Modest Mussorgsky: History's Most Trolled Composer

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Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
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.

night-on-bald-mountain mar23.jpg
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.

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My flatmate loves Mussorgsky and Ravel. I wonder why they never come up as the worst composers who ever lived. Indeed they make quite a couple. Classical music for impressionable barbarians.


What a totally random and awesome article! Seriously, nice writing, nice research, nice subject. I've jammed him for years and never knew any of this about Mussorgsky.

Jef With One F
Jef With One F

I like classical trivia. You see these guys as pillars of creation, and I just think it's interesting how oddball and rock star their lives really were.

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