The Great Russian Music Trail (Part 1/2)

Gutsy rhythms and soulful music that go right to the heart – it could only come from Russia, a country of great political and social change. Simon Trezise finds the real roots of Russian music.

While the political future of new Russia is anything but secure, there is no question about its musical genius. Its established figures continue to exert an intense influence on late twentieth-century musical life and new composers such as Schnittke appear all the time. They follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest geniuses in western music, but Russia’s musical history is not as well rooted as you might think.

Two vital ingredients ensured Russian music had a voice long before the art music we know today came to the fore – chant composed for the Byzantine liturgy and folksong. It is as well that this heritage was there, for in the eighteenth century Russia was dominated by the Italians, who provided the musicians and taught such native talent as there was. The demand for music in St Petersburg, for example, was minimal. Tzar Peter I had little appetite for it, so it was to satisfy his army’s need for marches that he brought in German instrumentalists. In 1750 a new court theatre was opened for Italian opera which Empress Elizabeth hoped her courtiers and other dignitaries would fill; when they didn’t, she invited leading members of the merchant class to attend; still beset with numerous empty seats she ordered her ladies-in-waiting to attend.

But Russia’s leisured classes were developing an ever-growing appetite for music as the century progressed, and the stylistic range was broadening: to Italian influence were added French and English styles. Significantly, the urbanites took an interest in folksong too. Years before Tchaikovsky tidied up the folksong ‘Vo polye beryozinka stoyala’ in his Fourth Symphony (1878), new versions of traditional songs were appearing for popular consumption, their rhythmic and melodic structures suitably cleansed of all irregularity.

The father of Russian music
Russia’s indigenous musical voice was so vibrant, thanks to folksong and chant, that when a composer of genius came along, responsive to his inheritance, a torrent was unleashed. Born in 1804, Mikhail Glinka founded the Russian nationalistic school of composers and had a profound influence on Tchaikovsky. He was fully conversant with ‘mainstream’ European styles, reflecting such composers as Beethoven and Rossini in his instrumental and vocal music. His love for the exotic and a fantastic sense of colour drew him into ever more fertile realms, the summit of which was the orchestral Kamarinskaya (1848), a tone poem that uses two Russian folk tunes. They are repeated over a constantly changing accompaniment – a new method of development destined to play a key role in Russian music throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

As well as Kamarinskaya, Russian composers found a wonderfully rich fount of ideas in Glinka’s operas. Mily Balakirev shared Glinka’s exotic tastes; his exhilarating Overture on Three Russian Themes (1866) uses Glinka’s changing-background technique. He was a brilliant orchestrator, and out-Liszted Liszt in the virtuosity of his piano music, especially in the fiendish Islamey (1862).

The Mighty Five
By dint of his experience and generous support for younger composers, Balakirev was the leader of a group of five composers known simply as The Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) – Russia’s nationalist school. The greatest of them, Modest Mussorgsky, wrote in a harmonically and rhythmically advanced idiom that many contemporaries considered crude, even incompetent. He drew on the natural speech patterns of the Russian language in his masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov (1868-73), which majestically exploits national folksong.

Mussorgsky’s alleged ‘technical flaws’ may partly account for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s extraordinary contribution to The Five. He wrote many fine, picturesque works of his own, not least the great seascape Sheherazade (1888), but he added to that the completion and recomposition of much of Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin’s music. Without his version of Boris and St John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (1867), it might have taken many years for Mussorgsky’s genius to be recognised; certainly Borodin’s epic opera Prince Igor (1867-87) would not have come to light, for it was posthumously completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Russian composers had sought their education outside Russia and had often carried on alternative careers (Borodin worked with great distinction in science, setting up the first medical courses for women in 1872). In 1862 the St Petersburg Conservatory was inaugurated, the brainchild of Anton Rubinstein; Russia no longer had to look elsewhere for music education – its conservatories soon ranked among the world’s finest.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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