Sunday, April 29, 2012

Pictures on Exhibition: Program Music

Music can be a powerful learning tool (in particular its strong memory and association paths), and program music in particular, can be easily integrated into classroom curricula. Wikipedia states that:

Program music or programme music is a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative...The term is usually reserved for purely instrumental works (pieces without singers and lyrics), and not used, for example for Opera or Lieder.
While Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique  is the paradigmatic example of this type of music, as this is a family oriented blog (and Berlioz's epic piece relates a drug-induced series of morbid fantasies of unrequited love), I focus this post on another example of program music which I have used in middle and elementary school curricula: Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Pictures at an Exhibition was composed by Modest Mussorgsky as a memorial for his recently deceased artist/architect friend, Victor Hartmann who suddenly and prematurely died at the age of 39 (of an aneurysm). Mussorgsky was devastated by Hartmann's death and a mutual friend of theirs, Vladimir Stassov put a memorial exhibit together at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Russia, honoring Hartmann that included his drawings, watercolors, and Mussorgsky's music.

Mussorgsky's piece relates ten of the roughly four hundred pictures displayed at the exhibition and are linked by a recurring Promenade theme. The ten "pictures" include:
  • Promenade - used to link the 'pictures'  the regular pace and irregular meter helps relay the act of a meandering walk.
  • Gnomus - The Gnome - believed to be based upon Hartmann's design for a Christmas tree nutcracker displaying large teeth, Mussorgsky's music depicts an impish gnome limping , pausing and lunging to the music
  • Il vecchio castello - The Old Castle - based on a watercolor of an unidentified medieval tower with a minstrel and lute sketched outside its gates to help illustrate the scale and grandeur of the castle.
  • Tuileries (Dispute between Children at Play) - depicts a walk in the Tuileries Gardens of Paris where nurses brought children to play
  • Bydlo - Polish for Cattle - depicts a Polish cart on enormous wheels drawn by laboring oxen.
  • Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks - based on costume designs of a picturesque scene in the ballet "Triby." The ballet contains a scene of children dancing as chicks in their shells.
  • Samual Goldenbert and Schmuyle - (Two Polish Jews) believed to be based upon two separate portraits - one richly dressed, the other in rags. The music portrays them deep in discussion with the rich man's theme overbearing and pompous, and the poor man's one of wheedling and whining.
  • The Market at Limoges based on Hartmann's drawing of French women haggling and gossiping at the market.
  • Catacombs - depicts Hartmann and two accomplices exploring the old Roman catacombs in Paris.
  • Baba-Yaga's Hut on Hen's Legs - the witch Baba Yaga, a familiar character in Russian folklore had a hut in the woods that ran around on chicken legs.  Victor Hartmann designed an ornate clock inthe shape of Baba Yaga's hut which was the inspiration for this section. Mussorgsky's music begins with the wild flight of the witch's hut which disappears into the forest and reappears later stalking in thin woods and then flyingoff. 
 Here is an old Russian cartoon of Baba Yaga's hut using the Hut on Hen's Legs and the Promenade:
  • The Great Gate of Kiev - based on Hartmann's entry in a competition to design a great gate commemorating Tsar Alexander II's miraculous escape from an assassination attempt. Hartmann's design depicts city gates in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a slavonic helmet. His design won the competition but the plans were never completed due to lack of funds.
Educational Applications: I have found that the lack of surviving art has made this story even more intriguing and inspiring for my students.  Here is how I have successfully integrated and taught this work. (NOTE: This can be in one, or over many sessions depending on the age and attention span of your students.):
  • Briefly introduce the story and history
  • listen to the music - stopping at each segment to name the 'picture' upon which it was based, 
  • move to the music (march, fly, lumber, limp, work, run, play, etc.)
  • draw our own renditions of the art (as suggested by the music), 
  • write our own stories/poems/comics for each of the musical segments and then 
  • (with older studetns) research Mussorgsky, Hartmann, Russian period art and literature, and search for Hartmann's remaining sketches.
  • discuss the role and compositions of memorials
These lessons are incredibly motivating and can be used with kids of all ages. 
While most of Hartmann's work has been lost, damaged, or destroyed by time and neglect, here are some online resources that contain some sketches or resources you can use with your children/students:
For a more 'modern' Emerson Lake & Palmer's rendition of this work:

 And a link for a classical guitar rendition:
One of my favorite transcriptions is Vladimir Horowitz's transcription for piano.  Absolutely brilliant - it is amazing to hear the depth of sound he creates.  Here is an excerpt:

Before closing, here is a list of suggested Program Music, and a few more of my favorites:
  • PDQ Bach's 1712 Overture  (also lends itself incredibly well to classroom inclusion and lots of smiles)
  • Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue  (and An American in Paris)
  • Smetana's Moldau (Vltava) - depicting the journey of the Bohemain river from its source to its merging with the Elbe
  • Paul Dukas's The sorcerer's Apprentice - based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's ballad "Der Zauberlehrling" (and found in Disney's Fantasia)
  • Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade
  • Vivaldi's Four Seasons
Thanks for the visit.  I hope you enjoyed this sojourn.  Please leave your comments and I look forward to more visits!


  1. Wow! ~ This is an excellent post and so informative ~ Love classical music and know that children take to it very easily for the most part ~ thanks so much for sharing this and linking to Magical Monday Meme ~ good to have a member from the beautiful world of music ~ namaste, ^_^

  2. This is so very interesting. Thanks so much for this. The music was fascinating, and I loved the cartoon.
    Danielle @ Royalegacy

  3. Two elements such as classical music and art go together like cake & ice cream. Anyone who is priviledge to partake can't help, but to enjoy the two. I love the history lesson behind your post. While I like Classical music, I can not tell you easily what pieces I like. I just know it when I hear it. Shame on me, I know.

