Modest Mussorgsky

From New World Encyclopedia

Модест Петрович Мусоргский
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Background information
Birth name Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Born March 9/21, 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died March 16/28, 1881, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Occupation(s) Composer
Civil Servant
Notable instrument(s)

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (Russian: Моде́ст Петро́вич Му́соргский, Modest Petrovič Musorgskij) (March 9, 1839 – March 16, 1881), one of the Russian composers known as the Five, was an innovator of Russian music. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music. Many of his major works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other nationalist themes, including the opera, Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain, and the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. For many years Mussorgsky's works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers. Many of his most important compositions have recently come into their own in their original forms, and some of the original scores are also now available.



Mussorgsky as a cadet in the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guards

Mussorgsky was born in Karevo in the province of Pskov, 400 kilometers south-south-east of St Petersburg. His wealthy and land-owning family, the noble family of Mussorgsky, is reputedly descended from the first Russian ruler, Rurik, through the sovereign princes of Smolensk. At the age of six, Modest began receiving piano lessons from his mother; his progress was sufficiently rapid that he was able to perform a John Field concerto for family and friends just three years later. At ten, he and his brother were taken to St Petersburg to study at the elite Peter-and-Paul School. While there, Modest studied the piano with the noted Anton Herke. Mussorgsky's intended career was as a military officer; and at thirteen, he entered the Cadet School of the Guards. Music remained important to him however, and at his father's expense a short (and utterly uncharacteristic) piano piece, called the Porte-enseigne Polka, was published in 1852, and the following year Alexander Borodin described the 17 year old boy as an "elegant piano-playing dilettante." In 1856, Mussorgsky—who had developed a strong interest in history and studied German philosophy—successfully graduated from the Cadet School and received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment of Guards, which was the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard.


Modest (right) and brother Filaret (left) in 1858.

In the next two years, Mussorgsky met several figures of importance in Russia's cultural life, Dargomyzhsky, Cui (a fellow officer), Stasov, and Balakirev among them. Having produced a few songs and piano pieces, as well as a number of compositional exercises under Balakirev's tutelage, Mussorgsky resigned his commission in 1858, after suffering a painful crisis. This may have had a spiritual component (in a letter to Balakirev, the young man referred to "mysticism and cynical thoughts about the Deity"), but its exact nature is unclear. In 1859, the 20 year old gained valuable theatrical experience when he assisted in the preparation of a production of Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar, on the Glebovo estate of a former singer and her wealthy husband; he also met Lyadov, and enjoyed a formative visit to Moscow—after which he professed a love of "everything Russian."

In spite of this epiphany, Mussorgsky's music still leaned more towards foreign models: With Balakirev he was mostly studying German music (including the Beethoven symphonies), and a four-hand piano sonata which he produced, in 1860, contains his only movement in sonata form. Nor is any nationalistic impulse easily discernible in the opera, Oedipus in Athens, on which he worked between the ages of 19 and 22 (and then abandoned unfinished), or in the Intermezzo in modo classico for piano solo (revised and orchestrated in 1867). The latter was the only important piece he composed between December 1860 and August 1863: The reasons for this probably lie in the painful reemergence of his subjective crisis in 1860, and the purely objective difficulties which resulted from the Emancipation of the Serfs the following year—as a result of which the family was deprived of half its estate, and Mussorgsky had to spend a good deal of time in Karevo unsuccessfully attempting to stave off their looming impoverishment.

By this time, Mussorgsky had freed himself from the influence of Balakirev and was largely teaching himself. In 1863, he began another opera—Salammbô—on which he worked between 1863 and 1866, before losing interest in the project. During this period, he had returned to St. Petersburg and was supporting himself as a low-grade civil-servant while living in a six-man "commune." In a heady artistic and intellectual atmosphere, he read and discussed a wide range of modern artistic and scientific ideas—including those of the provocative writer Chernyshevsky, known for the bold assertion that, in art, "form and content are opposites." Under such influences he came more and more to embrace the ideal of artistic "realism" and all that it entailed, whether this concerned the responsibility to depict life "as it is truly lived;" the preoccupation with the lower strata of society; or the rejection of repeating, symmetrical musical forms as insufficiently true to the unrepeating, unpredictable course of "real life."

