Wednesday, March 22, 2006



In 1930, St. Petersburg was a cultural center in Russia. C. Cavos (Italian composer) lived in St. Petersburg when he wrote his operas, “Ilya the Hero” (1807) and “Ivan Susanin” (1815). The first every complete performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis had taken place there in April, 1824.

But in 1930, the only truly Russian “sounds” were religious and folk music – this was going to change. In a world dominated by Western Europe, nationalism was on the rise. In architecture, the “Church of the Savior on Blood” (right) utilized traditional Russian features to evoke feelings of national unity on the site where Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. In art, Russian peasant life was being portrayed in increasing amounts.

In the music world, Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (known and the father of Russian classical music) was one of the first Russian composers in the Romantic Period, writing his first patriotic opera, “A Life for the Tsar” in 1836. His later works were not as successful, but Glinka heavily influenced the Russian Romantic composers that followed him. Alexander Dargomyhsky (whose only musical education came from a set of exercise books loaned from Glinka)wrote the opera “Rusalka” in 1856, showing a talent for re-creating Russian characters, scenes, and speech rhythms.

Both of these men would have an influence on the “Russian Five”, a group of composers who would seek to free Russian music from the confining control of Western Europe. Also known as the “Mighty Five”, the Moguchaya Kuchka (“The Mighty Little Heap”) was joined by was also joined by Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov – not a composer, but rather an art critic. He served the “Russian Five” as sort of an “artistic advisor” and also gave them their name. Stasov actively supported the Peredvizhniki (a group of Russian realist artist who protested academic restrictions in the art community), so it seems natural that he would support a group of musicians who were struggling to develop a truly Russian music.

These five composers drew on Russian folk music and the basis for much of their work, but more importantly they encouraged those who came behind them to draw on their own experience and background, rather than conform to the norm.

The first of “the Five”, Mily Balakirev (January 1, 1837 – May 29, 1910) met Glinka at age 18, who not only encouraged him to enter the music world, but also sparked a love of Russian nationalism. Balakirev believed strongly that Russian music should be truly “Russian”, free from influence from both Western and Southern Europe. Perhaps known for bringing “The Five” together more than for his own music, his best-known piece is “Islamey: an Oriental Fantasy,” which is still popular among pianists.

In 1856, Mily Balakirev and Cesar Cui (January 6, 1835 – March 13, 1918), second member of “the Five” met for the first time. Cesar Cui was not a musician by trade. He was an army officer and he taught fortifications. In his private life, he was a music critic and composer, and devoted to Russia. As a composer, his works were not well accepted by other musicians, quite possibly because of his own professional criticism would not have endeared him to them.
Modest (sometimes Modeste) Mussorgsky first met Balakirev and Cui in 1857. Like Cui, Mussorgsky was a military man, with a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment of Guards, the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard. By 1859, Mussorgsky had met the rest of “the Five”, given up his military commission and had gained valuable theatrical experience, assisting in the preparation of a production of Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar”. After a trip to Moscow, Mussorgsky claimed a love of “everything Russian”. Mussorgsky’s name may not be widely known today, but his music is. His most popular piece (used in the modern era) is “A Night on the Bare Mountain”. This piece appears in Disney’s “Fantasia” and excerpts of it appear in such films as “Saturday Night Fever”, Woody Allen's “Stardust Memories”, and a German heavy metal band, Mekong Delta, recorded a “thrash” version of the piece. Excepts of other Mussorgsky works have been used in Michael Jackson music, “The Big Lowbowski”, “Asylum” and the “Smurfs” cartoon series.

The fourth member of the group, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was a Navy man. Rimsky-Korsakov in met Balakirev in 1861 and as a result began to concentrate on music. While he was on a world cruise (still in the navy), he wrote his first symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov was not conservatory trained – he was largely either self-taught or group taught by the rest of “the Five” – in spite of this, he became a professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservtoire. Some sources say that one of his most significant (although controversial) contributions to the music world was his editing of the works of the rest of “the Five”.

The final member of “the Five was Aleksander Borodin, who joined the group in 1862. Borodin’s career was not music – he was trained as a doctor with a career as a chemist – making significant contributions in the area of organic halogens. His avocation. Franz Liszt performed Borodin’s “First Symphony” in 1880, in Germany, making Borodin’s musical legacy possible in his lifetime.

Together, these five men formed “the Five”. These were the men that were determined to write and perform truly “Russian” music. Most Americans may not be familiar with the names, but they would probably recognize some of the music. Certainly we recognize the “Russian” sound, inherited from the Orient.

“The Five” did not stay intact for long; beginning to fall apart by 1870 – by that time, Balakirev had withdrawn from music for a time. He was the one who had brought them all together, and with his departure, they came apart. Interestingly, although the group fell apart, they are all buried in the same cemetery: The Tikhvin Cemetary in St. Petersburg.

The musical legacy of “the Russian Five” does not end with their music. The members of this group influences and/or directly taught many of the great Russian composers who would follow them, the most prominent of whom is Igor Stravinsky. These men, as a group, were an important part of musical history. If it had not been for “The Five” and their commitment to Russian “nationalism”, the music world would be a poorer place. The Russian culture is rich with history and folklore – “the Five” helped bring it to life through their music.