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Ludwig van Beethoven


Mussorgsky: Night On Bald Mountain/Pictures At An Exhibition, Maazel


Musorgsky: His Life and Works by David Brown


Boris Godunov / Gergiev, Lloyd, Kirov (1990)
Herbert Von Karajan - His Legacy for Home Video: Modest Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition (1986)


Modest Musorgsky

In 1874, Modest Musorgsky wrote a piano suite that was inspired by a memorial exhibition of his friend Victor Hartmann’s drawings.  This piece, Pictures from an Exhibition, is now one of Musorgsky’s most famous.  As with many of Musorgsky’s works, however, Pictures from an Exhibition is most often heard in a form that Musorgsky never created, namely the 1922 orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel.  Among the many other composers who took it upon themselves to revise, re-orchestrate, and even “correct” Musorgsky’s oeuvre were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.  These reworkings could be seen as criticisms of Musorgsky’s style.  At the same time, they are tributes to a composer who influenced not only the many great Russian composers to follow but also such European modernists as Debussy and Ravel.

Childhood, Military and Musical Education

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky was born on March 21, 1839, in Karevo, Russia.  His family, which traced its bloodline to the legendary Russian ruler Rurik, lived on an idyllic country estate southeast of St. Petersburg.  Even before having formal piano lessons, the young Musorgsky entertained himself at the piano, making up pieces based on the fairytales that his nanny told him.  By age six, he began taking piano lessons from his mother and made rapid progress.

At the age of ten, Musorgsky was enrolled in an elite secondary school in St. Petersburg, where he studied piano with the well-known Anton Herke.  Two years later he entered the Cadet School of the Guards to train for a career as a military officer.  While at the military school, he continued his piano lessons with Herke, sang in the choir, and became very interested in Russian history – a pursuit that influenced his work throughout his life.  Upon graduating from the military academy in 1856, he was commissioned to the highest regiment in the Russian Imperial Guard, which was led by the tsar himself, Alexander II.

Did You Know...?

The Gnome from Pictures At An Exhibition is the music Marty uses for part of  his 'dance quintet' in the 1998 film, The Big Lebowski.

The following year, Musorgsky was introduced to several composers with whom he went on to have lasting associations.  Through his friend, the composer Alexander Dargomïzhsky, he met César Cui, who was another young military officer and composer.  Cui, in turn, introduced him to the composer Mily Balakirev and the critic Vladimir Stasov. 

In 1857, the eighteen-year-old Musorgsky began studying composition with Balakirev.  The lessons initially consisted of playing and analyzing piano duet arrangements of Beethoven symphonies, as well as studying works by other major European composers from Bach to Schumann.  Mussorgsky was so taken with his musical studies that he resigned his commission in order to devote all of his energy to the study of composition.  As the son of a wealthy family, his privileged position allowed him to do so.

From the spring of 1859 to 1861, through his acquaintance with Dargomïzhsky, Musorgsky began spending short periods of time near Moscow, at the estate of the Shilovskys.  Mariya Shilovsky was a well-known singer in the St. Petersburg music scene, who had married well and who had turned her husband's rural estate into a performance venue for talented young composers.  In 1859, she hosted a production of Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar in the estate's private theatre with herself cast in the primary female role.  Musorgsky helped prepare this production and certainly absorbed a great many important details about writing for the stage.

It was also during his first stay at the Shilovsky estate that he visited Moscow and was genuinely moved by the distinctive architecture of the Kremlin. This early visit to the Russian capital, coupled with his reverence for his country's history, likely inspired his lifelong pursuit of a distinct musical style that specifically reflected a Russian heritage, distinct from other European musical styles.

In March 1861, Tsar Alexander II emancipated the serfs.  This event, a major turning point in Russian history, also made a dramatic difference in Musorgsky’s style of living.  Musorgsky’s family, like most of the lower nobility and landowners, had difficulty adapting to the disappearance of free labor.  Subsequently, they watched their wealth dwindle.  Without the financial assistance of his family, Musorgsky was compelled to take a low-ranking position as a civil servant.

