For the barely thirteen-year-old Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, the year 1852 is pivotal for three completely different reasons. Firstly, he is sent off to a cadet school; secondly, his first composition, the “Porte-enseigne Polka” which is dedicated to his new classmates, is published (at his father’s expense, but published nonetheless). And thirdly, 1852 is probably also the year when Mussorgsky first encounters his nemesis, which would have a decisive influence on the rest of his life and eventually bring about his death: alcohol. It is believed that his classmates coaxed him into drinking, and it became an addiction that would remain with him throughout his life.
He leaves a military career behind, however, to dedicate himself entirely to music; but his family’s social and financial downfall compels him to earn money. He accepts a position as a low-grade civil servant and moves into a shared house with a fluctuating group of young artists, which Mussorgsky himself refers to as a “commune.” Here the residents engage in political discussions and philosophical musings about God and the world, and above all about art. And this is where Mussorgsky’s search begins for a completely new kind of Russian music.
© Ulla Pilz - Radio Österreich 1


  • 1839 born as the son of a wealthy landowner in northwestern Russia, first piano lessons with his mother at the age of four, first concert at nine

  • 1857 lessons with Mily Balakirev, who acquaints him with the idea of a Russian national music

  • 1860 first official performance of a composition by Mussorgsky, the Scherzo in B-flat Major under the direction of Anton Rubinstein

  • 1861 serfdom is abolished in Russia, Mussorgsky’s family is impoverished

  • 1862 Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin, and César Cui join together to form the “Mighty Five,” who seek to renew Russian art music through the incorporation of folk music, a striving toward realism, and references to language

  • 1865 death of Mussorgsky’s mother, the composer falls into delirium tremens

  • 1871–72 shares a room with Rimsky-Korsakov, who works hard to revise and disseminate the life’s work of Mussorgsky after his early death

  • 1874 premiere of his opera Boris Godunov, which had often been reworked up to then; the same year he composes Pictures at an Exhibition

  • 1880 he is forced to resign from his post as a civil servant for health reasons, and dies on March 28, 1881, seven days after his forty-second birthday

Did you know?

  • Mussorgsky and his composer colleagues are opposed to everything academic in music and proudly view themselves as amateurs. When Rimsky-Korsakov accepts a position as professor at the Conservatory, he is sharply criticized by his friend.

  • Claude Debussy says about Mussorgsky: “Nobody has spoken to that which is best in us with such tenderness and depth as he did ... Never before has such a refined sensibility expressed itself with such simple means.”

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky sees him in a more critical light: “ ... For all his ugliness, Mussorgsky does speak to us in a new language. It may not be beautiful, but it is fresh.”

  • The composer is believed to have been unhappily in love with the architect Viktor Hartmann, whose drawings were the inspiration for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

  • When he is to accompany the Italian tenor Ravelli and the singer is feeling a bit unwell, Mussorgsky transposes all the pieces down on the spot, without rehearsing and thoroughly drunk.

  • Mussorgsky is a firm opponent of the principle of l’art pour art. His intention is for his music to communicate like human language.