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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is generally acclaimed the finest of the group of Russian composers known as the Mighty Five.

Without Modest Mussorgsky the notion of the Russian 19th century as one of musical realism would be unsupportable. In his operas, especially Boris Godunov, he successfully explored human emotions and failings individually and collectively in a new and forthright manner singularly bereft of the pretensions and emotional excess of the 19th century. His operatic work marks a crossroads in the understanding and use of the form in music history.

Mussorgsky was born on March 9, 1839, in the village of Karevo in the Pskov district. His family was of the middle landed gentry, which placed them high above the serfs, although Mussorgsky had some serf blood. His cultured mother gave him piano lessons and encouraged his clumsy but early efforts at composition. At 10 he went to St. Petersburg to study piano with Anton Herke, to prepare for cadet school, and to be tutored in the ways of a young urban gentleman. He entered the Imperial Guards Cadet School in 1852 and, in the course of the year, published (at his family's expense) Porte Enseigne Polka for his classmates. His lessons with Herke continued until 1854. Mussorgsky joined the glittering Preobrazhensky Imperial Guards Regiment in 1856.

As a teen-age officer, Mussorgsky met, while on duty, Aleksandr Borodin, a medical officer. The two were not to come together as members of the Mighty Five for some few years, but Borodin remembered Mussorgsky as a smart, dapper, well-mannered, slightly French and slightly foppish youth who played the piano coquettishly at parties, eliciting cries of "charmant!" and "delicieux!" from the assembled young women.

The years brought considerable change in that image. In 1859 Mussorgsky met Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky, who introduced him to César Cui, also a military officer, and to Mily Balakirev, later the leader of the Mighty Five. In late 1857 and 1858 Mussorgsky went through the first of several emotional crises and resigned from the Guards in 1859. That same year he spoke to Balakirev of having been "reborn," not only in the sense of recovery from his nervous disorder but in his conversion, he said, from cosmopolitan to patriot. The thinking of the music and art critic Vladimir Stasov is reflected here, but more particularly that of the Russian social critics Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. Among these new friends, Mussorgsky was writing music with some seriousness. In 1860 his Scherzo in B-flat for orchestra was performed in St. Petersburg. In 1861 Mussorgsky's financial base was destroyed: the emancipation of the serfs led to the liquidation, over a 2-year period, of the family estate.

In the early 1860s Mussorgsky felt musically dependent on, but fretted under, Balakirev and was close to Dargomyzhsky. Mussorgsky had established certain work patterns: he started something new with great enthusiasm only to bog down in self-doubt, insecure in his technical abilities. Three projected operas were among such works. Mussorgsky did not associate with the other members of the Balakirev circle but with "proletarian" friends in a communal setting. In 1863 he began work on the opera Salammbo (from Gustave Flaubert's novel). Although he did not finish it, music from this opera figured in later work, most importantly in Boris Godunov. He left another opera, The Marriage (1864-1868), unfinished; Cherepnin completed the work in 1909.

By 1869 Mussorgsky had abandoned his communal style of living and reentered government service, in the Forestry Department. He was already a serious alcoholic with epileptic tendencies. Though he was a nominal member of the Mighty Five (the term, literally the "Mighty Fist," was used by Stasov in 1867), his life style set him apart from the others. Indeed, he often denied vehemently his belonging, creatively, to any group.

From a suggestion by Stasov, but developing his own ideas and preparing his own libretto from texts by Aleksandr Pushkin and Nicolai Karamzin, Mussorgsky set to work on Boris Godunov in 1868. The first version was finished in 1869; that date was but the beginning of a fitful series of redrawings of music and scenario by Mussorgsky and others which has probably not even yet ended. He returned to it in 1871 and again in 1872 but was lured away by, among other things, the joint effort at an opera, Mlada, by himself, Borodin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui. The collective effort was abortive, but all used music from it for other works. In 1872 Mussorgsky also started Khovanshchina, an opera based on another Russian historical episode. This, too, was unfinished, but enough was done to establish it as one of his major works. He worked on Khovanshchina and another opera, Sorochinsk Fair (finished by Liadov and Karatygin), until 1880. The period 1871-1881 also saw the piano tribute to artist-architect Viktor Hartmann, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orchestrated by various composers, including Maurice Ravel in 1922), The Songs and Dances of Death (1875), and a number of other works, making this, though his last, his most productive decade.

