Richard Nisley

With a little help from his friends
Music - Classical Released - Jan 08, 2013

Crude, brilliant, unpolished, and Russian to the core. That’s Modest Mussorgsky, one of “The Mighty Five” composers who revolutionized Russian music in the 19th Century.

“The Mighty Five” met in St. Petersburg in the mid-1860s with the expressed purpose of creating a Russian nationalistic music--not that phony Austro-German music their fellow countryman and sell-out Peter Tchaikovsky was composing--but authentic Russian music that was a product of their heritage and not influenced by Italian opera, French ballet, or German symphony.

The Mighty Five--Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, and Mily Balakirev. They possessed unmistakably Russian names to match their unmistakably Russian music.

Mussorgsky was the most original and least schooled of the five. He looked like actor Oliver Reed and frequented the bars with the same gusto. He needed help from his friends to score his music. What he did score was rough, harmonically brutal, nearly unplayable. Before drinking himself to death at age 46, he produced three major works: “Pictures at an Exhibition,” for piano, “Night on Bald Mountain” (featured in Disney’s “Fantasia”), and one of the world’s great operas, “Boris Godunov.”

After his untimely death, fellow mighty-fiver Rimsky-Korsakov rewrote the scores for “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Boris Godunov” making them presentable (so to speak). Purists argue that Rimsky-Korsakov did his friend no favor and should have left Mussorgsky’s scores as they were, but realists respond that neither work would have been performed without Rimsky-Korsakov’s intervention. In the early 20th Century, French composer Maurice Ravel, suffering from writer’s block, scored “Pictures at an Exhibition” for orchestra, thus making that piece a staple of today’s concert halls.

Despite a variety of setbacks, fits of doubt, and deep personal problems, Mussorgsky pursued his vision to the end. “My motto remains unchanged,” he said, with words that sound strangely like those of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk: “Boldly on. Forward to new shores. To seek untiringly, fearlessly, and without confusion, and to enter with firm step into a promised land--there’s a great and beautiful task! One must give oneself wholly to mankind.”

Mussorgsky is 39 of the list of 50 greatest composers.

Listening to Vladimir Horowitz play the original piano score of “Picture’s at an Exhibition” is a hair-raising experience, like getting caught out in a hurricane.
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