Musorgsky was born in Karevo, Russia, in 1839, and was a member of the Five, a group of Russian composers that included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He was known for emphasizing his music’s Russian identity and being influenced Russian history and folklore in his work.
Musorgsky began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six years old. At the age of nine, he began performing for family and friends, and the following year, he was sent to Peterschule in St. Petersburg with his brother to study. When he was 12, he published his first piano composition. He enrolled in the Cadet School of the Guards at the age of 13 in order to prepare for military service. His piano skills were recognized, and he was able to continue with his lessons.
Musorgsky met Alexander Borodin while serving in a military hospital, and he also met Alexander Daromyzhsky, a well-known composer at the time, with whom he began to socialize. Musorgsky met César Cui and Balakirev at Daromyzhsky’s soirees, and they decided to help Musorgsky’s musical career introducing him to music other than piano music, which was all he had known.
Musorgsky gave up his commission in 1858, shortly after the beginning of Balakirev’s tutelage, in order to devote his time to music. He had the opportunity to assist in the production of a Glinka opera the following year, Glinka being the most famous Russian composer at the time. Following the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, he encountered financial difficulties in his family, and after concluding his dealings to try to help his family, he began to teach himself.
In 1865, his mother died, and he composed the original version of Night on Bald Mountain in 1867. The year 1867 saw the first mention of the Five, as well as a stronger link between Musorgsky and Daromyzhsky. Musorsgky tried and failed to write an opera based on natural speech patterns, but in 1868 he started writing an opera based on Boris Godunov’s story.
He completed the first version in 1871, combining a Pushkin play and a historical text Karamzin, only to have it rejected due to the lack of a prima donna role. In 1873, he revised it, and excerpts were staged before the first full production in February 1874. Musorgsky also composed a choral version of Night on Bald Mountain while working on Boris Godunov.
This euphoria was short-lived, and Musorgsky lamented the Five’s disintegration and the death of his friend Viktor Hartmann. Musorgsky began to drink heavily, but he also wrote the Pictures at an Exhibition piano suites. Due to his frequent absences due to alcoholism, he was eventually fired from his job, but was temporarily supported his friends. He had several seizures in early 1881 and died a few weeks later.