Monday, March 21, 8839

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Pictures

[Detail from Ilya Repin's celebrated portrait of Mussorgsky, painted in the hospital from March 2-5, 1881, only a few days before the composer's death, at 42]

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (Russian: Modest Petrovič Musorgskij) (March 21 [O.S. March 9], 1839 - March 28 [O.S. March 16], 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 towards 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 Bald Mountain, and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. However, while Mussorgsky's music can be vivid and nationalistic, it does not glorify the powerful and is at times (such as in The Field-Marshal) antimilitaristic. 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, were considered dangerous extremists by the emperor and his court. This may have been the reason Tsar Alexander III personally crossed off Boris Godounov 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 kilometers south-south-east 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 six, Modest 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 Herke. 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. Again following family tradition and 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 portentious was Mussorgsky's introduction that winter to Alexander Dargomyzhsky, at that time the most important Russian nationalist composer after

Mikhail Glinka.

Dargomyzhsky was impressed with Mussorsky's pianism. As a result, Mussorgsky became a fixture at Dargomyzhsky's soirées.

There, critic Vladimir Stasov later recalled, Mussorgsky 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

Mili 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 Stassov, "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 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; 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 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" 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 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).

St. John's Night on Bald Mountain [Rimsky-Korsakov version]


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.


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. How convenient.

Decisive developments were occurring in his artistic life, however. Although it was in 1867 that Stasov first referred to the "kučka" 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, 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 favor of a continuous mode of syllabic but lyrically heightened declamation somewhere between the two.

Under the influence of this work (and the ideas of Georg Gottfried Gervinus, according to whom "the highest natural object of musical imitation is emotion, and the method of imitating emotion is to mimic speech"), Mussorgsky in 1868 rapidly set the first eleven scenes of Gogol's Zhenitba (The Marriage), with his priority being to render into music the natural accents and patterns of the play's naturalistic and deliberately humdrum dialogue. This work marked an extreme position in Mussorgsky's pursuit of naturalistic word-setting: he abandoned it unorchestrated after reaching the end of his Act 1, and though its characteristically declamation is to be heard in all his later vocal music, the naturalistic mode of vocal writing more and more became merely one expressive element among many.

A few months after abandoning Zhenitba, 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 Mariinsky 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.


Mlada was a project originally envisioned as a ballet to be composed by Alexander Serov and choreographed by Marius Petipa. The project was later revised in 1872 as an opera-ballet in four acts, with the composition of the score to be divided between César Cui, Léon Minkus, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Aleksandr Borodin. The libretto was written by Viktor Krylov. The project was never completed, and no performing edition is in use. An exhaustive study of this opera has been made by German musicologist Albrecht Gaub (see bibliography below) and provides information for this article.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own Mlada, in 1890, using the same libretto, but newly composed.


Though far from being a critical success - and in spite of receiving only a dozen or so performances - the popular reaction in favour of Boris made this the peak of Mussorgsky's career.


The early version of Boris is considered darker and more concise than the later version, but also more crude. 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.


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, "[T]he mighty Koocha 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.

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."

Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint 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).


Pictures at an Exhibition (1874):



Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells

Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle

Hut on Fowl's Legs

The Great Gate of Kiev

His imaginative and frequently performed Pictures at an Exhibition is the cycle of piano pieces describing paintings in sound. This composition, best known through the orchestration of Maurice Ravel, was written in commemoration of his friend, the architect Viktor Hartmann. Other orchestrations exist, including ones by Leopold Stokowski and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.


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 three months touring 12 cities as a singer's accompanist.

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 Sorochintsy Fair. Sadly, however, neither work was completed (although Khovanschina, in piano score with only two numbers uncomposed, came close).


Khovanshchina was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and received its premiere in 1886 in Saint Petersburg. This opera, too, was revised by Shostakovich. Another opera, Sorochintsy Fair, was left incomplete at his death, though a famous dance movement, the Gopak, is drawn therefrom.


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. Repin painted the famous 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.

[Grave of Modest Mussorgsky in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Aleksandr 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).

By Mussorgsky

From a letter to Vladimir Stasov

"Life, wherever it reveals itself; truth, no matter how bitter; bold, sincere speech with people -- these are my leaven, these are what I want, this is where I am afraid of missing the mark."

From an autobiographical sketch:

"Art is a means of communicating with people, and not an aim in itself. This guiding principle has defined the whole of his [i.e., my] creative activity. Proceeding from the conviction that human speech is strictly controlled by musical laws (Virchow, Gervinus), he considers the function of art to be the reproduction in musical sounds not merely of feelings, but first and foremost of human speech."

About Mussorgsky

An early (1863) opinion by Stasov, later Mussorgsky's staunchest supporter, in a letter to Balakirev:

"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's reply to the above assessment:

"Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot."

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, on Mussorgsky's manuscripts:

"They were very defective, teeming with clumsy, disconnected harmonies, shocking part-writing, amazingly illogical modulations or intolerably long stretches without ever a modulation, and bad scoring. ...what is needed is an edition for practical and artistic purposes, suitable for performances and for those who wish to admire Mussorgsky's genius, not to study his idiosyncrasies and sins against art."

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in a letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck:

"Mussorgsky you very rightly call a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the [other members of The Five], but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness.... He flaunts ... his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.

Anatoly Lyadov:

"It is easy enough to correct Mussorgsky's irregularities. The only trouble is that when this is done, the character and originality of the music are done away with, and the composer's individuality vanishes."

Edward Dannreuther, in an early (1905) edition of The Oxford History of Music:"Mussorgsky, in his vocal efforts, appears willfully eccentric. His style impresses the Western ear as barbarously ugly."

Gerald Abraham, musicologist, an authority on Mussorgsky:

"As a musical translator of words and all that can be expressed in words, of psychological states, and even physical movement, he is unsurpassed; as an absolute musician he was hopelessly limited, with remarkably little ability to construct pure music or even a purely musical texture."

[8840 Tchaikovsky / 8839 Mussorgsky / 8838 Bizet]