Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Russian Composer, portrait painting in oil on canvas by Ilya Repin, 1881 / Alamy

By Michael Morton-Evans

When asked what he thought of Modest Mussorgsky’s work, Tchaikovsky replied: “He is convinced of his genius. He seems to be proud of his ignorance and writes what occurs to him on the spur of the moment. But in truth his absolutely original talent is revealed everywhere. He speaks a new language.”

And there’s no clearer indication of that than in Mussorgsky’s 1874 work, Pictures at an Exhibition. That the work became one of his most popular and widely praised is even more extraordinary when considered against the background of his life. The son of a wealthy landowner and with a promising career in the army, Mussorgsky decided to leave his regiment in 1857 aged 18 and devote himself to music, although by the time he was 24 he found himself in financial trouble and was forced to get a job in a government office. In 1865 his mother, whom he loved deeply, died and he began to drink heavily. Needless to say, his job came to an end, and he was forced to eke out a living giving piano lessons. By the age of 34 his dipsomania made him virtually unemployable, but he was still able to compose, and it was now that Pictures at an Exhibition was written.

Each movement offers a musical interpretation of one of the paintings by his close friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died unexpectedly at the age of 39 just 12 months earlier. The suite is in 10 parts, starting with a mischievous gnome and ending with the piece that is considered by many to be his greatest work, The Great Gate of Kiev. In between we find scenes of quarrelling children, a ballet of unhatched chickens, the marketplace at Limoges and the hut of Baba-Yaga, among others.

Mussorgsky demonstrated remarkable versatility in his compositional style to bring each painting to life. For example, his use of brass fanfares and sweeping melodies in The Great Gate of Kiev convey a sense of triumph, culminating in a majestic climax as befits the Hero’s Gate as it was known. His haunting melody for In the Catacombs accompanies Hartmann’s self-portrait carrying a lantern through the Paris catacombs, and the screeching chords depicting a witch’s broomstick ride accompanies The Hut of Baba-Yaga, otherwise known as The House on Chicken Legs. Baba-Yaga of course being a witch from old Russian legend.

The enduring popularity of Pictures at an Exhibition must surely be attributed to its universal appeal and timeless relevance. Despite being composed over a century ago, its themes of artistic inspiration, creative expression and the power of imagination remain as relevant today as they were in the composer’s time.

Although Mussorgsky wrote the suite for the piano, over the years there have been many orchestral arrangements, the best and most frequently played being that by Ravel. But what really sets this work apart is not only its vivid imagery, but also its innovative approach to orchestration. His use of unconventional harmonies and instrumental techniques foreshadowed the development of 20th century music and opened the door to future composers to experiment in this way.

As Tchaikovsky said of him, he speaks a new language.