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Flash of musical genius

The short life of Modest Mussorgsky

Created date

August 10th, 2016
Russian artist Ilya Repin’s portrait of Modest Mussorgsky. Repin painted the picture in Mussorgsky’s hospital room just weeks before the composer’s death at age 42.

Russian artist Ilya Repin’s portrait of Modest Mussorgsky. Repin painted the picture in Mussorgsky’s hospital room just weeks before the composer’s death at age 42.

The last painting composer Modest Mussorgsky posed for shows a tired, bloated man, his nose red from drink, his hair disheveled and unwashed, his eyes mournful. 

Within a few weeks, he would be dead.  

Like so many artists, Modest Mussorgsky had come to a sad end. But this in no way reflected on the quality and importance of his short life’s work.

Born south of St. Petersburg, Russia, in March 1839, Mussorgsky was part of a wealthy noble family. From the start, it was clear that Mussorgsky was talented. 

When he turned six, he began taking piano lessons under the tutelage of his mother. By nine, he was performing compositions by artists such as Franz Liszt.  

As was the case for much of the aristocracy, Mussorgsky enjoyed the benefits of a classical education, studying mathematics, science, and philosophy at the prestigious German-language St. Peter’s School. He also continued with his piano lessons under the guidance of the able Anton Gerke and, in 1852, published his debut composition, Porte-Enseigne Polka.

Call to duty

Yet, no matter how great Mussorgsky’s accomplishments at the keyboard, there were certain obligations he had to fulfill as a member of the nobility. One of them was his family’s tradition of military service.

Upon his graduation from St. Peter’s, Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School of the Guards in Russia. While there, he maintained his rigorous piano studies, gaining popularity amongst his fellow cadets for playing lively dances.

He remained here until 1856, when he received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the highest-ranking military unit in the Russian Imperial Guard. Ironically, it was during his time as a soldier that a professional composer was born.

Within a year, Mussorgsky met Alexander Dargomyzhsky, one of the most important Russian composers of the era. This was a stroke of luck for the young soldier/musician, for Dargomyzhsky was well connected.

Mussorgsky’s skill at the piano so impressed him that he invited the 17-year-old to his high-society parties, the guests of which were often a who’s who of Russia’s cultural elite. Among the attendees was the renowned pianist and composer Mily Balakirev, who had the greatest impact on the up-and-coming artist’s ascendancy as a musical master.

Balakirev introduced Mussorgsky to advanced composition through the works of greats like Beethoven and Schumann. It was his first real exposure to contemporary classical music from the complex theoretical perspective essential to a deeper understanding of the composer’s craft.

In 1858, Mussorgsky resigned his military commission and devoted himself full time to music. Though he was an undeniably gifted artist, he was equally unproductive.

Personal roadblocks

Aside from assisting with the production of Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar (1859) and composing a few works for the piano (several never completed), Mussorgsky did little in the early 1860s. Historians are uncertain as to why, but some believe he hinted at a personal crisis in a letter he’d written to Balakirev, in which he cryptically mentioned “mysticism and cynical thoughts about the Deity.”

Of course, there was also the heavy drinking habit he’d developed in military school.

Mussorgsky seemed to be in search of an emotional and intellectual truth that he simply couldn’t find. Throughout the balance of the decade he started one project after another and rarely saw them to completion.

Instead, he supported himself as a civil servant and found lodging at a commune, where he spent his spare hours reading books and pamphlets on philosophy and artistic theory. There were, however, exceptions to these wayward lulls.

In 1867, Mussorgsky experienced a flash of genius when he composed one of the first tone poems in Russian history: Night on Bald Mountain. A series of works inspired by Russian legends and literature, this “musical picture,” as Mussorgsky described it, portrayed the fearsome, dramatic scene of a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Eve.

Especially for an artist predominantly trained as a pianist, Night on Bald Mountain was a brilliant display of orchestral prowess. Mussorgsky seamlessly blended brass, percussion, and strings to create an explosive composition full of the same energy and romance that defined masters like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner.

Still, Mussorgsky’s drinking interfered with his music, resulting in numerous unfinished works. He produced relatively little until the peak of his career in the early 1870s, when he composed Khovanshchina (1872), Sunless (1872), and his best-known Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), a piano suite written in memory of his friend, Russian artist Viktor Hartmann.

Unfortunately, Mussorgsky’s life was a downward spiral from this point. Years of drinking had taken its toll on him, mentally and physically.

In 1881, he started to have debilitating seizures, ultimately forcing him to check into a hospital.

Russian painter Ilya Repin visited the ailing composer here in March. He had Mussorgsky pose for a portrait that depicted a fallen maestro.

Before the month was out, Mussorgsky was dead at 42. He had come and gone in a flash, much like the fleeting moments of genius that made him great.