On a splendid summer day in 1873, thirty-nine year old Russian artist and architect Viktor Hartmann dropped dead of a cerebral aneurysm. The sudden demise of this now, little-known member of Moscow’s intellectual inner circle caused shock and dismay among his friends. His passing prompted the creation of a work of musical genius that now ranks among the most familiar in the classical repertoire. Hartmann had the good fortune, in the last years of his short life, to count among his acquaintances, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), well-known composer and Russian nationalist. Mussorgsky was so moved by the sudden demise of his friend and colleague that he immediately composed a work for piano in his memory—Pictures from an Exhibition. artes fine arts magazine
Both artist and composer were devout adherents to the concept of a Russian identity in art. Composed in just a few months in 1874, Mussorgsky’s fever of grief, expressed through Pictures, was evident to all around him. He poured out his feeling about his friend’s death in a letter to cultural critic, Vladimir Stassov, who shared the same nationalist tendencies as Hartmann and Mussorgsky, having brought the two men together in the first place:
My dear friend, what a terrible blow! “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life” – and creatures like Hartmann must die! … This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such case: “He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live!” True – but how many men have the luck to be remembered? That is just another way of serving up our complacency (with a dash of onion, to bring out the tears). Away with such wisdom! When “he” has not lived in vain, but has created – one must be a rascal to revel in the thought that “he” can create no more. No, one cannot and must not be comforted, there can be and must be no consolation – it is a rotten mortality! What does it all mean? In any case, the dull old earth is no coquette, but takes every “King of Nature” straight into her loathsome embrace, whoever he is – like and old worn-out hag, for anyone is good enough, since she has no choice.
There again – what a fool I am! Why be angry when you cannot change anything! Enough then – the rest is silence. …
That the music would outlive the reputation of the artist is a surprise, here. Most listeners to the subsequent transcriptions of Mussorgsky’s composition are seemingly transported to grand locations, with images of vast landscapes, towering forests and grand vistas of the Russian countryside, captured in the richly-romantic score. In fact, much of Hartmann’s drawings and architectural renderings were visually limited to heavily-thematic architectural detailing, conventional landscapes, murky interior scenes, and detailed renderings of monumental, Russian-revival style structures that would never become reality. Even more remarkable is the fact that most of Hartmann’s renderings are no longer known to exist, while Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition has entered the musical lexicon of virtually every community orchestra and classical radio station in the world.
There was, in fact, an ‘exhibition’ of Hartmann’s drawings and paintings, in Moscow, a year after his death. Four-hundred works were shown in 1874, ranging from grand, elaborate elevations of proposed buildings and memorials, to intimate portraits of Russian peasant life in the vast farmlands, far removed from his sophisticated inner circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow. His frequent return to motifs of pastoral life and regionally-influenced architectural details reflected the sign of the times, with Russian nationalism being a theme that coursed deep in the veins of most intellectuals of that time.
The years surrounding 1870 were fraught with wide-spread concerns about national identity, both in Russian and throughout Europe at the time. Germany was in the process of national unification of its myriad states; Prussian was currently at war with France, bellicose Britain was rattling sabers in St. Petersburg’s direction, and Italy was engaged in its own struggles with bordering nations, attempting to define its own version of national independence.
Hartmann’s deep to his cultural roots and the popular appeal of his work at the time was given a boost by politics. The Emancipation Reform Act of 1861, and subsequent reforms by Alexander II, pushed the liberal elite into exploring the roots of national culture. The first result of these studies in architecture was a birth of “folk” or Pseudo-Russian style, exemplified by the 1870s design works of Hartmann and Ivan Ropet. These artists, and others, idealized the peasant life and created their own vision of “vernacular” architecture. Another factor was the rejection of western eclectics that dominated civil construction of 1850s-1860s, a reaction against “decadent West.”
Hartmann’s designs and narrative painting style was aimed at a target audience. Working in close alliance with the Narodnik cause, he was part of a socially conscious movement of the Russian middle class in the 1860s and 1870s, some of whom became involved in revolutionary agitation against the Tsar and its links to the cultural elite. Their ideology can be literally translated as “peopleism”, though it is more commonly rendered as “populism”. The term itself derives from the Russian expression “Going to the people.” Their movement achieved little in its own time, although the Narodniks were in many ways the intellectual and political forebears of the Marx-inspired, socialist revolutionaries who went on to greatly influence Russian history in the 20th century.
