Program One: Fashioning the Russian Sound
About the Program
Program One presents Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in the company of his composer friends from the Moguchaya Kuchka, or Mighty Five. The roots of the Kuchka lay in the friendship that grew up between art critic Vladimir Stasov and Mily Balakirev in the St. Petersburg of the late 1850s. Stasov, although not a musician, was deeply interested in music, and hoped to broaden his scholarly work and critical writing to include this art. Balakirev was a fine musician, a virtuoso pianist who had already embarked on his composing career. Their areas of expertise were complementary, and they were eager to share their new musical experiences, bouncing opinions off each other and brimming with ideas on how the Russian musical world could be improved.
Although Balakirev still had to earn his living from his post in the civil service, his public status as a musician was rising fast. Four other young men with musical talent and ambition joined Balakirev, and as they began to prove their worth, the Kuchka was born. These budding composers were all in their 20s and, like Balakirev, they enjoyed a degree of security from their careers outside music: Modest Mussorgsky was an officer with a desk job, Rimsky-Korsakov an active naval officer, Alexander Borodin a brilliant research chemist, and César Cui a military engineer. By the early 1860s, the Kuchka was a viable enterprise, a hothouse of compositional training.
Balakirev lacked any systematic musical education, and many of the technical terms he used were of his own invention, but his intelligence and artistry made him a highly effective teacher. He challenged his four friends to start writing symphonies at a stage when such a task must have seemed ludicrously ambitious. He directed them to learn from the most forward-looking and adventurous composers of the day, which to his mind meant Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Mikhail Glinka. Borodin had already been writing fluent and attractive chamber music for several years, such as his Three Songs for bass and cello and piano. Balakirev’s symphonic challenge enabled him to arrive at a much more powerful and original style, although the task stretched out from 1862 to 1867. Rimsky-Korsakov was still completely untested as a composer in the early 1860s, but he also learned much while composing his First Symphony, and instead of waiting for shore leave, he corresponded with Balakirev at each port of call during a protracted naval journey that took him halfway around the world.
Among their principal models, Glinka stood out as the only Russian, and they studied assiduously every measure of his Kamarinskaya, an ingenious and highly engaging double-variation form based on two Russian folk songs (the influence of the work is easily detected in much of the Kuchka’s own music). Stasov acted as a kind of publicist for them, and also contributed the leading ideas that shaped their project, above all by setting them the task of creating a recognizably Russian music from the seeds sown by Glinka. The collecting and arranging of Russian folk songs was a major component of this task, and the incorporation of folk material helped to lead the Kuchka away from certain harmonic and metrical norms of Western music. Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov and Rimsky-Korsakov in his Russian Easter Festival also used liturgical chant and recitation material, expanding the Russian style to embrace the Orthodox church.
While traveling in the Caucasus region, Balakirev began to see the potential in adopting aspects of melody, rhythm, and instrumental figurations from the Georgian and Turkic music he heard. This became the “oriental” strand in the Kuchka’s music, and it served even better than Russian sources to distinguish their work from anything being written in the West. The first fruit was Balakirev’s piano piece Islamey, which combines features of Caucasian music with a Kamarinskaya-influenced variation form, and, on top of all that, extends the resources of virtuoso pianism with startling new figurations and textures. Liszt, the dedicatee, was delighted with the piece, and the other members of the Kuchka were eager to absorb the elements of this new style. In general, the bulk of the Kuchka’s music thereafter can be categorized as either Russian or oriental, and the greatest achievements in the oriental style are to be found in the works of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Cui, who had one foot in French culture (the nationality of his father), was the most Western-sounding of the Kuchka, but even his music was drawn toward one or the other of these two poles, as we can readily hear in the violin pieces of Kaleidoscope.
Under the leadership of Balakirev, and urged on by Stasov, the group made great strides toward the creation of a Russian style during the 1860s. They worked very closely, submitting every passage of freshly composed music to collective scrutiny in accordance with Balakirev’s dictum: “only music composed collectively can be truly good.” But as their experience and confidence grew, they began to form divergent interests that weakened their ties. Mussorgsky sought to notate the pitch patterns of spoken Russian, and out of this flowed the distinctive “realist” style of vocal declamation apparent not only in his operas but also in the magnificent Songs and Dances of Death. Rimsky-Korsakov attempted to follow Mussorgsky’s aesthetic in his first opera, The Maid of Pskov, but he felt that the musical sacrifices were too great, and so his second opera, May Night, retreated to a more lyrical style, with folk-song inspiration. Balakirev suffered a kind of nervous breakdown in 1870, and it took him a decade to return fully to his musical activities, although his connections to the other four were permanently severed.
A major cause of the group’s dissolution was Rimsky-Korsakov’s acceptance of a professorial chair at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1871, which the others saw as a betrayal of the Kuchka’s principles. Instead of trying to reshape the conservatory along kuchkist lines, Rimsky-Korsakov soon came to the conclusion that his training under Balakirev was seriously deficient, so he immersed himself in remedial work, writing countless academic fugues and other exercises. He emerged from the experience a more polished and prolific composer, with a technical facility that matched or even surpassed Tchaikovsky’s. Had he remained true to Balakirev’s exaltation of originality, he could never have reached his grand total of 15 operas.
As if his own work was not enough, he made great efforts to secure the musical legacy of his friends whose untimely deaths (Mussorgsky in 1881, Borodin in 1887) left behind a slew of unfinished works. The ideal of collective composition resurfaced in a new form when Rimsky-Korsakov, with Alexander Glazunov’s assistance, completed, polished up, and often modified these works. Now that Rimsky-Korsakov was teaching and inspiring a new generation of composers, he became the torchbearer of the Russian style as it entered the new century.
Rimsky-Korsakov could have continued comfortably in this vein for the rest of his career, but a certain restlessness pushed him in other directions, and he began to set himself new challenges that took him far from the ethos of the Kuchka. Stasov was infuriated—he still saw himself as their leader and the guardian of their values. Politically radicalized by the Russo-Japanese war, Rimsky-Korsakov described himself as “bright red” during the widespread civil unrest of 1905, hence his choice of the rioters’ song “Dubinushka” as material for arrangement. But his new ideas were soon realized in a much more ambitious undertaking, namely his final opera, The Golden Cockerel (Le coq d’or), a caustic, satirical piece that takes aim at the monarchy and its military adventures. His satire had another target: the very nationalist style he had once cultivated with such love and care, but which he now subjected to mockery.
Less than a year before his death, Rimsky-Korsakov traveled to Paris to conduct a concert in Diaghilev’s new Saisons Russes project. The Russian style was about to set fire to the Western artistic imagination and secure the Kuchka its place in history. The “Mighty” epithet may have been a brazen exaggeration in the 1860s, but posterity made good sense of it.
—Marina Frolova-Walker, Cambridge University; Scholar in Residence, Bard Music Festival 2018