“Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.” – Modest Mussorgsky

Like Borodin, Mussorgsky was one of those rare men in history that was able to achieve greatness in two distinct fields: in his case, music and drinking. Mussorgsky was in fact such a consummate drunk, that even as an established composer he had to hold down a second job as a civil servant to fund his alcoholism. Yet Mussorgsky was also one of the most raw and original composers in history. He wrote from the gut, shunning the idea of receiving any sort of formal training, and his music is undoubtedly some of the most powerful and imaginative ever written. To Mussorgsky, music was first and foremost an expression of the human condition, and in his compositions he sought to create, to use his own words, “an artistic reproduction of human speech in all its finest shades.”

Following in his family’s military tradition, Mussorgsky initially began his career in the army. It was in Cadet School, a place known for being harsh on new recruits, that he first turned to drink. During many nights of revelry with his fellow cadets, he would sit at the piano playing songs (a skill he acquired from childhood piano lessons with his mother), relishing the attention and being fawned over by female admirers.

Impromptu Passionné, one of the few salon pieces written by Mussorgsky

Popular among the cadets, and coming from a wealthy family, Mussorgsky soon found himself assigned to an aristocratic regiment full of music-loving officers. Here he began rubbing shoulders with the musical elite; he met and befriended Borodin, and heard for the first time the music of Glinka, whose unapologetically nationalistic style resonated with Mussorgsky and became an important influence on his music.

Of all the people he met during this period, perhaps none were more formative for Mussorgsky than Balakirev, the founder of the group of composers that would become known as “The Mighty Five”. A vehement critic of formal academic training in music, it’s perhaps no surprise that Balakirev took an interest in the primal and talented Mussorgsky, who had plenty of passion but almost no musical knowledge. Balakirev soon became his mentor, encouraging Mussorgsky to keep writing in his idiosyncratic style without fretting over minor imperfections or technical inadequacies. It’s no wonder that Mussorgsky’s music is known for being full of imagination and creativity, if a little rough around the edges. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov, a good friend of Mussorgsky’s who revised and orchestrated much of his music, once wrote of his scores:

“They were very defective, teeming with clumsy, disconnected harmonies, shocking part-writing, amazingly illogical modulations or intolerably long stretches without ever a modulation, and bad scoring. …what is needed is an edition for practical and artistic purposes, suitable for performances and for those who wish to admire Mussorgsky’s genius, not to study his idiosyncrasies and sins against art.”

Balakirev also believed that Russia should have its own distinct school of music, free from Western influences, and this aligned with Mussorgsky’s own nationalistic inclinations. Nowhere is Mussorgsky’s nationalistic streak more apparent than in arguably his defining composition, the opera Boris Godunov, based on a play by Pushkin. Composed between 1868 and 1873, Boris Godunov marked the peak of Mussorgsky’s career, and has gone on to become the most recorded Russian opera in history, ahead of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Introduction & Polonaise from Boris Godunov, Act 3, Scene 2, played by the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov

Mussorgsky’s decline in later life was punctuated by stretches of excessive drinking in sleazy taverns around St Petersburg. While alcoholism was clearly a personal weakness of Mussorgsky’s, Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov points out that “an intense worship of Bacchus was considered to be almost obligatory for a writer of that period. It was a showing off, a ‘pose,’ for the best people of the [eighteen-] sixties.” With his continued drinking, Mussorgsky’s productivity began to decline, and his health soon followed.  Ilya Repin’s magnificent portrait of Mussorgsky, used as the cover art for this post, was painted just days before the composer’s death, and captures Mussorgsky looking every bit in his element: faintly flushed, forlorn, and a little worse for the wear from a lifetime of bad habits.

Probably Mussorgsky’s most recognizable composition is his wonderfully imaginative Pictures at an Exhibition, a ten movement suite for piano composed in 1874, written in memory of his friend Viktor Hartmann, an artist who died in 1873 of an aneurysm at age 39. The composition is meant to evoke the experience of wandering around a gallery admiring each exhibit: every movement depicts a different painting on display, and the varying “promenade” in between each movement is meant to represent the act of walking from one painting to the next.

Promenade I and Gnomus (“The Gnome”, the first painting in the gallery, a now lost sketch by Viktor Hartmann) from Pictures at an Exhibition, played by Leif Ove Andsnes

The Marketplace at Limoges from an orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition, played by the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra

The Hut on the Fowl’s Legs from Pictures at an Exhibition with original artwork from Natasha & Yuli Turovsky, performed by I Musici de Montreal, conducted and arranged for strings by Yuli Turovsky. The hut is supposed to belong to Baba Yaga, a deformed witch from Slavic folklore.

Here are some of my other favourites from Mussorgsky:

Night on Bald Mountain, played by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein

A Tear, played by Eduardo Viñuela

Dance of the Persian Slaves from Khovanshchina, played by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner

Spotify Playlist:

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