Composer. He was the unruly genius of "The Five", a group of Russian composers whose goal was to stress their national heritage in their music, and Russian themes dominate his work. The opera "Boris Godunov" (1874), based on the reign of the 17th Century Czar, stands as his masterpiece. His orchestral tone poem "Night on Bald Mountain" (1867) and the piano suite "Pictures at an Exhibition" (1874) are also favorites of the classical repertory, while his art songs rank among the finest in any language. Mussorgsky's daring sense of harmony and approach to word-setting were decades ahead of their time and proved more influential in the 20th Century than in his own. Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, near Pskov, into a prosperous gentry family of serf origin. He received his first piano lessons from his mother and at age nine was able to perform a John Field concerto in public, but his father had a military career planned for him. After training at the Imperial Guards Cadet School in St. Petersburg (1852 to 1856) he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the elite Preobrazhensky Guards. Mussorgsky's brilliance as a pianist and singer made the rounds of local salons and brought him friendships with the other future members of "The Five", Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cesar Cui, as well as that of pioneer nationalist composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky. They encouraged his early efforts at composition and in 1858 he resigned from the army to devote himself to music, with Balakirev as mentor and teacher. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 brought about the loss of his family's estate and two years later he settled in St. Petersburg as a minor civil servant, first with the Ministry of Communications and later with the Forestry Department. From the mid-1860s Mussorgsky emerged as an important composer with art songs (many to his own texts) that revealed a unique gift for capturing the inflections of everyday Russian speech. As the lone country boy among "The Five" he was exposed to folk music from childhood, and his whole creative approach - literary and philosophical as well as musical - was saturated in the earthy directness of peasant culture. This was criticized as crudeness and even incompetence by his colleagues, and his unschooled technique left him vulnerable to such charges. "Five" leader Balakirev, frustrated with Mussorgsky's independent thinking, refused to use his influence as a conductor to have "Night on Bald Mountain" performed, with the result that it would not be premiered until after Mussorgsky's death. He abandoned two opera projects of this period, "Salammbo" and "The Marriage", but the practical experience they provided gave him the confidence to tackle "Boris Godunov". Basing his libretto on a play by Pushkin with additional material drawn from Karamzin's "History of the Russian State", Mussorgsky completed the first version of "Boris" in December 1869. The following year it was rejected by the Maryinsky Theatre, though its selection committee suggested it could be staged with the addition of a prima donna role. Fired with new enthusiasm, the composer went beyond the committee's recommendation and completely revised the opera, expanding it from a fairly intimate psychological tragedy into an epic; this new version was finished in 1872. The long-held claim that the Maryinsky rejected "Boris" a second time has been disputed by modern historians, though Mussorgsky's friends were anxious enough about its acceptance to arrange a concert performance of excerpts in 1873. The piano-vocal score was published in January 1874. Nothing could have prepared St. Petersburg audiences for the dark power, realism and unorthodoxy of this music drama. In his portrait of the guilt-ridden Boris and his ability to individualize characters against a broad backdrop, Mussorgsky showed himself to be a dramatist of the first order. The vocal line aimed at the naturalness of speech with an innovative synthesis of melodic arioso and recitative; the orchestral accompaniment avoids showy effects and is always subservient to the text. The chorus took on an unprecedented importance. "I regard the people as a great being, inspired by a single idea", Mussorgsky wrote at the top of the score, and for many the "hero" of the opera is the poor Russian populace, chafing under oppression and finally driven by famine into a revolutionary fury. The premiere of "Boris Godunov" at the Maryinsky on January 27, 1874 was a great popular success. The composer took 20 curtain calls and news of the event made his name known throughout the Russian arts community. But the critics (even his friend Cui) were savage and it would not make his fortune. Rumors circulated that the Imperial Family were disturbed by the opera's subject matter, and there is little else to explain why the much-discussed "Boris" received only 21 performances - in heavily cut versions - during Mussorgsky's lifetime. (After the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 it was withdrawn from the Imperial repertory). At any rate, it is hard to imagine that even an international success would have saved him from decline at that point. There are large gaps in our knowledge of Mussorgsky's personal life but the overall picture is that of a misunderstood artist devoured by his demons. He suffered at least two nervous breakdowns as a young adult and was later considered an eccentric. (In their correspondence Balakirev and critic Vladimir Stasov referred to him as "almost an