Moussorgsky, Modeste Petrovich



One of the strangest and most tragic figures in the history of modern music. He was a man possessed of great native ability, but cursed with those qualities of an artistic temperament which made it almost impossible for him to submit himself to discipline and restriction, or to pursue any one course for any length of time. He was incapable of enough concentration to study the technical part of music, and as a result, his writings have had to be edited by other musicians before they could be presented to the world. He was a realist of the most pronounced type, and his compositions, often quite lacking in form or beauty, make a direct appeal to the heart. Born at his father's country home at Kareve, in the government of Pskov, on March 28, 1835, the early part of his life passed quietly in the country. His musical talents were early developed, for his parents were both musicians, and his mother gave him piano lessons at which he showed such progress that when only nine he could play several of Liszt's compositions. He went to the Ensigns' School at St. Petersburg, and while there continued his music under the pianist, Herke. When only seventeen he entered the Preobrajensky Regiment, famed as one of the smartest in the Russian service. But the restrictions of a military career and its constant interruptions of his musical pursuits caused him to resign from the service little more than a year after he had entered it. Through an acquaintance with Dargomysky, which he formed in 1857, he became associated with Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodini, Balakirev, Cui and the other musicians who formed the little circle of neoRussian musicians. He turned his attention to the study of Beethoven and Schumann and Glinka, but could not confine himself to a serious study of technics and professed the greatest contempt for musicians whose works were purely examples of technical skill. In order to make a living Moussorgsky did some translating and took a position in the Government Civil Engineering Department. A life of excess affected his health and caused the loss of his position, and in 1866 he went to live with a brother at Minkino. In 1868 having finished his opera, Boris Godounov, he took it to St. Petersburg, but no one would undertake it until he had revised and shortened it, so it was not performed until 1874. It reached its twentieth performance during that season, and in 1889 it was performed in Moscow. Thus encouraged, he began to write an opera around the story of Princess Khovanstchina. In 1870 he went to St. Petersburg to live, working for a time in the Government Department of Forests and afterwards in the Department of Control; but he was permanently dismissed in 1879, when he went on a concert tour through Central and Eastern Russia with the distinguished singer, Mile. Leonov. This enterprise promised to better Moussorgsky's circumstances, but it came too late. After leading a life of excess, and in his latter years indulging in the use of drugs, his health was completely gone and he died on his fortysecond birthday in the St. Nicholas Military Hospital in St. Petersburg. His disposition seems to have been passionate and impatient of control, proud and self-willed. He had the greatest amount of self-confidence and of belief in his own originality. The most imaginative of musicians, his object was to copy nature as exactly as possible; regardless of laws and forms of music, to portray living truth.


His songs are usually regarded as his finest work, and though they are often formless, incoherent expressions of moods, their force always strikes to the heart. His series of children's songs, entitled The Nursery, gives remarkable pictures of the many phases of childhood, and the Song-Cycles, Sunlight, and Songs and Dances of Death, written near the end of his life, portray his own anguish and struggle, nis opera, Boris Godounov, based on Pushkin's powerful historical drama, is a wonderful piece of character painting, as is also his other opera, Khovanstchina. Many of his compositions have been revised and edited by other Russian musicians, among them Boris Godounov, revised by Rimsky-Korsakow in 1896, and the chorus, La Nuit au Mont-Chauye, and Khovanstchina also revised by RimskyKorsakow. Among other compositions are ten sketches for piano called Pictures from an Exhibition; Une Larne; On the Southern Shores of Crimea; A Child's Joke; The Sempstress; The Matchmaker, of which he completed only one act; Joshua Nayin and the Destruction of Sennacherib, both based on Hebraic themes; choruses, Salammbo and CEdipus; the songs, Gopak, The Little Feast, Dawn, Night, Peasant Cradle Song, The Seminarist, Savischna, Hebrew Song, The Dneiper, The Swaggerer, The Nurse and the Child.