Modest Petrovich Moussorgsky

Moussorgsky, Modest Petrovich (mədyĕstˈ pĕtrôˈvĭch mōsôrgˈskē) [key], 1839–81, Russian composer. His name is also transliterated as Mussorgsky and Musorgsky. He was one of the first to promote a national Russian style. A member of the minor aristocracy and an officer in the Imperial Guard until 1858, he was later a government clerk. His study with Mili Balakirev and his associations with other composers encouraged him to become a composer himself, although his musical training was sketchy and never satisfied him. His masterpiece is the opera Boris Godunov (1868–69, revised 1871–72, produced St. Petersburg, 1874), in which he successfully combined realism and lyricism. Other important works are the opera Khovanshchina (1886); the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel; A Night on Bald Mountain (1867), for orchestra; and many songs and three song cycles.

Moussorgsky succumbed to alcoholism in a Saint Petersburg hospital at the age of 41. Most of his music was edited and revised after his death by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and others, often to such an extent that the originals were seriously misrepresented. Moussorgsky made much use of Russian folk songs, and his settings of Russian texts are unexcelled. Expression and communication were paramount for him; form, inconsequential. In working out a Russian idiom, his rejection of many European standards and practices influenced not only Russian composers but also Claude Debussy and other French composers.

See letters and documents in The Musorgsky Reader, ed. by J. Leyda and S. Bertensson (1947, repr. 1970); biographies by M. D. Calvocoressi (1946, rev. ed. 1974), V. I. Seroff (1968), O. von Riesemann (tr. 1929, repr. 1970), and D. Brown (2003).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.