In the sphere of Western classical music, changes in historical perspective take hold gradually—if they occur at all. Bach the Supreme Genius, Mozart the Divine Child, and Beethoven the Curmudgeon Revolutionary are characterizations which have persisted for eighty years or more. We may offer new interpretations of music’s major figures, but the portraits, history, and scholarship surrounding them remain largely the same.

For a long time the popular interpretations of Russian music were similarly static. Even the music's history was filled with critical assessments passed off as simple facts: The group of composers known as the “Mighty Handful” was a force in revolt against the Czarist regime. The Handful was opposed to the Germanizing influence of Anton Rubinstein and his cohort. Modest Musorgsky, the Handful's leading light, wrote historical operas to celebrate the power of the masses. Pyotr Ilich...


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