Russia Table of Contents

Until the eighteenth century, Russian music consisted mainly of church music and folk songs and dances. In the 1700s, Italian, French, and German operas were introduced to Russia, making opera a popular art form among the aristocracy.

In the nineteenth century, Russia began making an original contribution to world music nearly as significant as its contribution in literature. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) initiated the application of purely Russian folk and religious music to classical compositions. His best operas, Ruslan and Lyudmila and A Life for the Tsar , are considered pioneering works in the establishment of Russian national music, although they are based on Italian models.

In 1859 the Russian Music Society was founded to foster the performance and appreciation of classical music, especially German, from Western Europe; the most influential figures in the society were the composer Anton Rubinstein and his brother Nikolay, who founded influential conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Anton Rubinstein also was one of the best pianists of the nineteenth century.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of composers that came to be known as the "Mighty Five"--Miliy Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgskiy, and Nikolay Rimskiy-Korsakov--continued Glinka's movement away from imitation of European classical music. The Mighty Five challenged the Russian Music Society's conservatism with a large body of work thematically based on Russia's history and legends and musically based on its folk and religious music. Among the group's most notable works are Rimskiy-Korsakov's symphonic suite Scheherezade and the operas The Snow Maiden and Sadko , Musorgskiy's operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina , and Borodin's opera Prince Igor' . Balakirev, a protégé of Glinka, was the founder and guiding spirit of the group.

Outside that group stood Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (Chaykovskiy), who produced a number of enduring symphonies, operas, and ballets more imitative of Western music. During his lifetime, Tchaikovsky already was acknowledged as one of the world's premier composers. Among his most-performed works are the ballets Swan Lake , Sleeping Beauty , and The Nutcracker , and his Sixth Symphony, known as the Pathétique. At the end of the 1800s, the generation that followed the Mighty Five and Tchaikovsky included talented and innovative figures such as Sergey Rachmaninov, a master pianist and composer who emigrated to Germany in 1906; Rimskiy-Korsakov's student Aleksandr Glazunov, who emigrated in 1928; and the innovator Aleksandr Skryabin, who injected elements of mysticism and literary symbolism in his works for piano and orchestra.

In the twentieth century, Russia continued to produce some of the world's foremost composers and musicians, despite the suppression by Soviet authorities of both music and performances. Restrictions on what musicians played and where they performed caused many artists to leave the Soviet Union either voluntarily or through forced exile, but the works of the émigrés continued to draw large audiences whenever they were performed. The Gorbachev era loosened the restrictions on émigrés returning. The pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who left the Soviet Union in 1925, made a triumphal return performance in Moscow in 1986, and émigré cellist Mstislav Rostropovich made his first tour of the Soviet Union in 1990 as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

Igor' Stravinskiy, who has been called the greatest of the twentieth-century Russian composers, emigrated permanently in 1920 after having composed his three best-known works, the scores for the ballets The Firebird , Petrushka , and The Rite of Spring . Stravinskiy enjoyed a productive career of several decades in exile, making return visits to Russia in his last years. The composers Aram Khachaturyan, Sergey Prokof'yev, and Dmitriy Shostakovich spent their entire careers in the Soviet Union; all three were condemned in 1948 in the postwar Stalinist crackdown known as the Zhdanovshchina (see Reconstruction and Cold War, ch. 2). Prokof'yev, best known for his ballet music, had achieved enough international stature by 1948 to avoid official disgrace. Shostakovich, who enjoyed triumph and suffered censure during the Stalin era, wrote eleven symphonies and two well-known operas based on nineteenth-century Russian stories, The Nose by Gogol' and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Leskov. He enjoyed substantial recognition after the "thaw" that liberated artistic activities after 1953. Khachaturyan based much of his work on Armenian and Georgian folk music.

Composers of modern music received much criticism in the Soviet period for digressing from realistic or traditional styles. Both official Soviet artistic standards and the traditional expectations of the Russian public restricted the creation and performance of innovative pieces. The most notable avant-garde symphonic composer was Alfred Schnittke, who remained in the Soviet Union, where his work won approval. Aleksey Volkonskiy was a notable member of Schnittke's generation who left the Soviet Union to compose in the West. The restraints of the 1970s and 1980s stimulated a musical underground, called magnitizdat , which recorded and distributed forbidden folk, rock, and jazz works in small batches. Two notable figures in that movement were Bulat Okudzhava and Vladimir Vysotskiy, who set their poetry to music and became popular entertainers with a satirical message. Vysotskiy, who died in 1980, was rehabilitated in 1990; Okudzhava continued his career into the mid-1990s.

Jazz performances were permitted by all Soviet regimes, and jazz became one of Russia's most popular music forms. In the 1980s, the Ganelin Trio was the best-known Russian jazz combo, performing in Europe and the United States. Jazz musicians from the West began playing regularly in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Rock music was controlled strictly by Soviet authorities, with only limited recording outside magnitizdat , although Russia's youth were fascinated with the rock groups of the West. In the more liberal atmosphere of the late 1980s, several notable Soviet rock groups emerged with official approval as more innovative, unsanctioned groups proliferated. The Leningrad Rock Club, which became a national network of performance clubs in 1986, was the most important outlet for sanctioned rock music. In the 1990s, much of Russia's rock music lost the innovative and satirical edge of the magnitizdat period, and experts noted a tendency to simply imitate Western groups.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress