Modest Mussorgsky, classical music composer

Modest Mussorgsky


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 life.

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.

Following Boris 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.

Having virtually no formal training as a composer, Mussorgsky's music is largely known through revisions made by other composers. Opinion of his compositional abilities was also varied. Vladimir Stasov, a Russian critic connected with "The Five," thought Mussorgsky an "idiot." Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky both praised his imagination but lamented his severe lack of technique. Nevertheless, Mussorgsky's music came to be distinctly Russian and inspired a later generation of composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.

Composer Title Date Action
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (excerpts) (orch. Maurice Ravel) 08/19/2009 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain 01/10/2009 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition 05/12/2010 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky In the Corner 05/26/2010 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Evening Prayer 05/26/2010 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky The hobby-horse 05/26/2010 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, excerpts 03/06/2012 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition 06/30/2012 Play
Modest Mussorgsky Lullaby, from The Songs and Dances of Death 11/12/2011 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Serenade, from The Songs and Dances of Death 11/12/2011 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition 01/16/2014 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition: Gnomes 03/06/2014 Play Add to playlist
Modest Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition: The Old Castle 03/06/2014 Play Add to playlist