Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (Моде́ст Петро́вич Му́соргский) (March 21, 1839 – March 28, 1881; sometimes spelt Modeste Moussorgsky), was an innovative Russian composer famed for his colourful, exotic, and lush orchestral pieces dedicated to various subjects of medieval Russian history. His major works include the great national opera, Boris Godunov, and the piano suite called Pictures at an Exhibition.
Mussorgsky's family descended from the first Russian ruler, Rurik, through the sovereign princes of Smolensk. Modest was prepared by his parents for the military career, but under the influence of Mily Balakirev quit the service and joined The Five, a group of composers dedicated to promoting a distinctly Russian kind of music. His first published works were an unfinished opera Salambbo and a cycle of songs.
During his lifetime, Mussorgsky was but little known, lived in dismal poverty and shared his lodging with the fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He died from alcohol intoxication on March 28, 1881 and was interred at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. Rimsky-Korsakov then completed and recomposed some of Mussorgsky's works, and these were made famous through the criticism of Vladimir Stasov.
The striking novelty of Mussorgsky's original compositions had not been rediscovered until the mid-20th century, when Dmitri Shostakovich reorchestrated his two operas on the Muscovite history, Boris Godunov (based on Pushkin's play of the same title) and Khovanshchina.
One of Mussorgsky's wildest and most barbaric pieces (as the contemporary critics put it) is the orchestral work St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain, which was made famous in the US by its appearance in Disney's Fantasia.
His most imaginative and frequently performed work is the cycle of piano pieces, describing pictures in sound and called Pictures at an Exhibition. This composition, best known through an orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel, was written in commemoration of his friend, the architect Viktor Hartmann.
Among his other works are a number of songs, including three song cycles: The Nursery (1872), Sunless (1874) and Songs & Dances of Death (1877). Sunless lends its title to the 1982 film Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. The significance of the reference is not readily apparent, but the connection is acknowledged explicitly by Marker towards the end of the film.