Mussorgsky was an extraordinarily individualistic Russian composer of the late 19th century. He is most noted for his orchestral tone poem Night on a Bald Mountain and his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. His vocal writing showed a strikingly unique style of using both speech inflections and lyricism in melody-writing. He was often in deliberate defiance with the conventions of music in the West and was one of the group of Russian composers named ‘The Five’ who aimed to establish a Russian national style of music composition.
Modest Mussorgsky was born into an aristocratic family, 400km from St. Petersburg. He learned piano from the age of 6 and three years later he was able to perform works by John Field and Franz Liszt for family and friends. He and his brother attended the elite German-speaking Petrischule in St. Petersburg, where the young Modest continued with his piano lessons, followed by the Cadet School of the Guard. He went on to work for the Russian Imperial Guard, where his detrimental habits of alcoholism began.
It was at the age of 17 that Mussorgsky’s musical life took off. He met the composer Alexander Borodin while they were both working at a military hospital. Borodin became his new teacher and introduced him to composers that were to have a huge effect on him: Balakirev, Dargomyzhsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui as well as the music critic Vladimir Stasov. In 1858, Mussorgsky resigned from the Russian Imperial Guard to devote himself entirely to music, by that time also studying with Balakirev.