The Russian Boy Band of the 19th Century (The Five)
In keeping with my tradition of blog posts that talk of Russia’s relatively short yet explosive music history, I choose this unit to multitask in my pattern of praising all the great composers in the last two centuries.
Тhe Russian 5 (known only in the west as The Five) or the “Mighty Handful” (Могучая кучка ) refers to a circle of five composers in the mid to late nineteenth century who met in St. Petersburg and shared their ideas with the aim of producing specifically Russian nationalist music that did not merely imitate older European music. The circle was led by Mily Balakirev who rallied a team of amateur composers including the famous names of Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin. All five of the members were young men who had grown up with a relatively simple upbringing, thus they considered themselves to be authentically Russian and closer to their native soil than the westernized academy. Although they had been preceded by Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky who had both been stark Russian Nationalist composers (each writing their share of successful operas about Russian themes), The Five were the first concentrated effort in this artistic movement.
The Five primarily composed music on two elements specific to Russian music. Most of their material was taken from Cossack and Caucasian dances, churches, and the long/lyrical peasant songs they were accustomed to in their native villages. These melodies were known for their elusive tonal centers, parallel fifths, and raw sonorities that create a very foreign contrast to the polished and structured sounds of western Europe. They also “invented” (well not exactly but they did make great strides in implementing these new scales) their “purely Russian” scales that included octatonic and pentatonic scales with the result of an entirely new palette of colors practically unheard of in their western counterparts. Additionally their music employed a substantial amount of oriental musical devices that recognize the significant eastern Mongol influence on Russia’s culture.
Although The Five began to part by the 1870’s (most likely the result of Balakirev’s withdraw from musical life early in the decade for a period of time), all but the composer Cui were vital teachers to the composers that followed them including but not limited to Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Dimitry Shostakovich. Today all of The Five are buried in the Tikhvin Cemetary located in St. Petersburg.