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Guide to Russia > Russian Culture




Learn about the giants of Russian classical music (including this guy, who didn't always look this bad).


Mikhail Glinka

Glinka was the first Russian composer to gain wide recognition outside of his own country and is often regarded as the "father of Russian music". His work was an important influence on future composers. He was the son of a wealthy merchant, which afforded him the opportunity to spend his youth in reputable schools all over Europe. He became an aristocrat, highly educated in the many different cultures of Europe. His education in music theory was actually minimal and he chose to devote his studies instead to writings by poets and artists.

There was little or no national Russian music during Glinka's lifetime and most music was imported from Western countries, such as Germany, Italy, and France. His first goal was to write the first Russian opera and he succeeded: A Life for the Tsar, commissioned by Baron G. F. Rosen, was composed in 1842. It was considered a tremendous success and widely accepted as the first official Russian opera. Parts of the opea were based on Russian folk songs but the majority was structured in the conventional Italian style.

His second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, was composed in 1842. It was not as successful as A Life, but it was slightly more adventurous, using folk songs liberally as well as musical techniques such as dissonance, chromaticism, and whole-tone scales. Despite the criticism the opera received, it established Glinka as a composer, as well as the existence of a unique national classical style.

Mikhail Glinka

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Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia to a Ukrainian engineer and his second wife, a French woman. The composer was especially talented at the piano and studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1861 to 1865. In 1866, he was appointed professor of theory and harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, which was established that year.

The composer married Antonina Milyukova in July of 1877. The marriage was hasty, and he quickly found that he could not stand his new wife. He attempted suicide not even two weeks after the wedding, then he ran away to St. Petersburg and separated from his wife after six weeks. The couple never saw each other again, even though they never divorced and the composer died a married man. Many historians claim that this marriage was simply a cover-up of Tchaikovsky's true sexual preferences and denial of his homosexuality.

Madame Nadezhda von Meck, on the other hand, was a woman that Tchaikovsky revered. They had a consistent correspondence with between 1877 and 1890. She had a deep interest in the composer's music and provided him with financial support of 6000 rubles a year. Unfortunately, her patronage was abruptly cut off. There are many theories about this, none of which we can endorse. It is widely believed that she was planning to marry off one of her daughters to the composer, as she also unsuccessfully tried to marry one of them to Claude Debussy, and was disappointed to learn of his homosexuality. During this period that the composer achieved success throughout Europe, and in 1891 successfully toured the United States.

Tchaikovsky is perhaps most well known for his ballets, although they went largely unrecognized until the last few years of his life. His most famous ballets include Swan Lake (1875-76), Sleeping Beauty (1888-89), and The Nutcracker (1891-92). He also wrote 10 operas. The composer's early symphonies (of which he wrote six) were generally happy works of a nationalistic character, while later ones are darker, about fate, turmoil, and despair. The sixth symphony, Pathetique, is the darkest of them all. Other symphonies include Winter Daydreams, Little Russian and Polish. Furthermore, the musical genius wrote many concertos, the most famous of which is No.1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1875). Other works include orchestra suites, choir, songs, chamber music, and solo piano pieces, the most famous among them The Seasons.

Just nine days after the first performance of his sixth symphony in 1893, Tchaikovsky died. It is generally accepted that his death was by suicide, although the manner (commonly claimed to be from cholera brought about by drinking infected water) and circumstances are uncertain. One suggestion is that a group of his former classmates encouraged him to commit suicide to avoid the scandal of an alleged affair with the nephew of a member of the Russian aristocracy. Tchaikovsky was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

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Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Like Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov was born to a wealthy aristocratic family, and had limited musical training. In fact it wasn't until he was in the company of other composers that he began experimenting with music. While he was still in the navy, he completed a symphony, which was a first for a Russian-born native. He also completed his well known orchestral piece Sadko in 1867 and the opera The Maid of Pskov in 1872.

Rimsky-Korsakov and other members of "the Mighty Five" frequently collaborated and edited each other's compositions.

Despite being self taught, Rimsky-Korsakov became professor of composition and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and taught many famous future composers, such as Igor Stravinsky. He kept on composing many works, such as the orchestral works of Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol, in addition to 15 operas. Among his Russian Orthodox liturgical music is a cappella Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Rimsky-Korsakov's position as a professor did not last long. In 1905 he was removed from the Conservatory in St. Petersburg owing to his expression of his political views, However, he was eventually reinstated due to a series of resignations by his fellow faculty members. More political controversy came when he composed Le Coq d'Or (the Golden Cockerel) in 1907, which could be read as a blatant attack on imperial Russia and was banned following its premiere.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov died from angina in Lyubensk in 1908. He is buried in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg.

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Modest Mussorgsky (pictured above)

Mussorgsky's family descended from the first Russian ruler, Rurik, through sovereign princes of Smolensk. Modest was prepared for a military career, but eventually joined the "Mighty Five" along with Rimsky-Korsakov. His first published works were an unfinished opera Salambbo and a cycle of songs.

