The Mighty Handful


They were called the Mighty Handful—Russian composers who formed a national school. They included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Modeste Mussorgsky, Mili Balakirev, and Alexander Borodin. They were not so close a group as the name implies as Alexander Borodin wrote to his wife on October 24th, 1871:

“The estrangement of Mili, his blatant turning away from the circle, his harsh comments about many–Modeste in particular–have significantly cooled sympathies toward Mili. If he continues this way he might well isolate himself and that isolation–in his position–would result in a spiritual death.

“I’m not the only one who feels sorry for Mili, but what’s to be done? Modeste is put off by Mili’s unfair and arrogant comments about his opera Boris Godunov, voiced bluntly and harshly in the presence of people w o by no means should have heard them.

“Cui is also offended by Mili’s indifference and lack of interest in what occurs in our musical circle. There can be no doubt that the chasm between him and us is growing wider and wider, which is very painful. Painful because the victim of it all will be Mili himself.

“The other members of the circle get along better than ever, especially Modeste and Rimsky-Korsakov. Since they started to share a room, have both developed considerably. They’re exact opposites in musical qualities and methods. One seems to complement the other. Their influence on each other has been extremely useful. Modeste has improved the recitative and declamatory aspects of Rimsky-Korsakov, who in turn has cleared up Modeste’s inclination toward awkward novelty and smoothed all his rough harmonic edges–his overblown orchestration and his illogical construction of musical form.

“And among all the relationships within our circle there is not a hint of jealousy, conceit or selfishness. Each rejoices at the smallest success of the other. There are the most cordial relations, including Cui, who for example ran up to me just for the sake of hearing my finale.”

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