Russian Nationalism

Nationalism is defined by Merriam-Webster as “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially :  a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”  Countries represented in the nationalist movement include Germany, Russia, France, Finland, Norway, Hungary, and Poland. Germany had been the dominant force in music since the Late Baroque, and one of the goals of composers from other countries was to remove as much as possible German influence form their music.  Through music, composers were seeking their own national identity.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky was the son of a government official.  He graduated with a law degree, but at age 23, entered the St. PetersburgConservatory.  The St. Petersburg Conservatory was modeled after German conservatories.  Since Peter the Great, Germany had influenced Russian arts and architecture. Tchaikovsky eventually became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky’s personal life was difficult. He was a homosexual, and was somewhat shy and retiring.  Tchaikovsky married, but the marriage lasted only a few days. Tchaikovsky made at least one suicide attempt, and for a time lived with one of his brothers.

At his darkest moment, Nadezhda von Meck saved Tchaikovsky.  She becomes his benefactor, sending him a monthly stipend so he could compose without distraction.  Because of her social position, she stipulated that she and Tchaikovsky would never meet in person, but instead correspond through letters.  Debussy at one time was piano teacher to Madame von Meck’s children.

Tchaikovsky travelled to America, where he conducted at Carnegie Hall in New York with great success.  He loved New York and loved the people in New York.  He said that he was more famous in America than he was in Europe.

As Tchaikovsky grew older, he continued to struggle with depression. Tchaikovsky had completed his 6th symphony, the Pathetique.  It premiered in St.Petersburg, but the performance was not successful.  At this time, there had been an outbreak of cholera in St. Petersburg.  Tchaikovsky carelessly drank unboiled water and died of the disease. There is suspicion that Tchaikovsky may have knowingly consumed the water, and had committed suicide.

Tchaikovsky’s music is defined by some musicians as the most Russian music of all.  His symphonies and ballets are some of the best of those genres.  Part of his popularity rests in his melodies. His use of harmony was masterful, and his orchestration was colorful and imaginative. Symphonies 4, 5, and 6 are excellent works.  All are inventive and original, and all are huge pieces.

The Sixth Symphony is called the Pathetique.  This does not really mean “pathetic”, but instead strong in emotion.  Tchaikovsky began to write it in 1891.    It was premiered in November of 1893.  It has an unusual structure.  In this symphony Tchaikovsky uses a slow movement as the final movement. Tchaikovsky’s reasoning for this is that he thought the last movement contained the most emotion and intensity.

Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 was composed in 1874 and is Op. 23.  Tchaikovsky experienced difficulty in getting it premiered.  It was dedicated to Nicholas Rubenstein. At that time, Nicholas Rubenstein was the director of the Moscow Conservatory.  Nicholas tried to learn the piece, but handed it back to Tchaikovsky saying that it was unplayable .  Tchaikovsky then asked Hans von Bulow to perform it, and it was an immediate succss.

The Russian Five or the Mighty Five

The Mighty Five were the most nationalist of the Russian composers. They lived at a precarious time for Russia.  There were already rumblings of revolution.  Small skirmishes between the people and the army were developing.  Russia itself was still a medieval culture with indentured servitude (serfs).  The rest of the world had industrialized, but Russia was still an agrarian economy.  Russia even had a different calendar than the rest of the world.  The society had the very rich and the very poor, but hardly any middle class.

The Mighty Five were radical nationalists.  They were seeking to completely eliminate the influence of Germany on the music of Russia. They chose Russian folklore and life as the basis for their work.  In order to get attention from the rest of the world, they chose the large forms as the means of their expression.  Opera was the form of choice.  In their works, there are not many smaller works.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Mussorgsky was born in a relatively remote area.  He prepared for a military career, and for a while was an officer in the regiment of the Guards.  Mussorgsky fell under the influence of Mikhail Glinka. While a cadet, Mussorgsky began to drink alcohol.  Mussorgsky became an alcoholic, and this affected his music and output.

As Mussorgsky developed as a musician, the everyday work he did became more annoying.  He left the military in order to compose. He kept a minor government job to make money, but the demands were not great, and in the evenings he could compose, read, and converse with the musicians who he admired. Eventually, the alcohol began to take its toll.  His health deteriorated, and he died at the age of 42.

Mussorgsky is remembered for three significant works, Boris Gudunov (1868-1872).    This opera is the greatest of the operas produced by the Five.  It is Russia’s great national drama.  The opera was not produced in its original version.  The main problem hinged on the fact that the original version had no female lead.  This was seen by the opera company as being prohibitive to the opera’s success.  Boris Gudunov is still in the standard repertoire and is produced regularly in significant opera houses.

Mussorgsky’s most often-heard piece is Pictures from an Exhibition.  The piece is organized into 10 movements, each a musical depiction of works of the recently deceased Victor Hartmann.  The 39 year-old Hartmann was chiefly and architect, but was also a professional artist, and a good friend of Mussorgsky.  The work also features a promenade theme.  The promenades appear initially as separate pieces, but as the work progresses, the promenades are incorporated into the pictures.  A promenade would normally be in duple meter, but Mussorgsky presents his promenade in assymetrical meters, indicating his portliness and unsteady walk. The work appeared in 1874.  Maurice Ravel, who had learned orchestration from the book by Rimsky-Korsakov, composed the definitive orchestration of the Pictures. It is in this orchestral form that the work is most often heard. The work finally appeared in a definitive publication in 1931, almost 50 years after it had been composed.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Rimsky-Korsakov is best known for his orchestral piece, Sheherazade.  He was a master orchestrator.  He wrote the definitive book on orchestration in the Romantic Period.  Several composers used this text, including Ravel, who used his knowledge to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  Other well-known compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov include Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture.