During his lifetime the composer was not well known, lived in poverty and shared lodging with his good friend Rimsky-Korsakov. He died from alcohol intoxication on March 28, 1881 and is also buried with his friend in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Following his friend's death, Rimsky-Korsakov completed and recomposed some of Mussorgsky's works, and these went on to become famous musical compositions.

Two operas he composed on Muscovite history that are extremely well known today are Boris Godunov (based on Pushkin's play of the same title) and Khovanshchina. Another piece, which was made famous in the US by its appearance in Disney's Fantasia, is the orchestral work St. John's Night on Bare Mountain - a wild and experimental piece. His most frequently-performed work Pictures at an Exhibition, a cycle of piano pieces describing pictures in sound. Among his other works are a number of songs, including three song cycles: The Nursery (1872), Sunless (1874) and Songs and Dances of Death (1877).

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Sergey Rachmaninoff

Born in a city called Semyonovo, near Novgorod, Rachmaninoff's family moved to Saint Petersburg, where the composer studied at the conservatory before going on to Moscow, where he studied piano. While still a student he wrote a one act opera Aleko, and a set of piano pieces, Op. 3, which includes the popular and famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor. His first serious pieces for the piano were composed and performed when he was thirteen years old. In 1892, at the tender age of 19, he completed his first piano concerto, which he revised in 1917.

Rachmaninoff's First Symphony premiered in 1897 but was panned by critics. This reception, coupled with his distress over the Orthodox Church's objection to his marrying his cousin, Natalia Satina, led to a nervous breakdown. It wasn't until he received auto-suggestive therapy that he was able to compose music again, which resulted in the Piano Concerto No.2 (1900). The piece was very well received at its premiere and remains one of his most popular compositions, which gained fame from its use in the films Brief Encounter and The Seven Year Itch as well as having its themes made into popular songs in the 1940s. In 1902 he and Natalia were finally married after a long engagement, and stayed married until Rachmaninoff's death. Rachmaninoff was offered a job as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in 1904, but resigned two years later due to political reasons. In 1908 he moved to Italy and later to Dresden while waiting for the situation in Russia to stabilize.

The second piano concerto secured Rachmaninoff's reputation as a composer, but he was also a very well known and highly respected pianist. His technical perfection and rhythmic drive were legendary and he was known for having extremely large hands (range: 12 keys). He made many recordings of his own music as well as of the standard repertoire.

Sergey Rachmaninoff

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Dmitri Shostakovich

Born in St. Petersburg, Shostakovich was a child prodigy as both a pianist and a composer. His family seems to have been politically liberal and tolerant; one of his uncles was a Bolshevik, and his family was known to shelter far right extremists. In 1922 he was allowed to enter the Petrograd Conservatory and his first musical achievement was the First Symphony (1925), written as his graduation piece. In 1927 while writing his second symphony, he began his satirical opera The Nose, based on the story by Gogol. In 1929 the opera was criticized as formalist by the Stalinist Arts Organization and it opened to generally poor reviews in 1930.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s he worked at TRAM, a proletarian youth theater. Although he did little work in this post, it shielded him from ideological attacks. Much of this period was spent writing his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District; it was first performed in 1934 and was immediately successful. In 1932 he married Nina Varzar. The open marriage ended in 1935 but the couple reunited soon afterwards.In 1936 Shostakovich fell from grace. The year began with a series of attacks on him from Pravda. The campaign was instigated by Stalin and condemned Lady Macbeth as formalist, which consequently caused commissions to dry up for the composer. His Fourth Symphony entered rehearsals, but the political climate made performance impossible and it was not performed until 1961. 1936 marked the beginning of the "Great Terror"; many of the composer's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed. The birth of his daughter, Galina, also occurred later this year; his son Maxim was born two years later.

The Fifth Symphony, composed in 1937, seems like a compromise: it is not overly political and musically conservative without being simplistic. It was a success and remains to this day as one of his most popular works. He also composed the first of his string quartets this year and his chamber works allowed him to experiment and express ideas which would have been unacceptable in his more public symphonic pieces.

During WWII Shostakovich remained in St. Petersburg and wrote his Seventh Symphony. The composer and his family were eventually evacuated to Samara, where he finished the symphony, which was adopted as a symbol of Russian resistance in the USSR and in the West. In 1943 the family moved to Moscow, where the Eighth Symphony was written.

In 1948 the composer was again denounced for formalism, most of his works were banned, he was forced to publicly repent, and his family had many privileges withdrawn. In the following years official works were aimed at securing official rehabilitation and serious works "for the desk drawer". The latter included the Violin Concerto No.1 and the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry. Restrictions were eased in 1949. Stalin's death in 1953 was the biggest step towards the composer's official rehabilitation, which was marked by his Tenth Symphony.

Shostakovich joined the Communist party in 1960, which could have been a decision of cowardice, a show of commitment, or maybe the composer was forced into it. He also became increasingly affected by poliomyelitis. His musical response to such a tumultuous time in his life was the ambiguous Eighth String Quartet.

In 1962 he married for the third time and also turned towards anti-Semitism as a subject matter in his Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled Babi Yar (the location of an extreme massacre of Jews during WWII).

