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Modest Mussorgsky

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Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, 1870

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (Russian: Модест Петрович Мусоргский; IPA: ; 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.


  • Name 1
  • Life 2
    • Early years 2.1
    • Maturity 2.2
    • Peak 2.3
    • Decline 2.4
  • Works 3
  • Portrait gallery 4
  • Criticism 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


The aristocratic Mussorgsky brothers—Filaret (also known as "Yevgeniy", left), and Modest (right), 1858.

The spelling and pronunciation of the composer's name has been a matter of some controversy.

The family name is derived from a 15th or 16th century ancestor, Roman Vasilyevich Monastïryov, who was mentioned in the Rurik, the legendary founder of the Russian state.[1]

In Mussorgsky family documents, the spelling of the name varies: 'Musarskiy', 'Muserskiy', 'Muserskoy', 'Musirskoy', 'Musorskiy', and 'Musurskiy'. According to his baptismal record the composer's name is 'Muserskiy'.[2]

In early (up to 1858) letters to Mariinsky Theatre in 1873. It is often asserted that in 1872 the opera was rejected a second time, but no specific evidence for this exists.

By the time of the first production of Viktor Hartmann had died, and his relative and recent roommate Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov (who furnished the poems for the song-cycle Sunless and would go on to provide those for the Songs and Dances of Death) had moved away to get married.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the opera in 1896 and revised it in 1908. The opera has also been revised by other composers, notably Shostakovich, who made two versions, one for film and one for stage.

The opera Saint Petersburg. This opera, too, was revised by Shostakovich. The Fair at Sorochyntsi, another opera, was left incomplete at his death but a dance excerpt, the Gopak, is frequently performed.

Mussorgsky's most imaginative and frequently performed work is the cycle of piano pieces describing paintings in sound called Pictures at an Exhibition. This composition, best known through an orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel, was written in commemoration of his friend, the architect Viktor Hartmann.

Mussorgsky's single-movement orchestral work Night on Bald Mountain enjoyed broad popular recognition in the 1940s when it was featured, in tandem with Schubert's 'Ave Maria', in the Disney film Fantasia.

Among the composer's other works are a number of songs, including three Vladimir Rosing in the 1920s and 30s.[26] Other recordings have been made by Boris Christoff between 1951 and 1957 and by Sergei Leiferkus in 1993.[27]

Portrait gallery


Contemporary opinions of Mussorgsky as a composer and person varied from positive to ambiguous to negative. Mussorgsky's eventual supporters, Stasov and Balakirev, initially registered strongly negative impressions of the composer. Stasov wrote Balakirev, in an 1863 letter, "I have no use whatever for Mussorgsky. All in him is flabby and dull. He is, I think, a perfect idiot. Were he left to his own devices and no longer under your strict supervision, he would soon run to seed as all the others have done. There is nothing in him."

Balakirev agreed: "Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot."

Mixed impressions are recorded by

Rimsky-Korsakov's own editions of Mussorgsky's works met with some criticism of their own. Rimsky-Korsakov's student,

Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness

Not all of the criticism of Mussorgsky was negative. In a letter to Pauline Viardot, Ivan Turgenev recorded his impressions of a concert he attended in which he met Mussorgsky and heard two of his songs and excerpts from Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina):

Today I was invited to have dinner in old Petrov's house: I gave him a copy of your song, which pleased him greatly [...] Petrov still admires you as enthusiastically as in the past. In his drawing-room there's a bust of you, crowned with laurels, which still bears a strong resemblance to you. I also met his wife (the contralto) [Anna Vorobyova-Petrova, who created the role of Vanya in Glinka's A Life for the Tsar]. She is sixty years old... After dinner she sang two quite original and touching romances by Musorgsky (the author of Boris Godunov, who was also present), in a voice that is still young and charming and has a very expressive timbre. She sang them wonderfully! I was moved to tears, I assure you. Then Mussorgsky played for us and sang, with a rather hoarse voice, some excerpts from his opera and the other one that he is composing now – and the music seemed to me very characteristic and interesting, upon my honour! Old Petrov sang the role of the old profligate and vagabond monk [Varlaam's song about Ivan the Terrible] – it was splendid! I am starting to believe that there really is a future in all of this. Outwardly, Mussorgsky reminds one of Glinka – it is just that his nose is all red (unfortunately, he is an alcoholic), he has pale but beautiful eyes, and fine lips which are squeezed into a fat face with flabby cheeks. I liked him: he is very natural and unaffected, and does not put on any airs. He played us the introduction to his second opera [Khovanshchina]. It is a bit Wagnerian, but full of feeling and beautiful. Forward, forward! Russian artists!!

Western perceptions of Mussorgsky changed with the European premiere of Boris Godunov in 1908. Before the premiere, he was regarded as an eccentric in the west. Critic

However, after the premiere, views on Mussorgsky's music changed drastically.



