‘The Mighty Handful’

A Chronology of the Development of Russian Music


The year was 1836, Mikhail Glinka (1803-1857) finally had produced his first opera, A Life for the Tsar, and the first signs of a new form of musical expression had come to life in Russia; a form of expression that would crowd the stages of St. Petersburg for the rest of the century, and that would enable future local musicians to achieve the level of excellence that placed the Russian school at the top of the modernist trends of the early twentieth century.


In A Life for the Tsar, Glinka introduced and exploited previously disregarded nationalistic themes by depicting the historic Polish-Russian war of the early seventeenth century in which the Russian army defeated the invading Poles, subsequently instituting the Romanov dynasty. Although the tone of the opera is thoroughly Italian – Glinka spent most of the years between 1830 and 1833 in Milan – there is, to certain extent, a search for, and exploration of, an ‘essentially Russian’ melody derived from popular Russian musical expressions and adapted formally to fit Glinka’s composition. Even if Glinka’s musical innovation was reduced, his thematic choice remained bold and the manner in which he managed to contrast the subject matter with a relatively traditional melody became an ever-present feature of the emerging school of Russian nationalistic music.


Mily Balakirev. Source: Naxos.

While Mikhail Glinka was a nationalistic pioneer, it would be Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) who would become the central figure in the development of an autochthonous school of music in Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century. In this sense, it might be important, or even significant, that Balakirev was born within a year of the first performance of A Life for the Tsar. By 1842, the year of the production of Glinka’s second and last opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Balakirev’s virtuosity behind the piano had already been discovered. It might be only by virtue of poetic licensing that we can draw symmetric lines in the lives of such characters, but while Ruslan and Lyudmila became a failure so rotund it kept Glinka from ever carrying out another enterprise of the kind, Balakirev’s musical career was on the rise. And yet, Glinka’s use of popular folk tales as operatic subjects, the marked Orientalism of his harmony, the introduction of faerie and magic as an operatic theme, the conscious and sophisticated manipulation of Russian melodies and the revolutionary introduction of whole-tone scales had already made of Glinka an unavoidable frame of reference in the yet-to-unleash history of Russian nationalistic music.


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Modest Mussorgsky. Source: malaspina.com

In 1856 two young men with similar inclinations met in the St. Petersburg Military Academy and started what was to be a long and stimulating relationship; Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was, at seventeen, already a Lieutenant when he met Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). Both Borodin and Mussorgsky had had a lifelong liking for music and had shown a respectable talent for it earlier in their lives. Borodin’s background, however, (he was the illegitimate son of a Russian Prince) inevitably linked him much more closely to the army and the sciences than to the liberal arts. Similarly, Mussorgsky’s early musical education also had been interrupted in favour of a military career in the capital. However, Mussorgsky’s love for music would remain strong throughout his school years, and the group of music-avid friends that surrounded him in the Academy would only enhance it.


It was there that Mussorgsky met Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869). Dargomyzhsky had been Glinka’s tutee in the mid-thirties, after the latter had returned from Italy. They remained lasting friends and after the failure of his first opera, Esmeralda (1847), Dargomyzhsky joined Glinka’s nationalistic tendency. Mussorgsky’s acquaintance of Dargomyzhsky provided him with the musical horizon he had been seeking. Dargomyzhsky introduced him to Glinka’s music, which immediately struck a note in Mussorgsky’s inclinations.


By the time Mussorgsky had made friends with both Dargomyzhsky and Borodin, Balakriev had already arrived in St. Petersburg, where his own acquaintance of Mikhail Glinka pushed forward his musical aspirations and his nationalistic feelings. As an early member of Glinka’s Russian pseudo-school, Balakirev made a remarkable impression in the St. Petersburg music society. By 1857, after the performance of his ‘Overture on Spanish Themes’, Balakirev’s fame as an accomplished musician was such that he decided to take two young cadets as tutees and train them in the arts of musical performance and composition.


At the same time, Russia’s most assiduous and fervent musical ambassador, Mikhail Glinka, was dying in Berlin while pursuing his latest musical quest. Russia had lost the father who had discovered its musical identity and was yet unaware of the quickly developing new generation that would carry to completion Glinka’s initial task.


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Cesar Cui. Photo: Wikimedia.

