Modeste Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881)

Modeste Mussorgsky was a member of “The Mighty Five” group of composers along with Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Due to his lifetime of alcoholism, he left much of his music unfinished and it has traditionally been known in arrangements by other composers.

Born into a wealthy family, (reportedly descended from the first Russian ruler, Rurik), Mussorgsky began studying piano with his mother at the age of six and later studied formally in St. Petersburg, beginning at the age of 10. He followed in his family’s tradition and entered military service, but soon left to devote himself full-time as a composer. He was an early disciple of Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Mily Balakirev, and the important critic Vladimir Stasov, and became good friends with Alexander Borodin during his military service. Under their influence, he became devoted to Russian Nationalism in art and drew on Russian history, folklore, and contemporary writers (such as Pushkin and Gogol) for his compositions. He also maintained friendships with other artists, such as Viktor Hartmann and Ilya Repin, (who painted his portrait in the hospital just days before Mussorgsky’s death).

Mussorgsky wrote the first Russian symphonic poem, A Night on Bald Mountain in 1867. He wrote many arrangements of it (including choral versions) for various projects he started and abandoned, but it is best known in an orchestral arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov. It remains one of his most popular works and was featured in an arrangement by Leopold Stokowski at the end of Disney’s Fantasia. His biggest success was with the opera, Boris Godunov, about the early Russian Tsar. It was completed in 1869, but rejected by the Imperial Opera. Mussorgsky re-conceived the opera in 1872. Until recently, it has been better known in arrangements by Rimsky-Korsakov or Dmitri Shostakovich, but Mussorgsky’s own versions are now gaining favor. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has recorded both the 1869 & 1872 versions and has a video performance available in collaboration with acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky. Today it is the most frequently performed Russian opera.

Perhaps his best-known work is Pictures at an Exhibition. Written to commemorate his close friend, the painter Viktor Hartmann, it was composed as a 10 movement suite, each based on one of Hartmann’s paintings, with a connecting “Promenade” theme (illustrating the viewer at an art gallery “walking” to the next work). Although it was originally composed for the piano, it has become better known through the sensational orchestral version by Maurice Ravel. Mussorgsky also collaborated with his relative, the poet Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov on several songs, including the Songs and Dances of Death.

Among his last major works was the unfinished opera, Khovanschina. Mussorgsky had the work almost finished in piano score. It was completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and premiered after Mussorgsky’s death. Today, his works are celebrated for their originality and remain popular with audiences. His works have been adapted in varying ways, ranging from Japanese synthesizer virtuoso Isao Tomita (Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition) to the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

Boris Godunov (Rimsky-Korsakov version)

Suggested Reading:

David Brown. Musorgsky: His Life And Works.