About Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
- Night On Bald Mountain
- Pictures at an Exibition, The Great Gate of Kiev
- Boris Godunov - Coronation Scene
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky ( Моде́ст Петро́вич Мýсoргский; 21 March [O.S. 9 March] 1839 – 28 March [O.S. 16 March] 1881) was a Russian composer, one of the group known as "The Five". He was an innovator of Russian music in the romantic period. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music.
Many of his works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other nationalist themes. Such works include the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.
For many years Mussorgsky's works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers. Many of his most important compositions have recently come into their own in their original forms, and some of the original scores are now also available.
Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Toropets, Pskov region, Imperial Russia, 400 km (250 mi) south of Saint Petersburg. His wealthy and land-owning family, the noble family of Mussorgsky, is reputedly descended from the first Ruthenian ruler, Rurik, through the sovereign princes of Smolensk. At age six Mussorgsky began receiving piano lessons from his mother, herself a trained pianist. His progress was sufficiently rapid that three years later he was able to perform a John Field concerto and works by Franz Liszt for family and friends. At 10, he and his brother were taken to Saint Petersburg to study at the elite Peterschule (St. Peter's School). While there, Modest studied the piano with the noted Anton Gerke. In 1852, the 12-year-old Mussorgsky published a piano piece titled "Porte-enseigne Polka" at his father's expense.
Mussorgsky's parents planned the move to Saint Petersburg so that both their sons would renew the family tradition of military service. To this end, Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School of the Guards at age 13. Sharp controversy had arisen over the educational attitudes at the time of both this institute and its director, a General Sutgof. All agreed the Cadet School could be a brutal place, especially for new recruits. More tellingly for Mussorgsky, it was likely where he began his eventual path to alcoholism. According to a former student, singer and composer Nikolai Kompaneisky, Sutgof "was proud when a cadet returned from leave drunk with champagne."
Music remained important to him, however. Sutgof's daughter was also a pupil of Herke, and Mussorgsky was allowed to attend lessons with her. His skills as a pianist made him much in demand by fellow-cadets; for them he would play dances interspersed with his own improvisations. In 1856 Mussorgsky – who had developed a strong interest in history and studied German philosophy – successfully graduated from the Cadet School. Following family tradition he received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard.
In October 1856 the 17-year-old Mussorgsky met the 22-year-old Alexander Borodin while both men served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg. The two were soon on good terms. Borodin later remembered,
His little uniform was spic and span, close-fitting, his feet turned outwards, his hair smoothed down and greased, his nails perfectly cut, his hands well groomed like a lord's. His manners were elegant, aristocratic: his speech likewise, delivered through somewhat clenched teeth, interspersed with French phrases, rather precious. There was a touch—though very moderate—of foppishness. His politeness and good manners were exceptional. The ladies made a fuss of him. He sat at the piano and, throwing up his hands coquettishly, played with extreme sweetness and grace (etc) extracts from Trovatore, Traviata, and so on, and around him buzzed in chorus: "Charmant, délicieux!" and suchlike. I met Modest Petrovich three or four times at Popov's in this way, both on duty and at the hospital."
More portentous was Mussorgsky's introduction that winter to Alexander Dargomyzhsky, at that time the most important Russian composer after Mikhail Glinka. Dargomyzhsky was impressed with Mussorgsky's pianism. As a result, Mussorgsky became a fixture at Dargomyzhsky's soirées. There, critic Vladimir Stasov later recalled, he began "his true musical life."
Over the next two years at Dargomyzhsky's, Mussorgsky met several figures of importance in Russia's cultural life, among them Stasov, César Cui (a fellow officer), and Mily Balakirev. Balakirev had an especially strong impact. Within days he took it upon himself to help shape Mussorgsky's fate as a composer. He recalled to Stasov, "Because I am not a theorist, I could not teach him harmony (as, for instance Rimsky-Korsakov now teaches it) ... [but] I explained to him the form of compositions, and to do this we played through both Beethoven symphonies [as piano duets] and much else (Schumann, Schubert, Glinka, and others), analyzing the form." Up to this point Mussorgsky had known nothing but piano music; his knowledge of more radical recent music was virtually non-existent. Balakirev started filling these gaps in Mussorgsky's knowledge.
In 1858, within a few months of beginning his studies with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to devote himself entirely to music. He also suffered a painful crisis at this time. This may have had a spiritual component (in a letter to Balakirev the young man referred to "mysticism and cynical thoughts about the Deity"), but its exact nature will probably never be known. In 1859, the 20-year-old gained valuable theatrical experience by assisting in a production of Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar on the Glebovo estate of a former singer and her wealthy husband; he also met Anatoly Lyadov and enjoyed a formative visit to Moscow – after which he professed a love of "everything Russian".
In spite of this epiphany, Mussorgsky's music still leaned more toward foreign models; a four-hand piano sonata which he produced in 1860 contains his only movement in sonata form. Nor is any 'nationalistic' impulse easily discernible in the incidental music for Serov's play Oedipus in Athens, on which he worked between the ages of 19 and 22 (and then abandoned unfinished), or in the Intermezzo in modo classico for piano solo (revised and orchestrated in 1867). The latter was the only important piece he composed between December 1860 and August 1863: the reasons for this probably lie in the painful re-emergence of his subjective crisis in 1860 and the purely objective difficulties which resulted from the emancipation of the serfs the following year – as a result of which the family was deprived of half its estate, and Mussorgsky had to spend a good deal of time in Karevo unsuccessfully attempting to stave off their looming impoverishment.
By this time, Mussorgsky had freed himself from the influence of Balakirev and was largely teaching himself. In 1863 he began an opera – Salammbô – on which he worked between 1863 and 1866 before losing interest in the project. During this period he had returned to Saint Petersburg and was supporting himself as a low-grade civil-servant while living in a six-man "commune". In a heady artistic and intellectual atmosphere, he read and discussed a wide range of modern artistic and scientific ideas – including those of the provocative writer Chernyshevsky, known for the bold assertion that, in art, "form and content are opposites". Under such influences he came more and more to embrace the ideal of artistic realism and all that it entailed, whether this concerned the responsibility to depict life "as it is truly lived"; the preoccupation with the lower strata of society; or the rejection of repeating, symmetrical musical forms as insufficiently true to the unrepeating, unpredictable course of "real life".
"Real life" affected Mussorgsky painfully in 1865, when his mother died; it was at this point that the composer had his first serious bout of either alcoholism or dipsomania. The 26-year-old was, however, on the point of writing his first realistic songs (including "Hopak" and "Darling Savishna", both of them composed in 1866 and among his first "real" publications the following year). 1867 was also the year in which he finished the original orchestral version of his Night on Bald Mountain (which, however, Balakirev criticised and refused to conduct, with the result that it was never performed during Mussorgsky's lifetime).