Exhibitionism Part 3:  Showing it All

Exhibitionism Part 3: Showing it All

Two of the most dramatic movements of “Pictures at an Exhibition” are “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” and “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  Fortunately for our discussion here, both of the Hartmann images have survived.  These two pictures inspired Mussorgsky to write some of the most memorable music in the entire suite. The first of the two images is of an ornate clock in the figure of a hut or house.   The house stands upon the legs of a chicken.

Baba Yaga clock

This image would be immediately recognizable to any Russian, especially one who was scared as a child with the story of Baba Yaga.  This story has many different variations, and several parallel stories in other cultures.  Baba Yaga was a Slavonic supernatural witch, who lived in a fearsome hut in the woods.  The hut stood on chicken legs, and would magically rotate to face each new person who happened upon it.  She would lure in lost children, and eat them for dinner.  Baba Yaga flew around on a large mortar, steering with a pestle, and used the mortar and pestle to grind up the bones of the victims upon which she dined.  In most versions, there also is a broom which sweeps away her tracks.  I imagine this story was used as a morality tale, to scare Russian children into good behavior, lest they be sent into the woods to face Baba Yaga.   Before we judge this child rearing tactic too harshly, we should remember Grimm’s fairy tales were also pretty gruesome before Disney got their hands on the stories.

Mussorgsky drew upon both the image, and the tale it invokes when writing his section of “Pictures” to accompany this Hartmann creation.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (piano version)

This dramatic music invited some brilliant orchestration from Maurice Ravel in the most popular orchestral version.  There are an endless supply of recordings of the Mussorgsky/Ravel version, but one of my favorites is by Sir Georg Solti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut on Fowl’s Legs (orch. Ravel)

As we saw in the previous post, Mussorgsky’s music has withstood transformations into versions he never could have imagined.  My newest favorite is by the progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer.  Their recreation of “Pictures” can be heard complete at the end of the previous post, but here is the Baba Yaga selection to sample.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Hut and the Curse, Baba Yaga – Emerson Lake and Palmer

The big finale of “Pictures” comes in “The Great Gate of Kiev”.  This image has a real world story behind it.  In April of 1866, there was an attempted assassination of Tsar Alexander II, one from which he escaped, and survived.  Following this close brush with death, a contest was held to design a gate to the entrance to the city of Kiev to commemorate/celebrate the survival of the Tsar.  Viktor Hartmann thought that his design for the city gate was some of the best work he had created.  Sadly, the contest was called off, and no gate was ever built.  Hartmann’s design was included in the memorial exhibition that Mussorgsky attended.  The exhibition catalog listed this image as “Stone city-gates for Kiev, Russian style, with a small church inside”.

Kiev Gate

Kiev was the birthplace of Christianity in Russia, in 988 when Vladimir of Kiev converted to Christianity and ordered a mass baptism of his subjects in the local river.  (No need to win the hearts and minds of your subjects, when you can just order them around.)  This Christian theme is reflected in Hartmann’s design by the small church on the right of the image, with three bells in the tower.  Another description of the gate indicates that there was to be an inscription above the arch that read “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (in Russian, of course).  Mussorgsky’s music is a grand statement that matches this grand image, and borrows from a Russian hymn.  It is a proper finale to the suite, and simply oozes Russianness.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (piano version)

This grandiose finish to the piano suite just begs for orchestration, a task which has been performed by a large number of people (as we have seen).  Here is the ever-present Ravel version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Ravel)

When Leonard Slatkin performed his compendium version of “Pictures” at the Proms in 1991, he had the opportunity to do something special.  In Slatkin’s version, a different orchestrator was chosen for each movement.  The finale was performed in the Ravel orchestration that we find in the above video.  As an encore to the successful concert, Slatkin was able to repeat the finale in a different orchestration.  To close the concert, he very appropriately chose the version created by Sir Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms in England.  Leonard Slatkin’s enthusiasm for “Pictures” is what began this series of posts, so it is only fitting that I end with him conducting that encore.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: The Great Gate of Kiev (orch Wood)

More Exhibitionism

More Exhibitionism

Continuing my look at “Pictures at an Exhibition”, I picked one of the movements for which we still have the original image.  At the memorial exhibition of the works of Viktor Hartmann, there were several sketches of ballet costumes he designed.  The title of the music inspired by one of these images is variously translated as “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” or, “ The Ballet of the Chickens in their Eggs”.  The sketch was made in 1870, portraying some costumes for children to be worn in a ballet entitled “Trilby”.  The choreography of the ballet was done by Marius Petipa, music by Julius Gerber, and the plot of the evening taken from a short story by the Frenchman Charles Nodier.  There were four sketches of the costumes included in the exhibition, and the one that caught Mussorgsky’s eye was described in the catalog as “Canary-Chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armour.  Instead of a head dress, canary heads, put on like helmets, down to the neck”.


When someone says “Russian” music, or mentions a “Russian” sound, people often think of that low, bass heavy, dark, “Slavic” sort of atmosphere.  There are certainly several parts of “Pictures” that deliver on that prototypical Russian flavor.  “The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” is not one of those pieces.  This is light, high-pitched music that squeaks and squawks like small birds.  The dancers for this part of the ballet were to be children, and the music is clearly connected to the image from the Harmann Sketch.  Here is the original piano version.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (piano version)

Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky

The musical aesthetic at work here is one of Realism.  This is Mussorgsky portraying in music the details and image he has gotten from the sketch.  That sounds simple, but is really a very important point in context.   There are no sonata forms in “Pictures”, or fugues, or any sort of Germanic artistic value placed on balance and symmetry.  This is Russian music, and for the Russian Realists at the time “true beauty resides in life and the primary purpose of art is to reproduce reality”.  In his realism, Mussorgsky was also a true musical Populist of the Russian people.  “Pictures” could have included any number of images from the large exhibition, but the ones he chose to use included peasant Fairy Tale images (Baba Yaga), and things that affected the peasant people.  Images like a children’s plaything (Gnomus), disputes between children at play (Tuileries), the contrast of rich and poor persons (“Samuel” Goldenberg and “Schmuyle”), death (Catacombae), women quarreling in the market (Limoges le marche’), as well as our children dancing the “Ballet of the Unhatched” Chicks”.  This is not Beethoven nor the generation of German Romantics portraying their individual expression of the artist as hero (themselves usually).  This is Populist Modest portraying his Russian image of Russian people and lives, using the musical language and syntax of his native Russia in the form of folk music and phrasing/harmony derived from folk music.

