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  • Graham Abbott

The Russian Five

I don’t know if your dad was like my dad, but my dad wanted his kids to be sensible about their professional aspirations. My dad took a while, I think, to realise that he had this weird son whose love of classical music was more than a passing phase, when there was no history of professional music-making in the family at all. When as a kid I used to make grandiose proclamations about wanting to be a conductor or some such other fanciful sort of person, Dad never actually said that was impossible or not worth aspiring to. What he did say, though, was that I should always have “something to fall back on”, a sensible, ordinary and above-all supportive career which could at least use to live on if my more exotic aspirations ever let me down. He also said that with hard work we could be anything we wanted to be. I think my dad understood yin and yang rather instinctively.


From time to time early on my career my exotic aspirations didn’t pay the rent or put food on the table, and my qualifications as a school teacher proved the wisdom of my father’s counsel.


In this post we’re going to look at a group of five Russian composers for whom composition - actually music in general - was in most cases a secondary profession. Most of these men had other careers and it’s fascinating that in one or two cases their work in those non-musical worlds at the very least rivalled their musical endeavours. But today, the “Russian Five” are remembered as composers, and they were grouped together, as in the case of the later French group known as “Les Six”, thanks to the writings of a music journalist.


In 1867, the critic Vladimir Stasov made reference to a group of five composers he called moguchaya kuchka. Literally “the mighty little heap,” this Russian expression is often translated as “the mighty handful”. The five composers in question are - in order of birth - Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Mily Balakirev, Modest Musorgsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.



The Russian Five had already formed themselves into a group before Stasov’s review. All five were largely self-taught in composition, if not in music generally. They were based in St Petersburg and began their musical association before Anton Rubinstein founded that city’s Conservatory of Music in 1862. It’s the connection with St Petersburg which also explains why Tchaikovsky isn’t thought of as part of this group. Tchaikovsky was based in Moscow, and while his earlier works show some influence of The Five, especially Balakirev, he never really associated himself closely with the dogmatic, nationalistic views of the Five.


To The Five, the father figure of Russian music was Glinka. [listen]


Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1856)

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka lived from 1805 to 1857 and he was probably the first Russian composer to really write in an unashamedly Russian idiom while at the same time working within mainstream western European forms such as opera. The Five aimed to follow in Glinka’s footsteps, to create and develop a truly Russian school of composition.


Aleksandr Porfir’yevich Borodin was born in 1833. He had an extraordinary background, being the illegitimate son of Prince, Luka Gedianov, and his mistress, Avdot’ya Antonova. Custom decreed that he be baptised as the son of one of the prince’s serfs, which is how he got the name of Borodin. Despite the fact that he was legally regarded as a serf himself, Borodin was loved and cared for by his natural parents and given every opportunity for a good education and a comfortable childhood.


Aleksandr Porfir’yevich Borodin (1865)

Borodin was eventually freed from his low legal status and went on to have a sound education which included a lot of music. However his professional training was initially in medicine. Eventually he discovered a great love for chemistry. He became a distinguished doctor and internationally renowned chemist, and his fame rested principally on his teaching and research in chemistry.


As a boy, Borodin taught himself the cello, as well as having lessons in flute and piano. During his studies music (both playing and composing) was a relaxation for him, and one of his most important works before his association with the other members of The Five was a Piano Quintet in C minor, composed in 1862 when he was 29. [listen]


In October 1862 Borodin met Balakirev and became part of his musical circle in St Petersburg which also included the other members of The Five. He had in fact already met Mussorgsky as they’d been assigned together as duty physician and duty officer in military service some years before. It’s from this time that Borodin started writing his major works, including the first of his two completed symphonies. His other important works include some wonderful songs and works for the stage, although his projected magnum opus, the opera Prince Igor, was unfinished at his death. The best-known part of this is the “Polovtsian Dances”. [listen]


Repin: Aleksandr Porfir’yevich Borodin (1888)

Borodin’s chamber music includes two beautiful string quartets. This is the second movement of the second string quartet, which was written in 1881. It will serve to remind us of the fact that Robert Wright and George Forrest’s 1954 musical Kismet uses many melodies by Borodin. Unfortunately it’s impossible for me (I don’t know about you) to listen to this music without thinking of jewellery… [listen]


Borodin died in 1887 at the age of 53. Moving on from Borodin, we come to César Antonovich Cui. Cui was born in Vilnius in 1835 and was of French/Lithuanian descent. He trained in St Petersburg in the field of engineering, but had some lessons in harmony and counterpoint as well as learning the piano. He eventually became a lecturer in, and in 1879 a professor of, engineering. He was an acknowledged expert in the field of fortifications.


