Mussorgsky and the Mighty Handful

They were a fortifications engineer, a research chemist, a naval officer, a pen-pusher in a government office and a gentleman of leisure. They were also all composers – quite a handful, indeed a “Mighty Handful”, to give them the old-fashioned English version of their collective Russian sobriquet: moguchaya kuchka. They were artists with a mission, but they spent more time debating that mission than realizing it. They were, in the order given above, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Musorgsky and Mily Balakirev, and the story of their triumphs and failures is told by Stephen Walsh with enjoyable panache.

Walsh spent two decades producing the definitive biography of Igor Stravinsky, a two-volume work of immense thoroughness and narrative skill. Now he can have some fun. When he was dealing with Stravinsky, plotting a course through a long and eventful life that is exceedingly well but often conflictingly documented, he had little space for applying his critical acumen to the music, and not a lot of room for wit. These kuchka people are much more obliging subjects. None of them had anything like the celebrity status Stravinsky enjoyed for sixty years, and so there is much less that can be said about their day-to-day lives. Walsh finds just enough to build deft and often touching character portraits, but he can also exercise his sense of humour, often self-deprecating or ironically lofty, and exert himself in solid and engaging appraisals of the composers’ major works.
It helps that there are not so many of these – indeed, one of Walsh’s leitmotifs is the lackadaisical fashion in which most of the kuchkists applied their gifts. He quotes Rimsky-Korsakov, the big exception, recalling a time in the 1860s when the group could congratulate themselves because Nikolai Lodyzhensky “wrote one romance, Borodin got an idea for something, Balakirev is planning to rework something, and so on”.
The first name here is a reminder that the “Mighty Handful” always had more than five digits. We learn, however, that Lodyzhensky only published – and perhaps only finished – one little volume of six songs. Apollon Gusakovsky is written out of the story with even less ado. And this is probably just, for the composers who command interest are the central five, or at least four of them, leaving out Cui.
There was, however, a highly important sixth figure – not a composer but a critic and, by profession, librarian: Vladimir Stasov. His was the programme of Russianizing the Russian arts, especially music and painting, freeing them from conventions inherited from Western Europe, rooting them in Russian soil – which would mean chant and folk song where music was concerned – and having them grow through treating specifically Russian subject matter. He wanted his composers to warble their native wood-notes wild. These would have to be startlingly new wood-notes, and from this paradox of autochthonous innovation came the kuchkists’ extraordinary achievements – if also their problems, of how to develop as artists when any kind of development was under suspicion for what Lady Bracknell called “tamper[ing] with natural ignorance”.


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