Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a Russian aristocrat, born to a very wealthy family who were reputed to be the descendents of Rurik, the legendary founder of Russia. He entered military service, as was his family’s tradition, but his true love was music. In order to study it full-time, Mussorgsky resigned his commission, taking with him only his fierce love of Mother Russia and the habitual drunkenness which eventually killed him.
Mussorgsky was a member of The Five, a group of Russian composers who rejected the classical traditions of Western music in favor of pieces which were explicitly Russian, e.g. based on Russian folk music, incorporating tunes from Orthodox hymns, portaying Russian history, etc. Today’s piece, Pictures at an Exhibition, isn’t explicitly Russian in any of those senses, but it’s still unmistakably Russian music. It begins with a very familar theme (called the “Promenade”) that represents Mussorgsky strolling through an art exhibition, which introduces ten potrayals of pictures he stops to look at, most of them separated by the Promenade.
Like last week, we’ll listen to two versions of it. First, the original, for piano:
Which is very fine, but somhow seems lacking compared to the version you’ve probably heard before, which was arranged by the French composer Maurice Ravel, who was a genius at exploiting the different colors and textures of a full orchestra.
All the music from the this series can be found and enjoyed here.