Composer, Pianist, Conductor, Teacher. The most dynamic advocate of nationalism in 19th Century Russian Music. He was the leader of "The Five", a group of St. Petersburg-based composers who sought to free themselves from foreign influence by writing music that was inspired by their nation's culture. The brilliant piano showpiece "Islamey: An Oriental Fantasy" (1869) is his best known work. Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev was raised in Nizhny Novgorod and received his first music lessons from his mother; he was never formally trained in composition or harmony. His gifts as a pianist attracted the attention of Alexander Ulybyshev, a music patron who in 1855 took him to St. Petersburg to meet pioneer nationalist composer Mikhail Glinka; a friendship developed that proved the formative influence of his life. His future as a concert pianist seemed assured after his acclaimed 1856 debut, and in 1858 he performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in the presence of the Czar. But after Glinka's death he determined to carry on his friend's work as a composer, performer and teacher. He made many trips into the field to collect folk songs, material that found its way into such early compositions as the two "Overtures on Russian Themes" (1858, 1864). By 1862 Balakirev had gathered around him four gifted amateurs who on the whole thought about Russian music as he did, and decisively steered them towards that goal. Alexander Borodin was a chemist; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Cesar Cui had military careers; Modest Mussorgsky was about to enter the civil service. Although he was the lone professional musician among them, Balakirev rejected conservatory-style training (which was new in Russia and based on German models) as a hindrance to a truly national art. He believed in learning by doing, and his lessons consisted of analyzing classical scores, playing four-hand piano arrangements, and lively critiques of each other's efforts. That same year Balakirev co-founded St. Petersburg's Free Music School with support from the Czar, and from 1867 to 1869 he served as conductor of the Russian Music Society; these gave him venues to introduce their music to the public. It was in a review of an 1867 concert that critic Vladimir Stasov used the phrase "A Mighty Handful" to describe the Balakirev group; this made its way into English as "The Mighty Five" and eventually "The Five". As a mentor Balakirev was a charismatic despot who tried to bully his followers into writing according to his specifications, and as they began to assert their independence relations between them grew strained. Perhaps most damning was his treatment of Mussorgsky, the genius he referred to as "almost an idiot". He objected to Mussorgsky's tone poem "Night on Bald Mountain" (1867) and refused to conduct it, with the result that it went unperformed in the composer's lifetime. But he continued to advise and champion his circle for a few years more, at considerable cost to his own career. The Russian Music Society forced Balakirev to resign as conductor because he insisted on programming pieces by his fellow nationalists, though he scored an important victory with the premiere of Cui's "William Ratcliff" (1869), the first opera by a member of "The Five" to reach the stage. Its success opened the door for Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" (1874) and the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, and set Borodin on the road to writing "Prince Igor". Balakirev would never write an opera; in fact he nearly quit music altogether. Already known as a high-strung eccentric, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1871 and abandoned his teaching and conducting engagements. For several years he supported himself as a railway clerk and refused even to discuss music. Gentle prodding from friends and conversion to a strict form of Russian Orthodoxy helped restore his confidence and he resumed teaching at the Free Music School in 1877. By that time "The Five" no longer existed as a group. Rimsky-Korsakov had embraced professional training and was becoming a respected academic; Cui was serving as a military engineer in the Russo-Turkish War; and Mussorgsky was drinking himself into an early grave. They remained cordial with each other but Balakirev had lost his hold over them. In 1883 he was named director of the Imperial Court Chapel (with Rimsky-Korsakov as his assistant) and the Imperial Music Society. He retired in 1894 and spent his last years in seclusion, devoting himself entirely to composition. Of "The Five" only Cui survived him. Balakirev was not a prolific composer, and most of his major opuses took years and even decades to complete. The Symphony No. 1, for example, was begun in 1864 and not finished until 1897. "Islamey", written in one month, was an exception. Legendary virtuosi Nikolai Rubinstein (who gave the premiere) and Franz Liszt included it in their repertories, and modern pianists still love to test their skill against its harrowing difficulties. (Balakirev himself admitted that he "couldn't manage" the toughest passages). Critics tend to prefer his symphonic poem "Tamara", based on Mikhail Lermontov's adaptation of a Caucasian folk legend. He began sketching the piece in 1867 but left it in limbo during his period of depression; colleagues confiscated the maunscript fearing he would destroy it. It was finally completed and premiered in 1882 and proved very popular in France. Serge Diaghilev produced it as a ballet in 1912, with choreography by Fokine. Balakirev's other compositions include incidental music to "King Lear" (1861), the symphonic poem "Russia" (1864), dozens of songs and piano pieces, and the Symphony No. 2 (1909). It should also be noted that while the nationalist Balakirev and his cosmopolitan rival Tchaikovsky stood on opposite sides in debates over Russian music, they had a grudging respect for each other. Tchaikovsky wrote his overture "Romeo and Juliet" (1869) and the "Manfred Symphony" (1885) at Balakirev's suggestion, and dedicated both works to him.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards