Modest Mussorgsky

Active - 2007 - 2007  |   Born - Mar 21, 1839   |   Died - Mar 28, 1881   |   Genres - Music, Theater, Travel

Share on

Biography by AllMovie

Modest Mussorgsky's most popular opera, which exists in the original and a debatably "improved" orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov, is Boris Godunov, with its rich tapestry of cinematographic-like scenes from old Russia: the Tsar's throne room, the chanting Orthodox monks, the beggar/seer in the snowfall and his heart-rending song of premonition, the spectacular crowd scenes with the massive pealing of the church bells, the cottage in the woods with the singers' touching lyrical arias, and much more. The work is obviously of great appeal to visual creators in film and television and has received several productions: for TV in the U.K. (1990), the excellent 1989 French, Spanish, Yugoslavian film co-production, Derek Bailey's Boris Godunov (1987) for Russian TV, an East German film dramatization in 1986 emphasizing Pushkin's writing, director Joseph Losey's dramatic production (1980) for French TV, the West German film of 1955, and the hard-to-find Mitchell Leisen musical film Tonight We Sing (1953), which also uses the Processional from the opera.

Perhaps Modest Mussorgsky's best opera, Khovanshchina has received a Soviet production in 1961, a splendid and lush Austrian television production, directed by Brian Large in 1989, and a Bulgarian TV production that same year.

The scariest sequence in the Disney Studios animation classic Fantasia (1940), aside from some of the dinosaurs in the Stravinsky sequence and Thor throwing thunderbolts in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, is the scene that depicts a satanic demon atop a craggy peak unfolding its gigantic wings while it is surrounded by servant goblins floating in airy streams to the sounds of Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain. This music is an evocation of an elemental evil force, pre-religion. The music's spirit found its way into the terrifically bizarre pre-Fantasia animated French short Une nuit sur le mont chauve (1933), by Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker, with its many abstract images. The demons in The Wizard of Oz (1939) are accompanied by Mussorgsky's music, and satirical and camp uses occur in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and in Rock 'n' Roll Frankenstein (1999).

Mussorgsky's friend Victor Hartmann, a painter and architect, was seeking, like the composer, to create a truly Russian art based on native influences and traditions. A year after Hartmann died, an exhibition of his paintings was held in Moscow and Mussorgsky was so moved by the art he created a cycle of piano works, later orchestrated by composer Maurice Ravel, based on the imagery. The entire work is the basis for the wonderful 50-minute Japanese animation Tenrankai no e (Pictures at an Exhibition) from 1966. The slow and pathétique movement called Bydlo, to which one can imagine the weary and unceasing plodding of an old wooden cart over dirt pathways, underscores documentary footage of devastation in the 1944 film The Battle of China (aka by the series title Why We Fight, 6). Other parts of the cycle are also used to enhance comedic moments in The Big Lebowski (1998).

A dramatic biography about the composer was Musorgskij (1950) made in the Soviet Union, and released in the U.S. in 1951.