The Mighty Five had begun to disintegrate as a circle after 1872, and Mussorgsky's health was worsening. Near the end of his life he toured with the singer Daria Leonova. He died, more or less in her care, on March 16, 1881, in St. Petersburg.

"Boris Godunov"

Musically one turns again and again to Boris Godunov to reveal what Mussorgsky was and what he wanted. The work is intensely, intimately vocal. And, although he wrote effectively for orchestra, the voice was the instrument he trusted and understood (he had given voice lessons). He had a lyric quality that was curiously enhanced by laconic punctuation; and it was just such anomalies that disturbed the doctrinaire Rimsky-Korsakov, who complained of the "absurdity, ugliness, and illogic" of so much of Mussorgsky's music. Made vulnerable by his technical lapses, Mussorgsky thus suffered, too, for his originality.

There is a relentless, inevitable movement forward in Mussorgsky's style, in significant measure related to his understanding of the folk process in music, which provides him with the deftness of the caricaturist's hand: his vignettes of a drunken priest, a clown, an idiot, a vain princess, or a mad czar are sure and convincing. The crowd scenes in Boris Godunov are particularly telling; they range from groups of worshipers through coronation crowds to peasants and soldiers. It is not sufficient to point out the approximations to human speech and sounds; Mussorgsky believed that speech itself followed strict musical rules and that music, like all art, is a means of communicating with people. He not only dealt in living scenes of real people but drew out of such situations certain principles and truths. And it is in the latter rather than the former that realism lies. That Czar Boris is the tortured product of forces of both good and evil is nowhere stated; but in depicting his inchoate rage at his enemies on the one hand and the beauty of his tenderness to his daughter on the other, Mussorgsky focuses effectively on the conflict.

Further Reading

Jay Leyda and Sergei Bertenson edited The Mussorgsky Reader (1947), a selection of Mussorgsky's letters and other memorabilia mostly taken from a collection of Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov published in Moscow in 1932. The most important study of Mussorgsky is Michel D. Calvocoressi, Modest Mussorgsky: His Life and Works, edited by Gerald Abraham (1956). Earlier, less complete works by Calvocoressi are Mussorgsky: The Russian Musical Nationalist (1919) and Mussorgsky (1946). Less scholarly is Victor Seroff, Modeste Mussorgsky (1968). For background on Mussorgsky's milieu see Gerald Abraham and Michel D. Calvocoressi, Masters of Russian Music (1936). □

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Mussorgsky, Modest (Petrovich)

Mussorgsky, Modest (Petrovich) (b Karevo, Pskov, 1839; d St Petersburg, 1881). Russ. composer. Showed mus. talent as a child but was destined for an army career. In 1857 he met Balakirev in St Petersburg and studied with him, resigning his commission the next year. His early songs and pf. pieces show little sign of his later achievement, but by 1864 he was writing fine songs. He started and abandoned 2 operas, but began work in 1868 on Boris Godunov, which he rev. when it was rejected by the Imperial Th. On its prod. in 1874 it pleased audiences but not musicians, who resented its unconventional methods and unusual style in which speech-inflexion governed the vocal lines. Over the next few years Mussorgsky worked on 2 operas, but his heavy drinking, a habit acquired at cadet school, sapped his capacity for concentrated work. He was one of the group of 5 Russ. composers of nationalist tendencies known as the ‘Mighty handful’. After his death his works were completed and ‘improved’ by Rimsky-Korsakov and others, but in the 20th cent. his realistic and progressive qualities have been recognized and his orig. scores have been restored where possible. Prin. comps.:OPERAS: Salammbô (unfinished, 1863–6); The Marriage (1 act only finished) (1868); Boris Godunov (1868–9, rev. 1871–2, rev. 1873); Mlada (projected 4-act opera-ballet of which Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin were to compose the other 3 acts, 1872); Khovanshchina (1873, 5th act unfinished); Sorochintsy Fair (1876–81, unfinished).ORCH.: Night on the Bare Mountain (1867, rev. 1872, 1874).PIANO: Souvenir d'Enfance (1857); Intermezzo (1861, orch. and expanded 1867); Memories of Childhood (1865); Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).SONGS: Many solo songs and 3 song-cycles: The Nursery (7 songs) (1868–72); Sunless (6 songs) (1874); Songs and Dances of Death (4 songs) (1875–7). (The famous Song of the Flea dates from 1879.)

