Classical music is prized in Russia. Ordinary Russians as well as well-educated urbanites are well versed in classical music and know pieces by all the famous conductors. Street musicians are amazingly good and professional musicians are among the best in world. In Moscow, St. Petersburg and Moscow and even provincial cities there are dozens of concerts and musical events each week.

The large cities of Russia traditionally have their own symphony orchestras and ballet and opera houses. Although funding for such facilities has diminished in the 1990s, attendance at performances remains high.

Many famous musicians and composers have been trained at the Moscow Conservatory and St. Petersburg Conservatory. The standard of music teaching and performance remains high in Russia.

Early Russian Classical Music

Early Russian music developed from folk songs and dance and Orthodox Church chants. Until the eighteenth century, church music and folk music for the most were only kinds of music that existed in Russia. In the 1700s, Italian, French, and German operas were introduced to Russia, making opera a popular art form among the aristocracy. Early Russian composers included Mikhail Glinka, Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky, Cesar Cui, Mili Balakirev and Aleksandr Borodin.

In the nineteenth century, Russia began making an original contribution to world music nearly as significant as its contribution in literature. Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) is regarded as Russia's first great composer and the first to merge Russian and Western forms. His most famous pieces include the operas “Ivan Susanin” (or “Life for the Tsar”) and “Rusland and Lyudmila” (based on Pushkin poem). He had a strong influence on composers that follow him. Glinka initiated the application of purely Russian folk and religious music to classical compositions. 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. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The Lives of the Great Composers” by Harold C. Schonberg


Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) is one of Russia's greatest composers. Motivated by his attempts to create "Russian National Music," he is remember most for “Pictures from an Exhibition” and the opera “Boris Godunov”.

Mussorgsky was born on March 21. 1839 in Karevo, near Pskov, Russia. His father was a wealthy landowner. His mother was his first music teacher. As a boy Mussorgsky was a talented pianist. When he was 13 he entered a military school in St. Petersburg and became an army officer at the age of 13. In his spare time he created nationalist music with a group known as The Five, that included the composers Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov and Cesar Cui. In 1858, Mussorgsky resigned from the army and devoted himself to composing. By this time his family's fortune had declined and he worked as a government clerk to support himself.

Mussorgsky was a heavy drinker. He consumed large amounts of vodka when he was troubled and almost died from alcoholic binges after a rejection from a lover in 1858 and the death of his mother in 1865. "Friends would often rescue Mussorgsky from some disreputable place, nearly in rags, his hair disheveled, his face swollen with alcohol," a musical contemporary wrote. Alcohol shortened his career and his life. He died at the age of 42 of "alcoholic epilepsy."

Mussorgsky's Music

Mussorgsky most famous pieces are “Night on Bald Mountain” (a descriptive piece for orchestra), “Pictures from an Exhibition” (piano pieces arranged for an orchestra) and the spectacular opera “Boris Godunov”.

Mussorgsky was inspired by folk music rhythms and music from the Russian Orthodox Church. He is also known for unfinished music dramas such as “Khovanshchina”, “The Fair of Sorochinsk” and “Salammbo” and his song cycles “Sunless” and “The Nursery”.

Mussorgsky made an opera from Pushkin's “Boris Godonov”, which dramatized the conflict between Russia's rulers and its people, reverence for tradition and passion for revolution. The original work had many problems. A revised version produced in 1872 still has flaws. After Mussorgsky's death the opera was revised into its present form by the composer Rimsky-Korsakov. The opera was later turned into a ballet that helped catapult Mikhal Baryshnikov to stardom.


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is probably Russia's most beloved composer both within Russia and outside it. Those that love him find his music uplifting and beautiful. His critics dismiss him as an "adolescent passion you outgrow" and said his music "cries louder than any suffering could justify."

But many, even people that don’t normally listen to classical music, love him. Washington Post music critic Tim Page described his music as “a mixture of haunting melodies, unfailingly inventive orchestration, and welling tenderness of expression.” Walt Whitman once said the best Tchaikovsky music was like someone who cared deeply speaking directly to us. The great modernist Stravinsky showed his respect for Tchaikovsky by incorporating Tchaikovsky’s themes into his own music.

Among those who were both a fan and critic was Harold C. Schonberg. In his book “The Lives of the Great Composers” he wrote: “From the beginning, most listeners enjoyed the emotional bath in which they were immersed by the composer. Others more inhibited, with rejected Tchaikovsky’s message out of hand or despised themselves for responding to it...For a long time Tchaikovsky, so beloved by public, was discounted by many connoisseurs and musicians as nothing but a weeping machine.” Pierre Boulez, told reporters after taking the position of art director for the New York Philharmonic, “I hate Tchaikovsky, and won’t conduct him.”