One of Balakirev’s tutees was César Cui (1835-1918). The son of a Lithuanian woman and a French officer left behind after the 1812 retreat from Moscow, Cui’s military formation was predestined. In 1851 he left Vilnius and pursued his engineering studies in St. Petersburg. By 1855 he had joined the Academy of Military Engineering, and two years later, at twenty-two, he was already lecturing on artillery. Like the rest of ‘the five’, Cui was deeply influenced by Balakirev’s nationalistic ideas as well as immediately impressed by his talent. Cui’s previous musical formation was limited to composition lessons in his early childhood. It was only with Balakirev that he began to develop the formal knowledge of systematic composition that enabled him to establish himself as a serious musician and to embark on the composition of his first opera, The Captive of the Caucasus (begun in 1857 but not to be completed until 1882). While Balakirev kept on teaching and composing – he produced his beautiful ‘Overture on Three Russian Themes’ and his acclaimed symphonic poem Tamara in 1858 – Cui married a pianist and became a devoted musician and writer (although he never gave up his official post in the Military Academy as a lecturer and later as a professor), finishing his first complete opera, The Mandarin’s Son, in 1859.


Balakirev’s other tutee was Modest Mussorgsky. Mussorgsky’s already patriotically-inflicted soul fully embraced Balakirev’s teachings. Less than a year after starting his lessons, Mussorgsky resigned his commission in the army and devoted himself entirely to music. His early development, however, was not as quick as Cui’s. By the time of the production of The Mandarin’s Son, Mussorgsky had already given up on his first two operatic projects – Han D’Islande and St. John’s Eve – and was working on a the third one, Oedipus in Athens, which would not be finished until 1860.


In 1861 Balakirev met yet another young promising officer, this time from the navy. His name was Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). He was a cadet of aristocratic descent who had shown great interest for music. Like all of his young pupils, Rimsky-Korsakov was attracted to Balakirev’s nationalistic inclinations and felt immediately attached to the small circle. Unlike Mussorgsky, though, Rimsky-Korsakov was not prepared to give up his naval career for his musical enthusiasm and consequently parted the group less than a year after joining it, when he was sent abroad for a three-year period.


While Rimsky-Korsakov was abroad, Aleaxander Borodin returned from his studies in Science at Heidelberg and was appointed assistant Professor of Chemistry at the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine. Back in St. Petersburg Borodin renewed his old friendship with Mussorgsky and naturally came to meet Balakirev. Despite his own enthusiasm, Borodin, like Rimsky-Korsakov, was not prepared to shift careers and devote himself entirely to music. He was, however, to play an active role in the development of what was to be known as ‘The Mighty Handful’.


In 1862 Balakirev composed his symphonic poem Russia. Later that year he formed – together with Vladimir Stassov and Gabriel Lomakin – the Free School of Music in St. Petersburg. By then, the heavy drinking habit Mussorgsky had acquired during his years in the Military Academy began to hamper not only his capability to concentrate, but also his financial situation. Although his famous songs had established him as an acknowledged composer, he was in great economic difficulties. In the meantime, César Cui’s career as a writer had developed, as he became the music critic of the St. Petersburgskiye Vedomosti, a post he would hold until 1877 and which he would use to serve as one of the main champions – together with Stassov – of Russian nationalistic music.


In 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov returned from his mission and rejoined the group. While at sea he had composed a symphony which was to be performed by Balakirev in St Petersburg that year. In the meantime Mussorgsky’s mother died and his already-critical situation worsened. As a consequence he moved in with Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he would live from 1865 to 1872 – the years of major splendour of ‘the five’.


In 1866 Rimsky-Korsakov composed his ‘Overture on Three Russian Themes’; a year later Mussorgsky would return to one of the themes of his early failed operatic attempts – St. John’s Eve – and compose a sharp orchestral piece, Night on the Bare Mountain. Simultaneously, Rimsky-Korsakov was working on his ‘Fantasy on Serbian Themes’, and completing the first musical ‘picture’ by any member of the group: Sadko. Meanwhile, Borodin had already completed his first symphony (although it was not performed until two years later, in 1869), and was also trying his luck – unsuccessfully – at the stage with his comic opera The Bogatyrs. It was amidst this prolific environment that Vladimir Stassov proudly claimed that Russia now possessed its own ‘little heap’ of autochthonous composers: ‘The Mighty Handful’.


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Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Photo: audiosparx.com

The productivity of the partnership of ‘the five’ went on unobstructed for another couple of years. In 1868 Rimsky-Korsakov’s oriental inflections became even more prevalent in his second symphony, the impressive Antar. In the meantime Mussorgsky was progressing in the composition of a new opera The Marriage (which would, as was usual with Mussorgsky, never be finished) and was working on the first draft of Boris Godunov. Less than a year later Balakirev would produce his most elaborate piece since Russia, an oriental fantasy that pressed further on the common influences of ‘the five’, Islamey. Similarly, Cui would also culminate ten years of artistic toil by finally producing what still today remains to be his most famous opera, William Ratcliff. Finally, Borodin would begin – by suggestion of Stassov –– the process of creation of perhaps the most significant piece of music produced by any individual of the group, Prince Igor.

