Modest Mussorgsky lived at a time when Russian composers were largely self-taught, held day jobs as civil servants or military officers, and faced limited artistic prospects. Russian musical taste ran from Italian opera to German chamber music, but rarely came closer to home. Beginning in the mid-1850s, a “Mighty Handful” of composers wanted to stake a claim to a distinct national style. Mussorgsky’s four compatriots were Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, though of the same generation, stood apart as more Western-oriented). To Mussorgsky, Russianness meant gritty realism, eschewing academic training, and embracing his musical intuition—or “utter technical incompetence,” as the more detail-oriented Rimsky-Korsakov called it.
The fact that Mussorgsky was an alcoholic increased skepticism of his work, and he left unfinished pieces in disorganized manuscripts that Rimsky-Korsakov would work to untangle, or even recompose altogether. The necessity of Rimsky’s “help” is sometimes debatable—one person’s “incompetence” might be another’s “innovation”—but there’s no denying Mussorgsky was a tragic mess. A portrait by Ilya Repin shows him in the hospital, terminally ill at 42, disheveled and bloated, gazing into the distance with a hint of youth still in his face.
The piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition was one of only a few pieces he completed without drastic editing by Rimsky-Korsakov, though it still went unperformed during his life. The pictures were by his good friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect, draftsman, and scenic designer in the Mighty Handful’s wider circle. The artist’s death at age 39 in 1873 prompted an exhibit of his work, which explains the aura of sadness that hangs over some of the movements. The music is much grander than the pictures that inspired it—a modest collection of sketches, conceptual designs, and watercolors. For these performances, the San Francisco Symphony has commissioned new pictures in response to the music by Bay Area artists Liz Hernandez and Fernando Escartiz.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures was orchestrated by at least three composers before Maurice Ravel made his iconic version in 1922 at the request of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Ravel re-painted the virtuosic piano suite for full orchestra, using the French, postimpressionist colors of his own style and era. Other orchestrations have attempted something closer to what Mussorgsky might have done himself—but Ravel’s version is a magnificent co-production that vividly animates each image.
The Promenade theme evokes the listener wandering through the exhibition, giving the suite a sense of spatial arrangement. It directly links the first three pictures and then recedes for a while, reappearing near the end.
“Gnomus” was a wooden toy, perhaps a Christmas ornament, designed by Hartmann in the shape of a gnome. “Il vecchio castello” (The Old Castle) features one of the most gorgeous orchestral saxophone solos, its eerie timbre echoing through the mournful scene.
“Tuileries” is filled with sounds of children playing and scampering around in the Parisian garden. Next, “Bydlo” is a lumbering Polish oxcart.
The “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” was inspired by Hartmann’s costume design for a child dressed as a hatching egg. “Samuel Goldenberg and Smuel” depicts two Jewish merchants, one rich, one poor. Hartmann made realistic portraits of the anonymous subjects at a Polish market, but Mussorgsky draws a caricature of them together in an argument. Goldenberg makes an imperious demand, while Smuel cowers and begs.
“The Marketplace at Limoges” depicts the excited spread of gossip and good news around a French village. Then in a morbid shift, we enter the Catacombs and spend some time “cum mortuis in lingua mortua” (with the dead in a dead language)—here the Promenade theme hauntingly reemerges. Next we encounter “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” the cursed residence of Baba Yaga, the child-eating witch of Slavic folklore.
Finally, “The Great Gate of Kiev” is based on Hartmann’s architectural plan for a never-built monument to Tsar Alexander II in the Ukrainian capital. (Since the 2022 Russian invasion, it has occasionally been performed in support of Ukraine—a reinterpretation very much at odds with the original symbolism of the proposed gate.) The Promenade theme becomes a hymn, treated both reverently and climactically as the imagined colossus reverberates with brass choirs and peals of church bells.