Mussorgsky - Piano Music

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was born into a wealthy landowning family in Karevo, Russia. He developed a great facility at the piano, but eventually chose a military career. In 1857 he met Balakirev, whom he asked for composition lessons. The following year Mussorgsky passed through a spiritual and emotional crisis and resigned his army commission with the intention of composing full-time. His music soon began to enjoy public performances but his mental instability continued, and he 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. In 1865 he underwent his first serious bout of alcoholism (probably as a reaction to his mother´s death that year) and in 1867 he was dismissed from his post. He spent the summer at his brother´s country house, where he wrote his first important orchestral work, St. John´s Night on the Bare Mountain. On his return to St. Petersburg Mussorgsky, like the other members of the Balakirev circle (ironically dubbed the ´Mighty Handful´), became interested in operatic naturalism. Early in 1869 Mussorgsky re-entered government service and, in more settled conditions, was able to complete the original version of the opera Boris Godunov. This was rejected by the Marinsky Theatre and Mussorgsky set about revising it. A successful production was finally mounted in February 1874. Progress on another historical opera, Khovanshchina, was interrupted mainly because the composer’s heavy drinking left him incapable of sustained creative effort. Still, some of Mussorgsky’s greatest works belong to this period, including the song cycle Songs and Dances of Death and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, inspired by a memorial exhibition of drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann. When Mussorgsky was obliged to leave the his government post, the contralto Darya Leonova provided him with some employment and a home after he had turned to her, saying that there was nothing left for him but to beg in the streets; he was suffering from alcoholic epilepsy, and in February 1881 was taken to hospital, where he died a month later.