For example, Bydlo is a Polish word meaning “cattle”. Hartmann’s watercolor, which he had apparently executed during a trip through Poland, showed a typical peasant wagon with enormous wooden wheels, drawn by oxen (left). By exhibiting this painting, Mussorgsky and other show organizers had turned this into more of a social commentary on how Russians treated Poles in 1874, Czarist Russia. At a time this was a dangerous notion to express. Hence inclusion in the show, as well, from The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, a Hartmann costume sketch for children dancers entitled Trilby (a satirical title derived from the name for a rich man’s hat – like today’s fedora – and a veiled reference to the birth of a new genaration of Russian activists). One of the costume sketches showed a child with only arms, legs and head protruding through a large chicken shell (below, right).
Modest Mussorgsky moved in the same nationalist circles as Hartmann, and his death served as an opportunity to musically celebrate Russian life through the artist and architect’s images. Liitle known today is the fact that the full title of the work is Pictures from an Exhibition – A Remembrance of Viktor Hartmann, that the composition was not performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime and that, today, the most popular and accurate version of his 10-movement piano work was arranged for orchestra in 1931. But, Mussorgsky’s motivation at the time of Hartmann’s death was to honor a friend and promote his reputation through music. In the summer of 1874, he wrote a friend: “Hartmann boiling, boiling like ‘Boris’ (Godunov) did, sounds and ideas floating in the air, feasting on it full, have barely any time to scratch it down on paper. Writing 4th. I want prompt and reliable work. My physiognomy in intermezzo’s visible.”
Programmatic in nature, the melodies and motifs of the Pictures composition, ironically, aren’t aimed at evoking images of Russian life, but are based on watercolors and drawings completed by Hartmann during travels trough Poland, Italy and France, with the final movement depicting an architectural design for the capital city of Ukraine.
The musical concept came to Mussorgsky rapidly, the idea of a ‘promenade’ of musical motifs reflecting the viewer’s walk down a promenade of paintings.The entire musical narrative is intended to suggest a walk through a gallery. Mussorgsky links the suite’s movements in a way that depicts the viewer’s own progress through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works, emotions rising and falling in a perfect blending of colors and mood, as the viewer left one painting and came upon another. Two Promenade movements stand as portals to the suite’s main sections. Their regular pace and irregular meter depicts the act of walking. Three untitled interludes present shorter statements of this theme, varying the mood, color and key in each to suggest reflection on a work just seen or anticipation of a new work glimpsed. A turn is taken in the work at the Catacombae, when the Promenade theme stops functioning as merely a linking device and becomes, cum mortuis in lingua morta (“with the dead in a dead language)”, a pensive homage to the dead artist (inspired by Hartmann’s watercolor, In the Catacombes, Paris, right) and an integral element of the movement itself. The theme reaches its apotheosis in the suite’s heroic finale, The Bogatyr Gates (the Russian equivalent of Western European’s, knights-exemplar).
On April 4, 1866, Tsar Alexander II narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the city of Kiev. A competition was ordained for the design of a great gate to commemorate what was referred to as “the event of April 4, 1866” – the Imperial Censor forbidding language any more particular than this. Victor Hartmann’s design for The Great Gate of Kiev, 1870 (left), caused a sensation, and the architect himself, felt it was the finest work he had yet done. While the Tsar was happy to have escaped with his life, he apparently was a bit uneasy at any explicit public acknowledgments of the fact. Perhaps it was this ambivalence that led to the eventual cancellation of the project; or it may have been a simple paucity of funds.
The inspirational route between art and music is a well-worn, bi-directional pathway. Here, with Pictures from an Exhibition, we find a deeply emotional meditation on the life and work of an artist, now largely forgotten. The ekphrasic nature of the music—overshadowing and replacing Hartmann’s original visual message with a more profound aural one—is one of the ironies of history. The composition, in ten movements, holds our attention because of its variations in color, tone, affect and pace, much like Hartmann’s paintings and drawings—now largely lost to the exigencies of time—might have affected a gallery visitor, so soon after the artist’s untimely demise. Rather than the over-reaching orchestrated version, the true impact of the music can best be experienced by listening to a more authentic piano interpretation, where the original composition’s delicacy and pathos is most evident.
While Mussorgsky intended the work to eulogize his friend and compatriot in a very personal way, the vivid motifs, powerful chord structure and its soaring rhetorical spirit can only serve as a musical reminder that, while a community grieved the loss of one of its own, just beyond the doors of the Moscow gallery, the flames of Russian nationalism were burning brighter each day. At its very core, Pictures from and Exhibition endures for many reasons, not the least of which is that it stands as a rousing, 1874 version of a ‘national anthem’ for a newly-emerging Russian proletariat.
Author’s note: Read another “musical” piece ‘Picasso: Memeory and Metaphor’ at:http://www.artesmagazine.com/2011/10/one-in-series-of-articles-exploring-relationship-between-art-music/
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor