On his death, Modest Mussorgsky left several unfinished works, which were mostly prepared for performance by his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – often to the detriment of the original. For Mussorgsky’s unconventional style often fell by the wayside. The situation is different with [Pictures at an Exhibition]. The large-scale piano cycle, which remained largely unnoticed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, became the most popular work of Russian instrumental music in the 20th century in Maurice Ravel’s brilliant orchestral version.
Modest Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, Russia, in 1839, to a wealthy landowning family. He received regular piano lessons at the age of six and was already playing piano concertos at nine. During his time at preparatory school for a military career, Mussorgsky took regular music lessons. In 1856, he transferred as an officer candidate to the famous Preobrazensky Regiment, which had been founded by Peter the Great. Mussorgsky had no thoughts of a professional career as a composer – not even when he was apprenticed to Mili Balakirev, who introduced him to the Western European repertoire of the First Viennese School. It was not until the summer of 1858 that Mussorgsky resigned from the military to dedicate himself entirely to music. Like his colleagues Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, César Cui and Mili Balakirev, he soon belonged to a group known as the “innovators”, who aimed to create a distinctly Russian national style of music that would be fundamentally different from the Western European Classical-Romantic tonal language. Their intellectual mentor, the renowned art critic Vladimir Stasov, gave them the name the “Mighty Handful”. After the abolition of serfdom by Tsar Alexander II, Mussorgsky took up a lowly civil servant position, the tedious work fatally exacerbating his tendency towards alcoholism. This notwithstanding, the composer presented his first major orchestral work, [Night on a Bald Mountain], in 1867, although it was not performed until after his death in Rimsky-Korsakov’s smoothed-out version. From 1868 until his death in 1881, Mussorgsky then focused intensively on opera, composing works such as [Boris Godunov], [Khovanshchina] and [The Fair at Sorochyntsi]. Completely ravaged by alcohol, he was admitted to a military hospital in February 1881, where the composer died on 28 March.