Mussorgsky was the most innovative of the group of nationalist
Russian composers known as "The Five." His parents -cultured,
wealthy landowners — sent him to the Guards' cadet school in St
Petersburg, where he met the composer Dargomijsky, and later the
other future members of The Five — Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and
In 1858 he resigned his commission to take up composition and
started lessons with Balakirev. In 1863, however, increasing money
problems forced him to take a relatively low-ranking civil service
position, in which he remained almost until the time of his death.
In this situation he produced his first significant
compositions, the songs of 1864. His progress was temporarily
halted the following year as he battled against the alcoholism
that would plague him throughout his life. He recovered to
complete his best orchestral piece — Night on a bare mountain
-in 1867. Despite his justified satisfaction with the work, it
was only performed and published after his death in a drastically
revised version by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Mussorgsky encountered similar difficulties with
his opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin's tragedy, which
was rejected in 1869 by the Imperial Opera because it had no lead
soprano, no lead tenor, and no central love scene. He revised the
work but it was again rejected and was not performed until 1874.
The premiere was a public success but a critical failure, even
drawing harsh comments from other members of The Five. The opera
was withdrawn after only 25 performances.
Mussorgsky's music was simply too
unconventional. He avoided the influence of other composers and
previous musical traditions, seeking instead to distil the basic
elements of music and use them to express his ideas in his own
way. If there were influences, they tended to be from spheres
other than music. One of these was the painter and architect
Victor Hartmann, whose memorial exhibition in 1874 inspired
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition — a collection of
piano pieces that reflect ten of Hartmann's paintings. This work
came to be very influential and was later orchestrated by several
composers, most notably Ravel.
At the end of his life, Mussorgsky enjoyed some
fame as a pianist and the composer of Boris Godunov, but
most of his work was published posthumously, completed or
drastically revised by Rimsky-Korsakov. With the restoration in
the twentieth century of his original scores, his innovative
qualities have now received deserved recognition.