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Modest Mussorgsky: History's Most Trolled Composer

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Public Domain

This week would have been the 128th birthday of one of Russian's most famous composers, Modest Mussorgsky. Some of you might know him as the composer of Pictures at an Exhibition, but all of you know him for A Night on Bald Mountain (sometimes translated as A Night on the Bare Mountain). Specifically, you know him because Walt Disney used Mussorgsky's score to put together one of the greatest animated sequences of all time in Fantasia.

If Mussorgsky had been a metal musician in the '80s, we'd probably never mention Dio again. This work is literally one guitar solo away from causing dragons and Valkyries to leap out of your speakers and wrestlle over your soul like it was a chew toy. It's impossible to think that anyone could listen to that and say anything to Mussorgsky except, "In what order shall we send the groupies this evening, sir?"

Impossible, but believe it or not, Mussorgsky was perhaps the most trolled composer ever.

The son of a wealthy and noble family, Mussorgsky left the military in his twenties to pursue a career in music. This career was not very successful, and despite hobnobbing with some of Russia's highest social personalities he died fairly unknown, drunk, and almost broke. So what, you may say, many a genius is unappreciated in his lifetime.

Modest Mussorgsky: History's Most Trolled Composer

True, but Mussorgsky composed like a man with no legs walks up stairs. Take Bald Mountain, for instance. He started working on it in 1858 and was still not done when he died in 1881. He simply couldn't decide whether to write an opera, a tone poem, a piano concerto, or what.

The version you hear performed today is one that his friend Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov - yes, the Flight of the Bumblebee guy - arranged in 1886. The Fantasia arrangement was cobbled together by Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the orchestra in the movie and on the soundtrack. Mussorgsky never lived to hear his most famous work performed.

Apparently, this tortuous path to creation was fairly typical for Mussorgsky, and many of his works were Frankensteined together into their known forms by later composers who were fans. This failing on Mussorgsky's part led to a lot of criticism.

A whole lot. Having been on the rough end of a few commenters before, even Rocks Off was floored by some of the following snide remarks.

 

Viktor Hartmann's Paris Catacombs, the basis for Movement No. 8 of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition
Viktor Hartmann's Paris Catacombs, the basis for Movement No. 8 of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition
Public Domain
I have no use whatever for Mussorgsky. All in him is flabby and dull. He is, I think, a perfect idiot. Were he left to his own devices and no longer under your strict supervision, he would soon run to seed as all the others have done. There is nothing in him.
- Vladimir Stasov to Mussorgsky's teacher Mily Balakirev
Yes, Mussorgsky is little short of an idiot.
- Balakirev in response
They were very defective, teeming with clumsy, disconnected harmonies, shocking part-writing, amazingly illogical modulations or intolerably long stretches without ever a modulation, and bad scoring... what is needed is an edition for practical and artistic purposes, suitable for performances and for those who wish to admire Mussorgsky's genius, not to study his idiosyncrasies and sins against art.
- Rimsky-Korsakov on Mussorgsky's scores, which he would later edit
Mussorgsky, you might very rightly say, was a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the other members of The BIg Five [a group of Russian composers who regularly met in St. Petersburg from 1856-70] but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius.

In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness... He flaunts... his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.

- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Mussorgsky, in his vocal efforts, appears willfully eccentric. His style impresses the Western ear as barbarously ugly.
- Critic Edward Dannreuther

For the millions of fans who first learned that classical music can be as badass as any Iron Maiden hit through Bald Mountain, we'd just like to tell the shade of Mussorgsky happy birthday, and never mind what some of the most celebrated Russian composers said about you.

Their work ain't the background music for one of the best bosses in Kingdom Hearts. That beats Swan Lake in our book.


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