idiot"). His temperament and work habits were erratic; he confidently started many projects only to abandon most of them amidst self-doubt over his technical abilities. Too well-known, perhaps, because it proved so tragic, was Mussorgsky's alcoholism. Having acquired a fondness for liquor in the army, he went on his first binge after the death of his mother in 1865 and from then on his drinking grew increasingly self-destructive. By the time of "Boris" he was a familiar sight in St. Petersburg, a portly man whose elegant manner was offset by a brick-red drinker's nose. Until the late 1870s he managed to control his addiction for extended periods, enabling him to complete not only the mammoth revisions for "Boris" but also "Pictures at an Exhibition" and the great song cycles "The Nursery" (1870), "Sunless" (1874), and "Songs and Dances of Death" (1877). As his most popular work, "Pictures" deserves additional mention. In 1873 Mussorgsky's close friend Viktor Hartmann, a nationalist architect and painter, died suddenly at age 39. The following year Mussorgsky attended a memorial exhibition in his honor and was so moved by the experience he wrote the piano suite in about three weeks. It describes 10 Hartmann artworks on display, including the lugubrious progress of an oxcart in "Bydlo", the witty "Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells", and the terrifying "The Hut on Fowl's Legs". The linking "Promenade" theme is a musical self-portrait of the composer as he strolls from one picture to another, varying in mood as he reflects on what he has seen and remembers his friend. It is incorporated into the spectacular concluding number, "The Great Gate of Kiev", uniting the two artists in a tribute to their shared ideals. A common criticism of "Pictures" is that much of the piano writing isn't very idiomatic, and it may have been such judgements that led Mussorgsky to bury the manuscript in a drawer after a few private performances. The almost suicidal bleakness of "Sunless" and "Songs and Dances of Death" - in which he sought to depict "nothing but feeling" - are seen as indicative of his deteriorating emotional state. In July 1879, the Forestry Department granted him a three-month leave of absence so he could tour southern Russia as piano accompanist to singer Daria Leonova. During that time he wrote his last and best known song, "The Song of the Flea" from Goethe's "Faust", which showed that his creative powers were undiminished. But the tour was a financial disappointment and after returning to St. Petersburg Mussorgsky's drinking spiralled out of control. He was finally dismissed from government service in 1880 and evicted from the shabby room where he was living. Friends raised funds so he could continue work on two new operas that had occupied him since "Boris", "Khovanshchina" and "Sorochinsky Fair"; he spent the money on drink and neither opera was completed (though he came close with "Khovanshchina"). In February 1881, declaring there was "nothing left to do but beg in the streets", he collapsed at Leonova's home and was taken to the Imperial Military Hospital. Alcoholic epilepsy and a myriad of other ailments were diagnosed. Mussorgsky's physician told Balakirev, "He could live for a year or more, or he could die today, right now. It's impossible to tell, especially if he drinks again". Despite the prognosis he appeared to rally, and in the first week of March he sat for his portrait by painter Ilya Repin. It depicts a desolate man at the end of his tether, an unnerving contrast to the dandyish figure he cut in his earlier photographs. Shortly after his 42nd birthday, Mussorgsky used a cash gift to bribe a hospital orderly into smuggling him a bottle of brandy. Consuming it brought on a paralytic stroke and he died soon afterwards, crying out "This is the end! Woe to me!" He was buried at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery's Tikhvin Cemetery, where the other members of "The Five" would eventually join him. At his death his manuscripts were left in a chaotic state and Rimsky-Korsakov assumed the task of editing the substantial works for publication and performance, including "Night on Bald Mountain", "Pictures at an Exhibition", "Khovanshchina" (all premiered in 1886), and "Boris Godunov" (two editions, 1896 and 1908). While he did this as a labor of love for his late friend, Rimsky's revisions took liberties with the material to the point of seriously misrepresenting the composer's intentions. It was through his lush and harmonically smoothed-over arrangements that Mussorgsky's music first became known outside of Russia, beginning with Serge Diaghilev's landmark 1908 Paris production of "Boris", and this set a precedent for further adaptations. "Pictures at an Exhibition", for instance, remains better known today in its 1922 orchestral transcription by Maurice Ravel. "Night on Bald Mountain" was introduced to a wide new audience courtesy of Walt Disney, who used the piece (rearranged by Stokowski) for a segment of his animated feature "Fantasia" (1940). The first scholarly edition of Mussorgsky's work appeared in the USSR in 1928 but five decades would pass before his raw originals really began to compete with the more refined versions of others. His influence continued well into the 1900s, through Debussy (who studied the vocal score of "Boris" before writing his own groundbreaking opera "Pelleas et Melisande"), Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and many Soviet-era composers, principally Shostakovich.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards