Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is generally acclaimed the finest of the group of Russian composers known as the Mighty Five.
Without Modest Mussorgsky the notion of the Russian 19th century as one of musical realism would be unsupportable. In his operas, especially Boris Godunov, he successfully explored human emotions and failings individually and collectively in a new and forthright manner singularly bereft of the pretensions and emotional excess of the 19th century. His operatic work marks a crossroads in the understanding and use of the form in music history.
Mussorgsky was born on March 9, 1839, in the village of Karevo in the Pskov district. His family was of the middle landed gentry, which placed them high above the serfs, although Mussorgsky had some serf blood. His cultured mother gave him piano lessons and encouraged his clumsy but early efforts at composition. At 10 he went to St. Petersburg to study piano with Anton Herke, to prepare for cadet school, and to be tutored in the ways of a young urban gentleman. He entered the Imperial Guards Cadet School in 1852 and, in the course of the year, published (at his family's expense) Porte Enseigne Polka for his classmates. His lessons with Herke continued until 1854. Mussorgsky joined the glittering Preobrazhensky Imperial Guards Regiment in 1856.
As a teen-age officer, Mussorgsky met, while on duty, Aleksandr Borodin, a medical officer. The two were not to come together as members of the Mighty Five for some few years, but Borodin remembered Mussorgsky as a smart, dapper, well-mannered, slightly French and slightly foppish youth who played the piano coquettishly at parties, eliciting cries of "charmant!" and "delicieux!" from the assembled young women.
The years brought considerable change in that image. In 1859 Mussorgsky met Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky, who introduced him to César Cui, also a military officer, and to Mily Balakirev, later the leader of the Mighty Five. In late 1857 and 1858 Mussorgsky went through the first of several emotional crises and resigned from the Guards in 1859. That same year he spoke to Balakirev of having been "reborn," not only in the sense of recovery from his nervous disorder but in his conversion, he said, from cosmopolitan to patriot. The thinking of the music and art critic Vladimir Stasov is reflected here, but more particularly that of the Russian social critics Chernyshevsky and Dobroliubov. Among these new friends, Mussorgsky was writing music with some seriousness. In 1860 his Scherzo in B-flat for orchestra was performed in St. Petersburg. In 1861 Mussorgsky's financial base was destroyed: the emancipation of the serfs led to the liquidation, over a 2-year period, of the family estate.
In the early 1860s Mussorgsky felt musically dependent on, but fretted under, Balakirev and was close to Dargomyzhsky. Mussorgsky had established certain work patterns: he started something new with great enthusiasm only to bog down in self-doubt, insecure in his technical abilities. Three projected operas were among such works. Mussorgsky did not associate with the other members of the Balakirev circle but with "proletarian" friends in a communal setting. In 1863 he began work on the opera Salammbo (from Gustave Flaubert's novel). Although he did not finish it, music from this opera figured in later work, most importantly in Boris Godunov. He left another opera, The Marriage (1864-1868), unfinished; Cherepnin completed the work in 1909.
By 1869 Mussorgsky had abandoned his communal style of living and reentered government service, in the Forestry Department. He was already a serious alcoholic with epileptic tendencies. Though he was a nominal member of the Mighty Five (the term, literally the "Mighty Fist," was used by Stasov in 1867), his life style set him apart from the others. Indeed, he often denied vehemently his belonging, creatively, to any group.
From a suggestion by Stasov, but developing his own ideas and preparing his own libretto from texts by Aleksandr Pushkin and Nicolai Karamzin, Mussorgsky set to work on Boris Godunov in 1868. The first version was finished in 1869; that date was but the beginning of a fitful series of redrawings of music and scenario by Mussorgsky and others which has probably not even yet ended. He returned to it in 1871 and again in 1872 but was lured away by, among other things, the joint effort at an opera, Mlada, by himself, Borodin, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui. The collective effort was abortive, but all used music from it for other works. In 1872 Mussorgsky also started Khovanshchina, an opera based on another Russian historical episode. This, too, was unfinished, but enough was done to establish it as one of his major works. He worked on Khovanshchina and another opera, Sorochinsk Fair (finished by Liadov and Karatygin), until 1880. The period 1871-1881 also saw the piano tribute to artist-architect Viktor Hartmann, Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orchestrated by various composers, including Maurice Ravel in 1922), The Songs and Dances of Death (1875), and a number of other works, making this, though his last, his most productive decade.
The Mighty Five had begun to disintegrate as a circle after 1872, and Mussorgsky's health was worsening. Near the end of his life he toured with the singer Daria Leonova. He died, more or less in her care, on March 16, 1881, in St. Petersburg.
Musically one turns again and again to Boris Godunov to reveal what Mussorgsky was and what he wanted. The work is intensely, intimately vocal. And, although he wrote effectively for orchestra, the voice was the instrument he trusted and understood (he had given voice lessons). He had a lyric quality that was curiously enhanced by laconic punctuation; and it was just such anomalies that disturbed the doctrinaire Rimsky-Korsakov, who complained of the "absurdity, ugliness, and illogic" of so much of Mussorgsky's music. Made vulnerable by his technical lapses, Mussorgsky thus suffered, too, for his originality.
There is a relentless, inevitable movement forward in Mussorgsky's style, in significant measure related to his understanding of the folk process in music, which provides him with the deftness of the caricaturist's hand: his vignettes of a drunken priest, a clown, an idiot, a vain princess, or a mad czar are sure and convincing. The crowd scenes in Boris Godunov are particularly telling; they range from groups of worshipers through coronation crowds to peasants and soldiers. It is not sufficient to point out the approximations to human speech and sounds; Mussorgsky believed that speech itself followed strict musical rules and that music, like all art, is a means of communicating with people. He not only dealt in living scenes of real people but drew out of such situations certain principles and truths. And it is in the latter rather than the former that realism lies. That Czar Boris is the tortured product of forces of both good and evil is nowhere stated; but in depicting his inchoate rage at his enemies on the one hand and the beauty of his tenderness to his daughter on the other, Mussorgsky focuses effectively on the conflict.
Jay Leyda and Sergei Bertenson edited The Mussorgsky Reader (1947), a selection of Mussorgsky's letters and other memorabilia mostly taken from a collection of Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov published in Moscow in 1932. The most important study of Mussorgsky is Michel D. Calvocoressi, Modest Mussorgsky: His Life and Works, edited by Gerald Abraham (1956). Earlier, less complete works by Calvocoressi are Mussorgsky: The Russian Musical Nationalist (1919) and Mussorgsky (1946). Less scholarly is Victor Seroff, Modeste Mussorgsky (1968). For background on Mussorgsky's milieu see Gerald Abraham and Michel D. Calvocoressi, Masters of Russian Music (1936).