“The last quarter of nineteenth century
was the most crucial period of Russian music. The newly opened
conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg gave rise to
professional education. The line of Russian composers goes back to
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) - the first famous Russian composer and
the first representative of nationalistic tradition, who made
nationalism the purpose of his work in order to revive the Russian
tradition after years of influence from Western music and Western
culture in general. The real nationalism as a tradition in music was
born in the middle of nineteenth century and associated with the
composers, the musician-innovators (innovators in
the sense of Russian music, which unlike Western contemporary music
was still amateur). They are considered as the first composers in
St. Petersburg's music school. After the opening of the St.
Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, the difference in two schools
was established. Maybe because St. Petersburg was the cultural
capital the National Music school was established there. Moscow at
the same time became the city of musical conservatism, the guardian
of conservatory western traditions and remained so until the second
decade of this century, when new geniuses appeared. This school was
built on the authority of Tchaikovsky (though he graduated from St.
Petersburg conservatory, he did not continue the pure nationalistic
traditions, being strongly influenced by western music) and Nikolay
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) no doubt came
from the Russian National School. He studied composition with
Rimsky-Korsakov, and continued his teacher's traditions, but he came
at the time of dissolution of the national tradition. And as a
result he combined nationalists achievements with the new style of
neoimpressionism. Later he began to use Russian themes in a
sarcastic manner. In that sense Stravinsky's nationalism proves to
border on anti-nationalism, in caricature-like exaggeration. With
his music began a new era of relations between Western and Russian
music: during the nineteenth century Western music had influenced
Russian style, but now the trends began to flow strongly in the
opposite direction - giving a new color to the stream of western
music from which it had sprung.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), like Mozart
was a child prodigy. He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at
the age of thirteen, and studied in the class of Rimsky-Korsakov. In
the early period his music was influenced by the late years of the
Russian nationalist school, but he found his own style very fast.
Prokofiev had shown himself as an anti-romantic, using satire and
realism to upset the old order. He ignored older rules governing
melody, rhythm and harmony. Rimsky-Korasakov wrote on Prokofiev's
graduation paper: "Talented, but completely immature".
Contemporaries because of discord and dissonance considered some of
his work barbaric. A New York Times critic called him "the
psychologist of all uglier emotions - hatred, contempt, rage,
disgust, despair, mockery, different". They also called his
music "primitive" and "grotesque", but it was
not the only way he could write - it was the way he wanted to write.
Alexander Scriabin (1872-19??) A graduate
of Moscow conservatory, this very talented pianist and composer was
taught piano by Zverev (the piano teacher of Rachmaninov),
composition by Arensky, orchestration by Safonov (who later became
an eminent conductor, leading the New York Philharmonic Society).
Later he left the Moscow music school, but did not go towards old
Russian national traditions. Scrjabin became antagonistic to
conservatism but at the same time neglected nationalism; became
antipodal to The Mighty Five and to Tchaikovsky. Scrjabin belonged
to the Russian Symbolists, organized against art too saturated with
social motives and toward a return to the pure art mastery and
restoration of romanticism.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) belongs to
the same generation as Scrjabin. They were even fellow students at
the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninov, a very talented piano player
and quite original composer, who worked in the old romantic style,
became very popular by his own work and from performing. He
graduated from the Moscow Conservatory as a pianist and composer one
year earlier than his class, and even his first works, including his
graduation work one act opera "Aleko" were very
After studying at the Conservatory, Sergey
Rachmaninov embarked on a career in Russia as a composer, pianist
and conductor. Many considered him as the first pianist of his age
and he remained a beautiful pianist his whole life.
Few composers have written a more
successful opus 1, even if he rewrote it eight years later because
his own dissatisfaction. He obtained rapid and firm popularity.
Rachmaninov was a celebrated pianist, and his piano music was
virtuosi and full with notes. Rachmaninov-composer and Rachmaninov-pianist
worked together. His music was written for himself, and it can be
easily seen: not all professional pianist can easily fit their hands
on these spread cords, which were just nothing for Rachmaninov's
huge hands (he could play a twelfth!).
Also as a pianist and composer he
continued the piano composers line of Liszt and Chopin.
Tchaikovsky's piano concertos and piano music were before
Rachmaninov, but he is regarded as the first Russian piano composer.
Sometimes even in his vocal pieces, especially in his early works,
it seems that he paid more attention to the piano part, than to the
Rachmaninov grew up during the height of
the Romantic movement when the emotions became intensified and the
music grew larger than life. His early works from the 1890s were
heavily influenced by P.I. Tchaikovsky: dramatic, passionately
lyrical, darkly colorful in the orchestra and brilliant in the
piano. Rachmaninov knew Tchaikovsky in his early age and admired his
works. At the age of 13, he arranged some of Tchaikovsky's orchestra
works for two pianos or piano duets (although the great composer was
impressed by his first arrangement of the symphonic poem
"Manfred", he was very unhappy with his piano-duet
transcription of "Sleeping beauty").
Rachmaninov was very successful:
conductorship of the Moscow Philharmonic, piano performances as both
a solo pianist and with orchestras in Russia, Europe and America
made him popular in the world. After the October Revolution, in 1918
he had to leave Russia - at first for Europe, than for America. Soon
he became a fixture in the music life of the United States. With the
Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, he made
phonograph records of his own works. The Soviet Government
considered him an enemy of the Soviet people. In 1931, the Soviet
Government newspaper "Pravda" wrote, that his music
"is that of n insignificant imitator and reactionary: a former
estate owner, who, as recently as 1918, burned with a hatred of
Russia when the peasants took away his land - a sworn and active
enemy of Soviet Government". "I am quite indifferent"
- answered Rachmaninov, but the attack hurt him more than he would
say. He stopped composing after he left Russia, almost for the rest
of his life. "I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth
has influenced my temperament and outlook". "The melody
has gone, I can no longer compose. If it returns, then I shall write
again". His separation from his native land was wound that
never healed; he suffered nostalgia to the end of his life. He did
compose, and some of his works, such as "Rhapsody on a Theme of
Paganini", were a dazzling success. But other works were much
less interesting and more like recollections of his previous pieces,
than something new.
He died in 1943 from cancer and was burned
in the Kensico Cemetery in New York State.
To be added
- Leonard, Richard. A History of Russian Music. The MacMillan
- Sabaneev, Leonid. Modern Russian Composers. Books for
libraries press, Inc. 1927, 1967.
- Walker, Robert. Rachmaninoff, His Life and Times. Midas Books,
- Piggott, Patrick. The Great Composers. Rachmaninov. Faber and