Pictures at an Exhibition by MODEST MUSSORGSKY are among the most frequently quoted and adapted works. Nowadays, there are over 60 adaptations of the work for a variety of instruments, ensembles and mediums, including rock, thrash metal, jazz groups, while quotations from it are found in a song by Michael Jackson.
The reason for their writing was the sudden death of the 39-year-old artist and architect Viktor Hartmann (1834-1873), considered pioneer of the Russian national style in architecture. His adherent, Vladimir Stasov, organized an exhibition of his watercolors and drawings, which precisely provided the story lines on which were based each of the pieces in the piano cycle composed by 35-year-old Mussorgsky. Dedicated to Stasov, they represent a homage to Hartmann. They were written extremely swiftly – for twenty days in June 1874. About this period, Mussorgsky wrote: Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled—sounds and ideas hung in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper… I want to work more quickly and steadily. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned.”
The ‘Pictures’ were published in print in 1886 in their original version for piano, five years after the composer’s death, by V. Bessel’s publishing house in the edition of Rimsky-Korsakov, who made many adjustments in the score. The second edition was made by Stasov. The issues were sold out but the music was rarely performed. The third edition dates from 1891 and was made by M. Tushmalov, a disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov. Each subsequent decade brought fresh transcriptions for different performers and ensembles. The most memorable version among those made by piano performers of the piece is Vladimir Horowitz’s ‘transcription of the transcription’ – that is, a transcribed version he made after Ravel’s orchestration.
The score consists of ten pictures, framed by one theme called Promenade. In the story line, it represents the persona of the author attending the exhibition, while musically it serves the role of a connecting interlude. Stasov found the theme sufficiently specific and descriptive of the author’s behaviour: this is the composer, who has represented his own self in the instance of his promenade around the venue, moving to the left or to the right and approaching the pictures as a casual observer; occasionally, his delighted expression is darkened at the thought of his deceased friend.
The piano exposition of Mussorgsky seemed to offer a limited potential for dramatic and timbral effects, and it was precisely this that caused the exploration of a wider timbral potential. In 1922, Maurice Ravel orchestrated the work at the request of Serge Koussevitzky, who conducted it in Paris in 1923. Until this day, this is the piece’s most popular version.