Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Modeste Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Mussorgsky was a homosexual composer born in Russia. His father was a wealthy man, and his mother was an English woman who had relocated to Russia. His land-owning family, the noble Mussorgskys, was descended from the sovereign princes of Smolensk.

At six, Mussorgsky began taking piano lessons from his mother, herself a trained pianist. His progress was sufficiently rapid that three years later he was able to perform a John Field concerto and difficult solo piano works by Franz Liszt. At 10 years old, he and his brother were taken to Saint Petersburg to study at the elite St. Peter's School. At the age of 12 (1852) Mussorgsky wrote his first piano piece to be published (at his father's expense). As a mature composer Mussorgsky became one of "The Mighty Five" group of Russian nationalist composers, the others being Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, and Mily Balakirev.

His monumental opera Boris Gudnov (1869) was produced in St. Petersburg, and his popular Night on Bald Mountain was first performed in 1867 (known to millions from Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia*).

During his life Mussorgsky formed many homosexual attachments, unfortunately some of them to heterosexual men. One of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874 – written for solo piano, later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) was based on an exhibit of watercolors by the handsome, young, and straight architect and painter Viktor Hartmann*, with whom Mussorgsky was hopelessly and painfully smitten. Hartmann was a Jew of Polish/Ukranian descent, so this serious infatuation is astonishing, given that the influential Mussorgsky family was both blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Polish.

Tragically, Mussorgsky was a helpless alcoholic (with a permanently red nose to prove it), addicted to spirits from his army days. At the age of 17 Mussorgsky had received a commission from the regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, where he served at a military hospital in Saint Petersburg with fellow Russian composer Alexander Borodin. The two were soon on good terms.  Borodin later wrote of Mussorgsky:

“His uniform was spic and span, close-fitting, his feet turned outwards, his hair smoothed down and greased, his nails perfectly cut, his hands well groomed like a Lord's. His manners were elegant, aristocratic – his speech likewise, interspersed with French phrases, rather precious. There was a touch of foppishness, but his politeness and good manners were exceptional. The ladies made a fuss over him. He sat at the piano and, throwing up his hands coquettishly, played with extreme sweetness and grace, eliciting responses such as ‘charmant, délicieux!’ and the like.”

In 1858 Mussorgsky resigned his military commission to devote himself full time to composition. However, the 1861 emancipation of the serfs on private Russian estates caused his family to be deprived of half its land and income; in two year’s time the estate had been liquidated. His mother died soon thereafter, prompting Mussorgsky to lapse into an extended bout of alcoholism at the age of 26. His frustrated, repressed homosexuality further tethered him to the bottle.

At the age of 29 Mussorgsky started to write an opera based on the story of Boris Godunov, using text from Pushkin's play. He completed the large-scale score the following year while living with friends and working as a civil servant for the Forestry Department (such was the extent of his family’s waning fortunes).

In the end, however, he was a man caught in a painful spiral of self-destruction, often afflicted with delirium. For years Mussorgsky spent day and night in a Saint Petersburg tavern of low repute. His frequent absences and “illnesses” led to his dismissal from his civil servant job, and one week after his 42nd birthday he died, essentially from drinking himself to death.

Phil Disley, acknowledged as one of Britain’s foremost illustrators, draws an all-too-accurate rendering of Mussorgsky.

*Viktor Hartmann, the artist who was the object of Mussorgsky's obsession, was straight (photo below). He was the inspiration for PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION.

*Night on Bald Mountain (from Disney's FANTASIA (1940)

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