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Timeline: Mikhail Glinka and the Russian Five

glinka_and_the_mighty_handful_-_us-pd.jpg
U.S. Public Domain
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Photographs of the Russian Nationalist composers of the 19th century: (from the top left) Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin and Mikhail Glinka.

In the 19th century there were two seemingly opposing influences in the world of music. First, the growing tide of Romantic Nationalism was sweeping the Western world as each people group sought ways to express and preserve their cultural identity. Second, the power of the music from the 18th century, especially of the German masters Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, had been burned into the collective consciousness. In Russia, these two forces met in the music of Mikhail Glinka and a group of composers we call “The Russian Five”.

The Russian Nationalist movement centered around the city of St. Petersburg and begins with the music of Mikhail Glinka. Glinka was a talented young musician. He spent his early years traveling Europe and experiencing the music of the continent; meeting composers such as John Field, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Liszt. It was during these travels that he discovered his life’s dream, to create a Russian style of music. His two operas “A Life for the Tsar” and “Ruslan and Lyudmila” took the instruments and forms of traditional practice and imbued them with the melodies and harmonic sounds of his culture. His works began to find an audience outside of Russia. Hector Berlioz was quite impressed with Glinka and brought his music to Paris. Sadly, Glinka died suddenly in 1857.

Glinka’s legacy lived on in a society that began to form in St. Petersburg in the late 1850’s. This was a group of young amateur composers that dedicated themselves to creating a distinct Russian style rather than simply imitating the music of Europe. Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin today are referred to as “The Russian Five”. Actually, they never called themselves that. Their critics and nay-sayers named them “The Mighty Handful” as a joke or a derogatory term. But, these men embraced that title and proudly sought to pursue Russian musical expression.

They began by utilizing folksongs and dances, painting the everyday life of their people in music. It also meant rejecting some of the rules of harmony and counterpoint and embracing exotic scales and forms found in some of the most experimental works of Franz Liszt. The Music of “The Russian Five” also brought a flavor of the East to the West, as they incorporated songs and stories from the far reaches of their expansive land.

Although the group disbanded around 1870 their works influenced a new generation of Russian composers such as Glazunov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Beyond Russia, their influence can be seen in the works of the French Impressionists Debussy and Ravel.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

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