If there is one thing that people of all eras, origins, nationalities, times share is the desire to remember those who left a mark in our lives. Friends, family, mentors. This can translate into a beautifully simple gesture, like planting a tree with the name of the beloved one. Or in a more articulated one, like a work of art.
The painter Victor Hartmann was a close friend of Modest Mussorgsky and when he died, unexpectedly, of an aneurism in 1873 aged only 39, Mussorgsky was devastated. A couple of weeks after his passing, Hartmann’s friends and supporters organized an exhibition of his paintings at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
And about a year later, Mussorgsky channeled his pain into a new piano work, making his memories of his close friend immortal.
Most of the works that inspired Pictures have been lost in time, but thanks to Mussorgsky’s music that they are still remembered today.
After Mussorgsky’s death, in 1881, this work fell into oblivion. Until 1922, when the great conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel to orchestrate it.
Portrait of Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin (1881)
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – Analysis
Should you need a score you can find one here.
Mussorgsky imagined himself walking through the paintings, capturing the spirit of each of them. He depicted himself walking with a “Promenade in modo russico”: Promenade is French for “walk” while “in modo russico” is Italian for “in the Russian style“.
This promenade opens the piece and returns throughout the whole work, connecting one painting to another.
A solo trumpet plays the first 2 bars. The same 2 bars are repeated, harmonized, by the brass section. Notice how Mussorgsky begins this melody on the 6th degree of the scale of Bb – the home key – harmonized on a simple triad.
This G minor chord resolving on the dominant gives it a sense of wonder, helping to create the idea of someone walking through the rooms. To add to the somewhat randomness of the walk, the meter changes from one bar to another, moving between 5/4 and 6/4.
And notice how the last chord of the 3rd bar changes from D minor to Bb major on the 2nd beat of bar 4, opening up the phrase.
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