March 21, 1839 – Modeste Mussorgsky:
“Art is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.”
The Equity Act of 2021 is the bill just passed by the House of Representatives that prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system. Do you think those deplorable MAGA senators that plan to vote against this landmark legislation would wish to live in a world without the music of Georg Friedrich Handel (1685 – 1759), Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963), Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990), Samuel Barber (1910 – 1981), Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976), Lou Harrison (1917 – 2003), or Leonard Bernstein (1918 –1990)? The Christian Conservatives must have sung Handle’s Messiah at Easter service; even the boss of all Karens, Marjorie Taylor Green, can hum America from West Side Story (well maybe not; it is about brown people). These great composers of the past are just a few of many important male musical figures who were in love with other men.
The list should include 19th-century Russian composer Modeste Mussorgsky. His life was not a happy one. At 13 years old, and although he was a sensitive child, he was sent away to a brutal military academy. Resigning his commission seven years later, he devoted the remainder of his life to musical composition, alcohol, and men.
His father was a wealthy man, and his mother was an English noble woman who had relocated to Russia. His land-owning family, the Mussorgskys, were descended from the sovereign princes of Smolensk, one of the oldest Russian cities.
When he was six years old, Mussorgsky began taking piano lessons from his mother who was a trained pianist. Just three years later, he performed a Concerto by Irish composer John Field (1782 – 1837) and many difficult solo piano pieces by Hungarian Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886).
At 10 years old, he was taken to Saint Petersburg to study at the elite St. Peter’s School. At 12, Mussorgsky wrote his first piano piece to be published (at his father’s expense). As an adult, Mussorgsky became one of “The Five”, a supergroup of Russian composers, including Alexander Borodin (1833 – 1887), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908), César Cui (1835 – 1918) and gay Mily Balakirev (1837 – 1910). Together they created a truly national Russian music, free of the influence of Italian opera and other western European genres of music. Centered in St. Petersburg, The Five were rivals of the more cosmopolitan, Moscow-centered composers such as Tchaikovsky.
His monumental opera Boris Gudnov (1869) was produced in St. Petersburg, and his popular orchestral work Night On Bald Mountain was first performed in 1867 (known to many from the Disney film Fantasia (1940). Pictures At An Exhibition (1874), Mussorgsky’s most-famous piano composition, is a showpiece for virtuoso pianists. It has become better known through orchestrations and arrangements produced by other musicians and composers, with Maurice Ravel‘s 1922 version for full symphony orchestra being the most recorded and performed.
During his life Mussorgsky formed many romantic attachments, unfortunately some of them to straight men. Pictures At An Exhibition was some watercolors painted by a handsome, young, and straight architect and painter, Viktor Hartmann (1834 – 1873,) with whom Mussorgsky was desperately, painfully, head-over-heels in love. Hartmann was Jewish and of Polish descent, making this obsession rather astounding, because the influential Mussorgsky family was both blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Polish.
Hartmann made 17 sketches for the ballet Trilby. The ballet featured the children of the Imperial Ballet School, and costumes were designed for them to look like butterflies, birds, and unhatched chicks.
Following Hartmann’s early death from an aneurysm at just 39 years old, an exhibition of over 400 of his paintings was displayed in the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, in February and March 1874. This inspired Mussorgsky to compose Pictures At An Exhibition. Most of the works shown at the exhibition are now lost.
Mussorgsky was a helpless alcoholic (with a permanently red nose to prove it), addicted to booze from his military school days. To be fair, drinking too much was considered typical for Mussorgsky’s generation; they wanted to oppose the establishment and protest through extreme forms of behavior. Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg dive bar, the Maly Yaroslavets, accompanied by other bohemians. He and his fellow drinkers idealized their alcoholism, seeing it as both ethical and aesthetic.
At 17 years old, Mussorgsky received a commission from the regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, where he served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg with Borodin. The two were remarkably close. Borodin wrote of Mussorgsky:
“His uniform was spic and span, close-fitting, his feet turned outwards, his hair smoothed down and greased, his nails perfectly cut, his hands well groomed like a Lord’s. His manners were elegant, aristocratic – his speech likewise, interspersed with French phrases, rather precious. There was a touch of foppishness, but his politeness and good manners were exceptional. The ladies made a fuss over him. He sat at the piano and, throwing up his hands coquettishly, played with extreme sweetness and grace, eliciting responses such as ‘charmant, délicieux!’ and the like.“
Mussorgsky resigned his military commission in 1858 to devote himself full time to composition. However, the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs on private Russian estates meant his family was deprived of half its land and income. Within two years the Mussorgsky estate was liquidated. His mother died soon thereafter, prompting Mussorgsky to lapse into an extended bout of heavy drinking starting at 26 years old. His frustrated, repressed gayness did not help.
At 29, Mussorgsky started to write an opera based on the life of Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar from 1598 to 1605, using text from Alexander Pushkin‘s 1832 hit play. He completed the score the following year while living with friends and working as a civil servant for the Forestry Department, such was the loss of Mussorgsky family fortune.
The opera had its world premiere in January 1874 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Peterburg. The USA premiere of Boris Godunov, using a 1908 version tinkered-with by Rimsky-Korsakov, was on March 21, 1913 at the Metropolitan Opera, and was based on Sergey Dyagilev‘s Paris production (the first performance outside Russia). The first Russian language performance in the USA was in 1974, using the original Mussorgsky orchestrations, with Martti Talvela performing the title role by the Metropolitan Opera.
Although his success brought him into a circle of eminent singers and actors, he just could not resist drinking, and a succession of deaths among his closest friends caused him great deal of pain. Yet, at times, his drinking would be more under control, and among the most powerful works composed during his last six years are his Four Songs And Dances Of Death.
His civil service career became precarious because of his frequent illnesses and absences, but he was fortunate to obtain a transfer to a post where a music-loving superior gave him great leniency; in 1879 he was allowed him to take off three months touring twelve cities as a singer’s accompanist.
In 1880, he was finally dismissed from government service. Friends organized a fund to support the completion of two new works, but neither work was produced (they are now lost). The friends found him a comfortable room in a good hospital. The famous red-nosed portrait by Ilya Yefimovich Repin was painted in the last days of the composer’s life; a week after his 42nd birthday, he was dead. You can visit him at the Tikhvin Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.
Poor Mussorgsky was a gay man living in an era when loving other men meant certain ruin, and he got caught in a painful spiral of self-destruction.