top of page

Modest Mussorgsky

1839 - 1881

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (21 March [O.S. 9 March] 1839 – 28 March [O.S. 16 March] 1881) was a Russian composer, one of the group known as "The Five". He was an innovator of Russian music in the romantic period. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, often in deliberate defiance of the established conventions of Western music.

Many of his works were inspired by Russian historyRussian folklore, and other nationalist themes. Such works include the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.

For many years Mussorgsky's works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers. Many of his most important compositions have posthumously come into their own in their original forms, and some of the original scores are now also available.

(b. Karevo, March 21, 1839; d. St. Petersburg, March 28, 1881)

Russian composer. Though sometimes crude in execution—and handicapped by his addiction to alcohol—Mussorgsky was an innovator of the first magnitude, with a profoundly original musical imagination and remarkably prescient notions of harmonic function and musical structure. His major accomplishments were in opera and song, where his interest in capturing the inflections of spoken Russian contributed to the emergence of a musical idiom unlike any other. Yet his sizable reputation rests on just a handful of works, only a few of them authentic.

Mussorgsky grew up on his well-to-do family’s lakeside estate, about 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. He started piano lessons with his mother when he was six, performed at nine (a Field concerto, at home), and the next year was taken to St. Petersburg, where he spent two years in a private school for children of the gentry. In 1852 the teenager enrolled in the Cadet School of the Guards to train for a military career. He continued piano lessons for a couple more years, developing into a capable performer with no more than a dilettante’s knowledge of theory. He graduated in 1856 with a commission as an officer in the Russian Imperial Guard, and joined the tsar’s personal regiment. That fall he met Aleksandr Borodin, who came away with the impression of a dashing young officer who already had a way with the ladies. A few months later he met Aleksandr Dargo-mizhsky, through whom he soon became acquainted with Cesar Cui, Mily Balakirev, and the critic Vladimir Stasov. In December 1857 he began composition lessons with Balakirev, concentrating on the analysis of scores by Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and others.

Mussorgsky resigned his commission in 1858, in the midst of what appears to have been a nervous breakdown, and decided to devote himself fully to music. His emotional problems continued on and off for several more years; in 1861 he broke with Balakirev and began teaching himself composition through exercises and transcriptions.

The emancipation of the serfs that same year brought Mussorgsky’s family to the brink of financial ruin. The aspiring composer spent most of the next year on the estate trying to stabilize things. To support himself he moved to St. Petersburg and entered the civil service in 1863; he began to have problems with alcohol around 1865. In 1867 he finished his first significant orchestral composition, a tone poem he described as “hot and chaotic,” called St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain (in English usually shortened to Night on Bald [sometimes Bare] Mountain). He hoped Balakirev would conduct it, but his former mentor wanted changes to the score that Mussorgsky refused to make, and the work went unperformed. (The same year, following a concert given for a pan-Slavic congress in St. Petersburg, Stasov coined the term “Mighty Handful,” a.k.a. The Five, to refer to the Balakirev circle, which included Mussorgsky and another newfound friend, Rimsky-Korsakov.) Annoyed that Balakirev was blocking his way as an orchestral composer, Mussorgsky busied himself with some songs and a preliminary effort to set Nikolay Gogol’s The Marriage, trying for the first time to develop a style of operatic declamation based on speech rhythms and inflection. He composed several scenes before abandoning the project and turning to what would be the most important undertaking of his career, a setting of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Boris Godunov.

He had just begun it when he got ajob in the Forestry Department of the Ministry of State Property, early in 1869. For the next 11 years he would hold clerical jobs that paid increasingly well and left ample time for composition. This newfound stability helped Mussorgsky make rapid progress on Boris. The first version (seven scenes), completed by the end of 1869, was set in declamatory style. It was rejected just over a year later by the Mariinsky Theater on the grounds that it lacked a leading female role. Mussorgsky began a revision at once. Whereas his first version had been faithful to Pushkin, the second (in a prologue and four acts) was looser, more operatic, and included scenic elements not in Pushkin, as well as the added love interest. The composer finished this version in 1872 (at the time, he and Rimsky-Korsakov were living together as roommates). The Mariinsky eventually accepted the work and it received its premiere, heavily cut, in 1874.