  1. ^ Taruskin (1993: pp. xxx, 384)
  2. ^ Taruskin (1993: pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  3. ^ Musorgskiy (1984: pp. 10-12)
  4. ^ Musorgskiy (1984: p. 44)
  5. ^ Musorgskiy (1984: p. 238)
  6. ^ a b Taruskin (1993: p. xxviii)
  7. ^ Taruskin (1993: p. xxx)
  8. ^ Smirnitsky (1985: p. 300)
  9. ^ Taruskin (1993: pp. xxviii, xxx)
  10. ^ Taruskin (1993: pp. xxvii-xxxi)
  11. ^ Brown, David, Mussorgsky: His Life and Works (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3.
  12. ^ a b Brown, 4.
  13. ^ a b Brown, 5.
  14. ^ As quoted in Brown, 4
  15. ^ a b Brown, 6.
  16. ^ Brown, 8.
  17. ^ ed. E.Gordeyva, M.P. Musorgsky v vospominaniyakh sovremennikov [Mussorgsky in the recollections of contemporaries] (Moscow, 1989), 86–87.
  18. ^ Brown, 10.
  19. ^ Brown, 12–13.
  20. ^ Brown, 12.
  21. ^ Brown, 14.
  22. ^ Letter to Vladimir Stasov, 9 October 1875. As quoted in Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, 154–155, footnote 24.
  23. ^ a b Volkov, p. 87.
  24. ^ Quoted in Sovietskaia muzyka (Soviet Music), 9 (1980), 104. As quoted in Volkov, p. 87.
  25. ^ Volkov (1995) 106–107.
  26. ^ Juynboll, Floris. "Vladimir Rosing", The Record Collector Vol. 36 No. 3, July, August, September 1991. pg. 194–196
  27. ^ Kozinn, Allan, "The New York Times essential library: classical music: a critic's guide to the 100 most important recordings" (New York: Times Books, 2004), 143–147. ISBN 0-8050-7070-2


  • Brown, David, Mussorgsky: His Life and Works (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). ISBN 0-19-816587-0.
  • Musorgskiy, M., M. P. Musorgskiy: Letters, Gordeyeva, Ye. (editor), 2nd edition, Moscow: Music (publisher), 1984 [Мусоргский, М. П., М. П. Мусоргский: Письма, Гордеева, Е., Москва: Музыка, 1984]
  • Smirnitsky, A., Russian-English Dictionary, Moscow: The Russian Language (publisher), 1985 [Смирницкий, А. И., Русско-английский словарь, Москва: Русский язык, 1985]
  • Taruskin, R., Musorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993
  • Volkov, Solomon, tr. Bouis, Antonina W., Saint Petersburg: A Cultural History. New York: The Free Press, 1995

External links

  • International Music Score Library Project
  • The Mutopia Project has compositions by Modest Mussorgsky
  • Turgenev and Mussorgsky (with music samples)
In 1868/9 he composed the opera

Statue of Mussorgsky near his native village

Mussorgsky's works, while strikingly novel, are stylistically Romantic and draw heavily on Russian musical themes. He has been the inspiration for many Russian composers, including most notably Dmitri Shostakovich (in his late symphonies) and Sergei Prokofiev (in his operas).


Mussorgsky, like others of 'The Five', was perceived as extremist by the Emperor and much of his court. This may have been the reason Tsar Alexander III personally crossed off Boris Godunov from the list of proposed pieces for the Imperial Opera in 1888.[25]

In 1935–37, in connection with the reconstruction and redevelopment of the so-called Necropolis of Masters of Arts, the square in front of the Lavra was substantially extended and the border line of the Tikhvin cemetery was accordingly moved. The Soviet government, however, moved only gravestones to a new location, and the tombs were covered with asphalt, including Mussorgsky's grave. The burial place of Mussorgsky is now a bus stop.

In early 1881 a desperate Mussorgsky declared to a friend that there was 'nothing left but begging', and suffered four seizures in rapid succession. Though he found a comfortable room in a good hospital – and for several weeks even appeared to be rallying – the situation was hopeless. Repin painted the famous red-nosed portrait in what were to be the last days of the composer's life: a week after his 42nd birthday, he was dead. He was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.

The decline could not be halted, however. In 1880 he was finally dismissed from government service. Aware of his destitution, one group of friends organised a stipend designed to support the completion of Khovanschina; another group organised a similar fund to pay him to complete The Fair at Sorochyntsi. However, neither work was completed (although Khovanschina, in piano score with only two numbers uncomposed, came close to being finished).

In the years that followed, Mussorgsky's decline became increasingly steep. Although now part of a new circle of eminent personages that included singers, medical men and actors, he was increasingly unable to resist drinking, and a succession of deaths among his closest associates caused him great pain. At times, however, his alcoholism would seem to be in check, and among the most powerful works composed during his last 6 years are the four Songs and Dances of Death. His civil service career was made more precarious by his frequent 'illnesses' and absences, and he was fortunate to obtain a transfer to a post (in the Office of Government Control) where his music-loving superior treated him with great leniency – in 1879 even allowing him to spend 3 months touring 12 cities as a singer's accompanist.

