In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modest Petrovich Musorgsky

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Musorgsky and the “Mighty Handful”
  • Musorgsky’s Heritage: Memories, Letters, and Documents
  • The Style of Musorgsky: Books, Essay Collections, and Articles
  • Guides to Musorgsky’s Works and Editions
  • Biographies Published from the 1900s to the 1940s
  • Biographies Published from the 1950s to the 1970s
  • Biographies Published from the 1980s to 2009
  • Musorgsky in Pskov
  • Books on Boris Godunov
  • Dissertations on Boris Godunov
  • Articles on Boris Godunov
  • Books on Khovanshchina
  • Dissertations on Khovanshchina
  • Articles on Khovanshchina
  • Books on Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Dissertations on Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Chapters in Textbooks on Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Articles and Essays on Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Chapters in Biographies on Pictures at an Exhibition
  • Dissertations on Songs and Dances of Death
  • Other Sources on Songs and Dances of Death

Music Modest Petrovich Musorgsky
Svetlana Maddox, Elena Nagacevschi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0231


Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (b. 1839–d. 1881) is one of Russia’s most prominent 19th-century composers. While he did not plan to be a professional musician or composer, Musorgsky (alternate spellings: Mussorgsky, Moussorgsky) wrote several outstanding masterpieces that became the source of inspiration for future generations of composers and musicians in Russia and abroad. Born into a family of rich landowners, Musorgsky was expected to pursue a military career in St. Petersburg. His military career, however, did not overshadow his love for music. After he met the professional composer Mily Balakirev and the music critic Vladimir Stasov (both of whom were eager to educate Musorgsky musically and aesthetically), Modest decided to retire from military service and dedicate his life to composition. Regrettably, Musorgsky’s unique musical language was too bold and dissonant for the taste of some of his contemporaries, and his music was constantly denounced and attacked by music critics. His loneliness, financial troubles, and lack of a home and a stable income drove the composer to depression and drinking. Numerous efforts by his friends to ease his situation did not produce a positive and permanent outcome. As a result, Modest Musorgsky lost his will to live, and he died at the age of forty-two in a military hospital. After the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov completed and orchestrated some of Musorgsky’s works. However, Rimsky-Korsakov did not preserve his original musical language. On the contrary, Rimsky-Korsakov “fixed” Musorgsky’s innovative harmony according with his own taste and traditions of tonal harmony. Musorgsky’s music received broad recognition in Russia and abroad several decades after his death. At the beginning of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky orchestrated Musorgsky’s famous Song of the Flea and several numbers from his opera Khovanshchina. Likewise, Dmitri Shostakovich orchestrated the entire opera Khovanshchina and the vocal cycle Songs and Dances of Death. Shostakovich continued Musorgsky’s tradition of revealing and criticizing social injustice through music. Debussy and Ravel were among the first Western composers who greatly appreciated Musorgsky’s music. Ravel’s successful orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1922 created enormous interest for Musorgsky’s work, and numerous arrangements and orchestrations of this suite appeared thereafter, effectuated by Leopold Stokowski, Emile Naoumoff, Leo Funtek, Byrwec Ellison, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Atar Arad, Michael Allen, and others. Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov and tone poem for orchestra Night on Bald Mountain also received worldwide recognition. Russian audiences enjoy and admire his opera Khovanshchina; the three song cycles Nursery, Sunless, and Songs and Dances of Death; and his numerous art songs. There are a great number of books, essays, articles, dissertations, and other studies written on Musorgsky, and yet the composer constantly attracts the attention of new generations of researchers.

General Overviews

Articles on Musorgsky can be found in all of the prestigious encyclopedias and music dictionaries. There is a comprehensive article on Musorgsky in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Abraham 1980). In this source the composer’s last name is spelled with a single “s” as it is spelled in Russian. Since The New Grove is one of the most respected sources of information among musicians around the world, there is hope that the correct spelling of the composer’s last name will replace any other spellings that are quite common and often preferred among Western scholars. The Russian musicologist Yury Keldysh contributed a valuable article on Musorgsky to the Muzykal’naya Entsiklopediya (Musical Encyclopedia) (Keldysh 1976). Keldysh was the chief editor of the encyclopedia (in six volumes), which was published between 1973 and 1982. Shorter, but still valuable, overviews of Musorgsky’s life and works can be found in Arnold 1983, Kennedy 1994, and Oldani 1999.

  • Abraham, Gerald. “Musorgsky, Modest Petrovich.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 12. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 865–874. London: Macmillan, 1980.

    In his article, the author provides extensive information about Musorgsky’s life and work. At the end of the article there is a complete catalogue of the composer’s works, arranged by genres in chronological order. An ample bibliography provides a list of important works written about the composer by Western and Russian scholars. The entry is useful to researchers who are looking for valuable sources on Musorgsky’s life and work. Even though this article is almost forty years old, it contains accurate and ample information about the composer.

  • Arnold, Denis. “Musorgsky.” In The New Oxford Companion to Music. Vol. 2. By Denis Arnold, 1225–1226. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    This short review offers information about the composer’s musical style and focuses on a few important landmarks in his life. Useful to music students who are collecting introductory information about Musorgsky’s life and works.

  • Keldysh, Yury. “Musorgsky.” In Muzykal’naya Entsiklopediya. Vol. 3. Edited by Yury Keldysh, 838–846. Moscow: Sovetskiy Kompozitor, 1976.

    The focus of the article is to present Musorgsky’s compositional style and provide a general overview of his important compositions. This article abounds with interesting quotations from Musorgsky’s letters, diaries, and documents.

  • Kennedy, Michael. “Musorgsky, Modest.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Music. 2d ed. By Michael Kennedy, 606. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    In this overview, readers will find information on Musorgsky’s life and his affiliation with the “Mighty Handful.” There is an index of Musorgsky’s important compositions, in which the composer’s works appear in chronological order. Moreover, this index includes details about the number of completed scenes in each opera and the dates of new editions, and it lists compositions created in collaboration with other members of the Mighty Handful.

  • Oldani, Robert. “Musorgsky, Modest.” In the Reader’s Guide to Music: History, Theory, Criticism. Edited by Murray Steib, 487–489. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999.

    In his important essay on Musorgsky, Oldani examines various opinions about the composer and his compositional skills during his life in Imperial Russia, perspectives on the composer’s orchestration technique expressed by Western and Soviet researchers in the 20th century, and the most recent approaches and viewpoints about his musical style. This article is a valuable source of information and is recommended to scholars, researchers, and graduate students.

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