Composer Profile: Modest Mussorgsky, The Russian Genius Behind ‘Boris Godunov’

By David Salazar

Of “The Five” Russian composers, Modest Mussorgsky’s legacy is arguably the most enduring and innovative.

Born on March 21, 1839 in Karevo to a wealthy family. He started piano lessons at age six and by age nine was already taking on works of the great composers such as Franz Liszt. At age 10, he went to Saint Petersburg where he continued his studies and by age 12 he had published a piece titled “Porte-enseigne Polka.”

During his military service, he remained studying the piano and at age 17, he met Borodin and eventually became part of The Five Russian composers. His musical style tended to move away from traditional structures and established himself well in the Russian scene.

However, he had a tumultuous career as a civil servant, that paired with his own illnesses, would cause his decline and he died on March 16, 1881; he was not yet 42.

Signature Works

The composer is most remembered for one opera, which towers over all others in the Russian repertory. This work is, of course, “Boris Godunov,” which has become a major staple of the standard repertory. Many consider it among the greatest operas ever created.

His other opera, “Khovanshchina” is also performed with regularity in Russia and is also highly regarded.

Read More on Mussorgsky

A Look at His Unfinished Operas

Read More on “Boris Godunov”

Watch and Listen

Here is a performance of “Boris Godunov.”


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