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Music Essentials: ‘The Mighty Handful’ Orchestral Concert

Our quick introduction to these five influential Russian composers, this month celebrated in a concert with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

2 February 2016 at 11.30am | 1 Comment

Who were the Mighty Handful?

‘The Mighty Handful’ is a name commonly used to refer to five Russian composers of the late 19th century, who aimed to create a distinctly Russian school of music. The term was first used by music critic Vladimir Stasov in a review of 1867. He was applying the term – moguchaya kuchka in Russian, literally ‘mighty little heap’ – informally, to a whole group of Russian composers of different generations and schools. But eventually ‘the Mighty Handful’ came to refer to just five, all based in St Petersburg: Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.

A Musical Pioneer

Balakirev was a firebrand of Russian music, and the inspirational leader of the Mighty Handful. He was devoted to continuing the work of composers such as Glinka in creating music of an international standard that sounded distinctively Russian. His influence on the other composers of the Mighty Handful was crucial – he encouraged them to finish their works and explore new ideas, and as a conductor he championed their works in performance. His forceful personality was not to everyone’s taste, though, and perhaps was one of the reasons why Tchaikovsky never allied himself to the Mighty Handful. Nevertheless, were it not for the irascible energy (not to mention the bullying) of Balakirev, the musical landscape of late 19th-century Russia — and particularly of St Petersburg — would have been very different.

Part-Time Composers

In the early days of the Mighty Handful, professional musicianship in St Petersburg was in its infancy; the St Petersburg Conservatory was founded in 1862, very shortly after the Mighty Handful began to meet. They were all largely self-taught and held down other jobs while pursuing music as a hobby. Balakirev was a civil servant, Borodin a gifted chemist, Musorgsky an army man and later a civil servant, and Cui an engineer and music critic. Rimsky-Korsakov was in the navy when he met Balakirev, but later became the only one of the group to work as a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, going on to have a significant and direct influence on the next generation of Russian musicians.

Brief but Bright

‘Mighty Handful’ continues to be a useful handle by which to refer to a distinct circle of composers – but the circle itself was relatively short-lived. Musorgsky died in 1881 and Borodin in 1887; Cui did not really continue to develop as a composer; and soon after his appointment at the Conservatory Rimsky-Korsakov began to move beyond Balakirev’s influence. From the late 1880s the term ‘Mighty Handful’ was used more out of a sort of nationalist nostalgia rather than to refer to an active group, and was principally kept in currency by Balakirev’s friend Stasov. But despite the group’s brevity, the concrete legacy of the Mighty Handful features many wonderful, innovative and startling works, including some of the great and minor masterpieces of Russian music.

An Orchestral Celebration

This concert of works by the Mighty Handful is the third in an annual series of performances that celebrate the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and its partnership with The Royal Opera’s Music Director Antonio Pappano – putting centre-stage the outstanding musicianship that underpins the ROH’s entire main-stage opera and ballet programmes. Each year the repertory of the concert ties in with a particular production – this year Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov – giving audiences an opportunity to explore that work’s wider musical context. The programme this year includes such popular favourites as Rimsky-Korsakov’s fiendish The Flight of the Bumblebee and Musorgsky’s St John’s Night on Bare Mountain, along with Borodin’s magnificent Second Symphony (composed alongside his opera Prince Igor) and Balakirev’s opulent Oriental fantasy Islamey.

Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s concert of works by the Mighty Handful is on 8 February 2016. Tickets are still available.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Stevie responded on 3 February 2016 at 11:08pm Reply

    What, still no allowable comments on Mr Pappano's publication ? Oh dear, what does it tell us.

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