Personalities | Modest Mussorgsky | Late Romantic | Classical
(Mod-yest’ Moo-zôrk’-ske) 1839–81
Mussorgsky was the most radical of the Russian composers known as ‘The Five’. Born to a land-owning family, he joined the army in 1856, where he encountered Borodin, then a military doctor, and Cui, who introduced him to Balakirev, with whom he studied. In 1858 he resigned to pursue a musical career, but the Tsar’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861 obliged him to contribute to the family’s welfare and he joined the civil service, composing in his spare time. Often mixing with wild intellectuals, Mussorgsky developed alcoholic tendencies and finally collapsed, shortly after a performance of his choral work The Destruction of Sennacherib (1867) conducted by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov.
Mussorgsky injected a new realism into Russian music, fired by the strong belief that art should be true to life. Rejecting the techniques of Western Romanticism, he forged a daringly original style, raw and often dissonant, evocatively orchestrated as in the tone poem St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (1867). His outstanding vocal and operatic works employ a radical declamatory style based on everyday speech patterns, as in his masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov (1868–73). Boris’s noble soliloquies and the splendid choruses show a concern for the plight of the Russian masses. Another opera, Khovanshchina (‘The Khovansky Affair’, 1873), followed three masterly song cycles: The Nursery (1872), a brilliant depiction of childhood, Sunless (1874) and Songs and Dances of Death (1877), in which the vivid depictive piano parts recall those of his most famous piano work, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, later orchestrated by Ravel among others).
Pictures at an Exhibition, Sviatoslav Richter (Philips/Decca)
Pictures at an Exhibition
Popularized by Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1970s’ synthesizer version, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), originally for piano, is now a favourite concert item in the masterly orchestration by Ravel. Mussorgsky commemorates his artist friend Viktor Hartmann by suggesting his pictures in colourful music.
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