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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, or Musorgsky, was born in Karevo Russia in 1839, and became one of the Five, a group of Russian composers that included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He was known for focusing on the Russian identity of his music and was influenced by Russian history and folklore in his work.
Musorgsky's musical training began at age six with piano lessons from his mother. He began performing for family and acquaintances at nine, and the following year, was taken with his brother to study at Peterschule in St. Petersburg. He published his first piano composition when he was 12. At 13, he was enrolled in the Cadet School of the Guards to prepare for military service. His piano playing was appreciated, and he was able to continue his lessons.
It was through service at a military hospital that Musorgsky met Alexander Borodin, and he met Alexander Daromyzhsky, a prominent composer in his day, with whom Musorgsky began to socialize. It was at Daromyzhsky's soirées that Musorgsky met César Cui and Balakirev. who decided to help Musorgsky's musical career and introduced him to music beyond piano music, which was all he had known.
In 1858, shortly after the beginning of Balakirev's tutelage, Musorgsky gave up his commission in order to focus on music. The following year, he had the opportunity to assist in the production of a Glinka opera, Glinka being at that time the most famous Russian composer. Family financial difficulties followed the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, and upon concluding his dealings to try to help his family, he began to teach himself.
The death of his mother occurred in 1865, and in 1867, he composed the original version of Night on Bald Mountain. The year 1867 also marked the first reference to the Five, and a greater connection between Musorgsky and Daromyzhsky. Musorsgky began and discarded an opera based on natural speech patterns, but in 1868, he began to write an opera from the story of Boris Godunov.
Combining a Pushkin play and a historical text by Karamzin, he completed the first version in 1871, only to have it rejected for want of a prima donna role. He revised it, excerpts were staged in 1873, and the first full production followed in February 1874. During the development of Boris Godunov, Musorgsky also created a choral version of Night on Bald Mountain.
Soon, this high point had passed, and Musorgsky mourned the disintegration of the Five and the death of his friend Viktor Hartmann. Musorgsky began to drink heavily, but also composed the piano suites Pictures at an Exhibition. He eventually was dismissed from his job due to his absences from alcoholism, and was supported by his friends for a time. In early 1881, he suffered several seizures, and died several weeks later.
There are so many Russian composers that many of us know little about today; and as much as there has been a growth in the popularity of opera, Russian opera seems to still be fairly little-known, at least in American musical and lyric theatre.