La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Ut Pictura Musica

Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky

Reading time
5 min.

During the Beethoven Overture concert, Alain Altinoglu will conduct one of the most iconic suites in Russian music. Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky is a musical stroll that harnesses the imaginative powers of La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and showcases its feel for colour and texture.

A banquet of music

The Russian artist Viktor Hartmann died suddenly on August 4th 1873 at the age of just 39. His death came as a shock to Russia’s cultural life and in particular to the artistic circles which had found in him a friend and supporter of an ‘authentic Russian art’ that had no truck with Western-European influences. As a tribute, six months later the influential critic Vladimir Stasov organized a memorial exhibition of more than 400 of Hartmann’s works: paintings, drawings, illustrations... Modest Mussorgsky loaned two works from his own private collection and returned from the exhibition deeply impressed and inspired. In June 1874 he decided to set the experience to music. He conceived the composition as a musical walk or promenade through the Hartmann exhibition with the visitor-listener stopping in front of ten different works. The project proved all-consuming: “Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like a banquet of music - I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put them down on paper fast enough.” Mussorgsky finished the score, a suite of 16 pieces for piano, after a fever of creativity of just 20 days. The work is considered one of Mussorgsky’s most fiendishly difficult pieces for piano, but it was the orchestrated versions which really account for its popularity, first and foremost the version published by Maurice Ravel in 1922, which is also on the music stands in this concert.

A stroll through the gallery

The loose, episodic structure of the work is held together by the opening theme, the ‘promenade’, which represents the sometimes resolute, sometimes shuffling gait of a visitor to an exhibition, taking him from one work to the next in different variations. These works are very diverse: as well as being a painter, Viktor Hartmann was also an architect and designer and Mussorgsky included costume sketches and architectural studies in his selection. Of the ten paintings and drawings he set to music, we only know what five look like. As regards the other five, the listener’s imagination is confined only by the title and short description given them by Stasov.

The ten paintings of the Exhibition