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The Five Russians

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

"A small group, but oh how powerful!"

What is most striking in the history of The Five is the sudden and swift change that they imposed upon the direction of the Russian music. And, to no less degree, the unswerving confidence with which they threw down its original precepts, the foundations of an artwork to which Stravinsky and Prokofiev owe everything. This historical monument, this event, so perfect in its rapidity and in the consistency of its work with the ideals that had inspired it, is better understood when viewed against the broader backdrop of the revolutionary movement, and in perspective with the rapid and profound awareness it engendered in the Russian people.

But there is also something purely miraculous about it, as much in the meeting of four men of genius and their many years of friendship, as in their conscious adhesion to a common programme to which they each helped to give birth in spite of Borodin's nonchalance, of Balkirev's and Moussorgsky's fits of discouragement and of Rimsky-Korsakov's conversion to academic art, regarded as all but treasonable by the four others. In 1857, when Balakirev, heeding Glinka's parting words of advice, made the acquaintance of Cui and Moussorgsky, the music critic Victor Stassov was already the group's theoretician.

Balakirev met Rimsky in 1861 and Borodine in 1862. And when the small group's fame began to spread, it was because of the opposition that they openly showed to the creation of the Saint-Petersburg Academy of Music in 1861. In 1862, Balakirev retorted by founding the Private School of Music, where choral instruction was given free of charge and concerts principally devoted to Russian musicians were organized.

Through the eclecticism of their programmes, these concerts competed favourably with those organized by the « Russian Imperial Music Society » managed by Rubinstein. Named to replace Rubinstein who was to resign in 1867, Balakirev was perfectly placed to ensure the success of the group's principles. He was able to conduct Borodin's First Symphony at the Imperial Society much as he had succeeded in introducing the public to Rimsky-Korsakov's First Symphony at the Private School of Music in 1865. The ten years of the group's life were sufficient to develop a national musical style, paving the way for Moussorgsky's «Boris Goudounov» and Borodin's the «Prince Igor».

André Dubost

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