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: Sorochintsi Fair / Kuklin, Zalizniak, Brazhnik
Release Date: 02/25/2014   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94865   Number of Discs: 2
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Opera In English - Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov (Highlights) / Daniel, Et Al
Release Date: 05/19/1998   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 3007   Number of Discs: 1
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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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Paintings From The Piano - Mussorgsky, Etc / Jennifer Hayghe
Release Date: 06/27/2006   Label: Centaur Records  
Catalog: 2753   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Songs and dances of death


I. Lullaby
II. Serenade
III. Trepak
IV. The Warrior
About This Work
It is a mistake to regard all of Rimsky-Korsakov's editing of the works of Mussorgsky as blasphemous defilement. There were extenuating circumstances. First, Rimsky believed he was genuinely performing a service for his friend. They had lived Read more together in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Second, Rimsky, like nearly every friend Mussorgsky had, considered him mentally feeble, an image his alcoholism did nothing to contradict. Third, without Rimsky's editing, most of Mussorgsky's works would not have entered the repertoire. Fourth, Rimsky performed the same editing job on his own music, re-writing and re-orchestrating most of it during the 1880s, the same period that he was re-writing and re-orchestrating Mussorgsky's music. Fifth, editing the works of a dead composer was not an action which Rimsky perpetrated only on Mussorgsky; he and his pupil Glazunov also edited -- and re-wrote and re-orchestrated -- Borodin's opera Prince Igor.

That having been said, however, the case of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death is an entirely separate issue. That Mussorgsky would have orchestrated them himself had he lived is nearly certain. But that he would have re-composed the Songs and orchestrated them in a pallid and lifeless manner is as nearly certain. Yet Rimsky and Glazunov did re-compose and orchestrate the Songs -- Rimsky-Korsakov did Serenade and The Field Marshal while Glazunov did Trepak and Cradle Song -- and in every case they blunted the songs, planing down the melodies and smoothing over the harmonies until the works are a ghost of their former morbid glory.

For many years, Rimsky and Glazunov's orchestral version of the songs was the one most frequently performed; indeed, even so staunch a Mussorgsky partisan as Boris Christoff recorded the Songs in Rimsky and Glazunov's edition as late as the '50s. That version has been superseded by Dmitri Shostakovich's orchestration of the work. Shostakovich's scoring sounds little like the work of Mussorgsky -- it sounds like Shostakovich's own orchestral voice through Mussorgsky -- but, unlike Rimsky and Glazunov, Shostakovich respects the integrity of Mussorgsky's music and his edition has now become the preferred version.

-- James Leonard
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