Group of nationally oriented Russian composers during the nineteenth century; the name was coined unintentionally by the music and art critic Vladimir Stasov.
The "Mighty Handful" (moguchaya kuchka ), also known as the New Russian School, Balakirev Circle, or the Five, is a group of nationalist, nineteenth century composers. At the end of the 1850s the brilliant amateur musician Mily Balakirev (1837–1920) gathered a circle of like-minded followers in St. Petersburg with the intention of continuing the work of Mikhail Glinka. His closest comrades became the engineer Cesar Cui (1835–1918; member of the group beginning in 1856), the officers Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881, member beginning in 1857), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908, member beginning in 1861), and the chemist Alexander Borodin (1833–1887, member beginning in 1862). The spiritual mentor of the young composers, who shared their lack of professional musical training, was the music and art critic Vladimir Stasov, who publicly and vehemently promoted the cause of a Russian national music separate from Western traditions, in a somewhat polarizing and polemic manner. When Stasov, in an article for the Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti (St. Petersburg News) about a "Slavic concert of Mr. Balakirev" on the occasion of the Slavic Congress in 1867, praised the "small, but already mighty handful of Russians musicians," he had Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky in mind as well as the group, but the label stuck to Balakirev and his followers. They can be considered a unit not only because of their constant exchange of ideas, but also because of their common aesthetic convictions. Strictly speaking, this unity of composition lasted only until the beginning of the 1870s, when it began to dissolve with the growing individuation of its members.
The enthusiastic music amateurs sought to create an independent national Russian music by taking up Russian themes, literature, and folklore and integrating Middle-Asian and Caucasian influences, thereby distancing it from West European musical language and ending the supremacy of the latter in the musical life of Russian cities. Balakirev, who had known Glinka personally, was the most advanced musically; his authority was undisputed among the five musicians. He rejected classical training in music as being only rigid routine and recommended his own method to his followers instead: composing should not be learned through academic courses, but through the direct analysis of masterpieces (especially those created by Glinka, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, or Ludwig van Beethoven, the composers most venerated by the Five). The St. Petersburg conservatory, founded in 1862 by Anton Rubinstein as a new central music training center with predominantly German staff was heavily criticized, especially by Balakirev and Stasov. Instead, a Free School of Music (Bezplatnaya muzykalnaya shkola ) was founded in the same year, and differed from the conservatory in its low tuition fees and its decidedly national Russian orientation. Balakirev advised his own disciples of the Mighty Handful to go about composing great works of music without false fear.
In spite of comparatively low productivity and long production periods, due in part to the lack of professional qualifications and the consequent creative crises, in part to Balakirev's willful and meticulous criticisms, and in part to the members' preoccupation with their regular occupations, the composers of the Mighty Handful became after Glinka and beside Peter Tchaikovsky the founders of Russian national art music during the nineteenth century. An exception was Cui, whose compositions, oriented towards Western models and themes, formed a sharp contrast to what he publicly postulated for Russian music. The other members of the Balakirev circle successfully developed specific Russian musical modes of expression. The music dramas Boris Godunov (1868–1872) and Khovanshchina (1872–1881) by Mussorgsky and Prince Igor (1869–1887) by Borodin, in spite of their unfinished quality, are considered among the greatest historical operas of Russian music, whereas Rimsky-Korsakov achieved renown by his masterly accomplishment of the Russian fairy-tale and magic opera. The symphonies, symphonic poems, and overtures of Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev stand for the beginnings and first highlights of a Russian orchestral school. Understandably, many of the composers' most important works were created when the Mighty Handful as a community had already dissolved. The personal crises of Balakirev and Mussorgsky contributed to the circle's dissolution, as did the increasing emancipation of the disciples from their master, which was clearly exemplified by Rimsky-Korsakov. He advanced to the status of professional musician, became professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory (1871), and diverged from the others increasingly over time in his creative approaches. In sum, the Mighty Handful played a crucial role in the formation of Russian musical culture at the crossroads of West European influences and strivings for national independence. Through the intentional use of historical and mythical Russian themes, the works of the Mighty Handful have made a lasting contribution to the national culture of recollection in Russia far beyond the nineteenth century.
See also: music; nationalism in the arts; rimskykorsakov, nikolai andreyevich; stasov, vladimir vasilievich
Brown, David; Abraham, Gerald; Lloyd-Jones, David; Garden, Edward. (1986). Russian Masters, Vol. I: Glinka, Borodin, Balakirev, Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.
Garden, Edward. (1967). Balakirev: A Critical Study of His Life and Music. London: Faber & Faber.