Birthday: March 21, 1839
Died At Age: 42
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky
Born Country: Russia
Born in: Karevo, Russia
Famous as: Composer
father: Pyotr Alexeyevich Mussorgsky
mother: Yulia Ivanovna Chirikova
Died on: March 28, 1881
place of death: Saint Petersburg, Russia
education: Nikolayevskoye Kavaleriyskoye Uchilishche, Saint Peter's School
Who was Modest Mussorgsky?
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was a renowned 19th century Russian composer, one of the members of the group of prominent composers known as "The Five". He was born into a noble family. Following his family tradition, he joined the Imperial Guard at the age of seventeen, but resigned two years later to devote his life to music. By then, he had begun to study music with Balakirev, also becoming close to Stasov, Cesar Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Although he respected western music, his ambition was to achieve a Russian identity and often drew inspiration from Russian history, folklores, and other nationalist themes, slowly evolving an original and bold style. Unfortunately, due to an intense alcohol addiction and recurring nervous breakdowns, he could leave only a small body of work, a few of which were performed in his lifetime. After his death at the age of forty-two, many of his well-meaning friends edited and performed his works and for many years Mussorgsky’s works were known in such edited versions only. Later, many of his important works were discovered in their original form and published in a collected edition in 1928.
Childhood & Early Years
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born on 21 March 1839, in Karevo into a distinguished family that traced its roots to Prince Rurik of the ninth century. But their family name, Mussorgsky, was derived much later from a 15/16 century ancestor, Roman Vasilyevich Monastyryov.
His father, Pyotr Alexeyevich Mussorgsky, was an illegitimate child of a landlord father and a serf mother. Unable to follow his family tradition of military service or inherit family wealth, he initially entered civil service. But once his birth was legitimized, he settled down in the family estate.
His mother, Yulia Ivanovna nee Chirikova, was a trained pianist. The couple had four sons out of which Modest was born the youngest. His first two brothers, both called Alexie, died in infancy. His third and only surviving brother, Filaret Mussorgsky, was three years his senior.
As he turned six, he first started studying piano with his mother. Later, the job was taken up by their German governess, who also supervised their education, which did not go much beyond fluency in German and French.
By the age of seven, Modest began to play small pieces by Franz Liszt. When he was nine years old, he played a grand concerto by John Field in front of house guests.
In August 1849, both Modest and Filaret was sent to St Petersburg to study at the Saint Peters School, an elite German language school popularly known as the Petrischule, to be trained for military service. There, they put up with their family friend, a school inspector.
Modest soon impressed the school inspector with his skill at the piano. His father, who was equally aware of his younger son’s musical talent, employed Anton Gerke, future professor of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, to teach him piano.
In 1851, Modest performed a concerto rondo at the home of a lady-in-waiting. The recital was so brilliant that it delighted Gerke who presented him with a copy of ‘A flat Sonata’ by Beethoven. In the same year, he was transferred to Komorov Preparatory School, where he studied for one year.
In 1852, he entered the Cadet School of the Imperial Guards, instantly becoming very popular with his classmates for his skills in piano. In the same year, he wrote his first composition, ‘Podpraporshchik’ (Porte-Enseigne Polka), which he dedicated to his classmates.
At the Cadet School, he received special privileges, possibly because the director’s daughter was also a student of Gerke, being allowed to continue his piano lessons with him. Nonetheless, it was a tough place for a sensitive boy like him and for quick relief, he soon turned to alcohol.
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In 1856, seventeen-year-old Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky graduated from the Cadet School and following his family tradition, he joined the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment. Since there was no likelihood of any immediate war, he spent his time drinking, dancing and playing cards with other officers of the regiment.
In the winter of 1856, Mussorgsky was introduced to Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky by one of his regimental colleagues. While attending a musical gathering in Dargomyzhsky’s home, he discovered the music of Mikhail Glinka, which awakened in him his love for Russian culture.
Impressed by Mussorgsky’s skill as a pianist, Dargomyzhsky invited him to attend soirees at his home, enabling him to meet several important figures in Russia's cultural life, including Dmitry Stasov (brother of Vladimir Stasov), César Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev. Among them, Balakirev had the greatest impact on him.
Until Mussorgsky met Balakirev sometime in December 1857, he did not know anything other than piano music. Impressed by Mussorgsky’s skill, Balakirev now took it upon himself teach him the basics of composition, also filling in the gaps in his knowledge of music.
By the beginning of 1858, Mussorgsky knew that he must devote his life to music. Accordingly, he resigned from his commission sometime in spring and was discharged on 17 June 1858. Thereafter, he devoted himself to music, initially supported by the family resources.
In July 1858, he traveled to Moscow to attend a wedding. There he began working on a sonata, also completing ‘Scherzo in B flat’. But on his return to St. Petersburg, he succumbed to a strange type of nervous illness, getting better by early autumn.
In May-June 1859, he spent six weeks at Glebeno, an estate near Moscow owned by a rich man called Stepan Shilovsky. While there, he helped in staging Glinka’s opera, ‘A Life for the Tsar’. It not only gained him theatrical experience, but also deepened his knowledge on Glinka.
