Modest Mussorgsky

1839 1881

Modest Mussorgsky



Mussorgsky was an extraordinarily individualistic Russian composer of the late 19th century. He is most noted for his orchestral tone poem Night on a Bald Mountain and his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. His vocal writing showed a strikingly unique style of using both speech inflections and lyricism in melody-writing. He was often in deliberate defiance with the conventions of music in the West and was one of the group of Russian composers named ‘The Five’ who aimed to establish a Russian national style of music composition.

Modest Mussorgsky was born into an aristocratic family, 400km from St. Petersburg. He learned piano from the age of 6 and three years later he was able to perform works by John Field andFranz Liszt for family and friends. He and his brother attended the elite German-speakingPetrischule in St. Petersburg, where the young Modest continued with his piano lessons, followed by the Cadet School of the Guard. He went on to work for the Russian Imperial Guard, where his detrimental habits of alcoholism began.

It was at the age of 17 that Mussorgsky’s musical life took off. He met the composerAlexander Borodin while they were both working at a military hospital. Borodin became his new teacher and introduced him to composers that were to have a huge effect on him:Balakirev, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui as well as the music critic Vladimir Stasov. In 1858, Mussorgsky resigned from the Russian Imperial Guard to devote himself entirely to music, by that time also studying withBalakirev.

The composers that Mussorgsky associated with believed in the development of a Russian nationalistic style of composition. Although he had huge respect for Western music, he was also interested in the creation of Russian music by finding inspiration in folksongs, fairy tales and the use of exoticism melodically, rhythmically and harmonically.

At the age of 26, Mussorgsky’s mother died and his dependence on alcohol started to show itself. A year later, he finished the original version ofNight on a Bald Mountain, arguably one of his most fêted pieces. Unfortunately, the work was never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime as it was perceived as too radical for Balakirev who refused to conduct it. It was not brought into the public forum until the 1880s – his good friend Rimsky-Korsakov made a revision of it and conducted it at the opening night of ‘The Russian Symphony Concerts’ series in the same decade as Mussorgsky’s death.

It was at the Slavonic Congress during the same year, that the group of composers became known asMoguchaya kuchka, ‘The Five’, also translatable as ‘ The Mighty Handful’, as penned by the music critic Vladimir Stasov. They were Mussorgsky,Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin and Cui. It was around this time, however that Mussorgsky was seeking less approval from Balakirev in favour of the much older composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky, who encouraged him to write operas. Mussorgsky’s operaBoris Godunov was completed in 1871. Excerpts of it were soon performed at the Mariinsky Theatre and its popularity marked the peak of Mussorgsky’s career.

After his career climax, Mussorgsky made a rapid decline. The deaths of various close associates caused him a lot of pain. He wrote to Vladimir Stasov “The Mighty Handful has degenerated into soulless traitors”. Although alcoholism was one of his personal vices, it can be noted that at the time it was not unusual for young men of his class and like-mindedness to ‘take to the alcohol’ in an anti-establishment rebellion, in essence idealising their heavy consumption of alcohol. He spent the majority of the last years socialising with other Bohemian non-conformists in taverns of low repute, leading to alarming self-destruction.

During this dark period, however, he still had some creative drive and he produced his famous Pictures at an Exhibition, as well asSunless, the  Khovanschina Prelude and he also began work on an opera based on Gogol, The Fair at Sorochyntsi, for which he produced a choral version of Night on Bald Mountain. One of the most powerful works he produced in the last six years of his life was the Songs and Dances of Death. The Russian painter Ilya Repin completed his famous red-nosed portrait in the last days of Mussorgsky’s life, which shows a dishevelled man, such a stark contrast to his physical appearance during his privileged upbringing.