Repin: César Antonovich Cui (1890)

Again, it was Balakirev who was crucial in bringing about Cui’s entrance into St Petersburg’s musical world, as he did for Borodin. Cui’s output as a composer seems to embody two extremes. On the one hand, he wrote more than fifteen operas, some of which are on a very large scale, but none of these has maintained a permanent place in the repertoire. On the other hand, he is primarily remembered as a miniaturist; his chamber music, piano works and songs are beautifully constructed. Even his orchestral works, of which there are roughly 20, are on a small scale. This is his fourth orchestral suite, subtitled to honour the person and the estate of the Countess Mercy-Argenteau, who admired Cui’s music (but is known to have disliked that of Borodin and Tchaikovsky). Check out the last two movements; the timings are in the description of the linked video. [listen]


Cui died in 1918 at the age of 72. The pivotal member of the Russian Five was Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev, who was born in January 1837. He had quite an intensive musical education from an early age. In fact, despite early studies in mathematics, Balakirev is the only one of The Five who might be said to have been primarily a musician. His first compositions were published in the late 1850s and he had a busy career as a conductor, teacher and composer in the 1860s. In the early 1870s he had a breakdown of some sort and he dealt with the crisis by withdrawing from the world of music and working as a clerical officer in a railway company. He also took on an intensely religious, reactionary outlook on life which was in stark contrast to his former radical, free-thinking stance.


I’ll link here three of his songs, dating from before his breakdown: Spanish Song, dating from 1855 [listen], The Crescent Moon from 1858 [listen], and When I but hear your voice, written in 1863 [listen].


Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev (c. 1900)

In later years Balakirev returned to musical activity, but never with the intensity of his former involvements. It’s also true that he had far less influence on the other members of The Five after the crisis, and he increasingly came to be seen as someone who was out of touch with new developments in the arts. His later works, though, are still well worth the effort. His own instrument was the piano, and the bulk of Balakirev’s music for his own instrument comes from the years after his breakdown. His most famous work for the piano is the oriental fantasy Islamey, but in writing for the piano, Balakirev’s main inspiration was Chopin. The fact that Chopin died in 1849 shows just how much “in the past” Balakirev’s mindset was. But still, his music is of a very high quality indeed. This late Mazurka (no 6 in A flat), dating from 1902, mixes elements of orientalism with hints of Chopin, even Liszt. It ends with a Polish krakowiak, a fast traditional dance in duple meter. [listen]


Balakirev died in 1910 at the age of 73. The remaining two members of The Five - Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov - are well-known names in western music, like Borodin. But also like Borodin, their appeal to music lovers in general is limited to a very few popular works.


Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born in 1839. Largely self-taught in music, he was a strikingly original composer who had a disjointed - some would say chaotic - personal life. Many of his greatest works were unfinished at his death; others were edited or even completely overhauled by others. His “day jobs” included periods of military service, working in an office and managing family estates, and as a public servant in the Forestry Department. His life was marred by constant - and ultimately unsuccessful - battles with alcoholism, and he was supported by friends who perceived his talent despite the fact that he was often described as exhibiting psychotic behaviour.


Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky is remembered by the general musical world today as the composer of a few regularly performed works. The phenomenal original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition is not often heard (but Ravel’s orchestral arrangement is), and the tone poem Night on Bald Mountain is better-known in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version than Mussorgsky’s more raw and striking original. Mussorgsky also wrote three operas which are heard today - Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsï Fair - but these are all heard in completions or editions by others, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Still, the operas are strikingly powerful, especially Boris Godunov, and they’re one of Mussorgsky’s claims to lasting fame in the composers’ pantheon. There was very little orchestral music from Mussorgsky’s pen, but his other really important contribution to the repertoire can be found in his songs.


Mussorgsky wrote more than 60 songs across his whole composing career and they show a wonderful skill in setting texts and creating moods. Here is his first song, Where are you little star?, which was composed in 1857 when he was 18. [listen]


Twenty years later, Mussorgsky reached the summit of his powers as a song composer in the four songs which make up the cycle Songs and Dances of Death. The first song is a tragic lullaby, sung by Death to a dying infant. The composer's operatic skill is evident, but so is his restraint in writing for voice and piano. [listen]


Mussorgsky’s alcoholism killed him in 1881, a week after his 42nd birthday. The final member of The Russian Five was Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, who was born in 1844. Rimsky-Korsakov started out as an amateur musician while establishing himself as a naval officer. His meeting with Balakirev was pivotal to his musical development, but he took up self-study with great zeal while working in the navy. He studied scores of works by many composers, as well as Berlioz’ treatise on orchestration.


Rimsky-Korsakov eventually became a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music and was soon regarded as one of Russia’s pre-eminent teachers of composition. He also edited works by many other composers (including Mussorgsky) for publication, and his later life he became a highly respected conductor as well as maintaining a prolific output as a composer. He never needed to “fall back on” his naval connections. Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908, and none of his works were left unfinished.


Serov: Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1898)

Rimsky-Korsakov is remembered as a polished composer and expert orchestrator. His Spanish Caprice (better known by its Italian title Capriccio espagnol) and the tone poem Sheherazade are among the most popular orchestral works in the repertoire, but these are just a part of a huge output of orchestral music, operas, choral music, chamber music, songs and much else besides. His nearly 20 operas are not known widely but they contain some wonderful music. Here is just a taste of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operatic writing, the sextet from the third act of The Tsar’s Bride, which was first performed in 1899. [listen]


In a sense, the grouping of Borodin, Cui, Balkirev, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov together is an artificial one. The Russian Five really only existed as a group as a convenient way of labelling a certain movement in Russian music, and there were other composers - such as Gussakovsky and Lodïzhensky - who could also have been included in the group. The Five also only existed as a group for a relatively short time - at most the two decades between 1860 and 1880. However the ideals of finding a new way forward for Russian music which was based on Russian-ness, rather than a slavish adherence to the styles of the west, united these five fine composers and gave us some wonderful parts of the repertoire.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2006.

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