By the mid of 1859, he was in Moscow, a city that had grown throughout many centuries, having a typically Russian heart. Although he had been there before, this visit was a revelation to him, enhancing his love for the Russian culture and heritage.
Throughout 1859, Mussorgsky continued his lessons with Balakirev, concurrently writing a few original compositions. On 23 January 1860, he had ‘Scherzo in B flat’ performed through the initiative of Dmitry Stasov. Orchestrated with the help of Balakirev and premiered under the baton of Anton Rubinstein, it was a great success.
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Soon after the premiere of ‘Scherzo in B flat’, he had another attack of nervous breakdown. By that time, his poorly administered patrimony had decreased considerably and with the emancipation of serfs in 1861, it was completely lost. He spent 1861-62 in Karevo, trying unsuccessfully to retrieve part of it.
By 1863, he returned to Saint Petersburg and took up a civil service job in the Ministry of Communications. In the same year, his mother gave up their Saint Petersburg home and therefore, he shifted to a group home and started working on his first opera, ‘Salammbô.’
Also from 1863, he became active in 'The Five', a group of five composers that also included Mily Balakirev as their leader, Borodin, César Cuiand, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Sometime now, he started freeing himself from Balakirev’s influence and became more interested in ’realistic’ music that depicted life as it is.
In 1865, his mother passed away, an incident that threw him into an alcoholic bout. As a result, he had to leave the community home, moving in first with his brother and then with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Over a period of time, he picked himself once again, slowly reaching his artistic maturity.
By 1866, Mussorgsky had completed six verses of ‘Salammbô’, a work he had begun in 1863. But very soon, he lost interest in it and like two of his previous operas, ‘Han of Iceland’ (1856) and ‘Oedipus in Athens’ (1858), left it unfinished.
He now concentrated on realistic music, writing a few of his finest songs in 1866. Among them were ‘Darling Savishna’, ‘Hopak’ and ‘The Seminarist’. In the same year, he also started working on ‘The Destruction of Sennacherib’, a choral work based on a text by Lord Byron.
In 1867, he wrote one of his seminal works, a symphonic poem called ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. In the following year, he wrote another of his well-known works, a song cycle titled ‘Detskaya’ (The Nursery), and started working on another opera, ‘Zhenitba’ (The Marriage).
Like his previous attempts, Mussorgsky abandoned ‘Zhenitba’ after completing the first act. Thereafter, he was encouraged to write ‘Boris Godunov’, his only complete opera based on the drama of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin.
Working on it through 1869, he completed the first version of ‘Boris Godunov’ in December. But when he submitted it for theatrical performance, it was rejected by the advisory committee of the imperial theatres for not having a leading female role.
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He then made a thorough revision of the text, adding not only female roles like Marina and Rangoni, but also several new episodes, completing it in 1872. The play was successfully premiered on 27 January 1874, at Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg.
Soon after reaching his peak in 1874, Mussorgsky underwent a period of decline. By then, his alcohol problem had worsened and very soon he began to suffer from ‘fits of madness’, spending a lot of time at a notorious tavern in Saint Petersburg in the company of loafers.
In spite of his alcohol problem and fits, he was able to maintain his civil service job, having a music-loving superior, who treated him compassionately. He also continued to compose, writing several of his well-known works during this last period.
'Pictures at an Exhibition', one of his most famous piano compositions, was written in 1874. During this period, he also wrote another of his masterpieces, a song cycle titled ‘Songs and Dances of Death’, realistically depicting deaths in childhood and youth, during wars and misadventures.
Sometime between 1872 and 1880, he also started working on two operas, ‘Khovanshchina’ and ‘The Fair at Sorochyntsi.’ But when he lost his job in 1880, he became desperate, and in spite of support from his friends, he could not complete them before his death in 1881.
‘Night on Bald Mountain’, an orchestral piece based on a Russian legend about the “black god” who presides over witches' sabbath at Mount Triglav on the night of 23 June, is Mussorgsky’s first major work. The music is very descriptive and ends in a morning chime, signifying the destruction of evils.
’Pictures of Exhibitions’, a suite of ten pieces composed for the piano in 1874, is another of his major works. The work was inspired by an exhibition held in the honor of his recently departed artist friend Victor Hartmann. Each piece in this work illustrates an individual work by Hartman.
’Boris Godunov’, his only completed opera, composed between 1868 and 1873, is considered one of his masterpieces. The libretto, written by composer himself, was initially based on a drama by Aleksandr Pushkin. Later, it was revised according to ‘History of the Russian State’ by Nikolay Karamzin.
Personal Life & Legacy
Modest Mussorgsky remained a bachelor all his life. He took to drinking while he was studying at the Cadet School in his early teens. But it was in 1865, on the death of his mother, that he suffered his first bout of alcoholism.
His alcohol problem became worse in 1872 after Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he shared a small apartment, got married and moved away. Left alone, he began to drink excessively, often suffering from fits.
For a while, he found companionship in Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a distant relative and a poet. But when he too got married, Mussorgsky’s life became dominated by alcohol. By early 1881, his condition had become such that he told a friend that there was nothing left except begging.
On 24 February 1881, after he had suffered three consecutive attacks of alcoholic epilepsy, he was admitted to the hospital. He died there on 28 March 1881, at the age of forty-two. He was buried at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg.