Born into a gentry family of modest means, Lev was enrolled at the Moscow Institute for the Nobility in 1831 and in recognition of his excellent academic results was awarded a state scholarship in 1836 so that he could study at the Lyceum of Tsarskoye Selo (the famous alma mater of Pushkin). He spent five years there during which he also made his first attempts at writing poetry. In 1841, Mey returned to Moscow, where he became a junior clerk in the office of the city's Governor-General. Over the following years he would devote his spare time to studying theology, classical Greek and Roman authors, and the old Russian chronicles, in particular. From the second half of the 1840s onwards he frequented the literary salon of Mikhail Pogodin (1800–1875), professor of Russian History at Moscow University. In this way Mey became acquainted with the leading Slavophiles and began publishing verses in their periodical Moskvitianin (Москвитянин). He eventually came to form part of the journals so-called "young editorial staff", together with the dramatist Aleksandr Ostrovsky and the poet and critic Apollon Grigoryev (1822–1864).
Mey's historical drama The Tsar's Bride (Царская невеста) was published in 1849 and staged in Moscow that very year. Set in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, during the heyday of the oprichniki (the vicious organization of henchmen set up by that Tsar), and with a conflict of love and jealousy as its driving theme, it was a resounding success. Audiences were delighted by the play's fresh and natural language, as well as its authentic atmosphere, which distinguished it sharply from the pseudo-historical melodramas of the preceding decade. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov would write an opera based on Mey's play in 1898.
In 1850, Mey married S. G. Polyanskaya, and two years later was appointed to the post of inspector at one of the principal schools in Moscow. However, his wife was alarmed at the way he was ruining his health by joining in Apollon Grigoryev's drinking-bouts and she persuaded Mey to move to Saint Petersburg in 1853. There they suffered considerable financial hardship to start with, but their situation improved when Mey secured a job as proof-reader with the journal Library for Reading (Библиотека для чтения). Most of what he published now consisted of translations rather than original verse, and in fact he translated from an astonishing range of languages: English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Ancient Greek, and Hebrew! Some critics appreciated him more as a translator than as an original poet, although some of Mey's own poems on subjects from classical antiquity and Russian folklore display an equally fine craftsmanship and poetic feeling, his verses being distinguished mainly by their "imagism".
Another historical drama in blank verse followed in 1859: The Maid of Pskov (Псковитянка), also set in the times of Ivan the Terrible and even showing the latter tsar on the stage both as stern autocrat and loving father. Given that the play gave such prominence to the freedom-loving spirit of the citizens of Pskov, it is not surprising that the censors banned it shortly after its première. Together with Pushkin's Boris Godunov, Mey's two historical dramas are regarded as having paved the way for the notable efforts in this genre by Ostrovsky and Aleksey Tolstoy during the 1860s. The Maid of Pskov would also serve as the basis for the young Rimsky-Korsakov's first opera which he composed in 1872 while sharing lodgings with Modest Musorgsky, who was working on his version of Boris Godunov at the same time.
Mey died in 1862, when a three-volume edition of his collected works was in progress (he only lived to see the first volume), and for a number of years after his death he was forgotten by most readers, especially as he had been dismissed by the radical critics of the 1860s as an exponent of 'pure art' without concrete views on society and its problems. However, thanks to the composers who turned to his works in later years Mey was rescued from this unjust oblivion. He was especially popular with the members of the "Mighty Handful", who set many of his poems to music, attracted by the simplicity and sincerity of his verse and by the genuine folk colour of his Russian-themed songs.
Mey's remarkably fine translation of Mignon and the Harpist's poignant song Nur wer die Senhsucht kennt from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister novel inspired one of Tchaikovsky's most well-known and beloved romances: None But the Lonely Heart, No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6 (1869), which was championed in Western Europe soon after its composition by Ivan Turgenev and Pauline Viardot.
Tchaikovsky's Settings of Works by Mey
- Stanza X from Octaves (1844) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as I Never Spoke to Her (Я с нею никогда не говорил), No. 5 of the Six Romances, Op. 25 (1875).
- My Spoiled Darling (1849), a translation from the Polish of Adam Mickiewicz's poem Do D.D.: Wizyta (1826) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as My Spoiled Darling (Моя баловница), No. 6 of the Six Romances and Songs, Op. 27 (1875).
- Harpist's Song (1857), a translation from the German of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, which is sung as a duet by Mignon and the Harpist in Book 4 of Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as None But the Lonely Heart (Нет, только тот, кто знал), No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6 (1869).
- Was it the Mother Who Bore Me? (1857), a translation from the Polish of Teofil Lenartowicz's ballad Tęsknota (1843) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Was it the Mother Who Bore Me? (Али мать меня рожала?), No. 5 of the Six Romances and Songs, Op. 27 (1875).
- Why? (1858), a translation from the German of Heinrich Heine's poem Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß?, from the cycle Lyrisches Intermezzo (1822) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Why? (Отчего?), No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6 (1869).
- The Canary (1859) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as The Canary (Канарейка), No. 4 of the Six Romances, Op. 25 (1875).
- Evening (1859), a translation from the Ukrainian of Taras Shevchenko's poem The Little Cherry-Orchard (1847) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Evening (Вечер), No. 4 of the Six Romances and Songs, Op. 27 (1875).
- I Should Like in a Single Word (1859), translation from the German of Heinrich Heine's poem Ich wollt', meine Schmerzen ergössen, from the cycle Die Heimkehr (1824) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as I Should Like in a Single Word (Хотел бы в единое слово), No. 1 of the Two Songs (1875) (1875).
- Song (1860) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as As They Chanted: "Fool" (Как наладили: «Дурак»), No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 25 (1875).
- The Corals. A Song (1861), a translation from the Polish of Ludwik Kondratowicz's ballad Dumka kozacka (1854) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as The Corals (Корольки), No. 2 of the Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875).
- Why? (1861) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Why? (Зачем?), No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875).
- K. K. Bukhmeier (К. К. Бухмейер), introductory article in: Л. А. Мей: Избранные произведения (Leningrad, 1972)
- Polina Vaidman, Entry on Lev Mey for the Belcanto Tchaikovsky Pages (in Russian)
- Wikipedia entry for The Maid of Pskov (opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, 1873)
- Wikipedia entry for The Tsar's Bride (opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, 1899)