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David and Art - Art, From History

This week on David and Art, David Smith highlights Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian composer whose music brings to life tales from Russia's past, shedding light on the cultural identity and artistic evolution of the nation during the 19th century.

It might not surprise you to learn that the interrelationship of history and art is something in which I have a great interest. I like how knowing history helps make sense of the evolution of art-and of what we as a culture believe art should do. I like pondering what you can tell about a period in history by looking at, or listening to, the art that comes out of that period. And I like quite a few works of art that are rooted in historical episodes, and that make those episodes come to life.

A lot of Russians, particularly composers, back during the second half of the 19th century were like this, telling stories from Russia's past via music, tapping into history and folk tales to try to clarify a Russian identity.

A composer named Modest Mussorgsky was perhaps foremost among this group. He was born in March 1839 in a small village about 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. Starting at age six he took piano lessons and about the time he was 10 or 11 his family moved to St. Petersburg. He entered a military academy called the Cadet School of the Guards and quickly became popular in part because of his piano playing. He graduated in 1856 and for a while served at the Military Hospital there in the city where he met fellow musician Alexander Borodin who was 5 years his senior. Two years later he resigned his officer's commission to devote himself to music full time.

In 1865, his life took a couple of dark turns. His mother died, and he began to have trouble with alcohol. Two years later, in 1867, he completed his first major work, a piece of music known as a tone poem, entitled "Night on Bald Mountain," which you've likely heard. (It was featured in Disney's 1940 film Fantasia.) Incredibly enough, it was never performed during his lifetime. But then again, he didn't have much longer to live.

Since his days at the Academy, he was.fascinated by history and in 1868 began reaching into the Russian past for stories and inspiration. From then until 1873, he worked on a grand opera entitled Boris Gudonov. The real life Gudonov was the Tsar of Russia from 1598 to 1605. In 1831, Alexander Pushkin, one of the giants of Russian literature, wrote a play about him and Mussorgsky used that text as the basis for his opera. So, it's sort of doubly rooted in Russian history and culture.

In February, 1886, he had a second historically based opera debut in Saint Petersburg, but by that time, he was dead. There's more to think about here. Let's come back to this.

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