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Modest Musorgsky

Composer

Biography

Russian composer Modest Musorgsky (1839–81) developed a new way of composing for the Russian language that achieved great lyric beauty while remaining intimately bound with the rhythms of the text – a distinct characteristic evident (in different ways) in both versions of his masterpiece Boris Godunov. In addition to his songs, he is best known for the orchestral work St John’s Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures from an Exhibition (often heard in Ravel’s orchestration).

Musorgsky was born in Karevo to wealthy parents. Aged six he began studying music with his mother, and aged ten he began formal piano studies when he moved to St Petersburg as a student. He continued these studies as entered the Cadet School of the Guards and later graduated into the prestigious Preobrazhensky Regiment (1856). That year he met the composer Dargomïzhsky and through him encountered Balakirev, with whom he studied composition. In 1858 he resigned his commission to focus on music; completed works from this period include two scherzos for the piano. Declining family fortunes in the wake of the Great Reform of 1861 obliged him to take a position with the civil service (1863–7), during which time he started the unfinished opera Salammbô and completed the song collection Years of Youth and St John’s Night on Bald Mountain. He found another position with the civil service in 1868 and that year began work on Boris Godunov, completed 1870 and extensively revised 1870–74. The opera’s eventual premiere, of the revised version, at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1874 was a tremendous success. Other completed works include Pictures from an Exhibition (1874) and the song collections The Nursery (1872), Sunless (1874) and Songs and Dances of Death (1875). He began the operas Khovanshchina in 1872 and Sorochintsï Fair in 1874, both of which remained uncompleted at his death.

Musorgsky’s highly individual approach to composition was often deplored by his contemporaries, but his music was an important inspiration for such composers of following generations as Debussy and Ravel.

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