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Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky

(1839 - 1881)

Along with Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, the greatest Russian composer of the Nineteenth Century, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (March 9, 1839 - March 16, 1881) was born into a wealthy rural, landowning family. He began by picking out on the piano the tunes he heard from the serfs on his family's estate. At the age of six, he began to study piano with his mother. His parents initially set him out on the career of military officer. He became a cadet and finally commissioned in an elite imperial regiment. Two years later, in 1858, he resigned his commission. During this time, he met a musically-inclined army doctor: Alexander Borodin. The two became friends. In 1861, with Russia's emancipation of the serfs, his family lost significant income, and he was forced to earn a living. In 1863, he began a spotty career in the civil service, which dismissed him at least twice.

In 1856, he met the composer Dargomïzhsky, who in turn introduced him to Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, and a critic named Victor Stasov. Gradually, Borodin and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff joined to form a loose group known as the "Moguchaya Kuchka" ("the mighty handful" or "the mighty bunch"). All but Stasov nursed ambitions to compose, and all had very definite ideas about what Russian music should be. None of them had formal training in composition. Balakirev and Mussorgsky essentially taught themselves by playing through piano-duet arrangements of orchestral scores. For Russian composers of the time, this was not unusual. Neither Mikhail Glinka, the founder of the nationalist school, nor Dargomïzhsky had formally studied. After all, the first Russian music conservatory had been founded only relatively recently. All were, to one degree or another, amateurs. Rimsky, for example, was a naval officer, Borodin a doctor and chemist. Most writers consider Tchaikovsky the first great Russian composer to have had thorough academic training along German lines.

Mussorgsky absorbed these main ideas of the Kuchka:

  1. Russian music should express the Russian soul.
  2. Russian music should be written in a Russian way.

The latter idea meant mainly a rejection of German classical forms in favor of one-off, "organic" forms. Instead of a form determining the nature of the musical materials, the materials shaped the forms – bottom-up, rather than top-down. The Kuchka got these ideas from German Romantic aestheticians and revered those artists who wrote accordingly, like Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz.

Mussorgsky learned composition mainly by doing. His early efforts are in the expected short forms: songs, piano morceaux, and so on. His "apprentice" instrumental works, with the exception of his remarkable Intermezzo in modo classico (1862, describing Russian peasants stepping on and sinking into snowdrifts), are things you could get from just about anybody at the time. However, most of his early songs owe little to any predecessor. Practically from the get-go, Mussorgsky found something original, even among Russian composers, which may arise from the fact that he alone of all the Kuchka grew up in the country, away from the city. He actually heard serfs sing daily as part of his normal environment, and the "crudities" that others tended to soften attracted him in the first place. He also had larger ambitions, encouraged by Balakirev and Stasov. He began several opera projects: an Oedipus (1858-61), a Salammbô (1863-66); and most notably The Marriage (1868), based on Gogol. He completed none of them, for one reason or another, but all of them bore fruit in later works, either by providing numbers Mussorgsky re-used or, in the case of The Marriage, clarifying his ideas of word-setting. He first thought that music should set the patterns of speech "realistically," as Dargomïzhsky had first theorized. While this was fine for songs, The Marriage convinced Mussorgsky that it would not work over a longer span, and he abandoned the opera after composing one act. Much of the rest of is career is spent finding new expressive ways to create a melody, especially for the stage. Nevertheless, The Marriage counts as the most radical experiment in musical realism among the Russian nationalists.

In 1867, Mussorgsky also composed St. John's Night on Bald Mountain (usually called Night on Bald Mountain), depicting a gathering of witches and demons for a black sabbath. While one can cite predecessors like Berlioz and Liszt for such an idea, nobody had come up with such crazy sounds before – shattering dissonance and wild cries as savage as anything in Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, more than four decades in the future. Mussorgsky revised it at least twice to fit it into later, unrealized projects – Mlada (1872, a group opera by the Kuchka never completed) and the composer's own unfinished opera Sorochintsï Fair.

After his abandonment of The Marriage, Mussorgsky began working on a Stasov suggestion, the opera Boris Godunov. The composer completed a version in 1869 and submitted it to the Mariinsky Theater, who rejected it, mainly due to the fact that Mussorgsky had provided no role for a prima donna. Mussorgsky took back the score and at once began to revise it, altering the work far beyond what the theater had asked for. In general, he moved from the musical realism of the first version to a folk-based arioso, extremely subtle and flexible dramatically. He resubmitted his new version in 1872. The theater accepted it, and after some wrangling with the censor, Boris premiered in 1874. This was to provide Mussorgsky his greatest public triumph. He was considered the young man to watch.

