Pictures at an Exhibition was written as a group of pieces for piano in 1874. The pictures were mainly watercolours, painted by Victor Hartman, a friend of Mussorgsky, who had died the previous year.
The piece is a musical description of walking around an exhibition of Hartman's paintings. A recurring 'Promenade' movement represents the visitor. Each of the pieces has a movement conjuring up the mood invoked by the picture, or in some cases even painting the picture in music.
Unfortunately, many of the original pictures no longer exist and Mussorgsky's music is all we have to remember them by.
The first movement is the 'Promenade', which depicts the visitor to the exhibition. This musical idea is interspersed between the earlier movements, representing the visitor walking from painting to painting. The 'Promenade' features shifting time signatures throughout, depicting the dawdling, irregular way a visitor to an exhibition would walk around. You may recognise the 'Promenade' theme as being the theme tune of the British political sit-com The New Statesman, starring Rik Mayall.
The first picture the visitor comes to is Hartman's design for a nutcracker in the shape of a gnome. Although the painting has been lost, we can imagine, through Mussorgsky's music, that the gnome was grotesque looking.
Following the gnome there is a 'Promenade', leading to 'The Old Castle' in Italy. This piece has a medieval feel, created by the sustained bass note that runs all the way through the piece while a tune plays above.
Another 'Promenade' leads the visitor to 'The Tuileries Gardens' in Paris The original picture has been lost here, too, although we do know that it depicted children playing. This movement was subtitled 'Dispute d'enfants après jeux' - 'Children arguing about a game'. The music in this movement contains a lot of falling thirds, which is the sound of children taunting each other: 'nah nah na-na nah'.
'Bydlo', a farm cart, follows with no 'Promenade'. This depicts a Polish cart being pulled through mud by two oxen. You can practically hear the hooves plodding through the mud...
The 'Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks' movement was inspired by some designs Hartman had drawn for a ballet, called Trilbi. The costumes were for children dressed as canaries as well as un-hatched chicks. This movement is very playful; a scherzo1. It is also quite short.
'Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuyle' were two Polish Jews and were originally the subjects of two separate paintings by Hartman. Mussorgrsky combined the essence of the two paintings into one movement, perhaps to emphasize a rich man/poor man contrast. Samuel Goldenburg, probably large, well dressed and rich, is represented by the first tune in the movement. Schmuyle on the other hand is represented by a piercing, troubled-sounding melody, making him 'appear' to be thin and poor.
The next picture is of 'Limoges - the Market'. On the original score, Mussorgsky noted some imaginary conversations between trades-people in this bustling market.
The scene shifts back to Paris next, to the 'Roman burial ground - the Catacombs'. This is an eerie picture of the artist walking through the catacombs, with piles of human skulls surrounding him. Hartman painted this picture based on Victor Hugo's description of the catacombs in Les Misérables. This leads to the next movement, which doesn't directly describe a picture: Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua, meaning 'With the dead in a dead language'. This is a reflection on death; Mussorgsky wrote in the margin of the score:
The creative genius of the late Hartman leads me to the skulls and invokes them; the skulls begin to glow.
The source of light in the catacombs was candles or oil burning in the skulls.
Baba-Yaga is the witch of death from Russian mythology. In the story, she lives in 'The Hut on Fowl's Legs'. Hartman painted a design for a clock based on the hut. This is another quite dark movement in the music.
Finally we come to the 'Great Gate of Kiev', Hartman's grand design for a new city gate. Sadly it was never built. The music for this starts with big, long chords, describing the grandness of the gate. This is the 'Promenade' theme again but in strict, 4/4 metre. This perhaps depicts many people walking together through the gates. The end of this movement is victorious, with bells. Perhaps it represents an army marching home.
Although Pictures at an Exhibition was originally written for piano, it owes a lot of its popularity to the orchestral arrangement made of it by Maurice Ravel2. He brought different colours to the piece, using, for example, a soprano saxophone to play Schmuyle's theme. This is not a widely used orchestral instrument, but it gives the feeling of Schmuyle talking with a high, nasal voice; something the piano cannot do.