Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
By Anna Harwell Celenza and illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel
Charlesbridge Once Upon a Masterpiece edition
A review by R.C. Speck

Ever want to know the inspiration behind a great work of music? Ever wish to impart this knowledge to an elementary-school–aged child who is just beginning to learn about music history? Anna Harwell Celenza and JoAnn E. Kitchel’s children’s book Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition does just this with such singular style that I am sure most children who read it will return to it often.

Celenza tells the story of young Modest Mussorgsky making his way through the art scene in 1870s Saint Petersburg. He and his friends, artist and designer Victor Hartmann and writer Vladimir Stasov, are imbued with the optimism of the age as Russia is becoming more open with the West. After Hartmann unexpectedly dies, however, Mussorgsky is disconsolate. He blames himself for his friend’s death and shuts himself in his apartment. His friends try to revitalize him, but to no avail. Eventually, however, they put on an art exhibition of all of Hartmann’s works and invite a still-grieving Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky then composes his great Pictures at an Exhibition with individual paintings by Hartmann inspiring individual pieces of music in that work. Finally over his grief for his friend, Mussorgsky then travels the world telling everyone he meets about Pictures at an Exhibition.

It’s a familiar story, but Celenza distills the essence of it and imparts the history in an accessible narrative form. It reads like an illustrated short story. Children will not only relate to the characters but will be attracted by the author’s clear and suspenseful prose.

Kitchel’s art, with its bold colors, bigger-than-life depictions, and fanciful—almost impressionistic—visions, provides wonderful counterpoint to the story. The themes of Mussorgksy’s music become visual themes in her hands. For example, “The Heroes’ Gate at Kiev” seems to sail on the winds of sound coming from Mussorgsky’s piano. Meanwhile, the witch Baba-Yaga in “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” accosts two market women who without knowing it walk over a bed of skulls. Kitchel surrounds her artwork on every page with borders which contain symbolism straight from traditional Russian and Ukrainian folk art. Children will likely find something new in Kitchel’s art every time they open the book.

The last page of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition provides a detailed summary of the events in the book. Celenza reveals that she used mostly primary sources when composing her story, such as letters written between Mussorgsky and Stasov and the original autograph copy of Pictures at an Exhibition. She also relies on her imagination to fill in personal details of her main characters. Children interested in history as well as in music will find much to enjoy in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

This book review appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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