Modest Mussorgsky


Born: Mar 21, 1839; Russia   Died: Mar 28, 1881; Russia   Period: Romantic
His musical education was erratic, he toiled as a civil servant and wrote music only part-time, influenced few if any of his contemporaries, died early from alcoholism, and left a small body of work. Yet Modest Mussorgsky was a towering figure in nineteenth century Russian music. His works exhibit a daring, raw individuality, a unique sound that well-meaning associates tried to conventionalize and smooth over. He is best known for Night on Bald Read more Mountain (bowdlerized by Rimsky-Korsakov), Pictures at an Exhibition (a difficult piano suite orchestrated by Ravel), and the dark, declamatory opera Boris Godunov (polished by Rimsky-Korsakov) -- bastardized works all, yet each one full of arresting harmonies, disturbing colors, and grim celebrations of Russian nationalism.
Mussorgsky died in poverty, but he was born to a wealthy landowning family. Under his mother's tutelage, he developed a facility at the piano, but entered a cadet school in preparation for a military career. He joined a choir and discovered Russian church music, which would profoundly influence his later work.
Upon graduation in 1856, Mussorgsky entered the Russian Imperial Guard. That year he started to socialize with the composers Dargomizhsky and Cui, and through them Balakirev, with whom he began composition lessons. During this period he wrote small piano pieces and songs, and after an emotional crisis in 1858 resigned his commission with the intention of composing full-time. He began to go his own way as a composer in 1861, but was preoccupied helping to manage his family's estate. The decline in his family's fortunes led him to accept low-level civil service positions. He joined a commune with other intellectuals and became a proponent of musical Realism, applying the style to his songs. He had difficulty finishing works in larger formats, but his music circulated widely enough that by the late 1860s he was cast with Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin as part of Russia's "Mighty Handful."
Mussorgsky toiled many years at his masterpiece, Boris Godunov, which reflected in music the inflections of Russian speech and met with great success in 1874. That year he also produced his innovative piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet his heavy drinking led to his dismissal from government service in 1880. Friends offered some financial help and Mussorgsky occasionally accompanied singers at the piano, but his finances and mental state quickly deteriorated. He died in 1881, leaving it to posterity to sort through and complete his unfinished works of unruly genius. Read less
Mussorgsky Edition
Release Date: 09/24/2013   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94670   Number of Discs: 14
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Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition / Gergiev
Release Date: 02/10/2015   Label: Mariinsky  
Catalog: 553   Number of Discs: 1
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Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Schumann: Fantasie / Paul Lewis
Release Date: 01/13/2015   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 902096   Number of Discs: 1
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition, Night On The Bare Mountain, Etc / Ponti, Et Al
Release Date: 11/18/2008   Label: Pentatone  
Catalog: 5186332   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Etudes Tableaux;  Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition / Sa Chen
Release Date: 08/25/2009   Label: Pentatone  
Catalog: 5186355   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Boris Godunov


About This Work
The idea to re-cast Alexander Pushkin's verse play Boris Godunov as an opera was suggested to Modest Mussorgsky by history professor Vladimir Nikolsky during a visit to Ludmila Shestakova's home in St. Petersburg. Shestakova sent Mussorgsky a copy of Read more the play, which he'd adapt by the fall of 1868. The first version of Boris Godunov was composed between October 1868 and July 1869, with the orchestration done by December. Mussorgsky submitted the score of Boris to the Imperial Directorate of Theaters, which in February 1871 rejected the work. The Directorate's grounds for dismissing Boris Godunov had little to do with the revolutionary style of the opera; rather it was the lack of a central female character that was their primary concern. The Directorate recognized Mussorgsky's talent, and offered to reconsider provided an additional scene was added. Mussorgsky took this news with encouragement, and launched into a major overhaul of the opera, reaching far beyond what was required. He trimmed scenes, such as the one in Pimen's cell, and added others, including the scene in the Kromy forest, added dances, and added the role of Marina Mnishek. This version of the opera was accepted after a trial run of three scenes at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in December 1873. Boris Godunov premiered under Nápravnik at the Mariinsky in January 1874.

Boris Godunov was an unqualified success with the Russian public from the first. It was revived five times by 1882 for a total of 22 performances, unheard of for a native Russian opera. Boris Godunov has gone on to become the most popular of all Russian operas. Internationally, the version made by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov earned this popularity through a luxuriant re-scoring of Mussorgsky's deliberately gritty orchestral textures. Hardly had the newer version begun to play the capitals of Europe before the call went out among critics to revive Mussorgsky's "original version." The problem is that there are two "original" versions that are distinctly different from one another. Starting in the 1970s, various combinations of the two became the standard for Boris, based on David Lloyd-Jones' 1975 critical edition that prints both operas side-by-side. Any combination of the 1869 and 1872 versions of Boris Godunov makes a muddle of the scenario; the 1869 version is tightly constructed in four "parts," totaling just seven scenes. It is bleak in tone and resembles Bertolt Brecht's alienist theater of the 1920s more than it does nineteenth-century opera. Boris is made more of an obvious villain in the first version than in the revision, which leaves that question open-ended. The 1872 version is also more expansive, laid out in four acts and a prologue, scenes run longer, and the edge of 1869 is softened somewhat. It wasn't until 1998 that a recording of the two versions of Boris were issued together within a single unit, and in practice the general consensus has become that one or the other Boris Godunov should be chosen when the "original" Mussorgsky score is presented.

-- Uncle Dave Lewis
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