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Music / Pictures at an Exhibition

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The front page of the score.

Pictures At An Exhibition is an 1874 piano suite, composed by Modest Mussorgsky but more famous in Maurice Ravel's orchestral arrangement. The work was inspired by a collection of paintings from a friend of Mussorgsky, Viktor Alexandrovich Hartmann (5 May 1834 – 4 August 1873). Each individual piece carries the title of one of these paintings which, unfortunately, are nowadays mostly missing. Descriptions of what the works showed have survived, so that the modern day listener at least has some idea what they might have looked like.

The work has been covered by various pop musicians (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Isao Tomita, Tangerine Dream, Animusic, Sound Horizon,...) and even adapted to film, including a 1966 version by Osamu Tezuka.

Tropes found in the original work:

  • Ancient Tomb: "Catacombs"
  • Avian Flute: Maurice Ravel's orchestration of this piece contains a movement entitled "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks." Its scoring prominently features two flutes playing grace-note figures that ornament running oboe and bassoon passages, the whole suggesting an energetic clutch of baby chicks.
  • Big Fancy Castle: "The Old Castle", "The Great Gate Of Kiev".
  • Bizarrchitecture: Baba Yaga's chicken-legged home, which even moves according to the legend.
  • Book Ends: The "Promenade" theme which opens the suite (and recurs throughout the first half) returns as part of the ending of "Great Gate of Kiev".
  • Celebrity Elegy: The compositions are a tribute to the paintings of artist Viktor Hartmann, a friend of the composer who had passed away the year before.
  • Greedy Jew: Musicologists have observed that the characters in "Samuel Goldenburg and Schmüyle"— two Jewish men, one a wealthy banker and one a whining beggar— bear an unfortunate resemblance to versions of this stereotype.
  • Museum of the Strange and Unusual: The paintings have a variety in topics.
  • Mocking Sing-Song: "Tuileries" depicts children playing in the titular gardens using the archetypal teasing melody.
  • Name and Name: "Samuel Goldenburg and Schmüyle", who are two Jewish men, one rich and one poor.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: The score has a few haunting moments: "The Gnome", "Chickens In Their Eggs" and "The Hut On Fowl's Legs/Baba Yaga". The pieces which bear these names may well make you glad that the paintings which inspired them have since been lost forever.
  • Our Gnomes Are Weirder: "The Gnome", who apparently has crooked legs.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The entire score is in the public domain.
  • Rearrange the Song: Maurice Ravel rather heavily rearranged the work in adapting it from solo piano to orchestra, producing the version which is by far most frequently performed today.
  • Recurring Riff: The opening theme appears as a recurring Leitmotif between each piece, representing someone at the Exhibition walking from picture to picture.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: The entire score has been covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Tangerine Dream, as well as synthesizer composer Isao Tomita. Sound Horizon's "Yoiyami no Uta" includes snippets of classical pieces in rapid succession: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", Chopin's "Fantaisie-Impromptu", and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. "Cathedral Pictures" contains excerpts from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", specifically "The Old Castle", "The Hut on Fowls Legs", and "The Great Gate of Kiev", all arranged for an organ, an electric bass, and drums.
  • Serenade Your Lover: "The Old Castle" is said to depict a troubadour singing to someone in a castle window.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The work is featured on the soundtrack of the video game The Incredible Machine.
    • Catherine's selection of backing music for its challenge levels includes "The Hut on Fowl's Legs/Baba Yaga".
    • RideBack features "The Great Gate of Kiev" as a recurring motif and wrestler Jerry Lawler used the piece as his introduction theme whenever he enters the ring.
    • "Promenade" is used (uncredited) as the Theme Tune to The New Statesman.
    • One segment in Animalympics shows a Russian sable performing a gymnastics routine to the accompaniment of "The Hut on Fowl's Legs".
  • Silly Walk: "The Gnome", described as "clumsily running with crooked legs" and "The Ballet of Unhatched Chickens In Their Eggs", where the music sounds chaotic, visualizing chicks running around with No Sense of Direction.
  • Slavic Mythology: "The Hut On Fowl's Legs/Baba Yaga" is based on the Slavic folkloric character Baba Yaga.
  • Standard Snippet: "Promenade", "The Old Castle", "The Great Gate Of Kiev".
  • Tick Tock Tune: "The Hut On Fowl's Legs/Baba Yaga" it's about a design for a clock in the shape of the hut of the named witch from Russian folklore, and the music strongly suggests the ticking of the clock, especially in the Isao Tomita interpretation.
  • Uncommon Time: Mussorgsky freely mixes time signatures throughout the work. The first "Promenade" notably alternates between 5/4 and 6/4, and is perhaps better thought of as longer phrases of 11/4. This was simplified by a student of his contemporary Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (who also renotated some examples of this from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in straight 2/4) and has been the norm for subsequent publications. Word of God says that this meter is supposed to simulate a natural walking pattern.
  • Wicked Witch: Baba Yaga in "The Hut On Fowl's Legs".

The 1971 version by Emerson, Lake & Palmer provides examples of:

  • Album Title Drop:
    We're gonna give you "Pictures At An Exhibition" (roaring applause)
  • Concept Album: A rock interpretation of Mussorgsky's famous piece.
  • Cover Album: All tracks are covers.
  • Covers Always Lie: All tracks are indeed from Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, except for the final one, a cover of "Nutrocker" by B. Bumble & The Stingers, itself based on The Nutcracker by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
  • Design Student's Orgasm: The album cover is literally paintings displayed at a museum.
    • The original gatefold sleeve shows the paintings as blank canvases. The actual (not original) paintings are revealed on the inside... except for "Promenade", which is still a blank canvas. (Because, you know, that music is not about a painting.)
  • Epic Rocking and Fading into the Next Song: All pieces fade into each other, making this one extra long piece of epic rocking.
  • Instrumental: Most of the tracks are instrumental, though the band provided self-written lyrics for some of the pieces.
  • The Last of These Is Not Like the Others: The final track "Nutrocker" is based on a piece by Tchaikovsky and has nothing to do with Mussorgsky's work.
  • Live Album: The entire album is live.
  • Packaged as Other Medium: The album cover is presented as a series of paintings hanging in an art gallery.
  • Progressive Rock: A cornerstone of the genre.
  • Rearrange the Song: The band arranged the music with rock band instruments and added some lyrics to certain pieces.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: Like most of the band's work.
  • Shout-Out: Keith Emerson named his autobiography: "Pictures of an Exhibitionist".