Grave of Modest Mussorgsky in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg

For a time Mussorgsky was able to maintain his creative output: his compositions from 1874 include Sunless, the Khovanschina Prelude, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (in memory of Hartmann); he also began work on another opera based on Gogol, The Fair at Sorochyntsi (for which he produced another choral version of Night on Bald Mountain).

Arrangement for two pianos

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[23] Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg tavern of low repute, the Maly Yaroslavets, accompanied by other bohemian dropouts. He and his fellow drinkers idealized their alcoholism, perhaps seeing it as ethical and aesthetic opposition. This bravado, however, led to little more than isolation and eventual self-destruction.[24] One contemporary notes, "an intense worship of Bacchus was considered to be almost obligatory for a writer of that period. It was a showing off, a 'pose,' for the best people of the [eighteen-]sixties." Another writes, "Talented people in Russia who love the simple folk cannot but drink."[23]

A few months after abandoning

Fyodor Komissarzhevsky as The Pretender in Boris Godunov
Under the influence of this work (and the ideas of

Since 1866 Dargomïzhsky had been working on his opera The Stone Guest, a version of the Don Juan story with a Pushkin text that he declared would be set "just as it stands, so that the inner truth of the text should not be distorted", and in a manner that abolished the 'unrealistic' division between aria and recitative in favour of a continuous mode of syllabic but lyrically heightened declamation somewhere between the two.

Ivan Melnikov as the title character in Boris Godunov, 1874

"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 alcoholic Alexander Dargomyzhsky .

Rimsky-Korsakov's edited version of the piece, performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. Courtesy of Musopen

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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".

Gustave Flaubert. Mussorgsky started an opera based on his Salammbô but did not finish it.

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 Vladislav Ozerov'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.

In 1858, within a few months of beginning his studies with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to devote himself entirely to music.[21] 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 Konstantin Lyadov (father of Anatoly Lyadov) and enjoyed a formative visit to Moscow – after which he professed a love of "everything Russian".

[20] Over the next two years at Dargomyzhsky's, Mussorgsky met several figures of importance in Russia's cultural life, among them Stasov,

More portentous was Mussorgsky's introduction that winter to Vladimir Stasov later recalled, he began "his true musical life."[18]

Alexander Dargomyzhsky
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."[17]

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.[16] Borodin later remembered,


Music remained important to him, however. Sutgof's daughter was also a pupil of Herke, and Mussorgsky was allowed to attend lessons with her.[12] His skills as a pianist made him much in demand by fellow-cadets; for them he would play dances interspersed with his own Preobrazhensky Regiment, the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard.[15]

Mussorgsky's parents planned the move to Saint Petersburg so that both their sons would renew the family tradition of military service.[11] 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.[12] All agreed the Cadet School could be a brutal place, especially for new recruits.[13] More tellingly for Mussorgsky, it was likely where he began his eventual path to alcoholism.[13] According to a former student, singer and composer Nikolai Kompaneisky, Sutgof "was proud when a cadet returned from leave drunk with champagne."[14]

Mussorgsky was born in

Young Mussorgsky as a cadet in the Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guard.

Early years


The Western convention of doubling the first 's', which is not observed in scholarly literature (e.g. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians), likely arose because in many Western European languages a single intervocalic 's' often becomes voiced to 'z' (e.g., 'music'), unlike Slavic languages where it remains unvoiced. Doubling the consonant thus reinforces its voiceless sibilant 's' sound.

The addition of the 'g' and the accompanying shift in stress to the second syllable (i.e., Mu-SÓRK-ski), sometimes described as a Fyodor Shalyapin, Nikolay Golovanov, and Tikhon Khrennikov, who, perhaps dismayed that the great composer's name was "reminiscent of garbage", supported the erroneous second-syllable stress that has also become entrenched in the West.[10]

The first syllable of the name originally received the stress (i.e., MÚS-ər-ski), and does so to this day in Russia and in the composer's home district. The mutability of the second-syllable vowel in the versions of the name mentioned above is evidence that this syllable did not receive the stress.[9]

Mussorgsky apparently did not take the new spelling seriously, and played on the 'rubbish' connection in letters to Vladimir Stasov and Stasov's family, routinely signing his name 'Musoryanin', roughly 'garbage-dweller' (cf., dvoryanin: 'nobleman').[6]

мусoр (músor) — n. m. debris, rubbish, refuse[8]

[7] The addition of the 'g' to the name was likely initiated by the composer's elder brother Filaret to obscure the resemblance of the name's root to an unsavory Russian word:[6][5]

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