"Real life" impacted particularly painfully on Mussorgsky in 1865, when his mother died; it was at this point that the composer had his first serious bout of alcoholism. The 26 year old was, however, on the point of writing his first "realistic" songs (including "Hopak" and "Darling Savishna," both of them composed in 1866, and among his first "real" publications the following year). 1867 was also the year in which he finished the original orchestral version of his Night on Bald Mountain (which Balakirev criticized and refused to conduct, with the result that it was never performed during Mussorgsky's lifetime).


Mussorgsky's career as a civil servant was by no means stable or secure: Though he was assigned to various posts and even received a promotion in these early years, in 1867, he was declared "supernumerary"—remaining in service but receiving no wages. Decisive developments were occurring in his artistic life, however. Although it was in 1867, that Stasov first referred to the "kučka" of Russian composers loosely grouped around Balakirev, Mussorgsky was by then ceasing to seek Balakirev's approval and was moving closer to the older Dargomïzhsky. Since 1866, Alexander Dargomyzhsky had been working on his opera, The Stone Guest, a version of the Don Juan story based on an Alexander Pushkin poetic text that he declared would be set "just as it stands, so that the inner truth of the text should not be distorted," and in a manner that abolished the "unrealistic" division between aria and recitative in favor of a continuous mode of syllabic but lyrically heightened declamation somewhere between the two. Under the influence of this work (and the ideas of Georg Gottfried Gervinus, according to whom "the highest natural object of musical imitation is emotion, and the method of imitating emotion is to mimic speech"), Mussorgsky in 1868, rapidly set to music the first eleven scenes of Nikolai Gogol's Zhenitba (The Marriage), in an attempt to render into music the natural accents and patterns of the play's naturalistic and deliberately humdrum dialogue. This work marked an extreme position in Mussorgsky's pursuit of naturalistic word-setting: He abandoned it unorchestrated after reaching the end of his "Act 1," and though its characteristically Mussorgskyian declamation is to be heard in all his later vocal music, the naturalistic mode of vocal writing more and more became merely one expressive element among many.

A few months after abandoning Zhenitba, the 29 year old Mussorgsky was encouraged to write an opera on the story of Boris Godunov. Assembling and shaping a text from Pushkin's play and Nikolay Karamzin's history, he completed the large-scale score the following year while living with friends and working for the Forestry Department. In 1871, however, the finished opera was rejected for theatrical performance, apparently because of its lack of any prima donna role; Mussorgsky set to work producing a revised and enlarged second version and, during the year that he spent sharing rooms with Rimsky-Korsakov, made changes that actually went far beyond those requested by the theater. In this version, the opera was accepted, probably in May 1872, and three excerpts were staged at the Mariinsky Theater in 1873. (It is often asserted that in 1872, the opera was rejected a second time, but no specific evidence for this exists.)

By the time of the first production of Boris Godunov in February 1874, Mussorgsky had taken part in the ill-fated Mlada project (in the course of which he had made a choral version of his Night on Bald Mountain) and had begun Khovanshchina. Though far from being a critical success—and in spite of receiving only a dozen or so performances—the popular reaction in favor of Boris made this the peak of Mussorgsky's career.


Ilya Repin's celebrated portrait of Mussorgsky, painted only a few days before the composer's death.

From this peak, a pattern of decline becomes increasingly apparent. Already the Balakirev circle was disintegrating. Mussorgsky, drifting away from his old friends, had been seen to fall victim to "fits of madness" that could well have been alcoholism-related. In addition, his friend Viktor Hartmann had died, and his relative and recent room-mate Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov (who furnished the poems for the song-cycle Sunless and would go on to provide those for the Songs and Dances of Death) had moved away to get married. For a time, however, Mussorgsky was able to maintain his creative output: His compositions from 1874 include Sunless, the Khovanschina Prelude, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (in memory of Hartmann); he also began work on another opera based on another Gogol story, Sorochintsy Fair (for which he produced another choral version of Night on Bald Mountain).

In the years that followed, Mussorgsky's decline became increasingly steep. Although now part of a new circle of eminent personages that included singers, medical men, and actors, he was increasingly unable to resist drinking, and a succession of deaths among his closest associates caused him great pain. At times, however, his alcoholism would seem to be in check, and among the most powerful works composed during his last 6 years are the four Songs and Dances of Death. His civil service career was made more precarious by his frequent "illnesses" and absences, and he was fortunate to obtain a transfer to a post (in the Office of Government Control) where his music-loving superior treated him with great leniency—in 1879, even allowing him to spend 3 months touring 12 cities as a singer's accompanist.