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Mussorgsky, Modest Petrovich

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Mussorgsky, Modest (Petrovich)

Mussorgsky, Modest (Petrovich)

Mussorgsky, Modest (Petrovich), great Russian composer; b. Karevo, Pskov district, March 21, 1839; d. St. Petersburg, March 28, 1881. He received his first instruction on the piano from his mother; at the age of 10, he was taken to St. Petersburg, where he had piano lessons with Anton Herke, remaining his pupil until 1854. In 1852 he entered the cadet school of the Imperial Guard; composed a piano piece entitled Porte enseigne Polka, which was publ. (1852); after graduation (1856), he joined the regiment of the Guard. In 1857, he met Dargomyzhsky, who introduced him to Cui and Balakirev; he also became friendly with the critic and chief champion of Russian national music, Vladimir Stasov. These associations prompted his decision to become a professional composer. He played and analyzed piano arrangements of works by Beethoven and Schumann; Balakirev helped him to acquire a knowledge of form; he tried to write music in classical style, but without success; his inner drive was directed toward “new shores” as Mussorgsky expressed it. The liquidation of the family estate made it imperative for him to take a paying job; he became a clerk in the Ministry of Communications (1863), being dismissed 4 years later. During this time, he continued to compose, but his lack of technique compelled him time and again to leave his various pieces unfinished. He eagerly sought professional advice from his friends Stasov (for general aesthetics) and Rimsky-Korsakov (for problems of harmony); to the very end of his life, he regarded himself as being only half-educated in music, and constantly acknowledged his inferiority as a craftsman. But he yielded to no one in his firm faith in the future of national Russian music. When a group of composers from Bohemia visited St. Petersburg in 1867, Stasov publ. an article in which he for the first time referred to the “mighty handful of Russian musicians” pursuing the ideal of national art. The expression was picked up derisively by some journalists, but it was accepted as a challenge by Mussorgsky and his comrades-in-arms, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky- Korsakov, the “mighty 5” of Russian music. In 1869 he once more entered government service, this time in the forestry dept. He became addicted to drink, and had epileptic fits; he died a week after his 42nd birthday. The significance of Mussorgsky’s genius did not become apparent until some years after his death. Most of his works were prepared for publication by Rimsky-Korsakov, who corrected some of his harmonic crudities, and reorchestrated the symphonic works. Original versions of his music were preserved in MS, and eventually publ. But despite the availability of the authentic scores, his works continue to be performed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s eds., made familiar to the whole musical world. In his dramatic works, and in his songs, Mussorgsky draws a boldly realistic vocal line, in which inflections of speech are translated into a natural melody. His first attempt in this genre was an unfinished opera, The Marriage, to Gogol’s comedy; here he also demonstrated his penetrating sense of musical humor. His ability to depict tragic moods is revealed in his cycle Songs and Dances of Death; his understanding of intimate poetry is shown in the children’s songs. His greatest work is the opera Boris Godunov (to Pushkin’s tragedy), which has no equal in its stirring portrayal of personal destiny against a background of social upheaval. In it, Mussorgsky created a true national music drama, without a trace of the Italian conventions that had theretofore dominated the operatic works by Russian composers. He wrote no chamber music, perhaps because he lacked the requisite training in contrapuntal technique. Of his piano music, the set of pieces Pictures at an Exhibition (somewhat after the manner of Schumann’s Carnaval) is remarkable for its vivid representation of varied scenes (it was written to commemorate his friend, the painter Victor Hartmann, whose pictures were the subjects of the music); the work became famous in the brilliant orchestration of Ravel. Although Mussorgsky was a Russian national composer, his music influenced many composers outside Russia, and he came to be regarded as the most potent talent of the Russian national school. The paintings of Victor Hartmann that inspired Pictures at an Exhibition were reproduced by Alfred Frankenstein in his article on the subject in the Musical Quarterly (July 1939); he also brought out an illustrated ed. of the work (1951). A collected ed. of Mussorgsky’s works was compiled by P. Lamm (8 vols., Moscow, 1928–34; 1939).

