18 December: The sad tale of Mussorgsky

Every day throughout Advent, the season of overindulgence, we’ll be telling a tale of an overindulgent composer


Composer: Modest Mussorgsky


How indulgent: Devastatingly indulgent

How: Mussorgsky’s short life represents the sad dangers of excessive alcohol. Facing increasing social isolation, the composer’s alcoholism accelerated his decline so that in 1880 he was dismissed from his job in the government’s forestry department for poor behaviour.

His poverty and addiction to drink made composing increasingly difficult, and he soon suffered from epileptic fits and delirium. He complained to a friend that there was ‘nothing left but begging’ after suffering from four consecutive seizures. He died just one week after turning 42.

Did you know: It has been documented how a friend returned from a trip abroad to find Mussorgsky ‘nearly in rags, swollen with alcohol’.  The portrait below, painted by Ilya Repin, was painted days before the composer passed away.

Now indulge yourself with…..  ‘Where art thou, little Star?’


This is Mussorgsky’s earliest song, written at the age of 18. The composer soon rewrote the original voice and piano score for voice and orchestra. Hardly a bright and optimistic piece to warm you up this winter, this is not a celebration of a star heralding the birth of Christ. This is a fatalistic work that nonetheless provides moments of beauty, with the opening cello line’s melancholic atmosphere lifted when the minor-key chords soon expand into a brighter major key, following the entry of the voice.