Shostakovich suffered from chronic ill-health during the 60s and 70s, including heart problems. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies and his late quartets are dark, introspective and have attracted critical favor in the West. The composer died of lung cancer in 1975 and is buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Dmitri Shostakovich

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Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky was born and raised in and around St. Petersburg, where at the age of 20 he became the pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, the leading Russian composer of the time.

He left Russia for the first time in 1910, when he went to Paris. During his stay in the city, he composed three major works for the Ballet Russes - L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird) (1910), Petrushka (1911), and Le sacred u printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1913). The ballets trace his stylistic development: L'oiseau de feu, which was largely based on Rimsky-Korsakov's influence and teachings, then Petrushka with its emphasis on bitonality and finally Le sacred de printemps (The Rite of Spring), which is very dissonant, polyphonic and sometimes even savage.

The second period is known as the neo-classical period; it is Stravinsky's return to the classical music of Mozart and Bach, with an emphasis on wind instruments and choral works. Some larger works from this period include the Symphonie des Psaumes (1930), Symphony in C (1940), Symphony in Three Movements (1945), Apollon Persephone (1933), and Orpheus (1947). These works mark Stravinsky's concern to not only classic music but also classic themes, such as the mythology of the ancient Greeks. The pinnacle of this period is the opera The Rake's Progress (1951), which was written to a libretto by Auden and based on the etchings of Hogarth.

The last period is considered the primitive or Russian period. After the 1913 premiere of Le scare de printemps, riots broke out, which some say was Stravinsky's initial intention in creating such a piece. Here the composer draws on the brutalism of pagan Russia, reflecting these sentiments in roughly drawn, stinging motifs that appear throughout the work. Other pieces from this period include: Renard (1916), L'histoire du soldat (A Soldier's Tale) (1918), and Les Noces (The Wedding) (1923).

In the 1950s Stravinsky began another period of composition known as the Serialist or Twelve Tone Period. In 1951, after the death of Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve tone system, did Stravinsky begin making use of the technique in his own works. He first began to experiment with the modern technique in smaller vocal works such as the Cantata (1952), Three Songs from Shakespeare (1953) and In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954). He later began expanding his use of the system in works based on biblical texts, such as Threni (1958), A Sermon, a Narrative, and a Prayer (1961), and the Flood (1962). An important transitional work of this period was a return to the Ballet: Agnon, a work for twelve dancers (1954).

The composer was interested in art, literature and life and had many different collaborations with artists of different styles. Not only was he the principle composer of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, but Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso (Pulcinella, 1920), Jean Cocteau (Oedipus Rex, 1927) and George Balanchine (Apollon Musagete, 1928).

Stravinsky's personal life was a little messy. He was very young when he married his cousin Katerina Nossenko in 1906. Their marriage endured for 33 years, but he had an affair with Vera de Bosset, who was the true love of his life. Vera left her husband for Stravinsky, which caused the man to live a double life: half with his family and the other half with his lover. After Katerina's death Stravinsky and Vera were married in New York, where they had gone from France to escape the war in 1940. Stravinsky was also rumored to have had intimate relations with Coco Chanel sometime during his life.

Eventually Stravinsky's music was noticed by Serge Diaghilev, the director of the Ballets Russes in Paris. He commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet for his theater, which required the composer to travel to Paris in 1911 and the ballet ended up being the famous L'oiseau de Feu. However, because of World War I and the October Revolution in Russia he moved to Switzerland in 1914. He returned to Paris in 1920 to write more ballets as well as many other works. In 1939 he moved to the United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1945. He continued to live in the United States until his death in 1971, unsuccessfully writing music for films.

In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Russia for a series of concerts, but remained an emigre firmly based in the West.

He died in New York City on April 6, 1971 at the age of 89 and was buried in Venice on the cemetery island of San Michele. His grave is close to the tomb of his long time collaborator Diaghilev.

Igor Stravinsky

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Alfred Schnittke

Alfred Schnittke was a German-Russian composer of classical music. He was born in 1934, and began his musical education in 1946 in Vienna, where his father, a journalist and translator, had been assigned. In 1948 the family moved to Moscow. Schnittke completed his graduate work in composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1961, and taught there from 1962 to 1972. Thereafter he supported himself mainly by composing film scores. Schnittke converted to Christianity and possessed deep mystical beliefs, which heavily influenced his music.

In 1985 Schnittke suffered a stroke, which left him in a coma. He was declared clinically dead on several occasions, but recovered and continued to compose. In 1990, Schnittke left Russia and settled in Hamburg. His health remained poor, however, and he suffered several more strokes before his death on August 3, 1998 in Hamburg.

In a number of pieces, Schnittke quotes or parodies other composers and this combined with his "polystylism" (a mixture of musical styles past and present in close proximity) has resulted in his work as being seen as one musical manifestation of postmodernism. Among his better known works are a number of symphonies, several concerti grossi, and chamber music including a piano quintet and a string trio, and several operas including Life with an Idiot.

Want to learn more? See our history of Russian Classical Music, lists of classical and jazz venues in St. Petersburg and Moscow, our detailed analysis of Russian rock and undergound music, and description of the main movements in modern Russian music. Also look out for additions to this section of

Alfred Schnittke

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