Who were the Mighty Handful?

This week, Catherine Bott celebrates the group of composers who created a specifically Russian kind of music. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Classical Music, Sunday 28 September 9pm.

The group began in 1856, with the first meeting of Mily Balakirev and César Cui. Modest Mussorgsky joined them in 1857, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1861, and Alexander Borodin in 1862. They were all young members of the minor gentry and self-trained amateurs, in contrast to the elite status and court connections of Conservatory composers such as Tchaikovsky

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The name for the group came from a critic who reviewed an 1867 concert given by Balakirev for a visiting Slav delegation to Moscow. "God grant that our Slav guests may never forget today's concert," wrote Stasov. "God grant that they may forever preserve the memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent, and intelligence are possessed by the small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians." The expression was mocked by Balakirev's detractors - so the group responded by defiantly adopting the name.

In their music, the Mighty Handful tried to incorporate what they heard in village songs, in Cossack and Caucasian dances, in church chants and the tolling of church bells. And their influence was far-reaching. Many of the great Russian composers who were to follow, including Glazunov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich were either taught of influenced by them. They also inspired the music of Ravel and Debussy in France.

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