Personalities | Modest Mussorgsky | High Romantic | Opera

1839–81, Russian

Modest Mussorgsky was born in to a family of aristocratic landowners – a status in life that afforded him both luxury and leisure. His musical talent was evident from an early age. Taught at first by his mother and his governess, Mussorgsky could play concertos by John Field (1782–1837) at the age of nine. At age 10, his parents engaged the pianist Anton Herke as his music teacher.

Army Life

It was not intended, though, that this should lead to a musical career. Patronage of the arts barely existed in Russia and composers, even those of aristocratic birth, usually followed other careers, with music as a sideline. César Cui studied engineering. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer and Borodin was a medical army officer. Mussorgsky was destined for the military and at 13 entered the School of Guards in St Petersburg as a cadet. It was here that he began writing music.

In 1856, Mussorgsky received an officer’s commission in the crack Preobrajzensky Regiment. Around this time he met Borodin, who was impressed by Mussorgsky’s talent and creativity. In 1857 Mussorgsky also encountered Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and another Russian composer, Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837–1910). Together with Borodin, these four made up what the champion of Russian national music, Vladimir Stasov (1824–1906), called the ‘Mighty Handful’ of composers (or ‘The Five’), who were destined to give Russian music its own identity. All were amateurs, all were patriots and they all longed to represent the history and people of Russia in music.

Alcoholism and Bankruptcy

However, for Mussorgsky, disaster intervened. By 1858, when he abandoned his military career in favour of a musical one, he was well on the way to becoming an alcoholic. In 1861, the tsar’s emancipation of the Russian serfs drove his family into bankruptcy and Mussorgsky was obliged to take a lowly job as a government clerk. Despite these tribulations, Mussorgsky continued to compose, but he was hampered by his lack of musical education. He started several works, only to leave them unfinished. One of them, Oedipus in Athens (1858–60) survived as only one scene. Another, The Marriage (1868) never got beyond its first act.

Completed Masterpiece

Shortly after The Marriage was abandoned, however, Mussorgsky produced his masterpiece, Boris Godunov, which was based on a play written in 1825 by Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837). This illustrated the life of Tsar Boris Godunov, whose reign cast Russia into chaos. The opera employed Mussorgsky’s radical declamatory style based on everyday speech patterns, and Boris’s soliloquies and choruses show concern for the Russian masses. Mussorgsky completed the work in 1869, but came under fire from other members of ‘The Five’. Cui, for instance, attacked the opera as immature and lacking in technique. Several revisions were required before Boris was accepted by the opera house in St Petersburg, where it was performed in 1874.

Dissolute Demise

In 1872 Mussorgsky, who eked out a bare existence through occasional engagements as a pianist, had begun work on another...

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