Books: biography by Anthony Holden. Tchaikovsky Guide by David Nice.

Tchaikovsky’s Life and Homosexuality

Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town of Votkinsk in the Ural Mountains. His father was a mining engineer. His mother was French. As a boy, Tchaikovsky was nervous and high strung. He began taking piano lessons at the age of seven and was regarded as something of a prodigy, writing poetry and essays in fluent French at the age of seven.

Tchaikovsky's family moved to St. Petersburg in 1850. He attended law school and graduated with honors in 1859 and became a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. The composed and played music in his spare time. His tendency to work too hard and push himself to the limit left him with terrible insomnia, debilitating headaches and hallucinations. On top of that his composition teacher never liked his work even after he became famous.

Tchaikovsky has been described as both as a "shy man who expressed him emotions in his music" and "a proud, libidinous aristocrat with a rare emotional repose." In 1877, Tchaikovsky met Antonina Milyukov and married her after she threatened to commit suicide is he didn't. The marriage was a disaster. Tchaikovsky fled the marriage nine weeks after it started. Later he tried to commit suicide. Antonina refused to divorce him. They lived apart but remained married.

Tchaikovsky was a tormented homosexual who believed that he could be cured of his “disease.” He had a crush on his young nephew and several affairs with peasant boys. Rumors about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality were flamed by “Pathetic Symphony”, a seamy biographical novel about the composer by Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann. Tchaikovsky’s attempts to cure himself of his homosexuality near drove him mad.

Tchaikovsky tried to combat his depressive and pessimistic inclinations. He once wrote: “If you have no pleasure in yourself look around you. Got to the people. See how they enjoy life and give themselves up entirety to festivity...There is still happiness, simple, native happiness of others.”

Tchaikovsky's Early Career as a Composer

Tchaikovsky did not begin studying music seriously until he was 21, when he began studying with Anton Rubenstein. Two year's later, in 1866, he quit his government job against his father’s advise and because an instructor at the Moscow Conservatory. He completed his first symphony “Winter Daydream” a year later and his first opera “The Yoyevoda” two years after that.

Tchaikovsky spent 12 years at the Moscow Conservatory. It was there that he wrote many of his most famous pieces, including “Swan Lake” and the overture for “Romeo and Juliet”. It was also there that he met his wife, who was a student there.

Tchaikovsky early works were generally not well received but he caught the attention of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy German widow, who became infatuated with his work. Beginning in 1877, she became his patron and gave him enough money so he could quit teaching. The relationship between Tchaikovsky and von Meck was strange. They wrote each other long emotional letters but vowed never to meet (they did meet accidently one time and were so embarrassed they didn’t speak).

Free from financial worries, Tchaikovsky was able to devote himself to composing. He divided his time between his sister's estate in Kiev and living abroad. By 1880, he was the most popular composer in Russia. In 1887 he began conducting publicly but never enjoyed it so much as he suffered from stage fright. In 1890 von Meck abruptly terminated their relationship. Tchaikovsky was crushed.

Tchaikovsky as a Composer

Tchaikovsky worked quickly with great confidence. “The Queen of Spades”, regarded as one of his best operas, was completed in 43 days. Symphony No. 6 was mostly finished in 3½ weeks. At one point in his career he wrote a piano composition every month for a popular magazine the same way a journalist writes a column. With these he often procrastinated until the last minute and then dashed off a composition in a single afternoon.

Tchaikovsky suffered from terrible self doubt. After the premier of “Swan Lake” he wrote in his diary: “I have heard [Leo] Delibes’s very clever music. “Swan Lake” is poor stuff compared with it.” He could also be a tough critic of himself. He wrote von Meck in 1988: “Having played my [Fifth] Symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusions that it is a failure. There is something repellant in it, some over-exaggerated color, some insincerity of fabrication, which the public instantly recognizes.”

Tchaikovsky's letters to von Meck not only illustrated what the creative process was like him, but also for other artists. In 1878 he wrote: “The artist must have tranquility when he is creating. The sad and happy emotions he expresses are always and invariably retrospective. With no particular reason for rejoicing I can experience a happy creative mood. And, on the other had, in the happiest circumstances I might wrote music filled with darkness and despair. In short the artist lives a double life—an everyday, human one, and an artistic one and these two lives do not always coincide.”

