Mussorgsky, Repin, and Ekphrasis

by Roy Beckemeyer

My wife, Pat, and I visited Russia several years ago, taking one of the Volga Waterway riverboat trips from St. Petersburg to Moscow.  We saw so many noteworthy and impressive things in Russia that it is very difficult to focus on any one particular experience, but I thought that I would try to do that today. 

I have always loved composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  This piano suite in ten movements was actually a form of ekphrasis inspired by an exhibition of art by a friend of Mussorgsky’s, Viktor Hartmann, an artist who died a tragic death at the early age of 39.  Shaken by Hartmann’s death, Mussorgsky and other Russian artists and intellectuals organized an exhibition of Hartmann’s works at the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg.  Mussorgsky was inspired by that exhibition to compose his piano suite, which presents an imaginary tour of the collection.  This well-loved piece of music is thus a fascinating example of an ekphrastic work – one piece of art that celebrates another – in this case, music commenting on visual art.  (The term ekphrasis usually refers to written words, poetry, for example, that describe the writer’s response to a painting or sculpture.)

On our next-to-last day in Moscow, we visited The State Tretyakov Gallery, and saw there many, many great works of Russian art.  Among them was painter Ilya Efimovich Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky.  The painting was done by Repin from four sittings completed ten days before the composer’s death (Mussorgsky was born in 1839 and died in 1881, and thus lived just a couple of years longer than Hartmann had). I found that the portrait struck a chord in me.  This was no romanticization of Mussorgsky, but a memorial of the real man, in his last days.  And the tragedy of his short life reflecting that of the man whose work inspired his masterwork deepened my feelings about the painting. 

In an attempt to close this circle, I decided to write an ekphrastic poem about Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky, in the form of the composer talking to the artist: