Composer Spotlight: Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky, 1881

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was a Russian composer, of the group known as "The Five" (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin), five prominent 19th-century Russian composers, who worked together to create a distinctly Russian classical music.  He was well known for his defiance of the conventions of classically "Western" music.  He drew upon Russian history and folklore, as well as nationalist themes, as inspiration for his compositions.  Prominent among his works are Boris Godunov, Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures at an Exhibition.

Many of his works have only come into their own posthumously, through the work of other composers and arrangers, with some of the original scores only recently becoming available.

The inspiration for Pictures is well known, as Mussorgsky corresponded regularly with Vladimir Stasov, lamenting the death of the influential artist and Mussorgsky's friend, Viktor Hartmann.  Stasov arranged to have an exhibition of Hartmann's work shortly after the artist's death.  Mussorgsky's feelings about the impact of Hartmann are reflected in his letters:

My dear friend, what a terrible blow! “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life” – and creatures like Hartmann must die! … This is how the wise usually console us blockheads, in such case: “He is no more, but what he has done lives and will live!” True – but how many men have the luck to be remembered? That is just another way of serving up our complacency (with a dash of onion, to bring out the tears). Away with such wisdom! When “he” has not lived in vain, but has created – one must be a rascal to revel in the thought that “he” can create no more. No, one cannot and must not be comforted, there can be and must be no consolation – it is a rotten mortality! If Nature is only coquetting with men, I shall have the honor of treating her like a coquette – that is, trusting her as little as possible, keeping all my sense about me, when she tries to cheat me into taking the sky for a fiddlestick – or ought one, rather like a brave soldier, to charge into the thick of life, have one’s filing, and go under? What does it all mean? In any case, the dull old earth is no coquette, but takes every “King of Nature” straight into her loathsome embrace, whoever he is – like and old worn-out hag, for anyone is good enough, since she has no choice.
There again – what a fool I am! Why be angry when you cannot change anything! Enough then – the rest is silence. …

The piano suite was not published until after Mussorgsky's death, but the composition is well documented through his letters with Stasov.  Ultimately, the manuscript was dedicated to Stasov.

The portrait above was made 2-5 March, 1881, only a few days before is death from complications of alcoholism.