19th century Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky was a member of The Five. He was highly cultivated, educated in Western culture, and strove to defend Russian nationalist art, based on the popular music his nurse sang to him during his childhood.
Though he belonged for a while to a group of composers pursuing the same ideal, Mussorgsky lived a largely solitary life. He learnt music from his mother, who taught him to play the piano. As a self-trained amateur, he studied the music of other composers (including Schumann), before embarking on a military career. In the late 1850s, he took up composition, left the army, then was involved in forming The Five. In two unfinished operas (Salammbô then The Marriage), he tested his principles and refined his writing. Then, under Rimsky-Korsakov's influence, he wrote Night on Bald Mountain (1867), based on a short story by Gogol on the theme of a witches' sabbath.
His masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov, was completed in 1869 but rejected by the state censor, who found the subject matter too controversial (Boris assassinates the tsarevich in order to steal the throne) and regretted the lack of female roles and a ballet. The first performance in 1874 was a success, but, after Mussorgsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov revised the more innovative features of the orchestration, which had been frowned on during his lifetime. Mussorgsky's credo of translating truth into a sincere musical language, which inspired his successors from Debussy* to Janacek and from Berg to Poulenc*, was unpopular with his contemporaries. In Russian art, Mussorgsky remains the emblematic figure of the cursed composer, torn between bouts of mysticism and depression, and suffering from epilepsy and alcoholism. He owes his fame to his friends and followers, and notably *Rimsky-Korsakov*, who undertook to finish or orchestrate his many unfinished works.
Six landmark dates in the life of Mussorgsky:
• 1856: while still an officer and an amateur pianist, he met César Cui and Balakirev; the latter would became his musical guide.
• 1861: helped establish The Five, a group of Russian Romantic composers made up of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Cui and Mussorgsky.
• 1863: Mussorgsky had to work as civil servant to overcome the problems caused by the abolition of serfdom.
• 1863-1865: composed the motifs that he would later reuse in Boris Godunov; unfinished opera, Salammbô, based on the novel by Flaubert.
• 1866: in his search for a new musical language, Mussorgsky turned away from Balakirev and worked instead with Rimsky-Korsakov and Stasov.
• 1870: the group formed by The Five starts to disintegrate; Mussorgsky is the only one left and sinks into alcoholism.
Six key works by Mussorgsky:
• 1867: Night on Bald Mountain, a symphonic poem also orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886.
• 1868-1872: The Nursery, song cycle for voice and piano.
• 1872: Boris Godunov * (revised version, original version in 1869), opera consisting of a prologue and 4 acts, loosely based on Pushkin's drama. First performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1874. Re-orchestrated twice by Rimsky-Korsakov (1896 and 1906); both composers' versions co-exist today.
_• 1874_: *Pictures at an Exhibition, suite of 10 pieces for piano; this work has also been arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel (1922).
• 1875-1877: Songs and Dances of Death, a cycle of 4 songs for voice (tenor or baritone) and piano; orchestrated by Shostakovich in 1962.
• 1872-1880: Khovanshchina, a posthumous nationalist music drama in 5 acts, orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov and first performed in 1886; subsequently revised by Shostakovich.