Ten Good Men (Part 1)

It seems to be a fairly basic feature of human (and perhaps also animal) nature that like-minded individuals tend to congregate or, to borrow a pithy saying from English folk wisdom, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Therefore it is no great surprise that in various branches of the arts there have been several well-established groups.  I am thinking particularly of classical music and two particular groups of composers.  One is a group of French composers from the early 20th century, “Les Six”, whose music I have recently been getting into.  As you might guess from the name (even if you don’t speak French), there were six of them.  However, before I go into any detail about this group (which will be in a later post), I want to spend some time considering a slightly earlier Russian group known in English as “The Five“.  Not only does this group come chronologically first, by a few years, but also they were the direct inspiration for at least the name of the French group; also, I have been familiar with some of their work for quite a long time (although there’s still plenty more for me to discover).

The Five are actually known in Russian as Могучая кучка (Moguchaya kuchka, which roughly translates as “the mighty handful”) and I think this is a much more evocative name, although the other seems to have stuck in English.  I think it came by way of French (“Les Cinq”).  Whatever you call them, they were a group of five composers (no surprises there!) who were active in St Petersburg during the years 1856-1870.  The group had the shared aim of producing a specifically Russian kind of art music that was not merely an imitation of Western styles.  As such they incorporated several features of Russian folk music (including parallel fifths, which had long been shunned by the musical conventions of Western art music) as well as innovations of their own.  Details can be found in the Wikipedia article linked in the previous paragraph.

The leader of the group, although probably one of the less well-known members today, was Милий Алексеевич Балакирев (Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev).  He was, at least at the outset, the only professional musician among the group and was quite influential on the musical thinking of the others.  I’ve not yet listened to much of his work, but he has two nice overtures on Russian themes that are part of my music collection, and which seem to encapsulate the spirit of the Mighty Handful.

Almost certainly the least well-known (or well-remembered) member of the group was Цезарь Антонович Кюи (César Antonovich Cui).  He was a professional soldier and pursued music as a sideline.  I gather he was a moderately prolific composer, working in multiple classical music genres (though he didn’t write any symphonies or symphonic poems, unlike the rest of the group), but of his work I have only been able to track down one string quartet.  It is a pleasant, if not especially remarkable, piece.

Модест Петрович Мусоргский (Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky) is somewhat better-known these days than Balakirev or Cui, largely due to his tone poem Night on the bare mountain (sometimes translated instead as Night on Bald Mountain and made famous largely through Disney’s Fantasia, which is not a film I can recall ever having watched, although I’m fairly sure I’ve seen clips from it), his piano suite Pictures at an exhibition (later orchestrated by Maurice Ravel) and his opera Boris Godunov.  I’m not (yet) familiar with the latter work, although it is widely regarded as Mussorgsky’s masterpiece and one of the greatest Russian-language operas.  I do know the other pieces reasonably well.  I recall a question from my GCSE music exam (or possibly the mock exam) which involved drawing a graphical score of the opening section of Night on the bare mountain.  This piece was originally published as St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (or, rather, Иванова ночь на лысой горе (Ivanova noch’ na lisoy gore) – the word lisoy literally means “bald”, although it is used figuratively for a bare hilltop; much like the use of the Welsh word moel for the same purpose, in fact).  A few years after Mussorgsky’s death, his colleague Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov published an arrangment of it, simply as “Night on the bare mountain” without reference to St. John, and it is this version which became, and has remained, particularly popular.

In addition to editing some of the works of the other members of the Five, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Николай Андреевич (Andreyevich) Римский-Корсаков to give him his full name in the Cyrillic alphabet, was a member of the group in his own right.  His biggest impact on popular culture is probably the famous Flight of the bumblebee, an orchestral interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Sultan, which is commonly performed by soloists or groups of musicians on various instruments wanting to show off their technical proficiency at high-speed playing.  Other particularly well-known works of his are the Capriccio Espagnol (which I particlarly like, especially as a companion to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien), his Russian Easter Festival overture and his Scheherazade symphonic suite based on the tales of the One Thousand And One Nights (aka the Arabian Nights).

The final member of the Five was Александр Порфирьевич Бородин (Alexander Porfir’evich Borodin).  Like César Cui, he was essentially an amateur musician; professionally he was a chemist and physician.  Apparently he did particularly notable work on the chemistry of aldehydes and was also a notable advocate of women’s rights.  His best known works are a couple of symphonies (one of which I’ve not heard, as far as I know), two string quartets, a symphonic poem entitled In the steppes of Central Asia (although the Russian title – В средней Азии – just means “In central Asia”) and the opera Prince Igor.  Of the latter work, the most famous bit (and the only bit I’m at all familiar with) is the Polovtsian Dances, which are (apparently) located at the end of Act 2 (out of 4) and are often played as a concert piece independent of the rest of the opera.

The group of the Five fell apart in the early 1870s as the different members gradually began to go their separate ways.  Although they didn’t continue to work closely together, their influences on each other’s music seem to have remained fairly strong (or at least none of them, as far as I can tell, made a radical departure from the tenets of the group in their later work) and they also influenced many of the next generation(s) of Russian composers as well as the French composers Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.  As I mentioned earlier, the name at least was also an inspiration for the later French group “les Six”, but that is a subject for another day.