Mussorgsky, Modest

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MUSSORGSKY, MODEST (1839–1881), Russian composer.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Russia. He was the son of a wealthy landowner who treated his laborers extremely well and who himself had serf (peasant) ancestors. As a child, Modest was fascinated by the ancient Russian fairy tales that were read to him by his nurse. His mother was an excellent pianist and introduced her son to the basic elements of music theory at an early age. When Modest was seven, she taught him how to play several of Franz Liszt's simpler pieces on the piano. In August 1849 his father took Modest and his brother Filaret to St. Petersburg to prepare them for a military career but also arranged a meeting with a German pianist, Anton Gerke, who was scheduled to become a professor of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. After spending a short time at another school in 1852, Mussorgsky entered the School for Cadets of the Guard. During his first year, he composed his Porte-Enseigne Polka for piano, which his father published. His main interests (other than alcohol) were philosophy, literature, painting, science, theology (he was a devout Russian Orthodox), and music. One of his teachers was Father Krupsky, who acquainted him with the music of the Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, and Greek Orthodox churches.

In 1856 Mussorgsky was promoted to sublieutenant in the aristocratic Preobrazhensky Guards detachment and he became acquainted with someone else who later became an important Russian composer, Alexander Borodin (1833–1837). Mussorgsky was well liked by his peers because he was never overbearing and was a fountain of information about literature, philosophy, science, art, and religion.

Later in his life, he became acquainted with the Russian composers Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813–1869) and Mily Balakirev (1837–1910). Mussorgsky had great financial difficulties after his father died. All the money was gone, as were the serfs, who were in the process of being emancipated. He reached the high point of his musical work in the mid-1860s, despite his impoverishment. His most important operas were Boris Godunov, Khovanshcina, and Soroschinsky Fair. He also produced a large number of piano pieces, including Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Ravel) and Saint John's Night on Bare Mountain. He was a faithful adherent of the Mighty Five, an interest group that fought Westernizers such as the Rubinstein brothers and, later, Peter Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). He also wrote short pieces for the tin whistle and the recorder. His health started to deteriorate, partially because of alcoholism, and in February 1881 he suffered three heart attacks. Not one of the people he had considered close friends visited him in the hospital. He died alone on 28 March 1881 in St. Petersburg. Just before his death, Ilya Repin (1844–1930), the most important Russian painter of the time, painted Mussorgsky. This shocking portrait of his dissipation can be viewed at the State Tretyakovsky Galerie, the most important museum in Moscow.

Mussorgsky's most widely hailed work, even during the Soviet period, was the opera Boris Godunov. The principal role was portrayed by the greatest basso profundo of his time, Fedor Chaliapin. His other major works include Intermezzo in Modo Classico (1861); Shveja: The Mistress, both for piano, and more than sixty songs, including "The Flea," "The Hebrew Song," and "The Song of Mephistopholes."

See alsoMusic; Repin, Ilya; Russia; Serfs, Emancipation of; Slavophiles; Tchaikovsky, Peter; Westernizers.


Brook, Donald. Six Great Russian Composers: Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin: Their Lives and Works. London, 1946. Contains an excellent, long chapter on Mussorgsky, with illustrations and a listing of all his works.

Brown, Malcolm Hamrick, ed. Mussorgsky: In Memoriam, 1881–1981. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982. Contains sixteen annotated articles, by music historians, on the composer's life and works; an excellent index.

Leonard, Richard Anthony. A History of Russian Music. New York, 1957.

Seroff, Victor Ilyitch. The Mighty Five: The Cradle of Russian National Music. New York, 1948. A profound description of the disagreement between the Slavophiles and Westernizers.

Taruskin, Richard. Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue. Princeton, N.J., 1993. Strongly recommended; heavily annotated, scholarly, eloquent.

Leo Hecht