Who were The Mighty Handful? A guide to The Five, a group of 19th century influential Russian composers
Jeremy Pound introduces the influential group of 19th-century Russian composers also known as The Five.
The Mighty Handful was a group of Russian composers who, led by Mily Balakirev, sought to create a distinctly Russian style of classical music.
Based in St Petersburg, the five composers worked closely together from the late 1850s to around 1870. Largely self-taught, they represented a source of opposition to the conservatories recently founded in Moscow and St Petersburg, which some felt were confined by German tradition.
How did they become known as The Mighty Handful?
Their distinctive name was not self-adopted but came from a sentence in critic Vladimir Stasov’s review of a concert in Moscow on 24 May 1867, in which music by four of the composers was featured: ‘May God grant that [the audience retains] for ever a memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent and ability is possessed by the small but already mighty handful’.
The group is often also known as ‘The Five’, a term first used in a letter from Balakirev to Tchaikovsky in 1870. (Although influenced by the group, Tchaikovsky himself was always insistent on not being too closely associated with it.)
In that same year, shortly before the group went their separate ways, four of them – Borodin, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui – began work on a collaborative opera called Mlada, but it was never completed.
Who were the five members of The Mighty Handful?
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
The de facto founder of the group, Balakirev’s legacy perhaps lies more in his ability to inspire and influence others than his own compositions. As a close acquaintance of Glinka (1804-57), the ‘father of Russian music’, he determined to carry on the older composer’s good work, and it was alongside Vladimir Stasov that he gathered together like-minded composers for that purpose.
A brilliant pianist himself, much of his best known music is for that instrument, including 1869’s Islamey, widely regarded as one of the most fiendishly difficult works in the entire repertoire. In 1872, he suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew himself completely from the musical world, returning only slowly over the following years.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Like Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov was renowned for his steadfast support and encouragement of fellow composers, not least as a much-loved professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory from 1871 onwards – of the five members of The Mighty Handful, he was the least at odds with the conservatories’ teaching, and his acceptance of the post met without any great disapproval.
His own works include the hugely popular Scheherazade (1888) for orchestra and operas such as The Tale of Tsar Saltan (including the famous ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’) and the snappily titled The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, and he also played a significant role in arranging, editing and championing the music of fellow Mighty Handful member Musorgsky (see below) after the latter’s death in 1881.
Modest Musorgsky (1839-81)
Ilya Repin’s famous portrait of a dishevelled, red-eyed Musorgsky, painted just days before the composer’s death, tells its own story.
Only years previously, Musorgsky had been at the peak of his powers, writing his opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin’s story about the early-17th-century Tsar, but now his descent into alcoholism had taken its toll. Musorgsky first came to the attention of Borodin (see below) when in the army, and then had been further guided along his musical path by Balakirev and fellow composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky.
It was Balakirev again, however, who later refused to conduct Musorgsky’s Night on The Bare Mountain, which would remain unperformed during his lifetime. Perhaps his most famous work, meanwhile, was 1874’s Pictures at an Exhibition, composed in memory his friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann – originally written for solo piano, today it is equally famous in Ravel’s orchestrated version of 1922.
Alexander Borodin (1833-87)
For Borodin, composing came as a secondary occupation to his daytime job as a distinguished professor of chemistry, renowned particularly for his work on aldehydes – his published research on the subject would prove highly important.
All the more impressive, then, that he found time to compose a body of work that includes, among other things, two fine symphonies (a third was left incomplete) and the opera Prince Igor (also unfinished, but later completed by Rimsky-Korsakov), which contains the well-known Polovtsian Dances.
His penchant for writing string quartets, meanwhile, incurred the displeasure of the other members of the Mighty Handful, who were largely sceptical of chamber music. He died of a heart attack at a party in February 1887.
César Cui (1835-1918)
Cui, like Borodin, was a composer in his spare time, as he served as an engineer-general in the Russian Imperial Army. Much of his earlier efforts were focused on writing operas, including 1868’s William Ratcliff, but he would gravitate towards chamber music following the disintegration of The Five.
He was also a respected critic who was not afraid to send scathing words in the direction of his own colleagues – the premiere of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, for instance, was given particularly harsh treatment. Of the five members of The Mighty Handful, he is the least well known today.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.