In 1874 the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky attended an exhibition of paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann, painter and architect (left), who had died the previous year. Mussorgsky immortalized the exhibition by composing a work based on some of the pictures which he saw. He also immortalized his own attendance by incorporating a series of ‘Promenades’, all based on the same musical theme, which show his changing moods and reactions as he walks about.
What a unique idea. Works of art have inspired pieces of music before and since – Liszt’s Sposalizio and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse spring to mind – but to capture a number of pictures plus the viewer’s response is surely a one-off. Mussorgsky composed the piece in three weeks, using the name Hartmann as a working title. In a letter to Vladimir Stassov, the art critic whose idea the exhibition was, Mussorgsky wrote:
‘My dear généralissime, Hartmann is seething as Boris [his opera, Boris Godunov] seethed,—sounds and ideas hang in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper. I am writing the 4th №—the transitions are good (on the ‘promenade’). I want to work more quickly and reliably. My physiognomy can be seen in the interludes. So far I think it’s well turned… ‘
Musssorgsky was a member of the group known variously as ‘ the Five’, ‘The Balakirev Circle’ or ‘the Mighty Handful’, five Russian nationalist composers [left] who sought to give a distinctly Russian identity to their music, rather than a European flavour. Remarkably, they were largely self-taught amateurs; Mussorgsky’s ‘day-job’ was in the civil service.
So – got your ticket for the exhibition? And you’re wearing comfortable shoes? Right. Let’s go through the door of the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and start the tour …