Nationalism, a sense of pride in one’s heritage, art, music, and literature, has been the impetus for not only political movements, such as the unification of Italy and Germany, but the inspiration for many of our greatest artistic works. Of course, the spirit of nationalism has, in various times in history, been used as excuses for some of the most grievous crimes against humanity.
In music, nationalistic movements in one form or another, came to a fore in the middle to late 19th century, in many cases as a reaction to the dominance of Austro-Germanic composers. Composers such as Dvorak, took the rules and forms laid down by “foreign” composers, to create music that has a uniquely Czech voice and identity. There were also composers who rejected, or tried hard to reject, any influence of established forms and styles, who tried to create works of art unique to their cultural heritage, free from any foreign influence.
Music historian Stephen Walsh’s new book, Musorgsky and His Circle, A Russian Musical Adventure, is part social history, part musicology, and part biography. Namely, he chronicles the development of Russian art music from Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomïzhsky, to the focus of his book, the work of the circle of composers known in the West as The Five, and ends with a discussion of its influence on subsequent Russian and Soviet composers. Within Walsh’s book, there are also detailed discussion and analysis of the works of these composers. It is an ambitious undertaking, and the result is a book that is not meant for casual reading, but detailed study.
The term, commonly known as the Five, is also referred to as the Mighty Little Heap (moguchaya kuchka), is a group of composers that include Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Musorgsky, the most important figure in the group, according to the author. The circle could be extended to include Vladimir Stasov, a lawyer-critic who served as inspiration and advisor for the composers and chronicler of Russian art and music, and Alexander Serov, a some-time composer, but one of the most feared music critic in St. Petersburg.
Walsh takes his reader through the relationships between these composers, how their friendships and alliances were formed, and broken. These composers, none of which had formal training in composition, played their works for each other, supported each other’s creative endeavours, and provided each other with ideas for creative projects. On the other hand, they were also marked by violent disagreements, professional jealousy and envy, and sometimes betrayal, and would vehemently reject any work or composer whose works or associations do not fit within their musical and aesthetic ideas. In many ways, César Cui, perhaps the least talented and most small-minded of the group, could be scathing in his critique of works of friends or enemies. By the 1870’s, when members of the circle were all involved with their own projects, the identity of the group had already begun to blur.
Battle lines were most clearly drawn between the Five, and pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein. By the mid 19th century, Rubinstein, who came from a family of converted Jews, was already famous throughout Western Europe as a touring virtuoso. In 1855, Rubinstein published in a Viennese music journal an article, “The Composers of Russia”, that was widely read in St. Petersburg. The article was a genuine attempt by Rubinstein to introduce European music lovers to the musical scene in Russia. The composers of the Five, however, objected to Rubinstein’s statement that he finds in Russian folk song, in spite of its distinctiveness, “a persistent lugubriousness and melancholy that infect every aspect of its melody and rhythm.” To use such material for an entire opera, says Rubinstein, would be “scarcely endurable, especially for foreign audiences”. To Glinka, composer of the operas A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, as well as to the composers of the Five, it was a declaration of war. The Five was also stung by Rubinstein’s statement that anyone who “writes a single romance, however primitive and inept… can call himself a composer”, even though Rubinstein never specifically named any one person.
The response of the Five, as well as critic Vladimir Stasov, also reflects the latent anti-Semitism of Russian society at the time. Echoing Wagner’s infamous Judaism in Music, Stasov states that Jews (even a converted one like Rubinstein), while acquainted with European languages and culture, are not capable of anything but “a superficial understanding of their inner workings.” What Rubinstein refers to as amateurism, Stasov adds, is actually a “natural Russian distaste for the stultifying effects of Western academicism.” Verbal battles were fought between Rubinstein’s Russian Musical Society (RMS) and the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and the Free Music School (FMS), an organization that reflects the philosophy of the Five.
Although battle lines were drawn between the two parties, things were not quite so clear-cut. Rubinstein’s RMS, generously, one might add, regularly presented works of the Five, as well as musical works of Western European composers. When Rubinstein resigned as director of the conservatory and as conductor of the RMS, the board of the society was in favour of appointing Balakirev to conduct the concerts in the coming season. It was only when Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna (patroness of Rubinstein and the RMS) vetoed their choice that Balakirev had to share the podium with Hector Berlioz. In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to be the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Some members of the Five considered this a betrayal. Musorgsky writes, “Artistic truth can’t tolerate predetermined forms” as a jibe to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “defection” to academia.
Such is the background against which composers of the Five were operating. Walsh covers a lot of ground in his book, detailing the chronology of each composer’s major compositional efforts, large and small – Cui’s many efforts at writing operas, Musorgsky’s chronology of writing Night on Bald Mountain, and the many revisions of Boris Godunov, as well as his efforts at Khovanshchina, and Borodin’s efforts at Prince Igor, to name just a few examples. The discussions always center around Musorgsky, perhaps because of the five composers, he was “the most inclined to ignore the normal rules and procedures of textbook composition” and the most original.
Other than the relative handful of compositions that has become part of our musical canon – Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 and Prince Igor, Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Night on Bald Mountain, and Pictures from an Exhibition, Balakirev’s finger-breaking Islamey, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, Sheherazade, and Russian Easter Festival Overture (all written late in the composer’s life) – audiences outside of Russia, except perhaps the most ardent Russophile, would most likely be unfamiliar with many of the composers’ other works.
Were composers of the Five “geniuses”? Perhaps not, not in the sense of Schubert or Mozart or Beethoven, in whose music one finds a sense of inevitability, both in their conception and progression. This group of five men, as much as they loved music, really treated music as, forgive the use of the word, hobby. They would begin a work with great enthusiasm, but would then leave it for days or months or years, because of their other professional or personal commitments, or because they simply lost interest in the project.
While it is all too easy to dismiss the other efforts of the Five as mere dabbling by amateurs, we should be reminded that the history of Russian and Soviet music would be very different without their pioneering efforts. In the penultimate chapter of the book – Heirs and Rebels – Walsh discusses the legacy and influences of the group. According to the author, we can find in works of composers as diverse as Debussy, Janáček, Stravinsky (a private pupil of Rimsky’s), and Shostakovich, influences of composers of the Five.
After the work on Russian music history by Richard Taruskin (acknowledged by the author throughout his volume), Stephen Walsh has done a real service here, and has done a balanced, fair-minded, English language study of this watershed period in Russian music history. As Walsh points out, some of the studies of the Five carried out during the Soviet era were subjected to interpretation that suits the socialist reality of the time. Even with the detailed musical analysis that filled many pages (fascinating reading in their own right), I do find this book quite an engrossing read, and had learnt much from it. The cultural milieu of Russia at the time, vignettes of the lives of the five composers, their interactions with each other at various stages in their lives, and their struggling to write music in spite of their “day jobs” and other commitments, make the volume a very interesting one to read. I am certainly grateful to Walsh for filling in gaps in my knowledge of this fascinating period in European art music.