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Russian Classical Music
February 14, 2007 13:39

Russian national composer school acquired its individual shape rather late, only by the mid 19th century. However, once getting mature Russian music rushes into the world music arena. West European musicians and critics of the 19th century could not but appreciate most peculiar features of Russian music, such as the use of rich and fresh folk music material of Eurasian type, blending 'eastern' and 'western' elements; and absolutely new forms of symphonic development - synthetic rather than analytical, as was the convention with the West European symphony. The appearance of such figures as Skryabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the early 20th century put Russian music in the avant-garde of the world music process.

Formation of the Russian composer school
Preclassical epoch of Russian music
First Classical Composers: Glinka and Dargomyzhsky
Entry into the European music scene

The Mighty Five

M.P.Musorgsky and N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov

Moscow Composer School


Rakhmaninov and Skryabin

Russian Music in Emigration

Theatre of Sergey Dyagilev

Igor Stravinsky

The Classics and Soviet Music

Shostakovitch and Prokofiev

After Stalin - Music Released

Sviridov and Shnitke


Formation of the Russian composer school


In the Middle Ages composed music in Russia was totally associated with the Byzantium church and isolated from the European world. Later in the 17th -18th cc music becoming also a secular art fell under the influence of the Western culture. So, the Russian national composer school acquired its individual shape rather late, only by the mid 19th century. Before that time Russian music was hardly known anywhere outside this country; however, once getting mature Russian music rushes into the world music arena.

West European musicians and critics of the 19th century could not but appreciate most peculiar features of Russian music, such as the use of rich and fresh folk music material of Eurasian type, blending 'eastern' and 'western' elements; and absolutely new forms of symphonic development - synthetic rather than analytical, as was the convention with the West European symphony. Original were the opera forms based on daringly ingenuous reflection of conversational intonations in music (Dargomyzhsky and Musorgsky) and at the same time applying the devices of epic and fairy tale telling (Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov). The appearance of such figures as Skryabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the early 20th century put Russian music in the avant-garde of the world music process. The phenomenon of the interaction of the East and West was vividly revealed here on all the levels - from philosophical ideas (Skryabin's mysticism, Stravinsky's 'new paganism' and the 'Scythianism' of Prokofiev) to the musical language elements.


Preclassical epoch of Russian music (early 19th century) was characteristic for the combination of classicism and romanticism, with the prevailing genre of musical theatre. Widely popular became 'fairy' operas, classicistic tragedies with musical scenes and translated melodramas set to music by Russian composers. The comic opera of the 18th century was followed by divertissements, that is, theatre performances on folklore or patriotic subjects with a variety of folk style songs and dances and vaudeville music. Playing music at home became very widespread at that time; a great number of music circles and saloons came to exist and were visited by many well-known musicians and poets. Philharmonic society created in St.-Petersburg in 1802 gave large-scale concerts which introduced Russian audience to oratorias and cantatas by Hendel, Hydn, Motzart, Beethoven and others.

First Classical Composers: Glinka and Dargomyzhsky


The Russian nobility circles of semi-amateurish and semi-professional music playing gave world two first Russian classics, Mikhail Ivanovitch Glinka and Alexander Sergeevitch Dargomyzhsky. The genius of Glinka manifested in a variety of genres, such as symphonic, chamber vocal and chamber instrumental, but the highest achievements of the composer are certainly his operas - the patriotic tragedy Zhizn za Tsarya (Life for the Tzar) (1836) and the epic tale Ruslan i Lyudmila (1842). Finding their level among the best European music creations of that epoch and at the same time quite original in style, Glinka's operas greatly determined the prevailing of the opera genre in Russian music of the 19th century and the ways of its development.


The creative work of Glinka's younger contemporary Dargomyzhsky is to a bigger extent associated with the atmosphere of the 1840-1860; his romances and songs follow the traditions of amateurish saloon music performing of the epoch of Pushkin and Glinka, but at the same time resort to the image of 'small man', the character of Russian literature of the Gogol period. In his last creation, the opera Kamenny Gost (Stone Guest) after Alexander Pushkin's poem, Dargomyzhsky invented an innovative genre, that of opera dialogue, which influenced the aesthetics of the following generations of St.-Petersburg composers. However the works of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky are far from being well known beyond Russia. As for the entry of Russian music into the European music arena it is associated with the composers of the second half of the 19th century.

Entry into the European music scene

In the late 1860s musical life of Russia saw great changes. Formerly the privilege of high life music education spreads around various circles of society. The Emperor's Russian Music Society opens in Moscow and St.- Petersburg were it gives regular symphonic and chamber concerts accessible to general public.

There sprang up a lot of private non-repertory theatres, with theatres of Moscow mecenates (Moscow Private Opera of Savva Mamontov and Opera Theatre of Sergey Zimin) having staged a great number of Russian and foreign operas. 1907 saw the opening of the non-repertory theatre of Sergey Dyagilev performing abroad under the name Russian Seasons and Russian Ballet of Sergey Dyagilev that played a great role in the development of ballet art and Russian and European music. Such prominent composers as Igor Stravinsky, Sergey Prokofiev, N. Cherepnin, C. Debussy, M. Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and others wrote music for the Russian Ballet of Dyagilev.

