In the annals of music there are a few remarkable instances where the works of lesser artists have inspired the most profound creations. The songs of Schubert often transcended the poetry which spawned them. Beethoven's greatest set of variations was based on a humble waltz by Diabelli.
In Pictures at an Exhibition, Moussorgsky, found the inspiration for his greatest instrumental work in the now-forgotten art of his friend Victor Hartmann. Hartmann's career was cut short prematurely, he died suddenly in 1873 at the age of 39, and most of the original paintings upon which Moussorgsky based his "Pictures" have been lost. Their friendship was rooted in a common search for a nationalistic art, one which drew its strength from the legacy of Russian folk lore and Russian history. Although Hartmann's talents may never have been fully realized, it is his “creative spirit” which seems to have driven Moussorgsky’s imagination more than the individual works.
More than a musical illustration of the paintings, Moussorgsky's "Pictures" seems to find the human mytho logical element in each portrait and magnifies it beyond its original scope, giving the piece its fantastical and sometimes nightmarish quality. Thus, after the Promenade theme which serves to reflect Moussorgsky's feelings about the various paintings as he walks through the exhibit, originally the sketch of a wooden nutcracker with a distorted, comical face, is magically brought to life as a misshapen dwarf , or Gnome.
Il Vecchio Castello and Tuileries were paintings of architectural and landscape masterpieces which had incidental human figures added to indicate their scale. In Moussorgsky's hands, the human figures became paramount, with the music of the old castle actually being the serenade of a Troubadour with his lute outside of the castle, and Tuileries being a group of children quarreling after playing in the famous Parisian gardens.
In Bydlo, the ox cart, the incessant march of the ox is heard through the song of its driver, a deep Russian bass. The Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells is based on a costume-plate in which the shells contained human, not avian, occupants.
Both the Two Polish Jews; One Rich, the Other Poor and Limoges, the Market Place are street scenes. What is remarkable about Moussorgsky's sketches is the intensity of the relationships depicted. The tense interplay between the seemingly haughty, wealthy Pole and the beggar, and similarily between the gossiping women of Limoges, is heightened to grotesque proportions.
The Catacombs brings the listener into the grief experienced by Moussorgsky at Hartmann's death. “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and creatures like Hartmann die?... There can and must be no consolation..." The painting depicted Hartmann himself examining the catacombs of Paris. The movement which follows, Con Mortuis in Lingua Morta, bears the following footnote: “A Latin text: 'speaking with the dead in a dead language.' Well may it be latin! The creative spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls, calls me close to them and the skulls glow softly from within.” It seems that Moussorgsky felt the guiding hand of Hartmann throughout the creative process: “Hartmann is boiling inside me. . . I can hardly manage to scribble it all down on paper.”
The final two movements are probably the most fully Russian in character. Hartmann's painting of the Hut on Fowl's Legs is brought vividly to life as the hut first lurches, then soars through the Russian night air while the witch Baba Yaga grinds human bones for fuel. The Great Gate of Kiev was an architectural design by Hartmann which was never realized. In its grandeur, Moussorgsky envisions the chanting of priests, a religious processional, and his own elation in the final glorious return of the Promenade theme.