Grave of Modest Mussorgsky in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.

The decline could not be halted, however. In 1880, he was finally dismissed from government service. Aware of his destitution, one group of friends organized a stipend designed to support the completion of Khovanschina; another group organized a similar fund to pay him to complete Sorochintsy Fair. Sadly, however, neither work was completed (although Khovanschina, in piano score with only two numbers uncomposed, came close to being finished). In early 1881, a desperate Mussorgsky declared to a friend that there was "nothing left but begging," and suffered four seizures in rapid succession. Though he was found a comfortable room in a good hospital—and for several weeks even appeared to be rallying—the situation was hopeless. Ilya Yefimovich Repin painted the famous portrait in what were to be the last days of the composer's life: A week after his 42nd birthday, he was dead.

He was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.


Statue of Mussorgsky near his native village.

Mussorgsky's works, while strikingly novel, are stylistically romantic and draw heavily on Russian musical themes. He has been the inspiration for many Russian composers, including most notably Dmitri Shostakovich (in his late symphonies) and Sergei Prokofiev (in his operas). In 1868/9 he composed the opera, Boris Godunov, about the life of the Russian Tsar, but it was rejected by the Mariinsky Opera. Mussorgsky thus edited the work, making a final version in 1874. The early version is considered darker and more concise than the later version, but also more crude. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the opera in 1896, and revised it in 1908. The opera has also been revised by other composers, notably Shostakovich, who made two versions, one for film and one for stage.

Khovanshchina, a more obscure opera, was unfinished and unperformed when Mussorgsky died, but it was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and received its premier in 1886, in St. Petersburg. This opera, too, was revised by Shostakovich. Mussorgsky left another opera, Sorochintsy Fair, incomplete at his death. However, a famous dance movement, the Gopak, is drawn therefrom.

One of Mussorgsky's wildest and most barbaric pieces (as the contemporary critics put it) is the orchestral work Night on Bald Mountain, which was made famous in the United States by its appearance in Disney's Fantasia.

His most imaginative and frequently performed work is the cycle of piano pieces describing paintings in sound called Pictures at an Exhibition. This composition, best known through an orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel, was written in commemoration of his friend, the architect Viktor Hartmann. This piece also was made famous by the British progressive rock trio, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer on their 1971 album of the same name.

Among his other works are a number of songs, including three song cycles: The Nursery (1872), Sunless (1874) and Songs and Dances of Death (1877).


By Mussorgsky

From a letter to Vladimir Stasov: "Life, wherever it reveals itself; truth, no matter how bitter; bold, sincere speech with people—these are my leaven, these are what I want, this is where I am afraid of missing the mark."

From an autobiographical sketch: "Art is a means of communicating with people, and not an aim in itself. This guiding principle has defined the whole of his [i.e., my] creative activity. Proceeding from the conviction that human speech is strictly controlled by musical laws (Virchow, Gervinus), he considers the function of art to be the reproduction in musical sounds not merely of feelings, but first and foremost of human speech."

About Mussorgsky

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, on Mussorgsky's manuscripts: "They were very defective, teeming with clumsy, disconnected harmonies, shocking part-writing, amazingly illogical modulations or intolerably long stretches without ever a modulation, and bad scoring. …what is needed is an edition for practical and artistic purposes, suitable for performances and for those who wish to admire Mussorgsky's genius, not to study his idiosyncrasies and sins against art."

Anatoly Lyadov: "It is easy enough to correct Mussorgsky's irregularities. The only trouble is that when this is done, the character and originality of the music are done away with, and the composer's individuality vanishes."

Gerald Abraham, musicologist, an authority on Mussorgsky: "As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Calvociressi, M. D. Modest Mussorgsky: His Life and Works. Rockliff, 1956.
  • Emerson, Caryl and Robert William Oldani. Modest Musorgsky and Boris Godunov: Myths, Realities, Reconsiderations. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0521361931
  • Godunov, Boris and David Lloyd-Jones. Modest Mussorgsky: An Opera in Three Acts. Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Heumann, Hans-Gunter and Modest Mussorgsky. Pictures at an Exhibition. Schott, 2000. ISBN 3795756049

External links

All links retrieved November 9, 2022.


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