The Mighty Handful: Five Russian Nationalist Composers

Bringing Russian Music to the Forefront of the 19th Century Music Scene

The Mighty Handful, or Moguchaya Kuchka in Russian, was the nickname of a group of five mid-19th century Russian composers who worked collectively to bring modern Russian compositions to the forefront of the Russian music scene. Led by the conductor of the Russian Music Society and the Director of the Free School of Music Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev, "The Five" as they were known in Britain refused to play symphonic performances featuring what their subscribers wanted—modern music from Western Europe (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Handel). Instead, they performed their own compositions and those of other modern Russian composers.

This Russian nationalist movement was accused of insularity by critics such as Vladimir Stasov, who named them the "Mighty Little Heap." Their strong position split the Russian music community in two and eventually, Balakirev was forced out of both his positions and stopped writing altogether. In the long run, however, their influence in supporting Russian composers was substantial. 

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Mily Balakirev (1837–1910)

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Mily Balakirev. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev was the leader of the group and composed, among others, songs, symphonic poems, piano pieces and orchestral music. It has been mentioned that Balakirev had a reputation for being a tyrant which earned him many enemies during his lifetime.

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Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov is probably the most prolific composer among them. He wrote operas, symphonies, orchestral works, and songs. He also became conductor of military bands, director of St. Petersburg's Free Music School from 1874 to 1881 and conducted various concerts in Russia.

mussorgsky
Modest Mussorgsky. Public Domain Portrait from Wikimedia Commons

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was a Russian composer who served in the military. Although his father wanted him to pursue a military career, it was evident that Mussorgsky's passion was in music. He wrote operas, songs, piano pieces, and melodies. He is especially known for his vivid portrayal of Russian life through his works.

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Aleksandr Borodin (1833–1887)

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Aleksandr Borodin. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Aleksandr Porfiryevich Borodin wrote songs, string quartets and symphonies. His most famous work is the opera "Prince Igor" which was left unfinished when he died in 1887. The said opera was completed by Aleksandr Glazunov and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.

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César Cui (1835–1918)

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Cesar Cui. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

César Antonovich Cui is perhaps the least known member, but he was also one of the staunch supporters of Russian nationalist music. He was a music critic and professor of fortifications at a military academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Cui is especially known for his songs and piano pieces.

Sources:

Garden E. 1969. Balakirev's Personality. Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 96:43-55. Garden E. 1969. Classic and Romantic in Russian Music. Music & Letters 50(1):153-157. Taruskin R. 2011. Non-Nationalists and Other Nationalists. 19th-Century Music 35(2):132-143.