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: Boris Godunov / Kocherga, Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic
Release Date: 03/02/2018   Label: Sony  
Catalog: 19075811172   Number of Discs: 3
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Liszt: Piano Concerto No 1
Release Date: 09/30/2008   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8570716   Number of Discs: 1
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Scriabin, Mussorgsky / Alessio Bax
Release Date: 09/11/2015   Label: Signum Classics  
Catalog: 426   Number of Discs: 1
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition / John Browning
Release Date: 12/14/1992   Label: Delos  
Catalog: 1008   Number of Discs: 1
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Heaven And Hell - Macal Conducts Mussorgsky / New Jersey
Release Date: 05/22/1997   Label: Delos  
Catalog: 3217   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Khovanshchina: Dawn on the Moscow River

About This Work
While not utterly incomprehensible, the task of explaining the compositional history of Khovanshchina is blessedly beyond the scope of this article. Left unfinished at his death as a mass of disorderly manuscripts, Khovanshchina resists comprehension Read more either as a drama, an opera or even a piece of music. It also resisted successful completion: after Mussorgsky's death in 1882, his friend Rimsky-Korsakov tried to put his manuscripts in order and to create a performing edition of Khovanshchina. Part of this task, the least part of this impossible task, was the opera's orchestration, including its prelude, called Dawn on the Muscovy River.

The curtain rises during the prelude to reveal the pre-dawn city of Moscow at the end of the seventeenth century, the period which marks the rise of Peter the Great. Mussorgsky had left only indications as to how the scoring was to be handled, and Rimsky understandably chose to orchestrate it in his own manner. One might not think that this would make an enormous difference in the essence of the music. But, to a surprising extent, Dawn on the Muscovy River is orchestral in its essence, and Rimsky's orchestration, with its bright woodwinds and light basses, with its tempo rubato and its languorous tempo, makes the work seem more like a pastoral than a city scene, more like a light elegy than the prelude to a historical tragedy which would end with the deaths of many of the characters and the mass self-immolation of most of the rest.

Although Rimsky did succeed in creating a performing edition of the Khovanshchina and of the prelude, much of Mussorgsky's essence was lost in the recomposition.

-- James Leonard
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