Modest Mussorgsky

Biography

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: Pictures At An Exhibition; Ravel: Daphnis Et Chloe, La Valse / Casadesus
Release Date: 05/10/2011   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28180   Number of Discs: 1
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Brilliant Opera Collection - Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov / Dobrowen, Christoff
Release Date: 07/13/2010   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 93926   Number of Discs: 3
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Mussorgsky: Khovanshchina / Margaritov, Ghiuselev, Petkov, Kostov, Bodourov
Release Date: 09/27/2011   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94255   Number of Discs: 3
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Schumann: Kinderszenen / Gavrylyuk
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Pan Classics  
Catalog: 63   Number of Discs: 1
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition; Scriabin, Beethoven / Federico Colli
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Champs Hill Records  
Catalog: 79   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Night on the Bare Mountain

 

About This Work
In a July 5, 1867 letter to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky wrote "(I have) finished St. John's Night on Bald Mountain, a musical picture with the following program: (1) assembly of the witches, their chatter and gossip; (2) cortege Read more of Satan; (3) unholy gratification of Satan; and (4) witches' sabbath." Mussorgsky proclaims "in form and character my composition is Russian and original. Its tone is hot and chaotic.... St. John's Night is something new and is bound to produce a satisfactory impression...."

The impression was not so satisfactory for Mily Balakirev, who rejected the work in 1869 from consideration for a Free School concert. Balakirev sent the manuscript back to Mussorgsky bearing handwritten marks such as the comment "Rubbish!" in the margins. Later, under the spell of Liszt's Totentanz, Mussorgsky considered refashioning the movement as a piano/orchestral work, but nothing came of this plan.

In May 1877, Mussorgsky drew up the scenario of his comic opera Sorochintsy Fair, proposing an extensive revision of the St. John's Night music as an Intermezzo opening the third act. Mussorgsky completed this part of the opera in 1880, retaining music from (1) and (3) of the original work, and adding new material. Identified as "Dream of the Young Peasant Lad," this also had a new program: as a boy dreams on a hill, he is threatened by inhuman voices and finds himself mocked in the realm of shadows. The voices warn of the Devil and the "Black God" Chernobog; as the shadows fade, both appear. Chernobog is glorified, a Black Mass is sung, and a Witches' Sabbath breaks out. As a church bell intones, Chernobog disappears and the demons writhe in agony. A church choir sings, the demons fade away, awakening the boy. Mussorgsky was never to complete Sorochintsy Fair.

In 1867 letter quoted above, Mussorgsky wrote Rimsky-Korsakov "I should like us to examine the orchestration together (...) we might clear up many things." Rimsky-Korsakov fulfilled his end of the bargain in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky's death, in producing Night on Bald Mountain (also "Night on the Bare Mountain"). This was the "Lad's Dream" music, minus its choral parts and with its abrupt, dramatic effectual "stings" removed. The first half of the second section was removed, and Rimsky-Korsakov dropped most of the major-key material save a brief fanfare figure. The whole work was subjected to a streamlining of orchestration and meter, and divided into symmetrical sections. Rimsky-Korsakov has often been accused of "composing" the "Matins Bell" section that concludes Bald Mountain, but in truth the music is all Mussorgsky's save the final flute trio at the very end. The Rimsky-Korsakov edition was an immediate worldwide success from the day it was launched and helped to establish Mussorgsky's name. It remains the most popular version of Mussorgsky's famous piece, although the original versions are available in modern editions and are revived to acclaim as well. Some conductors, such as Claudio Abbado and Esa-Pekka Salonen, have made personal specialties of the 1867 version.

-- Uncle Dave Lewis
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