This Week in Music History: Mussorgsky is born (1839)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? Modest Mussorgsky’s life and death went relatively unmarked. But Rimsky-Korsakov and Ravel helped write him into legend.

Some composers’ lives—Liszt’s, for example—are rags-to-riches stories. Other composers, like Mozart, achieved success that was artistic but not financial. But Modest Mussorgsky’s story is an unusual one. Born to a wealthy family in the Russian countryside, Mussorgsky was penniless by the end of his life, and few people thought much of his music either.

Unfortunately, very little is known about the early life of Mussorgsky, best know these days for his Pictures at an Exhibition. He claimed he had been born on March 16, 1839, although it’s now known that the date was March 9—or, using the Gregorian calendar that’s standard today, March 21. Perhaps more accurately, Mussorgsky claimed that he developed an early interest in Russian folk stories, courtesy of his nurse, and would improvise music inspired by them on the piano, even while he was still something of an “unhatched chick”—before he’d started having music lessons.

  J. Gerber's costume sketch of canary chicks for the ballet Trilby. It inspired Mussorgsky's Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.
J. Gerber’s costume sketch of canary chicks for the ballet Trilby, 1871. It inspired Mussorgsky’s Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks.

Like many men of his social class, Mussorgsky went to a military school, and became an army officer on graduation in 1856. But he remained somewhat committed to music. Soon after leaving school, he became acquainted with the older composer Mily Balakirev, and started studying composition with him. Mussorgsky’s development as a composer—a very original one at that—was slow but inexorable.

Program- cast of a performance of Boris Godunoff at the Metropolitan Opera, December 7, 1922.
Cast of a performance of Boris Godunoff at the Metropolitan Opera, December 7, 1922.

Mussorgsky was particularly interested in setting text to music in innovative ways. Rather than writing florid melodies, like in Italian opera, he was more interested in imitating speech and its subtle intonations. While he only completed one opera—the phenomenal Boris Godunov—he wrote many more fragments, including the almost-complete Khovanshchina, and there are many songs as well. The writing for voice is shockingly un-operatic—but thrilling, and entertaining, even so.

There’s no text to set in Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), but you can get a sense of his angular melodic style from “The Hunt on Hens’ Legs,” above. Pictures was inspired by visual artworks by Viktor Hartmann, a friend of the composer’s who had died in 1873. It’s a brilliant evocation of a succession of painterly scenes, separated by the recurring “Promenade,” as the exhibition visitor strolls from one picture to the next.

Hartmann's The Hut on Fowl's Legs, Clock in the Russian style (1870)
Hartmann’s The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, Clock in the Russian style, 1870.

Mussorgsky lost his job in early 1880, leaving him in financial trouble. Some friends offered to give him money, but on the condition he complete some of his abandoned compositions. He tried, but by the time of his death in February 1881, he hadn’t managed to do so. On top of his financial problems, he was a chronic alcoholic.

Pictures, which contains its own vision of death in the movement “Catacombae,” as the viewer seems to descend into the Roman catacombs, is best known today as an orchestral work. The version made by Ravel, performed by Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker in the extracts shown here, is justly famous.

But it’s been orchestrated by many others as well. This is indicative of the way that other composers have seldom been able to keep their hands off Mussorgsky’s startlingly unusual music, often with the purpose of “improving” or “correcting” it. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a particularly stern editor of Mussorgsky’s music, making considerable changes to his editions. He even accused it of “utter technical impotence.” Yet Rimsky-Korsakov still worked hard to promote the deceased Mussorgsky’s music. His version of Boris Godunov remained standard for a long time.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1897.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, 1897.

These days, “technical impotence” seems a bit harsh, and in fact the most unusual features of Mussorgsky’s music are some of most celebrated: he seems like a harbinger of modernism. It’s easy to react angrily to the idea that his music needed to be improved upon by more technically accomplished composers. Yet the influential Rimsky-Korsakov, and the dazzling orchestrator Ravel, have played their part in giving Mussorgsky’s music the prominent place in history that it deserves.

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