Works:

dramatic: opera :Salammbô (1863–66; unfinished); Zhenitba (The Marriage), comic opera (1868; only Act 1 completed; St. Petersburg, April 1, 1909; completed and orchestrated by A. Tcherepnin; Essen, Sept. 14, 1937); Boris Godunov (1st version, with 7 scenes, 1868–69; Leningrad, Feb. 16, 1928; 2nd version, with prologue and 4 acts, 1871–72, rev. 1873; St. Petersburg, Feb. 8, 1874; rev. and reorchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, 1896; St. Petersburg, Dec. 10, 1896); Khovan-shchina (1872–80; completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov; St. Petersburg, Feb. 21, 1886); Sorochinskaya yarmarka (The Fair at Sorochinsk), comic opera (1874–80; completed by Cui, Liadov, Karatigin, and others; Moscow, Oct. 21, 1913; also arranged and orchestrated by N. Tcherepnin; Monte Carlo, March 17, 1923). O R C H. : Scherzo (1858; St. Petersburg, Jan. 23, 1860; originally for Piano); Alla marcia notturna (1861); Ivanova noch’ na Lisoy gore (A Night on Bald Mountain; 1860–67; reorchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov; St. Petersburg, Oct. 27, 1886); Intermezzo symphonique in modo classico (1867; originally for Piano); Vyzatiye Karsa (The Capture of Kars), march (1880). piano:Porteenseigne polka (1852); Souvenir d’enfance (1857); 2 sonatas (1858; not extant); 2 Scherzos (both 1858); Impromptu passion: Jeux d’enfantsLes Quatre Coins: Ein Kinderscherz (1859; rev. 1860); Allegro and Scherzo for a Sonata for Piano, 4-Hands (1860); Preludio in modo classico (1860; not extant); Intermezzo in modo classico (1860–61; orchestrated 1867; rearranged for Piano, 1867); Menuet monstre (1861; not extant); Iz vospominaniy detstva (From Memories of Childhood; 1865); La Capricieuse (1865); Shveyg (The Seamstress; 1871); Kartinki s vistavki (Pictures at an Exhibition), suite (1874; Promenade; Gnomus; II vecchio castello; Tuileries; Bydlo; Ballet des poussins dans leurs coques; Deux juifs, l’un riche et l’autre pauvre; LimogesLe Marché; Catacombae; Cum mortuis in lingua mortua; La Cabane sur des pattes de poule; La Grande Porte de Kiev; French titles by Mussorgsky; orchestrated by Ravel, 1922); Burya no Chernom more (Storm on the Black Sea; 1879; not extant); Na yuzhnom bere Krima (On the Southern Shore of the Crimea; 1880); Meditation (1880); Une Larme (1880); Au villa (e. 1880); transcriptions of dances from the opera The Fair at Sorochinsk; many fragments from youthful works, etc. vocal: choral:Marsh Shamilya (Shamil’s March) for Tenor, Bass, Chorus, and Orch. (1859); Porazheniye Sennakheriba (The Destruction of Sennacherib) for Chorus and Orch. (St. Petersburg, March 18, 1867; rev. 1874); Hsus Navin (Jesus Navin) for Alto, Bass, Chorus, and Piano (1874–77); 3 vocalises for 3 Women’s Voices (1880); 5 Russian folksongs arranged for 4 Men’s Voices (1880; No. 5 unfinished). Songs: King Saul (1863); Cradle Song (1865); Darling Savishna (1866); The Semi narist (1866); Hopak (1866); On the Dnieper (1879); The Classicist (satirical; 1867); The Garden by the Don (1867); The Nursery, children’s song cycle (1868–72); Rayok (The Peep Show), musical lampoon at assorted contemporaries (1870); Sunless, song cycle (1874); Forgotten (1874); Songs and Dances of Death, cycle of 4 songs (1875–77); Mephistopheles’ Song of the Flea (1879); etc.

