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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 Edition
Release Date: 09/24/2013   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94670   Number of Discs: 14
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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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Stokowski Transcriptions - Bach, Wagner, Mussorgsky / Serebrier, Bournemouth SO
Release Date: 04/27/2010   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8505086   Number of Discs: 5
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition, Etc / Kuchar, Et Al
Release Date: 04/15/2003   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8555924   Number of Discs: 1
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Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition, Etc / Serebrier
Release Date: 06/21/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557645   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Pictures at an exhibition

 

About This Work
Victor Hartmann, a Russian painter and architect, was one of Mussorgsky's close friends. When Hartmann died in St. Petersburg in 1873 at the age of 41, the composer was crushed. He wrote to the art critic Vladimir Stasov, paraphrasing Shakespeare: Read more "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and the Hartmanns perish?" In January 1874, the Russian Academy of Arts organized an exhibition of Hartmann's work. Mussorgsky attended the show, where he saw the varied images that became the basis for Pictures of an Exhibition. On June 2, Mussorgsky began work on Pictures, a musical impression of ten of Hartmann's paintings (plus five "promenades") for piano, and finished the work later in the same month.

Pictures of an Exhibition opens with a "Promenade" in 5/4 that serves as a unifying device throughout; it is a portrayal of the composer himself walking from one painting to the next. The first picture is "Gnomus," inspired by a design for a toy nutcracker that Hartmann drew in 1869. Another promenade is followed by "The Old Castle," a mysterious, lonely evocation built on pedal tones. "Tuileries" is inspired by a watercolor of children at play in the garden of the Tuileries. This bright and impressionistic piece is followed by the heavy tread of "Bydlo" (a Polish oxcart). Mussorgsky's setting of "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" is a wildly imaginative scherzo. A stern melody in a Jewish-music-derived scale opens "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle," in which a wealthy Jew is portrayed by an insistent repeating figure in the treble, a poor Jew in the bass. The rapid patter of haggling housewives characterizes "The Market Place in Limoges." In another sudden change in mood, "Catacombs," which pictures Hartmann himself touring a vast catacomb of skulls, is rendered in naked chord progressions. "The Hut on Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga)" was inspired by Hartmann's design for a fourteenth century-style clock in the shape of a witch's hat. Mussorgsky transforms it into a miniature tone poem about Baba Yaga, the legendary Russian witch who devoured the souls of children. After a grand flourish, the work ends with "The Great Gate of Kiev," inspired by a never-implemented design Hartmann submitted to an architecture competition. Pictures of an Exhibition comes to a close with rich, booming chords which evoke bells.

Although Mussorgsky is known to have played Pictures of an Exhibition in recital, the work did not appear in print until 1886, five years after the composer's death. It remained relatively little known until Ravel made a colorful orchestration of it in 1922, and in this form it has enjoyed even greater popularity than the original. Read less

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