“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.” 
                                                                                       Modest Mussorgsky


Key Works

Pictures at an Exhibition (original piano version)

Modest Mussorgsky / Maurice Ravel - Pictures at an Exhibition

0:00 I. Promenade 
1:41 II. Gnomus 
4:15 III. Promenade 
5:14 IV. Il vecchio castello 
9:37 V. Promenade 
10:11 VI. Tuileries 
11:14 VII. Bydło 
14:13 VIII. Promenade 
14:57 IX. Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks 
16:16 X. "Samuel" Goldenberg und "Schmuÿle" 
18:17 XI. Limoges, le marché 
19:46 XII. Catacombæ (Sepulcrum romanum) and "Cum mortuis in lingua mortua" 
23:29 XIII. The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yagá) 
27:06 XIV. The Great Gate of Kiev 

Night On Bald Mountain

Khovanshchina - Dance of the Persian Slaves

Songs and Dances of Death

Lullaby 0:00
Serenade 5:43
Trepak 10:34
The Field Marshall 16:25

"Boris Godounov", Opéra en un prologue et quatre actes
- Prologue et Acte I

Boris Godounov, Acte II

 Boris Godounov, Acte III

Boris Godounov, Acte IV, 4/4

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, 1870

The completion of the second version of Boris was followed by a long period of frequently interrupted work on another
historically themed opera, Khovanshchina. By the summer of 1873 Mussorgsky was again having drinking problems. In 1874 he composed his grandly imaginative suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, a tribute to a close friend, the recently deceased painter Victor Hartmann. The next year he began work on his most important song cycle, Songs and Dances of Death for bass and piano, and in 1876, having already reworked Night on Bald Mountain to include a “demonic chorus,” he revised it yet again for use in an operatic setting of Gogol’s short story Sorochintsy Fair—one of many instances in which he threw recycled material into a compositional breach.

Heavy drinking disrupted Mussorgsky’s life again in 1878, and within two years he was dismissed from government service. Two groups of friends offered him stipends, one on the condition that he finish Khovanshchina, the other on the condition that he finish Sorochintsy Fair. He completed neither. In early 1881 he suffered alcoholic seizures and was taken to a military hospital, where he spent his last month, dying a week after turning 42. A portrait painted by Ilya Repin just before the end shows the composer in his dressing gown, hair unkempt, nose reddened, a crazed look in his eyes.

At his death Mussorgsky left an oeuvre in disarray, having published little besides a handful of songs and the vocal score to Boris Godunov. It is rare today that a piece of his is heard as he wrote it. What looms largest in the repertoire are posthumous editions of his work, much of it tidied up and “corrected” by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Songs and Dances of Death appeared in 1882, edited by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Khovanshchina was completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1883. (Ravel and Stravinsky would team up on a new version of Khovanshchina in 1913, and Shostakovich would try his hand in 1958-59, the version prefered today.) Rimsky’s edition of Night on Bald Mountain was brought out in 1886. Mussorgsky’s original version—the one Balakirev would not perform—was indeed flawed: a disheveled clump of gestures with no convincing line of action. Rimsky based his edition on Mussorgsky’s final version, the one for Sorochintsy Fair, eschewing the choral parts and making flamboyant use of his skills as an orchestra-tor, he created what amounted to a new work.


Most striking was Rimsky’s complete refashioning of Boris Godunov, undertaken in spite of the fact that Mussorgsky had left not one but two finished versions of the opera. Between 1892 and 1907, Rimsky reorchestrated, reharmonized, cut, and revised the score numerous times, arriving finally at the version that was used by Sergey Diaghilev in his Paris production of 1908. This was considered the “standard” version of the score until the 1980s, when Mussorgsky’s 1872 version began a comeback. Pictures at an Exhibition, never intended as an orchestral piece, is now best known in that form thanks to Ravel’s splendid 1922 orchestration, one of more than 20 such treatments of the piece.

Mussorgsky held a utilitarian view of art and believed that its essential purpose was to communicate truth, although his focus in opera shifted from naturalistic modes of declamation to a more conventional approach that allowed some artifice. Because he was largely self-taught and developed a quirky idiom, he was dismissed by many (but not all) of his contemporaries as an idiot savant. That perception yielded in the 20th century to the recognition that Mussorgsky possessed a powerful intellect and was keenly aware of his surroundings—attuned to the innovations of Liszt and Wagner, and able to adapt the scenic and dramatic strategies of Meyerbeer and Verdi to his chosen material. He made his own notable innovations, concentrating in typically Russian fashion on the bold dramatic possibilities inherent in tableau structure, while tapping into the continuous, dynamic development of character and plot across individual acts that is characteristic of Western opera. Boris Godunov, in particular, exerted a powerful influence on 20th-century Russian composers—including Shostakovich and Prokofiev—as well as on Debussy, Ravel, Janacek, and Britten.

With the 20th century also came new appreciation for the modernity of Mussorgsky’s idiom—the side-slipping progressions that weaken the bonds of tonality, the distinctive use of modes and scales, and the prevalence of tritone relationships. As much as his novel harmonic language, what made Mussorgsky a protomodernist was his pessimistic view of human nature, his interest in isolated individuals with complex characters and motives, caught in the grip of political forces. To these characters and their situations he brought penetrating psychological insights, conveying “truth” with vivid imagination.

Grave of Modest Mussorgsky in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg

bottom of page