Musorgsky composed the piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874 following and still impressed by the posthumous exhibition of paintings and architectural designs by Viktor Gartman (1834 – 1873). Stunned by the sudden demise of his friend, a talented artist and architect, Musorgsky exclaimed in a letter: “Woe, woe! Oh, Russia’s longsuffering art!” At the height of work on the series, he wrote to V. V. Stasov: “… Gartman seethes as Boris seethed – the sounds and the idea hung in the air, I swallow and eat my fill, I barely manage to make any scratches on the paper…” The whole series, begun in the very first days of June, was completed in less than three weeks: on the last page of the manuscript the date stood ready: 22 June 1874. On the title sheet Musorgsky had written “Dedicated to Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov. Pictures at an Exhibition. A Recollection of Viktor Gartman.”
In looking for “the soul of things” Musorgsky was least of all interested in a “precise” musical illustration. His vast imagination as a composer found inspiration to take off independently through Gartman’s portraits, genre scenes and architectural compositions. This is also true of the painter’s landscapes, and his genre sketches made during his travels (The Old Castle, Les Tuileries, Cattle, Two Jews, Rich and Poor, Le Marché de Limoges, Les Catacombes), and his sketches for toys or theatre costumes (The Gnome, The Ballet of Un-hatched Fledglings). Images of Russian folklore – from fairytales, from legendary epos (The Peasant’s Hut on Chicken’s Legs, The Bogatyr Gates) – were, for the first time in piano music, developed with such absolute perfection. In the aforementioned letter to Stasov, Musorgsky gave a glimpse of the idea behind the series: “My imagination can be seen in the interludes.” This concerns the so-called Promenade – music that is not weighed down directly by the artist’s drawings and that brings together the various parts of different character in a united whole. The interludes Musorgsky speaks of, or promenades, which lead from one part of the exhibition to the next, are imbued with the spirit “of a magnificent jewel of Russian culture – the celebrated refrain” (M. Yudina). At the beginning, the Promenade sounds like an independent, finished introduction to the series, and later it expands broadly and diversely in its variations varies, preparing to introduce a new “picture” in order that it can be triumphant in the exultant bell ringing in the finale.
The originality and innovative nature of Musorgsky’s piano style was not immediately well accepted by his contemporaries. For a long time, Pictures at an Exhibition was considered to be “not a pianoforte” piece and too “low” for performance in concert. It was only in 1903 that the first performance of Musorgsky’s cycle took place in Moscow by the pianist Hryhorij Beklemishev. “A curious fact,” wrote the academician Boris Vladimirovich Asafiev, “the closest generations, as if unbelieving of the pianism of these … original experiences focussed on their orchestration, and not on drawing from them the new principles of the formation of piano music. No origins of a new style were to be felt in them.”
That is the reason why in Russia audiences first heard highlights from Pictures at an Exhibition in an orchestration by Mikhail Tushmalov, a pupil of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (these were performed under the baton of Rimsky-Korsakov in November 1891 in St Petersburg). The first, full symphonic score of the complete cycle written by Maurice Ravel (1922) became firmly established in concert programmes. Later, too, searches for new orchestral readings of Musorgsky’s piano cycle would continue. In the USA, the instrumentation by Leopold Stokowski proved popular, while in Finland it is that of Leo Funtek and in Russia that of Sergei Gorchakov.
In the 20th century, thanks to outstanding Russian pianists – we may mention, for example, the names of Maria Yudina and Svyatoslav Richter – Pictures at an Exhibition became established in the international concert repertoire as one of the pearls of Russian piano music.