Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
(Born; Karevo, 21 March 1839; Died; St Petersburg, 28 March 1881). Russian composer. His mother gave him piano lessons, and at nine he played a Field concerto before an audience in his parents' house. In 1852 he entered the Guards' cadet school in St Petersburg. Although he had not studied harmony or composition, in 1856 he tried to write an opera; the same year he entered the Guards. In 1857 he met Dargomïzhsky and Cui, and through them Balakirev and Stasov. He persuaded Balakirev to give him lessons and composed songs and piano sonatas.
In 1858 Mussorgsky passed
through a nervous or spiritual crisis and resigned his army commission. A visit to Moscow
in 1859 fired his patriotic imagination and his compositional energies, but although his
music began to enjoy public performances his nervous irritability was not entirely calmed.
The emancipation of the serfs in March 1861 obliged him to spend most of the next two
years helping manage the family estate; a symphony came to nothing and Stasov and
Balakirev agreed that 'Mussorgsky is almost an idiot'. But he continued to compose and in
1863-6 worked on the libretto and music of an opera, Salammbô, which he never
completed. At this time he served at the Ministry of Communications and lived in a commune
with five other young men who ardently cultivated and exchanged advanced ideas about art,
religion, philosophy and politics. Mussorgsky's private and public lives eventually came
into conflict. In 1865 he underwent his first serious bout of dipsomania (probably as a
reaction to his mother's death that year) and in 1867 he was dismissed from his post.
Mussorgsky spent summer 1867 at
his brother's country house at Minkino, where he wrote, among other things, his first
important orchestral work, St John's Night on the Bare Mountain. On his return to
St Petersburg in the autumn Mussorgsky, like the other members of the Balakirev-Stasov
circle (ironically dubbed the 'Mighty Handful'), became interested in Dargomïzhsky's
experiments in operatic naturalism. Early in 1869 Mussorgsky re-entered government service
and, in more settled conditions, was able to complete the original version of the opera Boris
Godunov. This was rejected by the Mariinsky Theatre and Mussorgsky set about revising
it. In 1872 the opera was again rejected, but excerpts were performed elsewhere and a
vocal score published. The opera committee finally accepted the work and a successful
production was mounted in February 1874.
Meanwhile Mussorgsky had begun
work on another historical opera, Khovanshchina, at the same time gaining promotion
at the ministry. Progress on the new opera was interrupted partly because of unsettled
domestic circumstances, but mainly because heavy drinking left Mussorgsky incapable of
sustained creative effort. But several other compositions belong to this period, including
the song cycles Sunless and Songs and Dances of Death and the Pictures at
an Exhibition, for piano, a brilliant and bold series inspired by a memorial
exhibition of drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann. Ideas for a comic opera based on
Gogol's Sorochintsy Fair also began to compete with work on Khovanshchina ;
both operas remained unfinished at Mussorgsky's death. During the earlier part of 1878 he
seems to have led a more respectable life and his director at the ministry even allowed
him leave for a three-month concert tour with the contralto Darya Leonova. After he was
obliged to leave the government service in January 1880, Leonova helped provide him with
employment and a home. It was to her that he turned on 23 February 1881 in a state of
nervous excitement, saying that there was nothing left for him but to beg in the streets;
he was suffering from alcoholic epilepsy. He was removed to hospital, where he died a
Many of Mussorgsky's works were
unfinished, and their editing and posthumous publication were mainly carried out by
Rimsky-Korsakov, who to a greater or lesser degree 'corrected' what Mussorgsky had
composed. Boris Godunov, in particular, was reshaped and repolished, with drastic
cuts, wholesale rewriting and rescoring, insertion of new music and transposition of
scenes. It was only many years later that, with a return to the composer's original
drafts, the true nature of his rough art could be properly understood, for Mussorgsky
shared with some of the painters of his day a disdain for formal beauty, technical polish
and other manifestations of 'art for art's sake'. His desire was to relate his art as
closely as possible to life, especially that of the Russian masses, to nourish it on
events and to employ it as a means for communicating human experience.
Operas: Salammbo circ; (1863-6), inc.; Boris Godunov (1st version 1868-9; 2nd version 1871-3; staged 1874); Khovanshchina (1872-80), inc.; Sorochintsy Fair (1874-80), inc.
incl.cycles: The Nursery (1870), Sunless (1874), Songs and Dances of Death (1875-7).
Other works: St John's Night on the Bare Mountain, orch (1867); Pictures at an Exhibition, pf (1874).
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