What more can one say with another arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? Certainly Ravel’s arrangement is stunning in its masterly orchestration, and there are numerous other arrangements that take different perspectives on the suite. Nevertheless, I have always had a recurring feeling that there was something missing in the arrangements I have heard in the past.


In terms of musical form, Mussorgsky’s original Pictures at an Exhibition suite for solo piano reminds me of Scarlatti’s sonatas. Scarlatti wrote five hundred and fifty five sonatas. Fundamentally Scarlatti’s sonatas are a type of binary form. The first part of the binary structure introduces the first theme ‘A’, then modulates to a related key and introduces theme ‘B’. Instead of a development (as we find in the later classical sonatas) there follows a ‘mirror’ (a short passage usually  modulating back to the tonic key, and this passage represents a point of reflection). The second part of the binary structure is then theme ‘B’ followed, without modulation, by theme ‘A’ concluding the sonata. Of course, Scarlatti’s sonatas have many variations around the fundamental binary structure—such as variations in the modulations and variations on the themes. However, the fundamental binary form is apparent throughout his sonatas. The famous American harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, studied Scarlatti’s sonatas extensively and he developed one of the common numbering systems of the sonatas used today. Kirkpatrick’s numbering suggests that Scarlatti’s early sonatas  are self-contained units, but the later Sonatas were written in contrasting or complementary pairs with thematic relationships. Anyone interested in Kirkpatrick’s ideas can find a detailed analysis in Kirkpatrick’s treatise on Scarlatti. So one intriguing aspect that I explored was how readily Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition lends itself to an interpretation using some of the concepts used by Scarlatti in his sonatas.


For example, consider the following aspects of Mussorgsky’s suite. The suite opens with the Promenade--stating the main theme of an extended sonata structure. The final movement in the suite, The Great Gate is a variation of the Promenade theme. Hence the Promenade theme represents the outer shell of an extended sonata form. The first two pictures (Gnome and Castle) are self contained in that they are separated by the Promenade theme. The following pictures occur in contrasting pairs—Children & Cattle; Unhatched Chicks and Goldenberg and Schmuyle. The last explicitly titled Promenade occurs after Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This last Promenade occurs around the middle of the suite and lends itself to treatment as a ‘mirror’ similar to Scarlatti’s ‘mirror’ in a sonata. Following the last Promenade we now have the second half of the extended binary structure. The pairs of movements are now not separated by an explicit Promenade, but the pairings are still evident: Market Place and Catacombs; Baba Yaga and Great Gate . These two pairs are partitioned by With the Dead in a Dead Language, which is actually a variation of the Promenade theme. Notable in the second half of the suite is that the two variations of the promenade theme (With the Dead in a Dead Language, and, Great Gate) have become pictures rather than Promenades.


Thematically the pictures in the second part of the binary structure can be seen as reflections of the first part of the binary structure. Roughly speaking, the first Promenade (the beginning of a journey) and Gnome (confrontation with ugliness) are reflected in the second part of the binary structure as Baba Yaga (confronting the ugly witch of death) and the Great Gate (a triumphant conclusion heralding an ongoing journey). The other parts of the thematic reflection include, Unhatched Chicks (the possibilities at the beginning of life), Goldenberg and Schmuyle (actualities of wealth and poverty later in life). After the final Promenade these themes are reflected as The Market Place (actualities of money and trivialities) and Catacombs (the end of life and the wish for something further).


Although Mussorgsky may not have been consciously using Scarlatti’s structures, the parallels in the progression of themes across movements suggests that Mussorgsky had a conceptual thread running through his suite. So when one discovers that many arrangements of Pictures at an Exhibition  leave out some of Mussorgsky’s pictures (movements) or Promenades, the question that comes to mind is whether these arrangers were actually aware of what they were doing to Mussorgsky’s conceptual structure. Even Ravel left out the final (fifth) Promenade because he considered it a redundant repetition. My studies of Mussorgsky’s form (and that of Scarlatti’s concepts) suggest to me that indeed there is a structural consideration that many of the traditional arrangements seem to miss.


