Spotlight On: The Final Four Movements

The final four movements of Pictures at an Exhibition form a sort of musical story.  The first two take place in France, and the final two in Russia.

Limoges.  The Market (The Great News):  Eb major

Stasov's comment:  "French women quarreling violently in the market."

This movement is a scherzo, depicting a lively scene at a market in a city in Central France.  The tempo is very quick, and the music scurries about through a coda directly into the next movement.

Catacombae (Sepulchrum romanum) and Con mortuis in lingua mortua: B minor

Stasov's comment:  "Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern"

The movment is in two parts.  The first is a Largo, played in block chords, with each chord (nearly) conducted individually.  There are elegiac lines interspersed, with a dark Andante which introduces the Promenade theme into the scene.

The loud/soft alternations evoke the stillness and echo of the catacombs.  As the observer descends into the catacombs, the second section emerges, and the observer is drawn to notice the stacks of skulls lining the walls and what they would say if they could speak.

The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga): C minor

Stasov's comment:  "Hartmann's drawing depicted a clock in the form of Baba Yaga's hut on fowl's legs.  Mussorgsky added the witch's flight in a mortar."

This fericious movement evoke the bells of a large clock and the sounds of a chase, as the sections move through fast scale patterns and call and response motives.  It mirrors the qualities of the first movement "Gnomus", but on a grand scale.  The movement's coda continues, without break, into the Finale.

The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital of Kiev) - also "The Great Gate of Kiev", or "The Heroes' Gate at Kiev": Eb major

Stasov's comment:  "Hartmann's sketch was his design for city gates at Kiev in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet."

Bogatyrs are heroes that appear in Russian epics called bylinas.  Common translations (shown above) exist which highlight different importances within the music.  The painting was to be a design for a monumental gate to commemmorate Tsar Alexander II.  His design won a national composition, but the plans to build the structure were cancelled.

The movements main theme exalts the opening Promenade, much as Baba Yaga does with Gnomus.  The odd shifts in meter found in the Promenade theme (5/4 then 6/4), are evened out in Gates.  The quiet and reflective secondary theme is based on a baptismal hymn from a Russian Orthodox chant.  The brass features heavily in the forte/fortissimo sections, playing what are generally considered some of the most recognizable and idiomatic brass lines in the orchestral repertoire.

Musically, the movement is in the form of a Rondo.  The interruption of the thematic repetition by the interlude sets up an anticipation to revisit the main theme, which comes back in a revelatory way, expanded to one beat per bar over triplet patterns - also heard in the finale of the 1812 Overture.  Mussorgsky uses scale patterns throughout to suggest carillons - also heard in 1812 Overture.  When the main theme arrives again, in full force, at about the 2/3rd mark, it is presented con tutta forza, in full splendor.  By the time the final cadence arrives, the tempo has drawn out to nearly a standstill.  The final lines of the piece benefit from powerful trombone and horn sections, who have undoubtedly saved up for these moments.  The progressions toward the end of the piece build an anticipation, that the trombones and horns intensify, which the resolution and subsequent enormous percussion hits drive home to the thrilling final measures.

Attend our performance of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, June 10, 2017 at Northshore Performing Arts Center.