‘The crude fact is that these interesting composers talked a lot but composed rather little; and often what they composed does not measure up to what they said about it.’ This is the conclusion of Stephen Walsh’s magisterial new study of one of the most melancholy chapters of musical history: the tale of the kuchka or ‘mighty handful’ (more accurately translated, apparently, as ‘the mighty little heap’) – the mid-19th-century circle of Musorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov that took up from where the lone pioneer Glinka left off and ultimately gave Russian music a lasting and distinctive shape, identity and purpose. Posthumously they would exert profound influence not only on the next generation of Russian composers (Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Glazunov), but also on the French modernist masters Debussy and Ravel as well. Their legacy is still apparent today.
Working without the formal and organisational structures of the central European musical establishment, these composers enjoyed an imaginative freedom denied their contemporaries further west. ‘The lack of compulsion, the feeling that in the end nobody minded what, or whether, you wrote,’ as Walsh puts it, allowed them to explore new