Mussorgsky is regarded as the most original Russian composer of the mid-nineteenth century, an embodiment of the national style, and an inspiration to modernists such as Debussy and Ravel. Yet his life was chaotic, punctuated by frequent bouts of severe depression and alcoholism. Many of his compositions were left unfinished.

Mussorgsky came from an ancient, but not particularly prosperous aristocratic family. He could trace his lineage all the way back thirty generations to the semi-mythical Rurik, founder of the medieval Russian state. He attended the Saint Petersburg Cadet School and entered the Preobrazhensky Regiment, an elite army unit traditionally led by the Tsar himself. Mussorgsky received only superficial private musical instruction. When Borodin met him in 1856, he described him as “an elegant, piano-playing dilettante.” Mussorgsky soon met Dargomyzhsky and Cui, who eventually introduced him to Balakirev, with whom he undertook the serious study of composition. Their relationship was complicated, resulting in Mussorgsky’s eventual rebellion over Balakirev’s authoritarian methods. In 1858, Mussorgsky resigned from the military in order to dedicate all his energy to music. However, the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 nearly bankrupted Mussorgsky’s family, forcing him to take a mediocre civil service job.

He began several projects, all of which remained uncompleted. Among them were the operas Oedipus in Athens (after Ozerov), Salammbô, based on Flaubert’s novel about ancient Carthage, and the tone poem Poděbrad of Bohemia. Inspired by Dargomyzhsky’s Stone Guest, Mussorgsky started to set Gogol’s play The Marriage. After completing one act, he abandoned it in favor of an even more ambitious project—an opera based on Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. The manuscript was completed in 1869, but the original version was rejected by the committee of the Mariinsky Theater, due in part to the lack of a leading female role. After major revisions the opera was finally produced at the Mariinsky in 1874 and was an overwhelming success with the audiences. The critical reception was less generous. Cui, an old friend of Mussorgsky’s, wrote a particularly negative review, calling the work “immature.” Overwhelmed by critical reception of Boris and Cui’s betrayal, Mussorgsky fell into a deep depression. He expressed his despondency in the song-cycles Sunless, written to the poetry of his close friend and distant relative Count Arseny Golinishchev-Kutuzov. Many of Mussorgsky’s late songs, including the unfinished cycle The Songs and Dances of Death, were set to Golinishchev’s poetry.

Mussorgsky’s last years were plagued by severe depression and heavy drinking. He was eventually fired from his civil service job, and, though his friends supported him financially, he was incapable of fully concentrating on composition. He died of delirium tremens caused by alcoholism. The operas Khovanshchina and Sorochinsky Fair were both left unfinished.

Mussorgsky wrote art songs throughout his career. In 1866, he completed a collection of eighteen songs titled The Years of Youth. The character of these songs, some of which are influenced by folk music, is generally lyrical. Many of his songs, such as The Seminarian, Svetik Saveshna, and Kozyol are colorful character pieces. The song cycle The Nursery, to the composer’s own lyrics, observes the world from a child’s perspective. The unfinished cycle The Songs and Dances of Death is one of his most powerful compositions. The satirical setting of Mephistopheles’ Song of the Flea from Goethe’s Faust was written during the composer’s last year, and remains one of his most popular works.

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