Mussorgsky and Cui.
These make up “The Five,”
Russia’s Mighty Handful of
The five composers noted above, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, and César Cui, made up the group that came to be known as The Five, or in Russia, the Balakirev Circle or Mighty Handful (Могучая кучка). The group was led by Balakirev, and the goal was to elevate the standing of Russian traditional music (the musical nationalism movement, which was found in other countries as well).
The name Mighty Handful came from a review of a concert that included a number of Russian composers, including Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov (and Mikhail Glinka as well). When the phrase was used disdainfully by critics, Balakirev and his group kept the name as a badge of honor.
One unusual thing that distinguished this group is that most of them kept their “day jobs.” Borodin was a chemist (he is well known for his work with aldehydes and as co-discoverer of the Aldol reaction). Others were in the military or civil service. What’s more, none were conservatory trained (which may have been part of the disdain noted above).
It was a challenge to pick some music to represent this group. Hmm, challenge, mighty handful…actually there can be only one choice: Balakirev’s Islamey, long considered one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) piece of solo piano music of all time (Ravel wrote Gaspard de la Nuit with the intent of making it more difficult than Islamey!).
Photo by C. Gallant, 2016.