    I have long known, if children listen to certain classical music in the morning hours they are more respective to learning their lessons better and for our homeschooling I often would play classical music at the beginning of each day while our children were getting ready to do their school in hopes to capitalize on improving upon my precious kiddos learning power. Plus, the classical music provided a soothing, peaceful element at the start of each morning.

    Thanks for linking up with Monday's Music Moves Me. It was such a pleasure to have you join us. Perhaps next week, you'll want to continue the fun as our theme will be songs from other countries. That one is sure to be interesting & I'm looking forward to seeing what others display for my pleasure.

    Glad You Came-One Direction-Eyes Open-Fine By Me-I Kissed You Goodnight

  4. Well written and interesting post for P. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

  5. Meryl, I am always amazed by the amount of work you put into these ABC Wednesday posts.
    I learn so much from them.
    Thank you for all the information of this piece of music and the descriptions.
    The cartoon and music really work well together.
    Horowitz was so very talented. Thanks for giving us the link to his work.

  6. I own Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue & An American in Paris; Smetana's Moldau; Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade; Vivaldi's Four Seasons (but doesn't everyone?) and, most importantly, ELP's version of Pictures at an Exhibition! I have another version too.

    Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for versions of pop songs from the classical, but they have be COVERS of the song. For instance, someone did Nutrocker, a variation of the Nutcracker Suite, and ELP covered that. Any examples come to mind?

    ROG, ABC Wednesday team

    1. This is a fantastic way to combine language and music! But isn't this what we have been doing already for a long time? Only I used simpler music like musicals and I have movies of them. The last lesson was spent on the entire movie. It works well. In the previous lessons I introduced the lyrics , each lesson one or two songs. Well it's great fun.
      Have a great week.
      Wil, ABC Team.

  7. Interesting! Your blog posts are always very well thought out.

  8. Three different performances in different eras. Excellent teaching tools.

  9. Very interesting! Thanks for linking up :)


  10. I once had a music class listen to this, and draw/paint pictures to accompany each scene (just as you suggest in one of your activities). Afterwards, we researched to find the actual paintings that inspired Mussorgsky. We made a slide show to go with the music. It was great fun! I'm now retired, but love this blog.

  11. What a fantastic blog!! I love it! I'll be back often, for sure. Stop by and follow me at and add your site to our Blog Hop. I think people will love this!! :D

  12. This blog is an amazing history of music mixed with the music itself. I was lucky enough to grow up with all sorts of music in my home from classic to rock n roll.
    Sometimes, I just need the classics!
    Fabulous post.
    ~Naila Moon

  13. Great post! I agree that music can be a powerful tool when it comes to teaching! You have some great selections listed too :)


  14. My 6 year old daughter decided to stop taking ballet lessons so she could take piano lessons. Thanks for the selections you shared.

    P is for Pizzaroni
    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

  15. My son wants to learn music thanks for info!
    newest follower from mbc-hope to get s follow back. :)

  16. You have a wonderful blog, and I am following. I love music and find your post extremely interesting and informative!

  17. Old time cartoons are much better in so many ways then what kids watch now.

  18. what an elaborate program. They must of been very close friends. my first thought when you brought up the musical part of the exhibit was when in grade school I forget what year, we were introduced to musical instruments & we watched the instrumental Peter and the Wolf.

  19. So agree with your opening sentence. I love Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  20. That's why my school has a special music room and a music director.

    I have been teaching the Scarecrow, because the city schools are having a competition to make a scarecrow, Today, I let them make a 2 dimensional one. You know the song?

  21. that is so interesting. I have followed your blog so i can continue reading.

  22. While I will admit that a lot of what you wrote was way beyond my comprehension, I really did enjoy the music. The Russian cartoon was really cute and I simply LOVE finger played guitar (I played a little when I was a teen into my early 20's until I became more interested in boys). Plus you were so right about the piano piece, very moving.
    Thank you for linking up with our Monday's Music Moves Me Meme. We appreciate your support. =)

  23. Following ya from the blog hop and I'm grateful for the info on music as a fundamental part of learning.

    Come join us as we ride the wave of life at


  24. Although you signed our linky last week at Monday's Music Moves Me we also have things that we ask everyone to do, which is to grab our Monday's Music Moves Me button, sign our linky, follow us and the people you visit from our linky, and to Post videos in accordance to our theme, which can be found in the side bar of my blog. Every other week is a freebie and you can put any kind of music you want. There is also a chance when you sign our linky to become a Spotlight Dancer, which you would be put in first place (guaranteed spot that everyone will visit you and you get to display our Spotlight Dancer button), BUT if I cannot find your e-mail address I can't tell you you've been chosen. So next time if you'd like to join us on Monday you could do these things, and make sure I can find your e-mail address. For this time I'll have to respin our that's how we get our dancers. Have a great weekend and hope to see you Monday. Hope you get my message too! I love your blog by the way. Very interesting, and I am following you now. Nice to meet you!

  25. Hi Meryl, just stopping by to say how delightful your blog is. Thanks so much for sharing. I have recently found your blog and am now following you, and will visit often. Please stop by my blog and perhaps you would like to follow me also. Have a wonderful day. Hugs, Chris