Mussorgsky's suite of pieces for Piano, Pictures at an Exhibition was composed in 1874 at the height of his career. Each piece in the suite was inspired by the watercolours, stage designs and drawings of Victor Hartmann who had died the year before. In imagining a visitor wandering around an exhibition of his late friend's work, Mussorgsky links the musical potraits with a 'promenade' theme.
The work is more commonly heard in an orchestral arrangement that the French composer Ravel made in 1920. As might be expected, Ravel produced an intensely colourful and orchestrally polished arrangement. Some, however, may prefer the bold starkness of the piano original.
In either version, there is much to enjoy in this highly original work. The atmospheric medievalism of The Old Castle contrasts wonderfully with the excited scrabble of the Ballet of the Newly-hatched Chicks. And the portrait of the evil witch Baba-Yaga leads magnificently into the power and majesty of The Great Gate of Kiev.
Mussorgsky was taught the piano from an early age by his mother, and at the age of nine played a concerto by Field to an audience in his parents’ house. In 1852 he entered the Guards’ Cadet School in St. Petersburg. He tried to write an opera in 1856, even though he had not studied harmony or composition. He joined the Guards in the same year. In 1857 he met Dargomïzhsky and Cui, and through them Balakirev and Stasov. This was the beginning of The ‘Big Five’, or ‘Mighty Handful’, consisting of Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Mussorgsky persuaded Balakirev to give him lessons, and he composed some songs and piano sonatas.
In 1858 he resigned his commission, and the next year, after an inspirational visit to Moscow, his works began to be performed in public. But he remained uneasy about his life, and started to write music which he then abandoned. He worked in the Ministry of Communications and lived in a commune with five other young men. In 1865 his mother died and he developed dipsomania. Two years later he lost his job. Mussorgsky spent the summer of that year at his brother’s house, where his compositions included his first important orchestral work, St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain.
Early in 1869 Mussorgsky reentered government service and completed the original version of the opera Boris Godunov. After some difficulty and much re-writing, it was eventually staged in February 1874. Despite an increasing dependence on alcohol, which reduced his ability to concentrate on composing, he continued to write such music as Pictures at an Exhibition. This was written for the piano and only arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel after Mussorgsky’s death. In 1878, his director at the Ministry allowed him to leave for a three-month concert tour with the contralto Darya Leonova. After he left government service in January 1880, Leonova helped provide him with employment and a home. However, on the 23 February the next year he went to her in a state of despair, rambling about having nothing to live for. He was taken to hospital and found to be suffering from alcoholic epilepsy. He died there a month later, leaving many of his works unfinished.
-MIDI FILE - Night on the Bare Mountain (11'58'')