The Mighty Handful and First Attempts at Opera

Starting in 1857, Musorgsky began to form a small circle of friends interested in composition.  This group, centered around Balakirev, included Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, as well as Musorsgky; it became known as “The Mighty Handful” or “The Russian Five.”  Aside from Balakirev, all of the composers in the group worked regular jobs and only composed part-time.  In the absence of academic musical training, they convened to teach themselves, vigorously discussing aesthetics and analyzing all the western European works that they could find.  The friends imagined a Russian artistic and musical style that expressed a Russian essence rather than imitating European models.

By 1863, the twenty-four year-old Mussorgsky was trying to create a new musical language.  He envisioned an idiom that would be able to communicate a sense of realism and “artistic truth.”  Building on  earlier nineteenth-century trends in the Russian literary tradition of story-telling, which used the vernacular to portray “true-to-life” situations, he wrote several small-scale vocal works.  These pieces were a first step towards a style of opera, the melodic and rhythmic contours of which were faithful to the spoken word. 

In 1868, Musorgsky put this technique into action on a larger scale, setting Russian author Nikolai Gogol's comedy The Marriage as an opera.  Although abandoned after the completion of only one act, this work embodied a type of musico-dramatic prose that depicted characters speaking on stage as if they were in normal conversation, with instrumental accompaniment that supported the intention of their dialogue.  This style of writing became known as opéra dialogué.

Boris Godunov and Its Aftermath

With the completion of The Marriage, Musorgsky went on to adapt his own version of Alexander Pushkin's play Boris Godunov.  By the end of 1869, the opera was finished.  The work debuted the following year but received only a lukewarm reception.  Musorgsky then submitted the opera to the Marinsky Theater, which rejected the work mainly because it did not contain an extended female role and because it was not considered thoroughly “operatic.” 

Did You Know...?

It is Leopold Stokowski's revised and edited version of Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain that was used in Disney's Fantasia.

Despite the fact that the primary feature of his style was, in a sense, its “anti-operatic” character, Musorgsky reworked Boris Godunov in order to appease his critics.  Among other revisions, he included a role for coloratura soprano.  Audiences responded enthusiastically to the new version of Boris Godunov, which premiered in 1874, and the opera was thereafter regularly programmed for the next eight years.

The popular success of Boris Godunov marked the peak of Musorgsky's career.  Despite the public’s approval, however, the critics disliked the work.  The most personally injurious was Cui's review of the opera, which denigrated it as “immature,” and weakened by Musorgsky's “unfastidious…hasty process of composition.”  Musorgsky felt betrayed by his long-time friend.  This event, coupled with a weakening relationship with another close friend, Rimsky-Korsakov, caused Musorgsky to feel alienated.  He gradually isolated himself from his circle of friends.

Unfinished Operas

In his final years Musorgsky worked on two more operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsï Fair.  In these works, his vocal writing evolved from the realistic, quasi-speech style he had achieved in Boris Godunov to a more lyrical approach.

By 1878, Musorgsky’s long-term alcohol problem began to jeopardize his work as a civil servant.  Through the intervention of Balakirev and another close friend, Vladimir Stasov, Musorgsky transferred to another government post where the more lenient supervisor admired his compositions.  In 1880, however, Musorgsky lost this position as well.

Nevertheless, Musorgsky was able to survive by performing as an accompanist and by receiving small stipends collected from friends.  These supporters were divided into two factions: those who funded him on the condition that he finish Khovanshchina and those who funded him on the condition that he finish Sorochintsï Fair.  It is therefore ironic that both works were unfinished when Musorgsky died in St. Petersburg on February 26, 1881.  The cause of death probably was related to his excessive drinking.

  –David Djernaes


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Goulding, Philip.  Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works.  New York: Fawcett, 1992.

Schonberg, Harold.  The Lives of the Great Composers.  3rd ed.  Rev. Nicolas Slonimsky.  New York: Norton, 1997.

Oldani, Robert William: ‘Musorgsky, Modest Petrovich’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 31 October 2005), <http//>