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The Different Pictures of Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky (Ilya Repin, 1881)

Judging by Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) ever-popular Pictures at an Exhibition and the relative scarcity of his other work, we might be excused for thinking he’d written little else. There is a reason: Mussorgsky’s difficult life.
He was born into an upper-class landowning family and trained as an army officer, but gave up stability and material comfort for music. Plagued by poverty, a life-long drinking problem, and paralyzing bouts of anxiety and depression, he would descend often into an emotional black hole that froze his productivity.

His best-known works Pictures and the opera Boris Godunov paint a portrait of an extroverted, highly energetic individual. But throughout his career, his most intimate musical thoughts emerged in art songs. These reveal a different side of this enigmatic composer.

Radio Script:

Debra Lew Harder: In 1874 the death of a friend inspired Modest Mussorgsky to write Pictures at an Exhibition.

Music: “Promenade” from Pictures at an Exhibition. Barry Douglas, piano

Stéphane Denève: The music of Mussorgsky seems to re-define what music is. It’s very strange. The piano pieces that he wrote are harmonically very weird, unconventional, it’s one of its kind, there’s nothing like that, and... it touches you.

DLH: Mussorgsky struggled with alcoholism and emotional instability throughout his life. At the same time he was writing the highly extroverted Pictures at an Exhibition, he was also composing an intensely private song cycle called Sunless, about a disappointed lover’s anguished memories.

Music: “On the River,” from Sunless. Benjamin Luxon, baritone, David Willison, piano.

DLH: In the final song “On the River,” the hero escapes his unbearable pain by sinking into a river forever. Pictures was not published until five years after Mussorgsky’s early death; he would never know how its bold strokes have made it one of the world’s most popular pieces. The little-known songs of Sunless, deep with feeling and subtler colors, give a more complete picture of this complex composer.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.