on 22 July 2014
A curious phenomenon, discussed in all books on music history, is the appearance of a bunch of Russian composers in the middle of the nineteenth century, known under the name of Mighty Handful or The Five or Kuchka for short. Studies dedicated to this group are scarce and usually boil down to five separate biographies of composers, while paying little attention to their mutual relationship.
The present book is the first one to attempt a continuous story of the Kuchka without separate chapters on each composer. However, by doing so Stephen Walsh is in fact writing a history of Russian music in the second half of the nineteenth century without giving its main composer his due. Nonetheless, because Tchaikovsky was well acquainted with the kuchkists, he is often mentioned.
Musorgsky's name figures in the title as being the most famous and talented one. Indeed, more space is devoted to him than to any of the others. After his premature death in 1881, the exploits of the remaining four, till Cui’s death in 1918, are treated in twenty pages. In fact, the kuchka as such had dissolved in the seventies. The last fifty pages are used for notes and index.
However, no clear choice was apparently made between describing Musorgsky’s life and works and the former members of the kuchka, who did remain in close contact and were responsible for the fate of Musorgsky’s works after his death. However, telling the whole story would require a work the size of Walsh’s book on Stravinsky. The story begins with the arrival of the young Balakirev in St.Petersburg in 1855, where he met Mikhail Glinka and Cesar Cui. The first one went down in history as “The Father of Russian Music”, the second one would have passed into oblivion, had he not been a founding member of the Kuchka. Nevertheless Walsh makes a reasonable case for Cui as a creditable, if prolific composer. In the ensuing years Musorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov joined, left and rejoined the congregation, as did Balakirev. From the very beginning the critic Vladimir Stasov acted as their self-appointed spokesman and champion. He rightly plays a major role in the story, as he influenced not only the group when its members were active, but also its image long after the Kuchka had disintegrated. Other musicians and dilettantes (no sharp distinction existing at the time) attended their meetings, forming a loosely bound group. Of these men Lodyzhensky gets a paragraph of his own; Gussakovsky and Shcherbachov are only mentioned in passing. With good reason, the influence of the wives of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov on their husband’s work (negative in the first case, positive in the latter) is described. Cui’s wife remains a name only. Family life had a great impact on musical life, as is expounded in the chapter on Alexander Serov, then a well-known composer and critic. Stasov’s affair with Serov’s married sister, resulting in a daughter, for example, soured their relation. More saucy stories can be gleaned from the kuchkists’ published letters.
Despite its title, Musorgsky’s circle is discussed too briefly in this book. So is the important role of Countess Louise de Mercy-Argenteau as patroness of not only Borodin but of Cui as well. She was a major factor of propagation of Russian music in Belgium and France. The same applies to Alexander Borodin, the travelling scientist, who knew a number of influential conductors in Western Europe. About Borodin we read on p. 342: ‘Since his prime occupation was the blending and separation of chemical elements and the study of their effects on one another, he liked the idea that his musical compositions had become a king of nexus of everything that the Kuchka stood for.’ Both description and conclusion are nonsense.
Possibly to save costs, no musical examples are provided. The only one that appears on p. 412 (with Russian text) is quite superfluous; probably an oversight by the editor. One might suppose that the publisher insisted to make the book more palatable to the unwary buyer. Apparently, not enough serious music lovers can be found to purchase serious books. Readers who are not able to read music are not helped by a explanation such as on p. 303 ‘The chord is an augmented sixth (German form), which is like a dominant seventh with a different resolution or exit. The previous song having ended in D major, the new one starts with what sounds like an oddly laid out dominant chord in E-flat, a semitone up. But read as a sixth chord, it resolves back to D major, with the pedal D acting not as the leading note of E-flat but as a D-major anchor.’ The author admits: ‘These technicalities are hard to describe in bearable language.’ Thus, this book is aimed at people who cherish Russian music of the period and are reasonably familiar with its highlights. They will not be disappointed, but will have to hunt for scores and recordings to find out what it is all about.
The thirty chapter titles are obviously meant humorously, but act as contrived. All in all, this book has much to offer, but leaves some obvious questions unanswered.