Modest Mussorgsky

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Mussorgsky, Modest Petrovich


Born Mar 9 (21), 1839, in the village of Karevo, now in Kun’ia Raion, Pskov Oblast’; died Mar. 16 (28), 1881, in St. Petersburg. Russian composer. Member of the Russian Five.

Mussorgsky spent his childhood on his parents’ estate. In his autobiography he wrote: “an acquaintance with the spirit of the life of the people was the principal impetus behind my musical improvisations even before I learned the most elementary rules of playing the piano.” When he was six years old, Mussorgsky began to study music under the guidance of his mother. In 1849 he enrolled in the Peter and Paul School in St. Petersburg, and from 1852 to 1856 he studied at the Cadet School of the Guards. At the same time, he took music lessons from the pianist A. A. Herke. In 1852 his first composition was published—”The Cadet,” a polka for piano.

In 1856–57, Mussorgsky became acquainted with A. S. Dargomyzhskii, V. V. Stasov, and M. A. Balakirev, who profoundly influenced his general and musical development. Under Balakirev’s guidance he began to study composition seriously. Deciding to devote his life to music, he retired from military service in 1858. In the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, Mussorgsky wrote a number of art songs and instrumental works that revealed the special features of his creative individuality. From 1863 to 1866 he worked on the opera Salammbô (based on Flaubert’s novel; unfinished), which was outstanding for the dramatic quality of its mass scenes drawn from the life of the people.

By the mid-1860’s, Mussorgsky had developed a realistic world view close to the ideas of the revolutionary democrats. Addressing himself to current, socially relevant subject matter from the life of the people, he created songs and art songs based on words by N. A. Nekrasov, T. G. Shevchenko, and A. N. Ostrovskii, as well as on his own texts (for example, “Kali-stratushka,” “Eremushka’s Lullaby,” “Peasant’s Lullaby,” “The Orphan,” and “The Seminarist”). These works revealed his gift for portraying everyday life, as well as his ability to create vividly characteristic human figures. A rich, lush tone color distinguishes the symphonic picture Night on Bald Mountain (1867), which was inspired by folk tales and legends. The unfinished opera The Marriage (1868, based on the unaltered text of N. V. Gogol’s comedy) was a bold experiment in which the vocal parts were based on the direct re-creation of the intonations of human speech.

All of these works may be regarded as preparation for the creation of one of Mussorgsky’s greatest works—the opera Boris Godunov (based on the tragedy by A. S. Pushkin). The original version of it (1869) was not accepted for staging by the management of the imperial theaters. A revised, drastically cut version was produced at the Mariinskii Theater in 1874. During the 1870’s, Mussorgsky worked on Khovanshchina, a grandly conceived “folk musical drama” about the revolts of the strel’tsy (semiprofessional musketeers) at the end of the 17th century (libretto by the composer; begun in 1872). The idea for the work was suggested to the composer by V. V. Stasov. From 1874 to 1880, Mussorgsky also worked on the comic opera Sorochintsy Fair, which was based on a short story by Gogol. At the same time, he created many other works, including the song cycles Sunless (1874) and Songs and Dances of Death (1875–77) and the piano suite Pictures From an Exhibition (1874).

During the last years of his life Mussorgsky suffered from deep depression, caused by lack of public recognition of his creative art, loneliness, and day-to-day and financial hardships. He died in poverty at the Nikolaevskii Military Hospital. Khovanshchina, which he left unfinished, was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov. A. K. Liadov, and C. A. Cui were among those who worked to complete Sorochintsy Fair. In 1896, Rimsky-Korsakov finished a new version of Boris Godunov. During the Soviet period D. D. Shostakovich completed another revision and reorchestration of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina (1959). A variant of Sorochintsy Fair was written by V. Ia. Shebalin (1930).

A great humanist, democrat, and lover of truth and justice, Mussorgsky wished to serve the people with his creative work. He presented sharp social conflicts very forcefully and created powerful images of the people rising up and fighting for their rights. However, he was also an astute psychologist gifted with profound knowledge of the human soul. In the musical dramas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina unusually dynamic, colorful mass scenes of popular life are combined with portrayals of the diversity of individual traits and presentations of the psychological profundity and complexity of individual characters. In subject matter drawn from the Russian past, Mussorgsky sought an answer to the burning questions of his own time. While working on Khovanshchina, he wrote to Stasov: “The past in the present —this is my task.” Even in his lesser works, Mussorgsky proved himself to be a dramatist of genius. Some of his songs are brief dramatic scenes that focus on a vital, three-dimensional human character. By paying attention to the intonations of human speech as well as to the melody of Russian folk songs, Mussorgsky created a profoundly original, expressive musical idiom distinguished by its sharp, realistic characterization, as well as by the refinement and complexity of its psychological nuances. His creative art greatly influenced many composers, including S. S. Prokofiev, D. D. Shostakovich, L. Janaček, and C. Debussy.


Literaturnoe nasledie. Compiled by A. A. Orlova and M. S. Pekelis [books 1–2]. Moscow, 1971–72.


Stasov, V. V. Sobranie statei o Musorgskom i ego proizvedeniiakh. Moscow-Petrograd, 1922.
Musorgskii. [Stat’iiissledovaniia], vol. 1: Boris Godunov. Moscow, 1930.
M. P. Musorgskii: K 50-Ietiu so dnia smerti: Stat’i i materialy. Moscow, 1932. (Contains a bibliography.)
Tumanina, N. M. P. Musorgskii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1939.
Asaf’ev, B. V. Izbr. trudy, vol. 3. Moscow, 1954.
Orlova, A. Trudy i dni M. P. Musorgskogo: Letopis’zhizni i tvorchestva. Moscow, 1963.
Khubov, G. Musorgskii. Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) has been an excellent work for the recording medium because it so easily demonstrates what most music lovers and hi-fi buffs alike appreciate most.
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Among the favorites were La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini, which was staged 162 times during the year; Cosi fan Tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a comic opera; and Boris Godunov, the dramatic opera by Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky. In addition to these opera classics, American audiences were offered a number of new works, including The Wife of Martin Guerre by William Bergsma; The Trial at Rouen by Norman Dello Joio; Images of Youth by Felix Labunski; The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore by Gian-Carlo Menotti; and The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore.
Other acclaimed recordings include the Mahler symphonies 1 and 5, works by Delius and Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.