The Quarrelsome Handful


They were known as “The Mighty Handful”–five 19th century Russian composers who supposedly constituted a “school” of Russian nationalist writing. But sometimes the “handful” took the shape of a fist.

Two of them–Cesar Cui and Modeste Mussorgsky–became bitter adversaries. In 1874 Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov premiered in St. Petersburg. It was the product of six years’ work and a good deal of discussion among Mussorgsky’s fellow members of “The Handful.”

When it was finally performed the opera was lavishly and tastefully staged. It was a great success with the public. Composer and performers took many bows and curtain calls after each act.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

It was widely known that Cesar Cui was the spokesman for the “Mighty Handful,” and everyone waited eagerly to see what he would say about this major effort of one of its members. What they got was a big surprise.

Whatever praise Cui had for the opera was so laced with acid criticism that the result was devastating. He referred to the opera’s “slender musical interest” and “coarse splashes of color.” And to the “musical portrayal of unimportant details.”

Then there was the incident of the wreath. On opening night, three ladies had attempted to deliver a laurel wreath onstage to Mussorgsky. The management had thwarted them. They complained in a newspaper: “Is it necessary,” they asked, ” to send in a formal petition, stamped and sealed before one can get a wreath handed up to the stage?”

When Mussorgsky attempted to protect the conductor and the management by taking blame for the incident, Cui said that the composer had been frightened at the very thought of the wreath and of the ladies attempting to bestow it.

The opera itself was to be the object of a similar tug-of-war. After Mussorgsky’s death it was released in at least three editions–two by Rimsky-Korsakov and one by Shostakovich. Today the greatest Russian opera is generally considered to be the original Boris Godunov upon which Mussorgsky had lavished so much care.

Related Stories