Rimsky-Korsakov, like the others of the Russian Five, promoted Russian nationalism in his music.  He used folk songs, rhythmic elements and Orientalism in his music.  He stayed away from Germanic styles of composition. However, he appreciated Western compositional style and studied it carefully at St. Petersburg Conservatory.  His techniques of composition and orchestration were influenced by the works of Wagner.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a Naval officer, and later a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He was a talented child, but probably not a prodigious talent.  His teachers noted that he had trouble keeping a steady tempo.  When he was 12, he went to a Naval school graduated at age 18. He also studied music on and off during this period.  By the time he was 17, his music teachers said that they couldn’t teach him any more.

In 1861, Rimsky-Korsakov was introduced to Balakirev.  Balakirev then introduced him to Cui and to Mussorgsky.  This was possibly the most important event in Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical life.  Balakirev encouraged Rimsky-Korsakov to compose and taught him when he was not at sea.  Balakirev saw a few of his pieces and encouraged him to continue in spite of his lack of musical education.

In 1871 Rimsky-Korsakov became a professor at St. Petersburg Conservatory.  He also retained his position in the navy and he wore his uniform when he taught.  In spite of this success, he still felt that he didn’t know enough to be a really fine composer.  He contacted Tchaikovsky, who took him on as a student.  In 1873 he became the inspector of the Naval Bands. As an aspect of this position, he familiarized himself with the performance techniques of all orchestral instruments.  In 1884, his Naval position was discontinued and he worked with Balakirev in the Court Chapel, where he studied the music of the Russian Orthodox Church.  It here that he wrote his book on harmony.

At this time, Rimsky-Korsakov and the other members of the Five began to clash.   The others felt that his style was becoming too Germanic and too oriented to the Conservatory establishment.  At this time also, Rimsky-Korsakov began to edit others’ music.  Still today, there is controversyabout his doing this.

In the years of 1886 and 1887 Rimsky-Korsakov composed his three masterpieces, Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol, and the Russian EasterOverture.  His contact with Thaikovsky increased.  In 1890, he began suffering from angina, possibly triggered by the unstable political climate of Russia.  After 1907 his illness became acute.  He died in 1908 at his estate.  He is buried near the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, next to Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky, and Stasov.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Rachmaninoff worked to continue the legacy of Tchaikovsky.  His music was in the traditional Germanic style, but with distinctively Russian harmonic language and melody.  This included a predilection for minor keys, occasional use of modes, music that represented the iciness of Russia.  Rachmaninoff didn’t use much Russian folk music as a basis for his compositions.  He composed in the traditional forms and for his time was conservative in his harmonic language.  For this, he received much criticism.  However, audiences love it.  For this reason, his music refuses to go away.

Rachmaninoff was born into a wealthy family.  His family had for generations been in service of the Tsar.  Rachmaninoff was a prodigy.  At first he studied at St. Petersburg, but then transferred to the Moscow Conservatory.  Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky became friends.  During this time period, Rachmaninoff composed his First Piano Concerto and the set of piano pieces that contains the famous Prelude in C# Minor (1892).  Tchaikovsky died in 1893, and this event was a great blow to Rachmaninoff.

Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony  premiered in 1896.  It received a scathing review from Cesar Cui, who was a composer of the Russian Five and also an influential music critic. There had been several problems with the premiere. The orchestra had not rehearsed it enough.  Also, Glazunov, who was the conductor, was suspected to have been drunk.  The writer, Leo Tolstoy, was generally not pleased with Rachmaninoff’s work.  Part of this stemmed from the fact that Cui and Tolstoy were nationalists, while Rachmaninoff was composing in the German tradition.

Rachmaninoff fell into a deep depression and did not composer for a long period.  Psychoanalysis was relatively new at this time, but Rachmaninoff went for treatment.  Dr. Nikolai Dahl uses hypnosis to help Rachmaninoff out of the depression.  The piece of music that came from this was the Piano Concerto No. 2, which Rachmaninoff dedicated to Dr. Dahl.  The concerto was a resounding success.  During this time period also, Rachmaninoff was fighting with the Russian Orthodox church to marry his cousin, Natalia.

Rachmaninoff was a close friend of Scriabin.   They met each other in the conservatory. Scriabin died in 1915, and this affected Rachmaninoff deeply.  Rachmaninoff gave recitals devoted exclusively to the works of Scriabin.

Rachmaninoff first toured the US in 1909.  For this tour, he composed the Third Piano Concerto. While in the US, he was offered the position as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he declined.  He didn’t enjoy the tour, and didn’t tour the US again until after he had moved here.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution affected everyone in Russia. Rachmaninoff’s property was seized, and Rachmaninoff and his family rode in a sled to Helsinki, Finland, to escape to the West.  With them, they had a few conductor’s scores and a few family possessions.  He stayed in Scandinavia for a short while, and then moved the family to New York in 1918.  Rachmaninoff, who had mostly devoted his life to composing, was forced to begin touring.  He also worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company.  Rachmaninoff did not compose much in the US.  Finally, he bought a home in Switzerland, and composed there, completing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934, among other compositions.

He was a close friend of Vladimir Horowitz.  They would consistently attend each other’s recitals.

Rachmaninoff became ill in late 1942 with advanced melanoma. His family was informed, but they kept it a secret from Rachmaninoff.  His last recital was given in Knoxville, TN.  There is a statue to thememory of Rachmaninoff in Knoxville.  He died in Beverly Hills.  He wanted to be buried in Switzerland, but conditions did not permit this, and he’s buried in Valhalla, NY.