Modest Mussorgsky: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Modest Mussorgsky was a part-time composer who had little formal musical training but wrote several pieces that are still performed regularly. Learn about this unusual composer and briefly explore his most important works.

Part-time Composer

When Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) grew up in Russia, he learned to play piano and sang in the school choir. As a young adult, he served in the army and then worked in government; he never received any formal musical training. Despite limited formal training, he wrote several pieces that are still performed today.

Modest Mussorgsky, 1870
Modest Mussorgsky

When Mussorgsky was 18, he joined a group of other part-time Russian composers now known as 'The Mighty Handful.' This group had been formed a year earlier by Mily Balakirev and Cesar Cui. They were later joined by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. Like Mussorgsky, they were all musical amateurs with other careers. Balakirev was their leader; having had a little more musical education, he shared his knowledge with the others. They studied and worked together to create a new style of music that they felt represented their Russian heritage.

Night on Bald Mountain

Mussorgsky began writing songs and piano works. In 1867, he produced several orchestra pieces including the original version of his now-famous St. John's Night on Bare Mountain which today is often called Night on Bald Mountain. It is usually played around Halloween because it is so realistically spooky-sounding.

It is based on a Russian legend that claims the black god Chernobog (Satan in the form of a black goat) presides over a witches' sabbath at Kiev's Mount Triglav on the night of June 23, the eve of St. John's Day. The music is very descriptive and ends with chimes striking the new day, which causes the evil spirits to vanish. Mussorgsky revised the piece several times and Rimsky-Korsakov arranged it again after Mussorgsky died. It is this final version that was popularized in Walt Disney's Fantasia and is still performed today.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky had a friend named Victor Hartmann who died in 1873 at age 39. Hartmann was a prominent architect and artist whose drawings, designs, paintings, and sketches were put on display in a memorial exhibition the following year. Inspired by this tribute to his friend, Mussorgsky wrote a large piano work intended to capture 10 of the pictures, along with music that depicts someone moving among them in an art gallery. This traveling music, called 'Promenade,' opens the work and returns periodically as an interlude.

Some of the artwork by Hartmann that Mussorgsky experienced has now been lost, but one can find online images of 'Unhatched Chicks in their Shell,' 'Catacombs,' and 'The Great Gate at Kiev.' The clock image shown below represents another movement called 'The Hut on Fowl's Legs.' It is a portion of music based on a Russian fairytale about a witch named Baba Yaga.

Clock designed on Baba Yaga
Clock designed on Baba Yaga

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