Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition

  • 1695

By: Anna Harwell Celenza / Illustrated by: JoAnn E. Kitchel

Mussorgsky finds peace in music after his friend passes away.

When his friend Victor suddenly dies, composer Mussorgsky is deeply saddened. But, with the help of his friends, and through his own music, Modest finds a way to keep Victor's spirit alive.

Readers of all ages will enjoy the inspirational story behind the composition of Pictures at an Exhibition. Bright, colorful illustrations incorporate elements of Russian folk art and traditional symbols. View pages from artist JoAnn Kitchel's notebook for explanations of the symbols and see her pencil-sketch research of the Russian culture.

Visit Anna's Music Spot for links to recordings suggested by author Anna Harwell Celenza.

Author's Note
Pictures at an Exhibition is a true story. The characters—Modest Mussorgsky, Victor Hartmann, and Vladimir Stasov—really did exist, and the events in this book were inspired by documented evidence.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the most strikingly individual Russian composer of the late 19th century. Largely self-taught, he belonged to a group of revolutionary composers nicknamed the ‘Moguchaya Kuchka’ (‘Mighty Handful’) by the art critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906). This group strove to create an unmistakably Russian music and, with the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky succeeded.

In 1870 Mussorgsky befriended the architect Victor Hartmann (1834-1873). Both Mussorgsky and Stasov were drawn to Hartmann’s use of Russian designs and motifs, but their enthusiasm was not shared by later generations. If it were not for Modest’s music, Hartmann’s work would be completely forgotten. In fact, many of Hartmann’s artworks, including four of the pictures represented in Pictures at an Exhibition, no longer exist.

Upon learning of Hartmann’s death, Mussorgsky expressed his despair in a letter to Stasov: “What a terrible blow! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, live on and creatures like Hartmann must die!” The physical and psychological effects Hartmann’s death had on Mussorgsky are likewise described in a letter written by Stasov on June 18, 1873: “Mussorgsky has completely changed. He has begun to drink more and more, his face has swollen and turned dark red, his eyes have gone bad . . . So many efforts have been made to drag him out and join him with us again—nothing helps.” Mussorgsky’s respect for Hartmann’s work was recorded in the obituary he wrote for the Sankt Peterburgskiye Vedemosti. And his guilt over Hartmann’s sudden death was described in an autobiographical essay written in 1880. Letters written by Stasov (nicknamed “Généralissime” due to his bossy personality) and Mussorgsky tell much of thestory presented in this book. History rarely preserves the personal details that bring a story to life, consequently, I relied on my imagination to fill in some of the gaps.

No sketches exist for Pictures at an Exhibition. In general, Mussorgsky composed at the piano and only wrote music down once it was relatively complete. A description of this process was recorded by Mussorgsky in a letter to Stasov written June 12, 1874: “Hartmann is boiling [inside me]. Sounds and ideas are hanging in the air; I am devouring them and stuffing myself—I barely have time to scribble them on paper.” The original autograph copy of Pictures at an Exhibition is preserved in the Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library in St. Petersburg, Russia. It bears the dedication recorded in this book.

When Mussorgsky died in 1881, audiences outside Russia were not familiar with Pictures at an Exhibition—he was best known for his opera Boris Gudonov. But in the years that followed many composers from around the world illuminated Mussorgsky’s music with the sounds of the orchestra. Although the orchestration created by the French composer Maurice Ravel is the most famous today, the one created by Vladimir Ashkenazy is more faithful to Mussorgsky’s original ideas.


Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Anna Harwell Celenza, author

Anna Harwell Celenza is a musicologist and the author of several books for adults and children regarding music history and the history of art. Her children’s books include Haydn's Farewell Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Anna lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read more about Anna.

JoAnn E. Kitchel, illustrator

JoAnn E. Kitchel received her B.A. in art education from Central Michigan University. She has illustrated Haydn's Farewell Symphony, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, The Heroic Symphony, and Hanukkah Lights (Chronicle Books). JoAnn lives in Mt. Vernon, New Hampshire.

Read more about JoAnn.

Editorial Reviews:

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ISBN: 978-1-58089-528-6

ISBN: 978-1-63289-503-5 EPUB
ISBN: 978-1-63289-504-2 PDF
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 6-9
Page count: 32
9 x 9

Correlated to Common Core State Standards:
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Informational. Grade 2. Standards 1-4, 6, 8, 10
English Language Arts-Literacy. Reading Informational. Grade 3. Standards 1-4, 6-8, 10

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