Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky



Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (March 9/21, 1839 – March 16/28, 1881), one of the Russian composers known as the Five, was an innovator of Russian music. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music.

Like his literary contemporary Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mussorgsky depicts in his music "the insulted and the injured" with all their passion and pain. He raises these characters to tragic heights until the grotesque and majestic coexist. Mussorgsky could accomplish this not simply out of compassion or guilt toward them, but because in his works he almost becomes them. Mussorgsky's music is vivid, confused, feverish and ultimately hypnotizing —again, like Dostoyevsky at his best.

Many of his major works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other nationalist themes, including the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on the Bald Mountain, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. For this reason, it was perceived as being directed against the state and its composer "under suspicion." He, like the others in The Russian Five, was considered dangerous extremists by the emperor and his court. This may have been the reason why Tsar Alexander III personally crossed off Boris Godunov from the list of proposed pieces for the imperial opera in 1888.

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 in the province of Pskov, 400 kilometres south-south-east of St 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 the age of six, Modest began receiving piano lessons from his mother; his progress was sufficiently rapid that he was able to perform a John Field concerto for family and friends just three years later. At ten, he and his brother were taken to St Petersburg to study at the elite School of Peter. While there, Modest studied the piano with the noted Anton Herke.

Mussorgsky's intended career was as a military officer; and at thirteen, he entered the Cadet School of the Guards. Music remained important to him however, and at his father's expense a short (and utterly uncharacteristic) piano piece called the Porte-enseigne Polka was published in 1852, and the following year Alexander Borodin described the 17-year-old boy as an "elegant piano-playing dilettante". In 1856 Mussorgsky –who had developed a strong interest in history and studied German philosophy– successfully graduated from the Cadet School and received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment of Guards, which was the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard.

In the next two years, Mussorgsky met several figures of importance in Russia's cultural life, Dargomyzhsky, Cui (a fellow officer), Stasov, and Balakirev among them. Having produced a few songs and piano pieces as well as a number of compositional exercises under Balakirev's tutelage, Mussorgsky resigned his commission in 1858 after suffering a painful crisis. 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 when he assisted in the preparation of 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 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 towards foreign models: with Balakirev he was mostly studying German music (including the Beethoven symphonies), and 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 operas 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 another opera –Salammbô– on which he worked between 1863 and 1866 before losing interest in the project. During this period he had returned to St. 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 unpredictable course of 'real life'.

'Real life' impacted particularly painfully on Mussorgsky in 1865, when his mother died; it was at this point that the composer had his first serious bout of alcoholism. 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 A Night on the Bald Mountain (which, however, Balakirev criticized and refused to conduct, with the result that it was never performed during Mussorgsky's lifetime).

Mussorgsky's career as a civil servant was by no means stable or secure: though he was assigned to various posts and even received a promotion in these early years, in 1867 he was declared 'supernumerary' –remaining 'in service', but receiving no wages. Decisive developments were occurring in his artistic life, however. Although it was in 1867 that Stasov first referred to the group of Russian composers loosely grouped around Balakirev, Mussorgsky was by then ceasing to seek Balakirev's approval and was moving closer to the older Alexander Dargomyzhsky .

Since 1866 Dargomyzhsky 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 favor of a continuous mode of syllabic but lyrically heightened declamation somewhere between the two.

A few months later the 29-year-old Mussorgsky was encouraged to write an opera on the story of Boris Godunov. This he did, assembling and shaping a text from Pushkin's play and Karamzin's history. He completed the large-scale score the following year while living with friends and working for the Forestry Department. In 1871, however, the finished opera was rejected for theatrical performance, apparently because of its lack of any 'prima donna' role. Mussorgsky set to work producing a revised and enlarged 'second version'. During the next year, which he spent sharing rooms with Rimsky-Korsakov, he made changes that actually went far beyond those requested by the theatre. In this version the opera was accepted, probably in May 1872, and three excerpts were staged at the Mariynsky Theatre in 1873.

By the time of the first production of Boris Godunov in February 1874, Mussorgsky had taken part in the ill-fated Mlada project (in the course of which he had made a choral version of his A Night on the Bald Mountain) and had begun Khovanshchina. Though far from being a critical success -and in spite of receiving only a dozen or so performances- the popular reaction in favor of Boris made this the peak of Mussorgsky's career.

From this peak a pattern of decline becomes increasingly apparent. Already the Balakirev circle was disintegrating. Mussorgsky was especially bitter about this. He wrote to Vladimir Stasov, "The mighty Group has degenerated into soulless traitors." In drifting away from his old friends, Mussorgsky had been seen to fall victim to 'fits of madness' that could well have been alcoholism-related. His friend Viktor Hartmann had died, and his relative and recent room-mate 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.

While alcoholism was Mussorgsky's personal weakness, it was also a behavior pattern considered typical for those of Mussorgsky's generation who wanted to oppose the establishment and protest through extreme forms of behavior. Mussorgsky spent day and night in a St. Petersburg tavern of low repute, the Maly Yaroslavets, accompanied by bohemian dropouts like himself. 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.

For a time, however, 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, Sorochintsy Fair (for which he produced another choral version of A Night on Bald Mountain). The decline could not be halted, however. In 1880 he was finally dismissed from government service. Aware of his destitution, one group of friends organized a stipend designed to support the completion of Khovanschina; another group organized a similar fund to pay him to complete Sorochintsy Fair. Sadly, however, neither work was completed.

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 was found a comfortable room in a good hospital –and for several weeks even appeared to be rallying– the situation was hopeless. A week after his 42nd birthday, the famous Russian was dead. He was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.

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). Khovanshchina a more obscure opera, was unfinished and unperformed when Mussorgsky died, but it was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and received its premier in 1886 in St. Petersburg. This opera, too, was revised by Shostakovich.

One of Mussorgsky's wildest and most barbaric pieces (as the contemporary critics put it) is the orchestral work St. John's Night on the Bald Mountain, which was made famous in the US by its appearance in Disney's Fantasia.

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