Russian composers often have a flair for conceiving works of extraordinary character and quality almost ‘without trying’. Tchaikovsky found inspiration itself a force so implacable that, ‘if it continued unbroken, survival, even for a single day, would not be possible’. His contemporary, Modest Petrovich Musorgsky, could, when his imagination was truly fired, pour out music that is unprecedented and powerful as any other from the later 19th century.

Sadly, however, flaws in Musorgsky’s own character denied him fulfilment of his true potential. Born in 1839, he was taught the piano by his mother. However, his family intended him for the army, and in 1856 he became an officer in a Guards’ Regiment (he resigned two years later). Though he had already shown interest in composition he did not take this seriously until, in 1857, he met two composers: the elderly, but now ‘radical’ Alexander Dargomïzhsky, who would unwittingly provide a model for one of Musorgsky’s own most radical pieces; and the very young Mily Balakirev, who gave Musorgsky his only significant composition lessons, and through whom he would meet Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. The mentor of this small group of musicians, known as ‘the mighty handful’, was the critic Vladimir Stasov, whose influence on Musorgsky was to be both stimulating and at times destructive.

In 1863 Musorgsky entered the civil service, and also joined a commune with some other young men who believed in ‘realism’ in art: this had a brief but powerful influence on his music. Musorgsky left the commune in 1865, lost his civil service post in 1867, and became something of a loner, troubled by nervous crises, and working only intermittently. During the 1860s he produced a fair crop of compositions, but subsequently his changeable moods and increasing addiction to alcohol would undermine his capacity for systematic work.

In 1868 he had set about his opera, Boris Godunov, which would be his preoccupation for the next six years. But during the 1870s his drinking habits became more extreme; two further operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair, remained unfinished when he died, almost forgotten, in 1881. Indeed, but for the subsequent selfless dedication of Rimsky-Korsakov, who undertook the formidable task of putting in order his old friend’s musical legacy, unhesitatingly rewriting what he saw as faults in Musorgsky’s musical syntax, and filling the gaps, sometimes huge, in his uncompleted works, much of Musorgsky’s music would have been unknown to us. Today, of course, it is recognised that Musorgsky’s music needs no ‘correction’, and where the composer himself completed a work it is more often its original version which is performed.

But what of this music? It is extraordinary that this disorderly, reclusive, seemingly uninteresting man should have been able to conceive such radical and truly great music: Boris Godunov is one of the two greatest 19th-century Russian operas. But Musorgsky had already composed some striking pieces ahead of Boris. One such was the orchestral Night on a Bare Mountain, begun in 1866. In this representation of a witches’ sabbath Musorgsky’s orchestral imagery is already brilliant, sometimes startlingly original: in 1880 he revised the piece, adding a chorus and solo voices, and incorporated it into Sorochintsy Fair (it is this version on which Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous orchestral version is based).

At the opposite stylistic extreme from Bare Mountain is the music he ‘invented’ for Gogol’s comedy, The Marriage. Here he turned to the very functional style Dargomïzhsky had devised for his opera, The Stone Guest, a setting of the ‘little tragedy’ by the poet and playwright, Alexander Pushkin, entirely uncut. ‘I want the sound to express the truth directly: I want truth!’ the older composer had earlier declared. Musorgsky likewise took Gogol’s play exactly as it stood, abandoning conventional melody, setting the dramatist’s text to a recitative style in which he endeavoured almost pedantically to retain the natural inflections of the spoken word and backing this with a mostly sparse accompaniment so that singers could realise their parts as realistically as possible. Musorgsky tried out the first scene of The Marriage on some friends who seem, unsurprisingly, to have been mostly bewildered by it, and he abandoned the piece. Nevertheless, for the truly adventurous listener it can still offer a fascinating experience. At this stage Musorgsky’s work drive was still at full throttle, for having abandoned The Marriage in early November 1868, by 16 November he had already composed the first scene of his greatest work, Boris Godunov.

The real-life Boris became Tsar of Russia in 1598 after the death of the infant heir, but there were those who suspected that Boris was a regicide, and in 1824 Pushkin had followed this line in the play upon which Musorgsky based his opera. Boris Godunov is the tale of a man destroyed by guilt. Musorgsky composed his first version in nine months, but after this was rejected he revised it heavily and it was at last premiered in 1874. Boris Godunov is a powerful and moving story in which a variety of characters play out the action against the intermittent background of the chorus, who represent the Russian people, and whose fate is bewailed by the Simpleton in the opera’s dying sounds. There is no room here to comment upon the richness, diversity and sheer eloquence of Musorgsky’s music, but Boris Godunov is its own best advocate.

The opera which followed Boris might have matched its great predecessor if only it had been completed. Khovanshchina (The Khovansky plot) was again based on Russian history, though some hundred years on. It charts the process whereby the young tsar, Peter the Great, disposed of those persons and movements that impeded his absolute power. Stasov suggested this epic subject to Musorgsky as suitable for operatic treatment, and the composer successfully completed the first Act, then composed a substantial part of the second. However Stasov’s crassly insensitive criticism of the work in progress then shattered his self-confidence. He was unable to finish the opera, though what Musorgsky did complete suggests that Khovanshchina could have proved as fine as Boris. As it is, Rimsky-Korsakov stepped in after Musorgsky’s death, plugging the dramatic gaps and scoring the whole. A third opera, Sorochintsy Fair, which Musorgsky began composing concurrently with Khovanshchina, was a comic piece based on a story by Gogol set in a peasant environment. An even smaller proportion of that was sketched, and the Soviet composer, Vissarion Shebalin, completed and scored the work for its premiere in 1931.

There are two other areas of Musorgsky’s output worth exploring, despite being untypical of his work: music for piano and his songs. One of his most popular works, Pictures at an Exhibition was inspired by the sudden death in 1873 of a close friend, the artist Victor Hartmann. A commemorative exhibition of Hartmann’s work mounted in 1874 prompted Musorgsky to compose this suite of ten pieces for piano, each inspired by a painting. Musorgsky, who had already revealed a gift for musical characterisation and caricature, responded magnificently. Inserted between some of the pictures is a theme, ‘Promenade’, depicting the viewer walking between exhibits. Pictures is best known today in Ravel’s orchestrated version, but the original works best – with the right pianist.

As for the songs, there are about a hundred of them, many as fine as any written by more familiar composers. However their Russian language texts has contributed to their neglect in the West. Their style and content are immensely varied, and every human emotion and character imaginable can be found in them. There are song cycles, too: The Nursery contains five wonderfully pantomimic portrayals of childhood incidents, while at the other dramatic extreme are the grim, intimidating Songs and Dances of Death. These are strongly recommended to the adventurous listener.

David Brown