However, the joint labour of ‘The Mighty Handful’ was already doomed. The diversity of characters and ambitions, as well as Balakirev’s extremely normative and strict nature meant that the community would, sooner or later, dissolve. The inevitable process of disintegration began in 1871. Balakirev had become the Director of the Imperial Chapel and the conductor of the Imperial Russian Musical Society in 1869. However, his despotism and tactlessness had earned him too many enemies over the years and now they were causing him so many difficulties he fell in a steep nervous breakdown. He quit the city, moved to Siberia and worked as a railway clerk there until 1876.


And yet, Balakirev’s disappearance from the artistic and social scene of St. Petersburg did not mean either the group’s fall from grace, nor the interruption in the interaction between the remaining members. On the contrary, it meant that each of the members was now able to pursue their personal – musical – interests in a less restricted environment. Rimsky-Korsakov was appointed professor of practical composition and instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1871, and began – secretly – to take formal classes of composition for the first time in his life. Borodin was still working on Prince Igor, when Mussorgsky finally finished and produced his magnum opus, Boris Godunov, in 1872. At the same time Rimsky-Korsakov finished his opera The Maid of Pskov, and a collective project arose, the joint composition of an opera in four acts, Mlada.


However, two events disrupted the cohesion of the remains of ‘The Mighty Handful’ in 1872. One of them was the fruition of Borodin’s lifelong political struggle to improve – in fact to establish – the rights of women in Russia. When the first Medical School for women was opened in St. Petersburg, Borodin was immediately appointed lecturer there, and the time he would now devote to music was reduced. The second event was Rimsky-Korsakov’s marriage, which meant that Mussorgsky had to move out of his house.


Away from Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky sheltered himself from his solitude in his music. Between 1873 and 1874 he began – and left unfinished – two operas, Khovanshchina and Sorochintsy Fair, and he composed his famous Pictures at an Exhibition – his own version of a musical portrait. In the meantime, Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame mounted. He composed his third symphony between those same years and was appointed Director of the Free School of Music. After an arduous self-didactic task that included correspondence with Tchaikovsky in Moscow, Rimsky-Korsakov finally satisfied himself with his level of knowledge on composition and accepted the place in 1874. Meanwhile, Cui’s strife for a third opera finally came to a conclusion in 1876 with Angelo. That same year saw the completion of Borodin’s second symphony, although he would not produce it until 1877, when it was received with marked scepticism.


By then, Mussorgsky had been kicked out of his cousin’s place and was living in seclusion and sadness. Balakirev, on the other hand, had returned to St. Petersburg, where he was once again engaged in his own work. Mussorgsky would never finish another piece of music; Balakirev would work on his two symphonies and on a number of innocuous pieces for piano that would never resemble the greatness of his earlier compositions. Only Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov seemed to be, still, in the prime of their musical careers.


Liszt’s influence and friendship provided Borodin with fame in the continent and with enough inspiration to produce his personal symphonic picture and his biggest success, In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). Meanwhile, Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation grew by the minute. He wrote numerous operas and his style progressed continuously. His Orientalism is still present in Sherezade (1888), and the recurrence of magic and fantasy can be traced as late as 1904, when he finished The Tale of the City of Kitezh. However, musically the development of his work is as evident as is the influence it exerted upon the subsequent generations of Russian musicians.


Alexander Borodin. Photo: Unknown.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, ‘The Mighty Handful’ had spread and scattered; ‘the five’ were not a group anymore and their co-operation had collapsed, leaving few complete works to show for it. Rimsky-Korsakov tried to remedy this by appropriating the incomplete manuscripts of Mussorgsky (Khovanshchina, Sorochinsty Fair) and Borodin (Prince Igor, Mlada) and producing a completed version of them. However the development of his own music prevented him from being truly faithful to the sentiment with which they were (partially) composed.


In all fairness, Rimsky-Korsakov had set himself an impossible task. The handful had propelled a sentiment previously unexpressed (musically), through the exploitation of an ephemeral and inflammable collaboration that, although it opened new horizons to the future of Russian music, remained in itself untranslatable, irreproducible, even for those who participated in it. The influence of the handful in Russian music had already been established; its importance could be seen – could be heard – then as now. The ideal of an inspired man had been realised precisely through the same obstinacy that sentenced its short life and its long legacy.

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