seamlessly moves into this variation of the Promenade theme .
Compare this version of the Promenade with the first one. How does the music make you feel? What might the visitor be thinking about? What musical tools did the composer use to make you think or feel this way?
Catacombs: Sepulcrum romanum
The music for this water color drawing is impressionistic, mirroring the style of the picture. It has a wandering melody, much dissonance and no clear structure. Hartmann is one of the figures in the painting, accompanied by an architect and the guide holding a lamp.
Listen to this music with your eyes shut. What affect do Mussorgsky's and Ravel's musical choices have on the way you feel as you listen? Now open your eyes and view photos of the Catacombs of Paris as you hear the music. How well do you think the music fits the actual setting?
Smetana's "Dance of the Comedians"
The concert will begin with this exciting piece by a Czechoslovakian composer.
Does the music fit the title? Can you picture a funny dance in your mind as you listen to it? What tools did the composer use in his music to help you "see" this picture? HERE is a different idea inspired by Smetana's music.
Hartmann's painting for this piece also no longer exists but we know that bydlo is Polish for cattle and in this case an ox and cart. If you've never seen one, here is a one as painted by Vincent Van Gogh who lived during the same time as Hartmann and Mussorgsky.
Before you listen to this piece, predict what you think it will sound like. Will it be fast or slow, high or low? After listening answer this questions: What did the composer do musically to tell us that the ox and cart were far from us, lumbered right in front of us, and then moved down the road?
Although there were around 400 works by Viktor Hartmann displayed at the exhibition Mussorgsky attended, only about sixty still exist. Gnomus is not one of them. We know that this was a picture of a Christmas ornament depicting a gnome-like nutcracker because Vladimir Stassov, a friend of Hartmann and Mussorgsky wrote brief descriptions of each of the paintings “illustrated” by Mussorgsky’s music.
A gnome is a mythical dwarf-like creature usually depicted as guarding treasure underground. While listening to this music, imagine what Mussorgsky saw in the painting. What is it about the music that helps you to visualize this? (You might use this guide to help you explain.) This music inspires the imagination! Take a look at this idea by Andy Lyon or Tom Scott.
Additional Interesting Links
A Teacher's Guide for this concert is HERE.
CSO's Beyond the Score
CSO's Live Performance in Japan,1990
Emerson Lake and Palmer's Interpretation
Medley on Melodica
Minnesota Orchestra Project
Online score of Pictures at an Exhibition
Pictures Program Notes, CSO 2016
Student created Musical Maps
Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle
The original titles for these two pencil drawings were “A Rich Jew in a Fur Hat” and “A Poor Jew.” Mussorgsky left this movement untitled and Vladimir Staassov inadvertently referenced a different painting when he added this title to the piece. Interestingly, these drawings were a gift to Mussorgsky from Hartmann which Mussorgsky allowed to be included in the exhibition honoring his artist friend.
Compare the drawings. How does the artist visually distinguish between the rich and poor man? Now listen to the music. How does the composer represent each of these characters? Imagine they are having a conversation. How do you think it ends?
Tne Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba Yaga)
Both the artist Hartmann and composer Mussorgsky were Russian and inspired by Russian folklore. In this folktale the witch, Baba Yaga, lives in a house that can move from place to place looking for children to eat. She travels in a mortar using the pestle rather than a broom to guide. Hartmann draws us her house and Mussorgsky tells us her story.
You'll find a listening guide for this music here. As you follow along notice how the first and last sections tell the story of the moving house while in the middle part the witch plays a frightening game of hide and seek with the children.
(Here are some more Baba Yaga stories.)
Pictures at an Exhibition by Anna Celenza shares the true story behind this composition in a child friendly and compelling way.
Questions or Comments about this site:
Great Gate of Kiev
Hartmann considered this work, which he had submitted for an architecture contest, his very best. It was intended as a memorial to Czar Alexander II of Russian who had escaped an assassination attempt in 1866. You might say that Mussorgsky’s music is a memorial for his friend Viktor!
Play just the beginning of this piece. Does it sound familiar? That's right! It's the Promenade back one last but now with a sense of reverence and celebration for a friendship that continues to inspire us today.
On May 17th & 18th, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition"--a performance for students and families. You can prepare for the concert by listening to and learning a little more about the music before you go!