Modest Mussorgsky

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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (or, variously, Musorgsky, Mussougsky, Moussougsky etc.) (1839-1881), Russian composer and pianist is known for immensely colourful music inspired by the history and folk lore of his homeland. He was a child prodigy on the piano, but became an officer in the guards and, later, a bureaucrat. He tended to be lazy and he drank, and much of his music has been arranged, edited, orchestrated and generally tidied up by others, mainly Rimsky-Korsakov.

He is admired for his operas, all on national themes, all written with dramatic flair and a sense of realism. The best known “Boris Godunov” is in the repertoire of most major opera companies with “Khovanshchina” also frequently performed. (The prelude to “Khovanshchina” [1] is a favourite orchestral “filler” piece and appears in many CD anthologies of Russian music.)

He wrote four operas, various songs, including song cycles, the most popular of which is “Songs and Dances of Death”. The most popular of his individual songs is the “Song of the Flea” to a humorous text by Goethe. [2]

His most popular orchestral work is “St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain”, (which was included in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.) The suite for piano, “Pictures at an Exhibition”, exists in numerous orchestrated versions, the most famous by Maurice Ravel, and is a tribute to the genius of both Mussorgsky’s inspiration [3] and Ravel’s orchestration. [4]

  • A rough translation of “Song of the Flea” – an amalgam of several.
Once upon a time lived a king
Who owned a handsome flea….
....a flea, hahahahaha .....a flea.
He cherished him and loved him
As though a son were he…
A flea, hahahahaha ...a flea ha etc….a flea…
He called the royal tailor
Who toiled for days and nights
To make the flea a doublet
And fancy purple tights.
….purple tights.
A flea hahahaetc
Our flea is dressed in velvet
And silks of golden hue
A ribbon o'er his shoulder
A jewelled order too...
...a flea! hahahaha...a flea!
A minister they made him
A diamond star he wore
And all his poor relations
Got orders galore...
The courtiers, male and female,
They were no longer gay.
The queen and all her ladies
Were pestered night and day, ha ha!
To scratch they were forbidden,
They had to bear the prick.
But we, when we are bitten
Know how to scratch... and kick!
Hahahaha etc

Another version of the last verse is:

O you and I don't worry
For fleas are easy to catch,
But think of those poor courtiers -
They weren't allowed to scratch!