holst's the planets

#44 – The Russian Five, Or, Why You No Listen to Russian Musics?!

Can you imagine five of the most brilliant young musical minds sitting around the fireside, discussing how they could make a new Russian music? What form would it take? What instrumentation? What would the proper influences be? That’s precisely what a group of five Russian composers did in the 19th century — set out to reclaim Russian culture from Western European influence and in the process create a grand, majestic, and distinctly Russian music.

The Russian Five, as they are known, include Cesar Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Influenced by earlier musical outlaws such as Mikhail Glinka, they brought a sweeping, picturesque programmatic style to the orchestra, often inspired by Eastern legends and Slavic folklore. Their music is full of beautiful melodies and forceful dynamic shifts, often without regard for traditional European rules of composition. More cosmopolitan composers such as Tchaikovsky refined this style, drawing from both Russian folk culture and western harmony, and in the process penned music that is still popular today, such as the Nutcracker Suite and the romance theme from Romeo and Juliet.

Overall, the Russian Five wrote music that stirs the soul while avoiding the intellectual abstraction that Western classical music sometimes tended toward. Consequently, it’s easy for the modern listener to get into, and the programmatic nature of the music suits modern film well. It’s no surprise, then, that film composers draw heavily from Russian composers (John Williams in particular).

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