The 1860s - 1870s saw the appearance of new genres in Russian music. Along with the earlier popular opera, symphonic music and romance there come to the fore multicycled symphony. The first Russian symphonies were Rimsky-Korsakov's First Symphony (1865) and Tchaikovsky's First Symphony Winter Dreams (1866). There also develops the genre of concert for a solo instrument with the orchestra (especially remarkable in Tchaikovsky's work) as well as ballet music (Tchaikovsky and later Glazunov) and chamber ensemble music and secular choral singing.

The Mighty Five

The second half of the 19th century saw the formation of two major Russian composer schools. One of them known as the Mighty Five consisted of prominent St.-Petersburg composers, such as M.A.Balakirev, C.A.Kui, A.P.Borodin, M.P.Musorgsky and N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov.

The innovative Mighty Five were folk oriented and strived to reflex in music the issues of national history, psychology and folklore. Aspiring to get closer to reality and looking for a basically new music language that would be national and unique they abandoned to some extent the conventional classical norms. On the other hand they would not pass over the achievements of contemporary Western European composers such as Shuman, Berlioz, List, etc.


The major genres of the early Mighty Five School were operas, mainly on subjects of Russian life, symphonies and romances of various kinds.

Another remarkable feature of this school was its bent for images of the Orient, real and legendary, historical and ethnographic. In general the interest in the Orient as in something exotic is typical of many romantics, however in Russia this interest becomes quite definite, with the East represented by authentic music themes, rhymes and tones. Let us recall for example the piano fantasy Islamey by M.Balakirev or symphonic poem Shekherezada by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The aesthetics of the Mighty Five is most fully revealed in M. Musorgsky's two operas uniquely innovative in style and form: the historical and psychological tragedy Boris_Godunov (1868) and folk music drama Khovanshchina (1881).


It is also evident in numerous operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, especially in the most peculiar mythological cycle associated with old pagan beliefs of the Slavs (Mayskaya Noch (May Night), Snegurochka (Snowmaid), Noch pered Rozhdestvom (Christmas Eve), etc.), as well as in his fairy tale operas (Zolotoy Petushok (Golden Cockerel), Skazka o Tsare Saltane (Tale of Tsar named Saltan), etc.) and the religious and philosophical drama Story of the Invisible Kitezh City and Maid Fevronia.

Moscow Composer School


The other school with P.I.Tchaikovsky at the head involved mainly Moscow composers, among them S.I.Taneev, A.S.Arensky, S.V.Rakhmaninov, and others.

('Piano Concerto 1' (Tchaikovsky) )

Moscow school was antagonistic to the St.-Petersburg Mighty Five. It was more conservative, with close adherence to classical models of 'pure' music on the one hand and to the original musical life of the old capital, on the other. Among the highest achievements of the school there are a number of operas (among them Evgeny Onegin, 1878 and Pikovaya Dama/Queen of Spades, 1890), six symphonies, ballets, symphonic suites, overtures, poems and romances by P.I.Tchaikovsky. The creativity of Tchaikovsky, with the central focus on the problem of modern personality in the modern world got wide Russian and international acclaim in the composer's lifetime, while the works of the Mighty Five were unknown to the general public till the end of the 19th century.

Great role in the activity of the Moscow School belongs to the work of Tchaikovsky's disciple, composer, pianist and music teacher S.I.Taneev, the researcher and master of polyphonic notation.

Rakhmaninov and Skryabin


The early 20th century saw new tendencies in the Russian music most vividly represented by Moscow composers (followers of S.I.Taneev) and prominent pianists - S.V.Rakhmaninov and A.N.Skryabin. Rakhmaninov was the follower of national traditions (as interpreted by both Moscow and St.-Petersburg schools), which acquired intensely nostalgic coloring in his compositions.


Skryabin is the brightest representative of symbolism in music. His original cosmogonic philosophy found expression in his ultra novel music language that had a great impact on all the world music culture of the 20th century.

('Symphony No 2' (Scryabin) )

A bit later start their activities two greatest composers of the new generation - Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev. Both were from St.-Petersburg and pupils of Rimsky-Korsakov. The aesthetics of their early works following the principles of St-Petersburg school is of the post-symbolic character and touches on novel artistic trends, such as neoclassicism, constructivism and futurism.

Russian Music in Emigration

The beginning of the 20th century enjoyed the blossoming of music, literature and art in Russia. The Silver Age, however, was broken short by the revolutionary upheaval of 1917. A number of prominent composers (Rakhmaninov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Metner, Cherepnin and A.Grechaninov) and music performers (Dyodor Shalyapin, S.Kusevitsky, E.Kuper, etc.) had to leave Russia. In spite of living abroad and belonging to various generations and musical trends all of them went on developing traditions and ideas rooted in their Russian period.


The 'foreign' period became culminating in their creative work, which adhered to their national identity and at the same time was sensible and keenly responsive to the changes taking place in the world and on the world art scene. Composers of Russian origin I.A. Vyshnegradsky, N.B.Obukhov and A.S.Lurie are now considered the forerunners of avant-garde trends to come later into European music.

