As the physically largest country in the world, with a current population of nearly one hundred and forty-five million people, and a history dating as far back as the fourteenth century, Russia has contributed immensely to nearly every field or cultural aspect you can think of, including dance, painting, architecture, literature, science, theatre, and especially music. Russia has produced some of the most influential classical music composers in history, all of whom are renowned and recognized throughout Russia, the European continent, and the rest of the world.
This introduction to Russian composers will familiarize you with the artists whose work contributed to this immense country’s rich musical traditions. Their compositions are still celebrated and emulated within the classical music genre today, and their legacies are an integral part of the Russian national and cultural identity.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky is considered by many to be the greatest composer in Russian history, as well as a master composer on a global historical scale. He remains one of the most famous composers of all time, and his music is universally recognizable. Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and began playing the piano when he was only five years of age. He wrote his first piece of music after his mother died when he was fourteen years old. The piece was a piano waltz dedicated to her. This tragedy that he experienced at a young age is said to have affected him for the remainder of his life, contributing to depression, anxiety, and neurotic behavior. Tchaikovsky’s fame began to rise when he became a professor, teaching music theory at the Moscow Conservatory, and composing music in his spare time. As his reputation grew, he was eventually noticed by the Russian tsar, and awarded a lifetime pension, allowing him to work solely as a composer. His compositions are known for evoking strong emotions in listeners, and including very complex orchestrations and melodies. His music veered away from the traditional Russian compositions at the time, which were often very raw, dark, and dramatic. Tchaikovsky’s music was elegant and sophisticated. His best known work includes The 1812 Overture, Swan Lake, his three Piano Concertos, and of course, The Nutcracker Ballet. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 in Saint Petersburg.
Widely considered to be one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in 1882 in a Saint Petersburg suburb called Oranienbaum. He was raised in Saint Petersburg, the Imperial capitol of Russia at the time. Like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky began learning to play the piano when he was just five years old. He also studied musical theory and composition as he grew up. Stravinsky’s parents wished for him to become a lawyer, so he studied law at the University of Saint Petersburg, receiving a “half-course diploma” in 1906, after which he focused entirely on music. He was inspired and mentored by fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Kosakov when he stayed with his family in Germany in the summer of 1902. He eventually took private lessons from Rimsky-Kosakov, who was considered one of the best composers in Russia at the time. Stravinsky’s first successful composition was titled “Fireworks.” After it was performed at a Saint Petersburg concert, Stravinsky received a commission to compose a ballet score for the renowned company, The Ballets Russes. This score, titled, “The Firebird,” catapulted him into fame. He went on to compose some of the world’s finest pieces of classical music, living in Switzerland, France, and the United States throughout his life. Stravinsky’s most famous works include “The Rite of Spring,” “Petrushka,” “The Soldier’s Tale,” four symphonies, and a concerto for both piano and violin. Stravinsky is a rather unique composer because his composition work went through many different phases throughout his career, ranging from romantic nationalism to neoclassicism and impressionism. Each period of his career produced music with very different characteristics and sound qualities.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a movement called Romantic Nationalism became very popular in Europe. Romantic nationalism was characterized by a desire to produce art and music, among other things, that emulated the specific culture and identity of a nation. In Russia, this movement was most strongly represented by a group of composers called “The Five.” The five consisted of leader Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky. This group of composers met frequently between the years 1856 and 1870 in the city of Saint Petersburg, working to compose music that had a distinctly Russian quality and identity. The men were all very young when they first formed their group, none of them older than twenty-eight. They sought to distance their music from the older European ideals of classical music, as well as from the sound of composers who had undergone strict conservatory training. They sought to create music that incorporated the sounds of Russian life, including rural church music, and folk music from Russian villages, in particular peasants’ songs, which were very long with drawn out melodies. The music that The Five composed typically included many aspects of Russian folk songs, including heterophony, in which melodies are performed by two or more singers in varied ways, and tonal mutability, in which the tone of the music can switch naturally, resulting in pieces beginning and ending in different keys. They also created several distinctive musical characteristics, which went on to define Russian classical music. These included the use of the pentatonic scale, which includes five notes per octave, rather than the more commonly used heptatonic scale, which includes seven notes per octave. Other characteristics were the use of a whole tone scale and a diminished scale. These methods were adopted in order to create a sense of Russian life, culture, and national identity within classical compositions, and they were used by subsequent composers long after The Five were no longer writing music.
Twentieth Century Classical Music
The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, resulting in the collapse of the Imperial system of government. For the next period of Russia’s history, classical music became varied and experimental, reflecting the revolutionary spirit in the country at the time. Classical ideals were being rethought, and this was evident in musical composition. The Association for Contemporary Music was formed in 1923, which encouraged experimental compositions. During the Soviet era, under the rule of Joseph Stalin, classical music’s focus shifted back to classicist ideals, and experimentation was no longer encouraged. The Union of Soviet Composers, established in 1932, was designed to regulate the composition of classical music during this era. Some famous Soviet composers include Georgy Sviridov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Aram Khachaturian. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, classical music’s promotion was dramatically decreased, and only recently have modern classical composers resurfaced to popularity in Russia. Among these is Leonid Desyatnikov, who in 2005 wrote a classical ballet score commissioned by the famous Russian company, the Bolshoi Ballet.
This is only the beginning of the list of classical music composers that the country of Russia has produced throughout its long and rich history. Russia has contributed so much talent toward the timeless and beautiful art of classical music, and some of the world’s most famous compositions were created by Russian talents. Hopefully, this introduction to Russian composers has piqued your interest in classical music. It is one of the most important aspects of the fine arts that you can explore, spanning hundreds and hundreds of years and incorporating nearly every country in the world. Learning about these Russian composers can lead to a better overall understanding of classical music and the fine arts.