Modest Mussorgsky was born on March 21st,
1839 in Karevo, 249 miles south of St. Petersburg. He came from a wealthy
land-owning family, supposedly descended from the first Ruthenian ruler, Rurik.
His mother being a trained pianist, Mussorgsky began receiving lessons at the
age of six. He progressed quickly and within three years times was able to
perform the works of John Field and Franz Liszt. At ten years of age,
Mussorgsky, as well as his brother, was taken to the prestigious Peterschule in
St. Petersburg where he studied with pianist Anton Gerke. However, despite is
early affinity for music, which included a piano piece published at the age of
twelve, Mussorgsky carrried on his family's tradition of military service. He
entered the Cadet School of the Guards at the age of thirteen. He graduated
from the Cadet School in 1856 and, again following the traditions of his
family, received a commission with the foremost regiment of the Russian
Imperial Guard, the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
Following Mussorgsky's military commission, he
was able to meet many of the leading figures of Russia's artistic scene. In
October 1856, he met Alexander Borodin while they both served at a military
hospital in Saint Petersburg. More importantly, later that year he was
introduced to Alexander Dargomyzhsky, one of Russia's leading composers.
Dargomyzhsky was greatly impressed with Mussorgsky's piano playing.
Furthermore, through Dargomyzhsky, Mussorgsky made the acquaintance of César
Cui and Mily Balakirev. The latter became, at least for a time, a strong
influence on Mussorgsky. Balakirev, to the best of his abilities, began to fill
in the holes of Mussorgsky's musical knowledge and, within months of their
meeting, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to focus entirely on music. However,
he continued to hold several posts as a government official throughout his
In spite of his strong nationalism, Mussorgsky's
early music was very much influenced by foreign models, a result of Balakirev's
tutelage. With time, however, Mussorgsky depended less and less on Balakirev's
advice and instruction, teaching himself instead. In 1867, he completed the
original orchestral version of Night on
Bald Mountain, one of his most striking and well-known pieces. Balakirev's
opinion of the work, however, was not favorable and refused to conduct it.
Consequently, the work was not performed until after Mussorgsky's death. Around
this time, the term "kuchka" ("The Five") was first used to describe a group of
composer loosely circled around Balakirev, which included Mussorgsky, as well
as, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.
The peak of Mussorgsky's career came with the
opera Boris Godunov based on the life
of the Russian tsar. Based partly on a play by Alexander Pushkin, the original
version of the opera was rejected for performance. Mussorgsky then revised and
enlarged the opera. In its new version, the opera was accepted and three
excerpts were staged at the Mariinsky Theater in 1873. A full production of the
opera took place in January of the following year to much public success.
Godunov, Mussorgsky's career and life began to decline. He struggled
constantly with alcoholism. Though at times he seemed to keep his drinking
habits in check, Mussorgsky's generation viewed alcoholism as a revolt against
the establishment and was often idealized by its proponents. Nevertheless,
Mussorgsky remained somewhat productive for a time. In 1874, he composed his
most famous piece: the piano suite Pictures
at an Exhibition, in memory of his recently deceased friend the architect
Viktor Hartmann. Today, the work is best known in its orchestral arrangement by
Maurice Ravel. His decline, however, became increasing worse and in 1880,
Mussorgsky was dismissed from government service. The following year, he died
at the age of forty-two.
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