Thursday, March 1, 2012

Modest Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky was born on March 9, 1839, in Karevo, Russia, near the very rural town of Toropets, about 250 miles (400 km) south of St. Petersburg. His family was aristocratic, wealthy, and owned lots of land, villages, and peasants. He died on March 28, 1881 at the age of 42.

His mother started teaching him piano when he was six years old. He played well and developed great skill. He was sent to private school in St. Petersburg at age ten and then to military school there at age thirteen. He continued his piano lessons. His fellow students liked to hear the songs he made up as he played. He graduated in 1856 and became an officer in the Russian Imperial Guard.

In early 1857 Mussorgsky met Alexander Dargomyzhsky, an important composer at that time. Dargomyzhsky saw that Mussorgsky played the piano very well. For the next two years Mussorgsky was often at Dargomyzhsky’s house. There he met many helpful people.

One was Mily Balakirev. Balakirev helped Mussorgsky by introducing him to the music of many great European composers. Within a few months, Mussorgsky left the military so that he could study and play music all the time.

In 1861 the Russian government freed all serfs. The Mussorgsky family lost half of its land and much of its wealth. For the next two years Mussorgsky spent much time in Karevo trying to help. He played the piano and wrote some music when he could.

In 1863 he returned to St. Petersburg. He supported himself by working as an unimportant and badly-paid employee of the Russian government. When his mother died in 1865, he initially committed himself more to alcohol than to music.

His goal was to write distinctly Russian music. He used Russian history and folktales as sources of inspiration. The first major work in which he did this was Night on Bald Mountain. He wrote this quickly in June 1867. His teacher Mily Balakirev told him it was very bad, so Mussorgsky put it away and never heard it played.

Five years after Mussorgsky died, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, his friend and fellow composer, rewrote Night on Bald Mountain. This is the version most frequently heard today.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.