Where have I not heard Russian music? When I watched the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I noticed that the gold, silver, and bronze medalists in ice dancing all performed to at least one Russian piece. From Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty to radio broadcasts to a music box to college orchestra performances to music recitals, I have heard, and even performed, Russian music time and time again. In the following article, our guest author Caroline Bennett discusses the lives of several famous Russian composers, the music they wrote, and how their Russian heritage influenced them.
“I write on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook.”—Sergei Rachmaninov
Composers hail from countries around the globe, and oftentimes their music reflects the customs and worldviews of their homelands. Such is the case with the numerous composers who came out of Russia. The expansive country of Russia has had a tumultuous history, and its many fairytales and folksongs reflect that reality. It is not surprising, then, that many Russian composers led tragic lives; some lost their families, some were exiled from their homeland, some forced to work for the oppressive Soviet regime. But Russian composers poured their emotions into their music, creating pieces that speak to the hearts of audiences of every background and nation. Listen to the music of Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky, and you do not just hear beautiful music, but music that reveals the heart of Russia and her people.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia. Little is known about his childhood and how he came to be a musician. He trained to be a lawyer and was working as a government clerk when he began to study music more seriously. As soon as Tchaikovsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 26, he received the post of professor of harmony at the Conservatory of Moscow. He worked there for more than a decade, and during that time he began to compose. Tchaikovsky was a very sensitive, introspective man; he agonized over his sins and suffered from bouts of depression. His songs reflect his personality, and though much of his music sounds lively, it is often bittersweet. It is hard to choose a few Tchaikovsky compositions to recommend, for he wrote a wide variety of pieces and they all contain touching melodies that make one want to dance and cry at the same time. Girls and boys will love listening to his ballet music, especially Sleeping Beauty, for its music is featured in the 1959 Disney movie. Audiences who like thrills will enjoy the dramatic climax of his 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is perfect for Shakespeare lovers, and Concerto in B Flat Minor is an inspiring piece for pianists. All these works tell us a bit about Tchaikovsky, but perhaps his final composition—Symphony No. 6, nicknamed “The Pathetique Symphony”—tells the most about his inner turmoil. Though it is unlikely that Tchaikovsky was a Christian when he died of cholera in 1893, one can hope. He certainly pondered a lot about God and Christ’s atonement, for one of his surviving letters reads, “On one side my mind refuses to be convinced by dogma…on the other hand, my education, and the ingrained habits of childhood, combined with the story of Christ and His teaching, all persuade me, in spite of myself, to turn to Him with prayers when I am sad, with gratitude when I am happy.”
Peter Tchaikovsky was an inspiration to the accomplished pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, who was born in 1873 in a town not far from St. Petersburg. Rachmaninov began his piano studies with his mother at the age of four, and because he showed such talent was admitted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory at an early age. He received little discipline at the conservatory, however, and came close to ruining his career. Fortunately, in 1885 he went to study with the strict pianist Nikolai Zverev, who helped Rachmaninoff hone his talent and become a truly amazing musician. Rachmaninov decided to leave his teacher after four years because he wished to concentrate on his composing. Throughout his life Rachmaninov served as a concert pianist, teacher, and composer, and he proved successful at all three vocations. His love of piano is expressed eloquently in two of his most magnificent works: his Concerto No. 2 and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Both feature the piano weaving in and out with the orchestra, and the effect can oftentimes be quite amazing. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was Rachmaninov’s final composition, the answer to his prayer that he might be able to work to his dying day. Rachmaninov passed away in 1943 of cancer, five weeks after he became an American citizen.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, born on March 6, 1844 in the province of Novgorod, was one of the most influential of the Romantic Russian composers. Though he showed musical talent at a young age, Rimsky-Korsakov’s father enrolled him in a naval academy, and he was only able to study music on the side. His teacher Feador Kanille encouraged him to compose, and so Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his first symphony while sailing with the Russian navy. The composition was promptly performed upon his arrival home. From then on Rimsky-Korsakov devoted most of his time to writing music and completely resigned from the Russian navy when, in 1871, he was offered a teaching post at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He proved to be a very demanding teacher who was intent on his students becoming proficient and professional at their jobs. But Rimsky-Korsakov was no hypocrite; his numerous compositions testify that he was not lax when it came to his musical pursuits. He wrote many operas, and the famous orchestral interlude Flight of the Bumblebee comes from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote a lot of program music, and Scheherezade is a beautiful orchestral work that relates in music form a few of the stories the Sultana Scheherazade told her husband in the Arabian Nights legend. Like other Russian composers, Rimsky-Korsakov loved dramatic orchestrations and tender melodies. Even his music inspired by countries like Arabia, India, and Spain are very Russian with their striking themes and melodies. Rimsky-Korsakov’s most lasting legacy, however, was his insistence that professional mastery of technique is the only way to make great music, and though he died in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical philosophy continues to be used in Russia to this day.
The works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Rimsky-Korsakov are melodious and romantic, but the music of Igor Stravinsky shows a whole other side of Russia. Born in a town near St. Petersburg in 1882, Stravinsky began his musical training at an early age, for his parents’ home was a center for culture and the arts. He was a lonely, reserved child, and the solitary work of composition and music-making appealed to him. While he was studying law, he met Rimsky-Korsakov’s son and eventually began taking composition lessons from the great composer himself. Due to his vast knowledge of music, Stravinsky became a master at orchestration. He wrote music in many different styles and forms, but his works were always very innovative for their time. Indeed, one of the ballets he wrote music for—The Rite of Spring—was so unconventional that it caused the audience to riot, although Stravinsky later claimed that the choreographer was at fault for including some indecent scenes. Perhaps Stravinsky’s most beautiful composition is The Firebird Suite, a compilation of some of the pieces found in a ballet retelling a Russian legend. Even its soaring melodies, however, are interspersed with dissonant chords and creepy sound effects. Jane Stuart Smith and Betty Carlson, authors of The Gift of Music, note on pages 259-260 that Stravinsky did not write music to arouse the passions of his audiences, and his work ethic and his compositions therefore demand more respect than love. But Stravinsky knew what the purpose of music was, saying, “The Church knew what the Psalmist knew: Music praises God.” This intriguing composer, who died in 1971 in New York City, is living proof that though everyone has different talents and callings, they can still glorify God in their own unique ways.
Russia produced many notable composers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Reinhold Gliere, Alexander Glazunov, Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Igor Stravinsky, however, are wonderful examples of the variety of sounds and styles Russian composers could write in. Despite their dissimilarities, Russian composers were bound together with love for their native homeland, and they tell the story of her love, loss, and longing through their songs.
♪ Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai. Greatest Hits. Sony, 1995.
♪ Tchaikovsky, Peter. Ultimate Tchaikovsky: Essential Masterpieces. Decca, 2007.
♪ Zinman, David and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Firebird Suite / Petrushka / Fireworks. Telarc, 1991.
♪ Ousset, Cecile, Simon Rattle, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. EMI Classics, 2008.