Modest Mussogsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky, photo 1 Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky occupies an unusual position in the history of classical music. He was a skilled pianist, but his musical training was somewhat haphazard which meant that his style was raw rather than refined (which resulted in criticism from his contemporaries). He was one of "The Five" a grouping of composers associated with the Russian National School of music, though the grouping was a loose one which did not necessarily work always as a team. Mussorgsky was not a full-time composer, and the number of works he created is small in number compared with other composers. Those few works however display his genius and are very popular today. The composer also suffered from personal problems which manifested themselves in alcoholism which eventually contributed to his early death.

Modest Mussorgsky: Complete Piano Works, Volume 2 played by Nina Kavtaradze - CD album cover Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy family and his mother, a trained pianist, started giving the young Modest piano lessons at the age of six. He was a fast learner and quickly mastered the instrument such that within a few years he was giving recitals to friends and family of some difficult and challenging works. At 10 he and his brother started to attend the St. Peter's School in St Petersburg where he studied piano more formally. However it was a family tradition for boys to do military service, so at 13 he entered the Cadet School which by all accounts was a particularly harsh regime. Though the young Modest had less time for study and practice he was still able to attend piano lessons and played regularly for the other cadets. While still in the military in his later teens he met fellow composers Alexander Borodin, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, César Cui and Mily Balakirev, who were to influence his musical thinking.

Modest Mussorgsky, photo 2 The next few years were very important in terms of Mussorgsky's musical direction. Though already familiar with the piano, he now encountered a wealth of orchestral and other music and with the help of Balakirev became aware of the basics of musical form. This represented the beginnings of "The Five" (sometimes called the "Mighty Handful" following a press review of a concert) whose Nationalist School sought inspiration from the folk music of their homeland. In a sense they rebelled against the Western traditions of music which were follow by the big Russian Conservatories (and composers such as Tchaikovsky), and aimed to create music which was more in touch with the people. Ironically it was the emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861 (which Mussorgsky supported) that resulted in his family losing their wealth, and forcing Mussorgsky to seek employment as a civil servant. When Rimski-Korsakov joined the group they became five: Mily Balakirev (the leader), Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Modest Mussorgsky's Music

Modest Mussorgsky, photo 3 In the early days of the Nationalist School, Mussorgsky became known for his song-writing and his ability to follow the natural inflections of his native language. He started working on 2 operas but he never completed them. An episode from one of those operas "Salammbo" was later reworked into a choral episode for a later opera "Sorochintsy Fair". Mussorgsky never completed this opera either and the episode became the orchestral tone poem "St John's Night on Bare Mountain" or "A Night on Bald Mountain" one of his most famous orchestral works. This is based on a Russian Folk tale where a Witches' Sabbath is held on a Mountain near Kiev on Halloween. This is one of the few orchestral works Mussorgsky composed, although the version usually played in concert was "polished" by Rimski-Korsakov. Increasingly Mussorgsky's original version is being played and recorded, with today's musicologists perhaps better appreciating Mussorgsky's innovations which were seen as unsophisticated at the time.

Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov, Highlights - CD album cover Mussorgsky completed one opera during his lifetime: "Boris Godunov". This is based on the story by Alexander Pushkin of Boris Godunov, who was the Russian Tsar for a few years in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The story is that Godunov murdered his rival to become Tsar, but one person (False Dmitriy) knows of his crime and aims to use this against him. Mussorgsky wrote his own libretto for the opera and it is considered to be his masterpiece, with expert musical characterisation. There are a number of versions of the opera, Mussorgsky revised it himself and Rimsky-Korsakov also created a version aiming to improve the opera's critical reception, though again Mussorgsky's version has been reappraised and is increasingly the version staged and recorded today.

Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition - CD album cover Another of Mussorgsky's works to capture the public imagination is his "Pictures at an Exhibition". This work is a tribute to his friend, the artist Victor Hartmann who died in 1873. Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition of the artist's works and this inspired him to create his own tribute. "Pictures at an Exhibition" is a suite for piano consisting of a number of pieces depicting paintings at the exhibition with a recurring theme which represents someone attending the show, walking between the paintings and being affected by the images. The Suite wasn't published during the composer's lifetime, but is now exceedingly popular for its vivid imagery. The original piano version is regularly performed, though in concert it is usually the orchestration by Maurice Ravel which is performed.

Modest Mussorgsky, portrait by Ilya Repin In addition to some individual songs, Mussorgsky also composed several song-cycles: "The Nursery" (about childhood bedtime fears), "Sunless" and "Songs and Dances of Death" (both cycles based on poems written by a relative of the composer). This latter song cycle hints at a fascination with death and perhaps indicates that the composer suffered from depression. Certainly Mussorgsky turned to drink and for many years spent most of his day in the local bar with a group of fellow bohemian dropouts. A late portrait by the artist Ilya Repin shows an unkempt man with a red nose. He suffered from Delirium Tremens and Epileptic Fits, and died shortly after his 42nd birthday. Although his completed works are small in number, they are all deservedly popular and viewed as a major contribution to the nationalist school of music. In summary Mussorgsky's major works are:

On mfiles we have the sheet music and associated audio files for the opening Promenade section of "Pictures at an Exhibition".

Modest Mussorgsky - Recommendations

Here is a selection of CDs covering Mussorgsky's major works:


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