The non-repertory Theatre of Sergey Dyagilev, founded in Paris before the First World War was in the vanguard of the cultural life of the 1920s-1930s. It was closely connected with works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and a number of other composers, artists, choreographers and dancers of Russian origin. The basis of Dyagilev's Russian Seasons was his ballet troupe, but he also hosted Russian operas and concerts of Russian symphonic music. The long-lived existence of this Russian theatre with an unusually rich repertoire greatly promoted the introduction of Russian classical and modern culture to the world audience.


In the 20s-30s Igor Stravinsky became the leader of neoclassicism, the trend in the art of the 20th century, which affirmed the order and harmony of the old art in contrast to the chaos and exaggerated emotions of expressionism boiling up. Traditions and novelty blend in Stravinsky's work to create an integral whole. The stylistics of old music is interpreted differently each time depending on the author's concept. New compositions were often prompted by folklore poetics. It was Stravinsky who managed to outline one of the major features of development of music theatre as a synthesis of various arts.

('Petrouchka' (Stravinsky) )

The Classics and Soviet Music

In spite of the difficulties of the civil war and the aftermath of the revolution the cultural communication of Russia with the world did not stop until 1932 when the communist party took under its control all creative unions. Philharmonic, editing and critical activities were also centralized by the state. From this time till the 'thaw' of the 1960s the communication of Russian art and cultural workers with the foreign world was strictly limited.

The 1920s - 1950s saw successful work of the domestic masters of music distinguished before the revolution: first of all that of N.Y.Myaskovsky, the author of 27 symphonies and splendid chamber and fortepiano music, as well as of R.M.Glier, S.N.Vasilenko, M.M.Ippolitov-Ivanov and others.

Shostakovitch and Prokofiev


Dmitry Shostakovitch was the greatest figure in Russian music of the Soviet period. His fifteen symphonies, fifteen string quartets, operas Lady McBeth of Mzensk and Nose and chamber-vocal and fortepiano compositions express the tragic upheavals of the epoch and contradictive reflections upon them by Russian intelligentsia.

('Symphony No 4' (Shostakovitch) )


Sergey Prokofiev who returned to Russia in the mid 1930s was less influenced by the Soviet atmosphere. Though his musical heritage includes quite a number of compositions 'engaged' by the Soviet authorities, yet the bright and lucid spirit of Prokofiev's genius and his experience acquired during twenty years of living abroad helped the composer to retain creative independence and attain such artistic heights as his ballets Romeo and Juliet and Zolushka/Cinderella, operas War and Peace and Obruchenie v Monastyre/Affiance in a Monastery, his symphonies 5,6 and 7 and his piano sonatas.


The relations of musicians and the authorities in the Soviet Union were contradictory. On the one hand the state offered the opportunity of free musical education and facilitated further performing and publication of compositions. On the other hand, talented people at once fell under strict ideological control. Music as well as literature, theatre and fine arts underwent constant pressures of the Soviet state. Creative works were judged from the point of view of 'the social order' and the accord with the Soviet ideology. A hard blow was delivered to all the bright composers of that time (Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, A.Khachaturyan, N.Myaskovsky, V.Shebalin and others) with a semi-official newspaper article that blamed them for 'anti-national formalism'. The aftermath of that blow could be overcome only several decades later.

After Stalin - Music Released

The death of Stalin in 1953 came as a turning point in the life of the Soviet society and brought about new phenomena. The years of 'thaw', the 1960s - 1970s saw two important tendencies in the cultural life of this country. The first was the return to the roots of national traditions, both spiritual and artistic; the so-called 'new folk wave', though it is not only folk song which is meant here but also the church music of later epochs, etc.


Georgy Vasilyevich Sviridov (1915-1998) with his followers was one of the most outstanding figures in this trend. He followed and developed the experience of Russian classics, first of all that of Musorgsky and turned to traditions of Old Russian chanting and ritual singing. His compositions combine novelty and originality of the musical language with elaborate and exquisite simplicity.

('Derevyannaya Rus' (Sviridov) )

The second tendency in the Russian musical culture of the epoch was the yearning to assimilate the world culture experience of the 20th century, which had been inaccessible for about thirty years. This feature characteristic of all the talented musicians of the 60s sometimes took on the shape of avant-gardism, often fixing upon the composer method of the New Vienna School, that is dodecaphony, opposed to traditional tonality. Soviet composers would also resort to the composing techniques of the latest representatives of European avant-garde, to name but Pier Boulez. A variety of tendencies and devices would often be interwoven.


Among the leading figures of this wave were Alfred Shnitke, Sofia Gubaidullina, Edison Denisov, and others.


The mighty versatile talent of Shnitke enabled him to use all the variety of existing genres and create over 70 works, including operas The Eleventh Commandment and Life with an Idiot, ballet Labyrinths, oratorio Nagasaki, cantata Story of Johan Faust, etc. Shnitke also worked fruitfully in cinematography: he wrote music for some dozens of films. His Ninth Symphony got universal acclaim and the international award Glory right after its release.

('String Quartet No 3 II Agitato' (Schnittke) )

Vera Ivanova and Mikhail Manykin

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