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Let Your Spirit Soar

Let Your Spirit Soar

When you hear the Evanston Symphony play Pictures at an Exhibition, you will experience the beauty and originality of the paintings of Russian artist Viktor Hartmann (1834–1873) as interpreted by his good friend and composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881). The piece will take you on a stroll through a late 19th-century gallery at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of the Arts.

The piece was composed in 1874 to honor Hartmann, who had died suddenly from an aneurysm the previous year. News of his death shocked Russia’s art world, and an exhibition of his works was organized to honor him. Pictures at an Exhibition captures Mussorgsky’s experience of the gallery. The piece includes 10 numbers, each serving as a musical illustration of one of Hartmann’s individual works of art. The numbers are linked by a recurring “Promenade,” a relaxed walk that takes you from one artistic work to the next.

Mussorgsky was so inspired by the exhibition that he wrote this piece in just three weeks in June 1874. He described his composition process as almost frenzied, saying “sounds and ideas hung in the air, I am gulping and overeating, and can barely manage to scribble them on paper.” However, because his comrade composers were puzzled and bewildered by the novelty of the piece, Mussorgsky was worried he had gone too far, and he abandoned the score and turned to devote himself to an operatic endeavor. The work did not appear in print until 1886, 12 years after Mussorgsky wrote it and five years after his death. He wrote the piece for piano, and many orchestrators later tried their hand at bringing his vision of the paintings to even greater life. The ESO will be playing Maurice Ravel's 1922 orchestration, which has proven to be the most popular version.

Today most of Hartmanns’s artworks from this exhibition are lost, yet they are preserved in this piece. There is something for every listener in this work. Hartmann painted the depicted works in countries across Europe, including Poland, Italy, Russia, Ukraine and France. They include the whimsical “The Hut of Baba Yaga,” the exuberant “Tuileries” (or Children’s Quarrel after Games), and the somber “Catacombs.” Your spirit is guaranteed to soar as you hear the triumphant “Great Gates of Kyiv,” which uplifts the listener at the end of the piece and culminates our 2022–2023 concert season.