21 March 1839 - 28 March 1881 (age 42)

One of the "Mighty Five" group of Russian 19th century composers. Mussorgsky is best known for his piano works, songs and the opera Boris Godunov. See the works listed in the background of the portrait.






portrait of Mussorgsky


Born: Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, 21 March 1839, in Karevo, Russia
Father: Pyotr Alexeyevich Musirskoy
Mother: Yulia Ivanovna nee Chirikova
Siblings: 4th and eldest son.
1st two, both named Alexei, both died aged 2
3rd son, his brother Filaret Evgeny
Partners: none
Children: none
Died: 28 March 1881, St Petersburg age 42
Cause of death: alcoholic epilepsy
Grave: Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Saint Petersburg see findagrave

Also spelt: Musorgsky, Moussorgsky, Mussurgsky, Musorgskij 


 Romantic - Russian Nationalist
Genres: choral, piano , opera, orchestral, 65 songs
Output: considerable
Influenced by: Balakirev, Berlioz, Glinka, Liszt, Schumann, Russian folk music
Influenced: Bartok, Borodin, Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich

Best known:
- Boris Godunov (opera)
- Khovanshchina (opera)
- Pictures at an Exhibition (piano suite)
- Night on a Bare Mountain (symphonic poem)
- Songs & Dances of Death (song cycle)
- The Nursery
- The Song of the Flea (song)
65 songs


"Thanks to nanny, I've got a deep understanding of Russian tales. 
This deep feeling for the soul of common people; their life became the main impulse for musical improvisation before I learned the basics in piano"

"Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity."

Mussorgsky in Art
A fascinating collection of images in art, portrait, caricatures, cartoons, album covers and postage stamps

A brief biography

Age 6 - Piano lessons from his mother
Age 10 - Went with his brother to St Peter's School in Saint Petersburg. Had a good piano teacher and started to compose piano pieces.
Age 13 - Following family tradition of military service he entered the Cadet School of Guards. He was popular with his fellow cadets because of his piano playing.
Age 17 - graduated and received a commission with one of the best regiments of the Imperial Guard. Became friends with Borodin - they both worked at the military hospital in Saint Petersburg.
Mixed with several eminent cultural figures including Stasov, Cesar Cui (a fellow officer), Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov.
Age 19 - resigned his commission in order to concentrate on music.
Age 20 - helped in the production of Glinka's opera 'A Life of the Tsar'.
Age 22 - Because of the 'Peasant Reform of 1861' he returned to Karevo to try to save the family estate. The estate was lost and with it his security.
Age 24 - Returned to Saint Petersburg and became a civil servant in the Department of Communications. 
Was an active member of 'The Five' a group of five Russian composers: Borodin, César Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and their leader Mily Balakirev
Age 26 - Mother died. His alcoholic problems became worse.
Age 28 - Finished 'Night on a Bald Mountain' but it was not performed until after his death.
Age 29-32 - Wrote his opera 'Boris Godunov' whilst working for the Forestry Department and living with friends.
Shared a room with Rimsky-Korsakov.
Age 33-40 - Years of physical decline due to his drinking. He did however manage to continue composing. He was lucky to have a music-loving boss who was tolerant of his frequent absences from work.
Age 40 - Sacked from government service. His friends organised a fund to enable him to continue composing.
Age 41 - suffered 4 seizures and died in hospital soon after his 42nd birthday.

His last portrait

Young and old Mussorgsky

The most seen image of Mussorgsky is the the one by Ilya Repin showing him as a red nosed scruffy old man. Repin painted this just a few days before Mussorgsky died in hospital. While it is a powerful portrait, I do feel sorry that this is the most common way he is represented. True he was an alcoholic, but he did take care of his appearance and was quite a dapper gent. I reckon he would not be pleased.

Pictures at an Exhibition 

This suite of pieces represents a walk round an exhibition of watercolours painted by Mussorgsky's friend Victor Hartmann who had died the year before. 
They were composed for piano. After Mussorgsky's death various composers produced versions for the orchestra, but it was Ravel's orchestration which has come out on top and is that most performed, adding to its popularity.

  1 Promenade
2 Gnomus 3 The Old Castle
4 Tuileries 5 Bydlo
6 Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks 7 Two Jews, Rich and Poor
8 Limoges - The Market 9 The Catacombs
10 The Hut on Fowl's Legs 11 The Great Gate of Kiev

Night on a Bare Mountain - Disney's Fantasia

Boris Godunov 
The Bolshoi Theater, Moscow  

"Bedtime Prayer" from "The Nursery"
(Josie) Carr-Harris, 11 yo, Young Actors Musical Theater, Moscow

Links, sources and where to go for more information

Answers.com various reference sites including Wikipedia

ClassicalNet a brief biography of Mussorgsky

lesson plan

Classic Cat 

DSO Kids site for children 

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