The other interesting connection for me occurred from my exploration of the Emerson Lake and Palmer (ELP) interpretation of Mussorgsky’s suite. The ELP interpretation does not follow Mussorgsky’s structure closely, but rather uses a few of Mussorgsky’s ideas as points of departure into the ‘Progressive Rock’ idiom. So at first I thought that there might not be much to be gleaned from ELP for a classical rendition. But on closer listening I found Emerson’s s aggressive interpretation of Gnome highly suited to the ‘mirroring’ of Gnome with Baba Yaga.  In addition, on listening to Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto (the recording on the original 1979 Works album) the opening of the final movement reminded me of the opening of Baba Yaga. The opening theme of Emerson’s final movement sounds like an inversion of Mussorgsky’s Baba Yaga theme. Emerson’s piano concerto planted the seed in my mind of Mussorgsky’s suite as something suitable for piano and orchestra.


Such an arrangement of Mussorgsky’s suite would not be a ‘Piano Concerto’ in the ordinary sense and form, but rather, the interplay of the piano and orchestral colourings could highlight the ‘sonata’ structure that I described earlier. As I explored the piano and orchestra possibility further, the allocation of parts to piano and orchestra seemed to fall quite naturally into place. The orchestra focused on the Promenade theme and became Mussorgsky (or we the listeners) focused outwards looking at the pictures from a distance with other people walking about. The piano focused on the pictures and became Mussorgsky (or we the listeners) introspecting on our own reactions to the pictures. Scarlatti’s ‘mirror’ became the last Promenade (the fifth promenade) and far from being a mere repetition, the final Promenade becomes the point where the piano and orchestra become more integrated. This integration of parts then leads readily into the second part of the binary structure, where the allocation of themes to piano and orchestra are now reversed (or ‘mirrored’ as is also the progression of themes). The reversal of roles of piano and orchestra becomes most stark in With the Dead in a Dead Language (a variation of the Promenade theme) where the solo piano plays a variation of the Promenade theme. The reversal suggests that our own ‘journey’ (or Promenade) can become the focus of our introspection.


Looking at the suite in this way, I became aware of the spiritual journey that Mussorgsky seemed to be portraying in Pictures at an Exhibition. Mussorgsky’s journey takes us from a denial of our existential finitude (the first part of the suite, where Mussorgsky introspects on his deceased friend’s paintings) towards a triumphant integration of the self in the second part of the suite. Mussorgsky also seems to suggest that his journey is of mythical—if not Christ-likeproportions. We should not be surprised by this. Mussorgsky’s St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (the piece Mussorgsky wrote before Pictures at an Exhibition), is concerned with a mythical theme and journey as it’s program. After I finished my arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition, I was surprised to find that Rimsky Korsakov’s memoires indicated that Mussorgsky had possibly intended St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain as a piece for piano and orchestra. It is an intriguing possibility that around the time Mussorgsky was composing St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky was considering the combination of piano and orchestra as a vehicle for these programs. However, regardless of our speculations about Mussorgsky’s intended instrumentation, it is clear that Mussorgsky was thinking of music as myth for these compositions.


Shifting then to a programmatic point of view, the structure of Pictures at an Exhibition includes children arguing around a nanny in Tuileries, reminiscent of Christ’s 'Come to me as children'. Goldenberg and Schmuyle is reminiscent of Christ’s interactions with both wealth and poverty. The Market is reminiscent of the market place dominating the temple in Jerusalem. Catacombs and With the Dead in a Dead Language (Latin) clearly sets the tone of Roman times. Baba Yaga is representative of the confrontation with death on the cross and Great Gate then becomes like Christ’s resurrection. In the Great Gate Mussorgsky reinforces the biblical theme by twice quoting the Russian Christian Orthodox hymn As you are Baptised in Christ so you are Clothed in Christ (in my arrangement I allocate this hymn to a choir gently accompanied by the piano). In fact Hartman's design for the Great Gate was an entry into a competition to celebrate the Russian Tsar’s triumph in surviving an assassination attempt (indeed a triumph over death). Hartman's design also seems to suggest how such a triumph occurs. The Great Gate was designed in the form of a large helmet—suggesting that we have to  think our way out of despair over a finite life. In this respect, Pictures at an Exhibition seems to contain all the elements of a modern existential philosophy. Hardly a coincidence considering that the Existential movement was just beginning in Europe and Russia around the time Mussorgsky was composing his work.


I hope you enjoy listening to my arrangement and performance as much as I enjoyed studying, arranging and performing Mussorgsky’s great work of art.

© George Galanis 2008

Pictures at an Exhibition

On the interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

by George Galanis, March 2008