“The Five,” a musical group also famous as “the New Russian School,” “The Mighty Five,” and “Mighty Handful” was a collection of five celebrated Russian composers who emphasized on providing Russian classical music with its own identity. The members included Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and the leader Mily Balakirev. From 1856 to 1870, the group was based in Saint Petersburg and collaborated with an aim to create a distinct genre of Russian classical music.
Borodin (top left), Korsakov (top right), Mussorgsky (bottom right), Balakirev (bottom left), Cui (center)
The Five, except Balakirev, all struggled in their quest to promot Russian music. Also, none of the five was of ethnic Russian descent (Velikoross). Borodin’s forefathers were Georgian, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky had Polish-Lithuanian ancestry, and Cui was of French descent. Balakirev was the only “civilian” in the group; all other members either had a strong military background or were military officers themselves.
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In 1856, the formation wheels started rolling when César Cui and Balakirev held a meeting. In 1857, Modest Mussorgsky joined in the fray. In 1861 and 1862, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin joined the group, respectively. All members of “The Five” were young back then. In 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov was just 18, Mussorgsky was 23, Cui 27, and Balakirev 25. Borodin was 28 years old and the eldest of the lot. They were basically amateurs and relied on self-training.
This music revolution was mainly Balakirev’s brainchild, and he was the first one to face opposition. There was controversy surrounding a Slavic Concert, where the name “Mighty Handful” (which the group initially used) garnered heavy criticism and mockery from the Russian Musical Society, the academics of the conservatory and their supporters in the press. The Russian composers who performed for the foreign delegation were Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, and Mikhail Glinka. However, the group chose to ignore the critics and continue performing under that moniker. Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky gathered around Balakirev, their leader, and continued performing as “The Five”/“Mighty Handful.”
“The Five” mainly operated from the minor provinces, devoid of any court connections, unlike the “elite” conservatory composers. Their movement was more pertained towards the more classical, “authentically Russian.” They crafted operas on distinct Russian subjects and made a concentrated effort towards incorporating the influence of native music in their songs. Their works included “tolling of church bells,” the music in Caucasian dances, Cossack, church chants, and village songs.
“The Five” also incorporated the sounds that were engraved with the Russian lifestyle. Balakirev’s own transcriptions paint a distinctive picture of Russian folk music. Some characteristics of the group’s music are:
They also succeeded at artfully preserving “Tonal mutability,” a distinctive aspect of Russian folk. This occurs when a tune naturally shifts between tonal centers, often starting a song with a distinct key and transporting to a different one eventually. This creates a palpable source of elusiveness, a lack of logical progression, or so-called definition in the harmonies. Even when considering the music of “The Five,” this quality instills a whole new tonal structure to Russian music, unique from its Western counterparts.
In this context, multiple performers (two or more) simultaneously render a melody in distinct variations. The singers improvise this until the end portion of a song when it finally reverts to a “single” melodic line.
Parallel thirds, fourths, and fifths
This distinct effect offers a raw sonority to Russian music, which is entirely missing from the comparatively more-polished harmonies of the West.
They further made an attempt to reproduce the melismatic, long-drawn peasant lyrical, also known as “the soul of Russian music.” They adopted multiple harmonic devices to craft their own “Russian” color and style. This wasn’t merely self-conscious, but flowers of their invention. Also, neither of these devices were used in reality in Russian church or folk music:
Whole tone scale
This scale is primarily utilized in Russian music to suggest ominous situations or evil personalities. All major composers have utilized it, namely Rimsky-Korsakov, Claude Debussy, and Tchaikovsky. It went on to become common in horror movie music.
The Russian submediant
This is basically a harmonic pattern, albeit in “major” mode. In this pattern, one of the upper parts transfers from a chromatically dominant pitch to a submediant while all other harmonic parts remain constant. “Scheherezade,” by Rimsky-Korsakov, is the most famous example of the usage of Russian submediant.
“Octatonic” or diminished scale
In 1867, Rimsky-Korsakov first utilized this in “Sadko,” a symphonic poem. The scale went on to become a “calling card” of Russian music, a leitmotif of menace and magic used extensively by talented musicians.
“The Five” utilized this device to the fullest, crafting a type of symphonic-poem based structure. This helped them to avoid the rigid laws of modulation prevalent in the West, further allowing them to craft music entirely based on the “content.” They could ditch the traditional “laws of symmetry” and garner inspirations from visual descriptions and programmatic statements. Mussorgsky used it the most, using to define the distinct Russian style.
Almost all Russian nationalist music composers have adopted this style. It contains only 5 notes in the octave, rather than the formal heptatonic scales (minor, major, etc.). This aspect is used to hint a “primitive” folk style, and also elements of Asia and the Middle East.
Impact of Orientalism
Another hallmark of the group was their dependence on “Orientalism.” They proactively used eastern harmonies and themes, setting themselves apart from western composers. Orientalism is widely considered as one of the best traits of Russian music in the West. Rimsky-Korsakov also used oriental melodies and Russian folk in his “First Symphony,” which was duly titled as the “First Russian Symphony.”
Orientalism was also not confined to the usage of only Eastern melodies. What stood out was the musical conventions they depicted. They became an avenue to write music on unmentionable subjects - namely erotic fantasizes and political themes. “Antar,” a symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov and “Tamara,” a symphonic poem by Balakirev stood out as the most celebrated works having orientalism as a key feature.
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During the 1870s, the group started falling apart, partially due to Balakirev’s withdrawal from music. The members of “The Five” taught and influenced several celebrated Russian composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, Alexander Glazunov, etc. Two French symbolists - the legendary Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were also influenced by their “radical” tonal language. All members of the group are buried in the “Tikhvin Cemetery” in Saint Petersburg. They successfully created an authentic Russian music style, rejecting the Germanic academicism that dominated the St Petersburg Conservatory. The "Moguchaya Kuchka (The Five)" established a tradition and literally became a mighty handful.