However, all did not go smoothly. In 1865, following his mother's death, Mussorgsky began to go on drinking binges. He would disappear for days, even weeks at a time and turn up on friends' doorsteps physically ill. He had to borrow money to drink. In 1880, he lost his government sinecure. Even the lax imperial bureaucracy could no longer tolerate his unreliability. Nevertheless, he continued to compose, almost up to the end. However, he completed very little and left two operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsï Fair incomplete. He never was a steady worker. Throughout his career, he composed in a white-hot rush and then seemed to fall into lassitude, during which time he mainly drank. His behavior, always a bit eccentric, degenerated into the erratic. His landlord kicked him out in the street for failure to pay rent. He showed up at the door of a friend, who took him in. However, after suffering seizures, he was moved to a hospital, where he seemed to rally, but it turned out he had bribed an orderly to bring him cognac. He died after roughly a month, at the age of 42.

Because he began late and died young, almost all of Mussorgsky's music can be considered early work. Yet he progressed at a frankly incredible rate, went through at least three major changes of style, and even conducted successful "one-off" experiments. His songs lie at the center of his achievement and form the basis of much of his dramatic work. There's an astonishing variety, from "realistic" portraits, to evocation of peasant song, dramatic monologues (from a child) in The Nursery (1870), psychological expressionism and a non-Wagnerian chromaticism in Sunless (1874), and a new pre-Mahler poetry in Songs and Dances of Death (1877). Instrumental works play less of a role, although even here he wrote masterpieces: the aforementioned Night on Bald Mountain and the piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). If he had composed only the last, he would be considered an eminence in Russian music. The piece is new not only in its details (bar-by-bar meter changes, startlingly original chord progressions and piano textures) but in its form – Romantic character-pieces linked by interludes varying a basic theme, with the final variation absorbed into the last character-piece.

Mussorgsky was recognized by both the Kuchka and Tchaikovsky (who came to oppose the Kuchka) as a powerful musical force. However, none of them knew quite what to make of him. Rimsky-Korsakoff, for example, regarded some of his friend's boldest strokes as mistakes, particularly in his harmonies. As a labor of love and at considerable cost to his own career, he went about revising Mussorgsky's major works including Boris, Khovanshchina, Night on Bald Mountain, and part of Pictures. For many years, the only performances of these works were in Rimsky's editions, and to a great extent Rimsky kept Mussorgsky's name alive in the concert halls and on the opera stages. However, the myth grew of Mussorgsky the naïve genius, a pure heart who found his way to artistic truth despite his lack of skill. Scholars have pretty much shot down this myth. Mussorgsky was, if anything, too intellectual, too knowledgeable about contemporary aesthetic philosophy, too self-conscious, to the extent that his mental wrestling with himself cut down even further on his composing. However, he knew what he wanted and felt it his job to flesh out his artistic intuitions. "To new shores" became his motto.

As new editions of scores have appeared, what Mussorgsky actually wrote is supplanting what his nineteenth-century editors thought he should have written. Yet the editions by Rimsky-Korsakoff are beautiful in their own way, and I would think it a shame if they disappeared forever in an excess of scruple. After all, these versions – so "scholarly incorrect" – all by themselves exerted tremendous influence, turning Mussorgsky into an avatar of Modernism, particularly in France with Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Ernest Bloch, and even Stravinsky.

Mussorgsky's music challenged the hegemony of German and Italian music in the Nineteenth Century and lay outside the standard Brahms-vs.-Wagner fight. He opened up a new musical path and a new aesthetic attitude. However, it's not his innovations alone that make him so important. Boris Godunov is arguably one of the three greatest operas of its time, the work of a musical dramatist of genius. Mussorgsky's songs, so little known in the West mainly due to language difficulties, put the composer in the exalted company of Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler, and show a greater variety of expression than all three. Patronized by the Nineteenth Century, the composer became a hero to the Twentieth. ~ Steve Schwartz

Mussorgsky's signature

Recommended Recordings

Operas (Boris Godounov, Khovanshchina)

Boris Godounov (1874)/Erato 2292-45418-2
Vishnevskaya, Gedda, Raimondi, Mstislav Rostropovich/National Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Society & Oratorio Society of Washington
Khovanshchina (Chovantsjina) (1880, completed by Rimsky-Korsakoff and re-orchestrated by Shostakovich)/Fidelio 1820/22
Petkov, Kostov, Bodourov, Popov, Atanas Margaritov/Sofia National Opera Orchestra & Chorus

Night on Bald Mountain

Symphonic Picture "Night on Bald Mountain"/Telarc CD-80042
Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra
Symphonic Picture "Night on Bald Mountain"/Mercury Living Presence 432004-2
Antál Doráti/London Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Pictures at an Exhibition

"Pictures at an Exhibition"/Delos D/CD1008
John Browning (piano)
"Pictures at an Exhibition"/Virgin Classics CDC59611
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
"Pictures at an Exhibition" (Orchestrated by Ravel)/Telarc CD-80042
Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra
"Pictures at an Exhibition" (Orchestrated by Ravel)/London 417299-2
Charles Dutoit/Montréal Symphony Orchestra