Musorgsky [Mussorgsky; Moussorgsky], Modest Petrovich
- Robert W. Oldani
(b Karevo, Pskov district, 9/March 21, 1839; d St Petersburg, 16/March 28, 1881). Russian composer. His life was disjointed, ending in loneliness and poverty, and at the time of his death some of his most important compositions were left unfinished. His greatest achievements were as a composer of operas and solo songs. Largely self-taught and highly intellectual, he discovered a way of writing for the voice that was both lyrical and true to the inflections of speech. He was the most strikingly individual Russian composer of the later 19th century and an avatar of modernism for the generation of Debussy and Ravel.
Like several other 19th-century Russian composers, Musorgsky was born in the countryside to wealth and property. The family's principal estate, where he spent the first ten years of his life, lay amid forests and fields about 400 km south-south-east of St Petersburg, overlooking Lake Zhizhitsa (formerly Zhistso). According to an autobiographical sketch written late in life, he took delight as a toddler in the Russian folktales of his nurse and tried to capture their spirit in improvisations at the piano before he had learnt even the most basic rules of playing. At the age of six he began music lessons with his mother, who taught him those rules. His progress was rapid if unexceptional within his social class: he was playing small pieces by Liszt at the age of seven and a Field concerto before an audience of family and friends two years later. In ...