Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 30–35 Minutes
Genre: Piano Cycle
Time of Creation: 1874
World Premiere: October 19, 1922 (in the orchestral version by Maurice Ravel)

Table of Contents

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in 5 Sentences

In Pictures at an Exhibition, the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky set paintings by his friend Viktor Hartmann to music. The work was written in response to Hartmann’s untimely death. Each of the work’s 10 movements represents one of Hartmann’s paintings, which are linked by one transitional piece – the “Promenade“. Mussorgsky exhausts the entire tonal spectrum of the piano, which is why many other composers have felt inspired to arrange the work for orchestra. The most famous orchestral arrangement was created by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Highlight 1: Promenade

The Promenade is the work’s structuring element. It recurs between the pictures and represents the viewer’s walk from picture to picture:

Highlight 2: The great gate of Kiev

The heroic final movement of the work:

Highlight 3: The gnome

The depiction of a gnome with misshapen legs. We hear the gnome fidgeting, jumping, limping and stumbling:

Highlight 4: The old castle

This movement is quiet, romantic and wistful. The music is reminiscent of a hurdy-gurdy, so that one can almost feel transported back to the Middle Ages:

3 Questions and Answers about Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Question 1: What are the names of the 10 Pictures at an Exhibition?

1) Gnomus (The Gnome)

2) Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle)

3) Tuileries – Dispute d’enfants après jeux (The Tuileries – Children playing in a dispute)

4) Bydło (The ox cart)

5) Balet nevylupivshihsja ptencov (Ballet of Unhatched Chicks)

6) “Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuÿle”.

7) Limoges. Le marché – La grande nouvelle (Limoges. The marketplace – The great news)

8) Catacombae – Sepulcrum romanum (The catacombs – Roman tomb)

9) Izbushka na kur’ih nozhkah – Baba-Jaga (The hut on chicken feet – Baba-Jaga)

10) Bogatyrskie vorota – V stol’nom gorode vo Kieve (The Hero’s Gate – in the old capital Kiev)

Question 2: How many promenades are there in pictures of an exhibition?

The “Promenade” sounds a total of five times: it opens the work and then returns four times as a structuring element.

Question 3: Was Pictures at an Exhibition famous?

The piano cycle led a shadowy existence for almost 50 years. It was not until 1922 that the work became famous because Maurice Ravel arranged it for orchestra.

2 Recommended Recordings of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Recording 1: Valentina Lisitsa (multimedia production, 2020)

Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa impresses in this recording with an energetic interpretation of Mussorgsky’s work. Her piano sound is silvery, bright and pithy:

Recording 2: Khatia Buniatishvili (Live, 2018).

Georgian-French pianist Khatia Buniatishvili’s interpretation can be described as the exact opposite of Lisitsa’s approach. Even the first Promenade is gentle, tender, almost dreamlike in Buniatishvili’s performance:

1 Quote about Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Sounds and thoughts hang in the air. I swallow them and gorge myself on them, barely managing to scribble it all down on paper. I'm writing the fourth number, the connections have been made (thanks to the promenade). I want to get the whole thing done as soon as possible and safely. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far, I consider it a success.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Martin Stark

    Tatsächlich kannte ich bisher auch nur die Version von Emerson, Lake and Palmer… Mindestens diese beiden hier aufgeführten finde ich klasse, vielen Dank!

  2. Alex

    I actually believe I heard the Promenade before, but outside of this context. Beautiful piece!

    1. Jonathan Stark

      Yes, it’s a really famous piece, also as a standalone version! 😉

  3. Dietmar Schermann

    Sehr schön zusammengefasst! Als alter Emerson Fan, wäre vielleicht auch ein Klangbeidpiel von EL&P wünschenswert. 😁

    1. Jonathan Stark

      Lieber Dietmar! Es freut mich wirklich sehr, dass auch Du hier mitliest! 🙂 Vielen Dank für das Kompliment und die Anregung. Ich sehe schon: Crossover ist doch mehr “in”, als ich dachte! 🙂

  4. Ray

    Vielen Dank für diese Einführung. Mich hat auch sehr die Synthie-Version von Tomita beeindruckt…

    1. Jonathan Stark

      Sehr gerne! Ja, die Tomita-Version wäre eventuell in der Zukunft mal eine Verlinkung wert… Diese Werkeinführungen sollen ja mit der Zeit wachsen 😉

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