Musorgsky: His Life and Works

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"David Brown gives us the first life-and-works study of Modest Musorgsky to appear in English for over a half century. Indeed, this is the largest such study of Musorgsky to have appeared outside Russia." Brown shows how Musorgsky, though essentially an amateur with no systematic training in composition, emerged in his first opera, Boris Godunov, as a supreme musical dramatist. Indeed, in this opera, and in certain of his piano pieces in Pictures at an Exhibition, Musorgsky produced some of the most startlingly novel music of the whole nineteenth century. He was also one of the most original of all song composers, with a prodigious gift for uncovering the emotional content of a text. As Brown illuminates Musorgsky's work, he also paints a detailed portrait of the composer's life. He describes how, unlike the systematic and disciplined Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky was a fitful composer. When the inspiration was upon him, he could apply himself with superhuman intensity, as he did when composing the initial version of Boris Godunov. Sadly, Musorgsky deteriorated in his final years, suffering periods of inner turmoil, when his alcoholism would be out of control. Finally, unemployed and all but destitute, he died at age forty-two. His failure to complete his two remaining operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair, Brown concludes, is one of music's greatest tragedies.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brown, author of the standard biography of Tchaikovsky and professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Southampton, brings his many years of Russian music writing to this biography of Russian composer Musorgsky. Most famous for his opera Boris Godunov and his orchestral piece St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (made popular as the climax of Disney's Fantasia), Musorgsky was a member of a group of nationalist composers often called "the Mighty Handful," whose members included Tchaikovsky. Brown devotes major chapters of his book to the composition and music of Musorgsky's operas, such as the various versions of Boris as well as the unfinished Khovanshchina and Sorochintsky Fair, which were worked on by other composers after his death. Brown's deep interest lies in the music rather than the man, for he pays little interest to Musorgsky's medical problems, especially the "dementia" and depressions of his early years, which Brown considers to be the results of the composer's alcoholism, a disease that killed him at the age of 42. And while Brown does not have the rhetorical panache of Richard Taruskin (Musorgsky), he refrains from musicological jargon or overly technical musical analyses, bringing together a solid biography of the composer. 3 line illustrations and 18 halftones not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: Opera fans, singers and general music buffs will want this book for their collections. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The latest addition to Oxford's "Master Musicians" series, this is actually an update of a 1946 volume on Mussorgsky from Oxford. Musicologist Brown (Mikhail Glinka; Tchaikovsky) clearly knows late 19th-century Russian music and society and accurately portrays his subject as an amateur with no conservatory training in composition who nonetheless became one of the most revered of the group of Russian nationalist composers known as "The Five." His early death at age 42, brought on by alcohol poisoning, was a tragedy of immeasurable proportions, as he left incomplete two operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair. The book is well organized: the author seamlessly weaves perceptive but not overly arcane musical analysis with rich biographical detail. Three chapters are devoted to a detailed discussion of Mussorgsky's operatic masterpiece, Boris Godunov, but several other important works, such as Night on Bald Mountain (here referred to by its British title, St. John's Night on Bare Mountain) and Songs and Dances of Death, are given less than their due. The bibliography, which contains more than a dozen Russian-language sources, is reasonably thorough and up-to-date, and it includes a good deal of the writing on Mussorgsky by the brilliant and controversial American musicologist Richard Taruskin. Overall, this is an indispensable addition to the scanty material in English on this great Russian composer. Highly recommended for all collections.-Larry Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A masterfully wrought, well-illustrated and elegantly crafted biography...The book is destined to become a cornerstone of English-language Russian music scholarship and is recommended reading." —Slavic and East European Journal

"A no-holds-barred biography.... Brown enthusiastically traces Musorgsky's entire output in a rich historical and social context. He draws freely on the latest scholarship to give us a new vision of the composer.... In addition to being a state-of-the-art guide to the composer's life and works, it is a useful introduction to the history of mid-19th-century Russian music. For those undaunted by the density of Brown's musical examples, his illumination of this impressive body of work can only foster deeper appreciation and further investigation."—New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780198165873
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Series: Master Musicians Series
  • Pages: 424
  • Product dimensions: 9.55 (w) x 6.44 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

David Brown, now retired, was Professor of Musicology at the University of Southampton. The editor of the New Grove Russian Masters series, he is the author of two major biographies of Russian composers, Mikhail Glinka and Tchaikovsky.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations

A Note on Dates

1 - Childhood and Early Years

2 - The Making of a Composer I

3 - The Making of a Composer II

4 - The Early Songs I

5 - Salammbo

6 - The Early Songs II

7 - St John's Night on the Bare Mountain: More Songs

8 - The Marriage: Towards Boris

9 - Boris Godunov: Composition and Production

10 - Boris Godunov: The Music

11 - Life alongside Boris I: The Nursery Completed

12 - Life alongside Boris II: Khovanshchina Begun

12 - Two Relationships: Pictures at an Exhibition and Sunless

14 - Khovanshchina

15 - Songs and Dances of Death: Last Songs

16 - Sorochintsy Fair

17 - Final Years

18 - Postlude: The Century Since

Appendices A, B, C, D


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