Why didn't classical composers use percussion?

Modest Mussorgsky The picture composer

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Can you paint pictures with sound? With his work "Pictures at an Exhibition", the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky created clay paintings that are much more famous today than the original pictures on canvas. Modest Mussorgsky more or less taught himself to compose.

By: Katharina Neuschaefer and Veronika Baum

Status: 04/25/2021 | archive

Actually, Modest Mussorgsky always wanted to invent music. Even as a child he showed a lot of talent. It's only like that with the teachers ... First his mother teaches him to play the piano, then he also has some music lessons, but nobody tells him how composing really works. Modest Mussorgsky has to find out everything himself. It begins an eternal writing down, crossing out, throwing away, trying again. Of course, this way it takes a long time to finish a work.

Between music and uniform

As a young man, Modest Mussorgsky proudly wears his cadet uniform.

Mussorgsky was born in 1839 as the youngest son of wealthy Russian landowners. Because "musician" is not a highly respected profession in Russia, Modest has to attend a military school. He actually wants to be a composer and even wrote his first piano piece during his school days, but military school also has something good for him. The cadet uniform looks so good on him that Modest Mussorgsky is a crush of all girls.

After school, Modest only wants to live for music. He made friends with other young men who were just as enthusiastic about music as he was: with the Russian composers Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Nikolaji Rimsky-Korsakow and with Mili Balakirew. Together they decide to found a kind of secret society and to compose utterly "Russian music". According to old, traditional melodies. Almost something like the Russian language - translated into notes. Because a brotherhood also needs a name, the friends call themselves from now on: "The Five" or "The Mighty Heap". Modest finally learns a lot about the art of composing from Mili Balakirew, but he still lacks the right tools.

Pictures become "sound paintings"

Life dates

Modest Mussorgsky was born on March 21, 1839 in the village of Karewo in the Russian Empire. He died at the age of 42 after a stroke on March 28, 1881 in Saint Petersburg.

Modest Mussorgsky continues to fight for his music and finally he even manages to publish his own opera: "Boris Godunow". It sounds exactly as he wanted it to be: entirely Russian. And Modest Mussorgsky is celebrated for his music.

In 1873 his good friend, the painter and architect Viktor Hartmann, died. In St. Petersburg, an exhibition of Hartmann's works is organized in memory of Hartmann. There they hang the pictures, the posters, the sketches and watercolors. One next to the other: there is the "hut of the witch Baba-Yaga", there the dark "catacombs of Paris" or the magnificent "great gate of Kiev".
Modest Mussorgsky looks at the pictures and inside they transform into music - into sound paintings. He goes home, sits down at the piano and composes a musical gallery for his friend the painter, where they all hang again: the "Pictures at an Exhibition".

World famous music - forgotten works of art

There are paintings that show the composer Modest Mussorgsky, but the "Pictures at an Exhibition" can only be heard!

Much later, 50 long years after the actual exhibition, the musical images make it into the concert hall. The composer Maurice Ravel even thinks the piano pieces are so beautiful that he rewrites them so that an entire orchestra can play them. Not least because of this arrangement, the "Pictures at an Exhibition" and its composer became famous all over the world, and since then Modest Mussorgsky has always been somehow "... the one with the pictures".