Arts & Culture | ‘The Five’ | Late Romantic | Classical
Glinka, the ‘father of Russian music’, was the first composer to forge a distinctively Russian style. Previously, during the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, music at the Imperial court had been directed by leading Italian opera composers such as Baldassare Galuppi (1706–85), Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801). Significantly, Glinka’s musical training was European: after studies in Moscow with John Field (1782–1837), he toured Europe and absorbed the Italian operatic styles of Bellini and Donizetti, and German Romanticism in Berlin. Glinka combined these sophisticated idioms with overtly Russian elements, peasant dances and choruses in his operas A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan i Lyudmila (‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’, 1842), a synthesis seen also in the colourful Kamarinskaya (1848).
Glinka’s new awareness of his Russian musical heritage was to have a profound influence on another gifted Russian, Balakirev, who in the 1850s and 1860s gathered around him a small coterie of like-minded artists eager to promote a truly Russian style. Mussorgsky and Cui, and later Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, all of whom pursued music alongside full-time careers, developed their ideas guided by their mentor Balakirev, who influenced their compositions, suggesting literary subjects and folk themes. Vladimir Stasov, a powerful music critic sympathetic to their cause, first coined the term ‘The Mighty Handful’ in a review of one of their concerts at the Free School of Music. Cui became their spokesman, critical of the more pro-European conservative faction led by the Rubinsteins. Their nationalist style was coloured by folk themes, modal harmony, exotic orchestration, orientalism and a lyrical vocal style often, as in Mussorgsky’s case, influenced by speech patterns.
One of their final collective projects was the ballet-opera Mlada (1871), one act composed by each except for Balakirev. The group also supported each other by orchestrating or completing each other’s works. Particularly through the modernist tendencies of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Stravinsky, ‘The Five’ exerted a powerful and decisive influence on Russian music in the twentieth century.
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