Bibliography

V. Stasov, M. (St. Petersburg, 1881); V. Baskin, M. (Moscow, 1887); P. d’Alheim, M. (Paris, 3rd ed., 1896); M. Olenine-d’Alheim, Le Legs de M. (Paris, 1908); M.D. Calvocor-essi, M. (Paris, 1907; 2nd Fr. ed., 1911; Eng. tr., London, 1919); M. Montagu-Nathan, M. (London, 1916); O. von Riesemann, M. (Munich, 1925; Eng. tr., N.Y., 1935); R. Godet, En marge de Boris Godunov (Paris, 1927); K. von Wolfurt, M. (Stuttgart, 1927); I. Glebov, M. (Leningrad, 1928); H. van Dalen, M. (The Hague, 1930); Y. Keldish, Lyricism in M/s Songs (Moscow, 1933); V. Fedorov, M. (Paris, 1935); M. Tibaldi Chiesa, M. (Milan, 1935); C. Barzel, M. (Paris, 1939); G. Orlov, Chronicle of the Life and Works of M. (Moscow, 1940); G. Gavazzeni, M. e la musica russa dell’ 800 (Florence, 1943); M.D. Calvocoressi, M. (completed by G. Abraham, London, 1946; 2nd ed., rev., 1974); J. Leyda and S. Bertensson, eds., The M. Reader (N.Y., 1947); R. Hofmann, M. (Paris, 1952); M.D. Calvocoressi, M. M: His Life and Works (London, 1956; ed. by G. Abraham); V. Serov, M. M. (N.Y., 1968); L. Hübsch, M. M.: Bilder einer Ausstellung (Munich, 1978); R. Oldani, New Pespectives on M/s Boris Godunov (diss., Univ. of Mich., 1978); M. Schandert, Das Problem der originalen Instrumentation des Boris Godunov von M.P. M. (Hamburg, 1979); E. Reilly, A Guide to M.: A Scorography (N.Y., 1980); M. Brown, ed., M.: In Memoriam 1881–1981 (Ann Arbor, 1982); P. Weber-Bockholdt, Die Lieder M.s: Herkunft und Erscheinungsform (Munich, 1982); A. Orlova, M/s Days and Works: A Biography in Documents (Ann Arbor, 1983); C. Emerson, Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1986); S. Neef, Die Russischen Fünf: Balakirew, Borodin, Cui, M., Rimski-Korsakow:Monographien, Dokumente, Briefe, Programme, Werke (Berlin, 1992); M. Russ, M.: Pictures at an Exhibition (Cambridge, 1992); S. Dennerle, ”Bilder einer Ausstellung” von Viktor Hartmann und M. M. als Beispiel für eine integrative ästhetische Erziehung im Musikunterricht der Allgemeinbildenden Schule (Frankfurt am Main, 1993); R. Taruskin, M.: Eight Essays and an Epilogue (Princeton, 1993); J. Batchelor and N. John, eds., Khovanshchina (London, 1994); C. Emerson and R. Oldani, M. M. and Boris Godunov: Myth, Realities, Reconsiderations (Cambridge, 1994); G. Golovinsky, M. i fol’klor (M. and Folklore; Moscow, 1994); W. Karatygin et al, eds., M. M.: Zugänge zu Leben und Werk: Würdigungen, Kritiken, Selbsdarstellungen, Erinnerungen, Polemiken (Berlin, 1995); M. Schultner-Mäder, Die Thematik des Todes in Schaffen M.s (Frankfurt am Main, 1997).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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