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Seeing Music: Gnomus and Baba Yaga from Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”

In 1874, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote his most famous piano suite after visiting a commemorative exhibit of his artist and architect friend Viktor Aleksandrovich Gartman (aka Hartman), who had died the year before.

Modest Mussorgsky, black and white portrait of the composer. He has fuzzy hair, a handlebar mustache and a beard. He is wearing some kind of shiny robe over a white shirt.

Modest Mussorgsky, 1881, head and shoulders, facing front, 1881. Photograph. //www.loc.gov/item/2007682266/.

In his “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Mussorgky translated 10 of Gartman’s art works into 10 individual musical pieces. Each movement carries the same title of a painting. They are: Gnomus, The Old Castle, The Tuileries, Bydlo, Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, The Market Place of Limoges, The Hut on Chicken’s Legs (Baba Yaga), and The Great Gate of Kiev.

To these pictures, Mussorgsky added the walk through the exhibit, represented by the “Promenade:” a short musical piece that opens the work and occurs five times in between the other paintings, sometimes moving on after one, sometimes after two or three paintings, and is finally integrated as a procession in the final movement, the Great Gate of Kiev. Each time the “Promenade” appears, just like a leitmotif, the melody is the same, but some aspect of it is a little bit different: either the key has changed, or it has a different feel to it, or it ends on a questioning tone. When I played Mussorgsky in my youth, I was most captivated by Gnomus, Baba Yaga, and the Great Gate of Kiev.

Gnomus and Baba Yaga are two folkloristic and fantastic creatures that share a connection to forest, earth, and magic: Gnomus is represented in the first painting. Baba Yaga with her Hut on Chicken’s Legs is the second to last movement, which merges without interruption directly into the Great Gate of Kiev.

The Latin word Gnomus, masculine, singular, seems to have derived from the Greek genomus, which means earth-dweller. It was first used by Paracelsus in the 16th century in a book on alchemy and magic. It was used to label a diminutive, ageless spirit ageless spirit—usually in the appearance of a very small, old, wrinkled figure, typically male—who lives underground and who usually guards some kind of treasure. Gnomes continue to live in various countries’ folklore, fairy tales, as well as in figurines and in modern fantasy stories.

Mussorgsky’s Gnomus brings forth a little agile and grotesque creature. This creature jumps quickly and in spiraling motion, leaps up several octaves, and then sneaks back down using darker sounding, syncopated chords. The trill-like moments in the bass-line are rushing quickly from one place to another, similar to something like a fly that already has moved away from the spot where you just located it. He is fierce and a tricky, uncatchable figure. Even the tonality is evasive and weaves through poly-modal structures, and Mussorgsky chose to have him presented in a key with six flats (for non-music-readers: flats lower a note by a half tone) with tempo descriptions changing from the extremes of vivo (lively) and pesante (heavy). Gnomus leaves the movement in a hurried, acrobatic way up. He seems witty, somewhat weird, light, and like someone who definitely avoids contact.

Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is a terrifying old woman trying to grab you. In Russian and other Slavic languages, Baba means grandmother or old woman, and Yaga could either stand for abuse, “yagat,” or it could be a diminutive of the name Jadwiga. She is a creature of magical powers, with multiple personalities, most often portrayed as an evil old witch. She has been around in Russian folklore since at least the 18th century, probably longer. Baba Yaga has been identified as three sisters, or as one female with at least three types of powerful personalities. She is ugly and unclean. While she can be deceptively sweet, helpful, and with motherly traits, she is known to crush and eat the bones of humans, with a preference for children, especially girls and young women. To quote Jack Zipes from the foreword to the book The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales from 2013: “A Baba Yaga is inscrutable and so powerful that she does not owe allegiance to the Devil or God or even to her storytellers. In fact, she opposes all Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities and beliefs. She is her own woman, a parthogenetic mother, and she decides on a case-by-case basis whether she will help or kill people who come to her hut that rotates on chicken legs.” The Baba Yaga-type of creature exists under various names in many folk tales and stories. Below is an image of the Japanese “Laughing Demon,” depicting an evil wrinkled woman laughing while crushing the head of a small person in her right, long-nailed hand.

Hokusai's “Laughing Demon,” depicts an evil looking, wrinkled woma laughing while crushing the head of a small person in her right, long-nailed hand, held up to her right ear. She points with her left long-nailed index finger to the little bleading head. The woman is boney, wrinkled, has long fingernails, brown hair, and small horns on her head.

The Laughing Demon, 1830, by Katsushika Hokusai. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress: www.loc.gov/item/2005678553/.

In Mussorgsky’s music, Baba Yaga is surely a ferocious, evil, and perfidious creature. There are pounding octaves, moving in chromatically colored and zigzagging motions all over the keyboard. Her music has three sections, and in the slower mid-section, Mussorgsky adds a layer of fear by adding dark tremolos, knocking sounds, followed by quick octaves responding as if sparking into the sky. The piece ends on an even wilder note than it started, with continuously rising octaves from a dark place, rushing up and away; but luckily, they move straight into the final piece of the suite, the Great Gate of Kiev, a place of festive celebrations with the sounds of harmonic choirs, processions and ringing bells of relief.

With his music, Mussorgsky created places that invite listeners to imagine the lively stories he may have associated with the paintings while walking through the exhibit. Or, as Michael Russ summarized in 2014: “To some extent Musorgsky’s composition has become the exhibition, but he does not attempt to represent Gartman’s pictures faithfully, because for him to create music he must first visualize a scene.” Mussorgsky was a master in bringing his interpretations of these 10 out of close to 400 paintings to life.

If you would like to experience Mussorgsky’s “Pictures of an Exhibition” and related materials, check out the following suggestions from the NLS Music Section. To borrow music related talking books on digital cartridge or hard copies of braille scores, please contact us either by phone at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].

Braille Scores

Piano: Mussorgsky, Modest Petrovich. Pictures at an Exhibition, for piano solo, in bar over bar format (BRM20966); Section by Section format (BRM34401); Paragraph format: (BRM34401).

Violin: Great Gate of Kiev, for violin, in: 101 Classical Themes. (BRM36690)

Trumpet: Pictures at an exhibition / Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Audition and Performance Preparation for Trumpet. Orchestral Literature Studies Volume II compiled by Rob Roy McGregor. (BRM35814)

Digital Music Talking Books

Dangerfield, Marcia. The narrated life history of Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov. (DBM03402)

Mussorgsky, Modest Petrovich. Pictures at an Exhibition (DBM00635)

The World’s 50 Greatest Composers. Modest Mussorgsky. (DBM01645)

The following books are available for download from BARD or through your local Digital Talking Book Library:

Almedingen, Edith Martha. The Knights of the Golden Table. Twelve classic Russian stories from the 10th century tell of Prince Vladimir and his knights who defeat the witch Baba Yaga, outwit many other supernatural enemies, and win a bride for their prince. For grades 5-8. (BR 01764)

Dolch, Edward W. and Marguerite P. Dolch. Stories from old Russia. Tales from the folkore of Russia including “Ivan the Fool” and “The Hut of Baba Yaga.” For grades 3-6. (BRA02259)

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves. Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. (DB 35274)

Hamilton, Virginia. The Dark Way. Stories from the Spirit World. (DB 34144)

Poltoratzky, Marianna A. Russkiii folʼklor/Russian Folklore. A survey of Russian folklore which includes a history of its development, language, holidays, customs, ceremonial songs, folk heroes, religious verse, tales, and proverbs. Contents listed in both English and Russian. Russian language. (BRF00823)

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