Tchaikovsky's Music

Tchaikovsky music is know for both its passion and suffering, sentimentality and agony, succinctness and repetition. His critics claimed his music is too formulaic, crass and based on themes that are beautiful but undeveloped.

Tchaikovsky's wrote great symphonies that were rich in "passionate self-projection." Richard Taruskin said Tchaikovsky's music "creates community" and deals in "concrete imagery explicitly derived from shared human experiences." "At the end of his life," Alex Ross wrote eon the New Yorker, "he had become an experimenter and a perfectionist: he was willing to try anything, then cast it off with a shrug if the experiment flopped.”

Page wrote: “A listener’s personal reactions to Tchaikovsky are likely to evolve over time. Upon first hearing, usually early in our musical education, we love him for the unbridle intensity and grandeur of his work. Late on, we may go through a phase when it all seems a bit much—the swooping strings. the hyper-charged emotionalism, the profound subjectivity. Finally, in what passes for full maturity, we return to Tchaikovsky and discover him once more for keeps. By now we are willing to forgive some occasional bursts of effusion in exchange for those extraordinary melodies, with their precise and eternally imaginative scoring. Tchaikovsky’s best music has the same suffusion or melancholy and serenity associated with a golden autumn afternoon, beautiful and seductive even among decay.”

Tchaikovsky's Compositions, Ballets and Operas

Early Tchaikovsky pieces include “The Storm”, “Hungarian Gypsy Airs”, “The Fairy Kiss”. Among the famous works he wrote while at the Moscow Conservatory were “Swan Lake”, the overture for “Romeo and Juliet” and “Francesca de Rimini”. Tchaikovsky's “1812 Overture” commemorates Napoleon attack on Russia, the burning down Moscow, and the retreat of the French army across Europe, pursued all the way to Paris by the Russian Army.

Other famous pieces include the Third Piano Concerto, the symphonic poem “Voyevoda”, “Marche Slav”, “Capriccio Italian”. The Sixth “Pathétique” Symphony is a dark experimental piece that Tchaikovsky described as his best work. He died while in St. Petersburg for its first performance.

Page wrote: “There are many Tchaikovskys—the virtuoso showman of the “Violin Concerto “and aching, songful miniaturist of “None but the Lonely Heart”; the unfettered romantic of the last three symphonies and the cooly pristine neoclassicist who wrote “Winter Daydreams”, “Little Russian” and “Polish” symphonies that preceded them.”

“Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades” are Tchaikovsky operas based on works by the poet Pushkin. “Iolanta” is beautiful and was successful in it time but is not heard much today because the plot is so poor. It is about a blind women who falls in love with a count and regains her sight after several love duets. “Mazeppa” is another opera.

Tchaikovsky's ballet's include “Sleeping Beauty”, “Swan Lake” (which has a record 32 “fouettés”, turns, and the famous dying swan scene). Tchaikovsky composed “The Nutcracker Suite” in 1891 after returning to Russia from a tour of the United States. Washington Post music critic Tim Page wrote “The Nutcracker” “presents us with Tchaikovsky's full range as a composer—from the patrician but deeply emotive “Waltz of the Flowers” through the all-out passion of the “Pas de Deux”, the world’s most emphatic descending scale. Particularly delightful are the little movements—the oompah bassoon and prancing piccolo of the “Chinese Dance”, the enchanted celesta in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” and the sheer wildness of the the “Trepak”. “Nutcracker” combines a sense of childlike wonder with grown-up ardor and craftsmanship.”

Tchaikovsky's Death

Tchaikovsky died suddenly at the height of his fame at the age of 53 in St. Petersburg in 1893 of cholera. He got the disease it seems from drinking a glass of unboiled water at the height of a cholera epidemic. At the very least it was foolhardy thing to do and possibly may have been intentionally self destructive.

There were rumors that he poisoned himself at the behest of a "court of honor" made up of former law school classmates who were scandalized by his homosexuality. These rumors have little to support them. Four doctors said he died of cholera. No known poison produces cholera-like symptoms and a large cover up would have to have been instituted. Moreover, the day before his death, he wrote letters detailing his plans for a trip to Odessa.

One of the main reason's the suicide rumor has persisted is that the music he produced before his death, particularly the “Adagio Lamentoso” of the Sixth Symphony, which ended with a strange dying roar of sorrow, had elements that seemed to foretell death. The premier of the Six Symphony was nine days before his death.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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