Here is the same music, in our most familiar version orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (orch. Ravel)

In the previous post, I shared some of the different orchestrations of the original piano music.  In addition to being orchestrated to over 20 different versions for orchestra, “Pictures” has been transcribed for all sorts of musical ensembles.  Sometimes people have transcribed the entire collection of miniatures, and other times have picked only one or two pieces to mutate for their purposes.  I have collected a selection here for us to sample our short ballet in different guises.

Here is the movement for woodwind quintet.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (woodwind quintet)

As a brass player, I have spent many hours in rehearsal and performance in concert bands.  There are some good pieces of music written for concert band, and a lot of great and famous music that has been transcribed for concert band.  One of the strange idiosyncrasies of my musical life is the large number of concert band performances I have played in, but rarely do I attend one.  I have only a handful of recordings of wind bands and wind ensembles, and a virtual mountain of other music.  Clearly, wind bands are more fun for me to play in than to listen to.  Here is our ballet transcribed for concert band.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (concert band)

When I started writing last week about “Pictures at an Exhibition”, my old friend Mike contributed priceless information in the comments.  Mike, as you remember, is a fellow composer and my musical brother from another mother.  He pointed out that the English progressive rock trio Emerson Lake and Palmer had performed a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”.  I confess I had never heard this version before last week.  I’m beginning to realize I should listen to a bit more of the output of ELP, because I completely enjoyed their take on “Pictures”.  Here is this complete album of their performance, with thanks, respect and gratitude to Mike for his insight. I wonder if Mike could have produced a version with his heavy metal band, Ugly But Proud?  Well, I know he could have, if only there were enough hours in the day.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition:  Emerson Lake and Palmer




Mussorgsky portrait

Mussorgsky portrait

Modest Pyotrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a largely self-taught Russian composer.  His most famous work is likely the collection of piano pieces called “Pictures at an Exhibition”.  The world knows this piece in the original piano version, as well as a large number of versions for orchestra.  An abundance of very talented musicians have taken an interest in Mussorgsky’s piano piece, and each orchestrated it in their own way.  Listening to several versions is a fascinating way to study orchestration.



Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin

I had the good fortune of being in the audience for a performance of “Pictures” conducted by Leonard Slatkin.  Maestro Slatkin had an opportunity to talk to the audience, and described himself as having an “unhealthy obsessive relationship with the work”.  He has studied and compared many of the existing orchestra versions, and demonstrated a few passages in different forms for listeners that day.  Slatkin’s enthusiasm for the work is contagious.

“Pictures at an Exhibition” has a straightforward extramusical program.  Mussorgsky knew the Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann, and was shocked at Hartman’s  sudden death in 1873 of an aneurysm.  A large exhibition of Hartmann’s art was put on by friends and admirers after his passing.  Mussorgsky conjured up his piano pieces to somewhat recreate the experience of walking around the art exhibit.  There is a promenade, that recurs in various incarnations, which represents people walking between paintings.  At each stop there is a piano miniature representing a particular sketch or painting by the artist.  The music is very descriptive and pictorial, but unfortunately, not all the pieces of art that inspired Mussorgsky have survived.

PicturesInspired by Maestro Slatkin’s obsession, I thought I might share the opening Promenade in the original piano version, as well as a few of the orchestral versions.  It should be noted that you might hear different notes as well as different instruments in each version.  Mussorgsky was a composer who wrote very much by instinct, and after his own death some well-meaning supporters have “corrected” some of his manuscripts.  Some musicians have orchestrated these altered versions, and some have had access to Mussorgsky’s original from which to work.

This is Mussorgsky’s original opening Promenade.

Pictures at an Exhibition, Promenade (piano)

By far the most famous orchestra version is by the great Maurice Ravel.  Ravel was a genius of writing for the orchestra, and over time his version of “Pictures” has become the most played and recorded.  As a trumpet player, I have a special fondness for Ravel’s version, as it opens with a solo trumpet line that all orchestra trumpet students have had to study.

Pictures at an Exhibition, Promenade (orch. Ravel)

Perhaps the earliest orchestra version was completed in 1896 by Mikhail Tushmalov.  It is so interesting to me to see how another person has listened to the piano version and imagined a completely different way to set it for orchestra.

Pictures at an Exhibition, Promenade (orch. Tushmalov)

Another fascinating  version to listen to is by the great Russian pianist and conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy.  In 1983, he released an album where he played the piano version, and also conducted his own orchestra version of the piece.  No one can question the affinity and passion Ashkenazy has for the music of his homeland.  (This video goes a bit beyond the Promenade into the sections that follows.)

Pictures at an Exhibition, Promenade (orch. Ashkenazy)

In some following posts I will provide some of the images that inspired Modest Mussorgsky, and compare the variety of ways they have been set for orchestra.  For now, here is a BBC special with Leonard Slatkin presenting and performing the music.  I hope you find his enthusiasm as infectious as I did.

Mussorgsky-Slatkin ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ – Proms 1991 Compendium