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. 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. 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. *


Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a revolutionary composer who is often referred to as the apostle of modernism in music and has been called the greatest 20th-century Russian composers. He 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.

Stravinsky was a short man with a large beak nose and famous round glasses. Known mainly for the works he composed before the age of 30, he experimented with new musical forms all of his life, in the process alienating many listeners who considered some of music unlistenable. In his 60 year musical career, Stravinsky produced symphonies, operas, ballets, oratorios and staggering variety of choral works. His conducted has been described as "inventive and finessed."

In his autobiography, written when he was 48, Stravinsky confided, "At the beginning of my career as a composer I was a good deal spoiled by the public. Even such thing as were at first received with hostility were soon afterwards acclaimed. But I have a very distinct feeling that in the course of the last fifteen years my written work has estranged me from the great mass of my listeners...They cannot and will not follow me in the progress of my musical thought. What moves and delights me leaves them indifferent, and what still continues to interest them holds no further attraction to me...I believe that there was seldom any real communion of spirit between us."

Books: “Stravinsky: A Creative Spring” bu Stephan Walsh; “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions” by Richard Taruskin. “Chronicle of a Friendship” by Robert Craft has been described as Boswell's “Life of Johnson” of the 20th century.

Stravinsky's Early Life

Stravinsky was born into a minor noble family on June 17, 1882 near St. Petersburg in Oranienbaum, Russia. His father was a famous operatic bass in the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Stravinsky's earliest memories were of his father's rehearsals and of visits to rural affairs at his uncle's estate. The first musical performance he recalls was Tchaikovsky's “Sleeping Beauty”.

Stravinsky began piano lessons at the age of nine but showed no exceptional talent. He loved music however and by the age of sixteen he was spending five or six nights a week listening to rehearsals at the Maryinsky Theater, the home of the Kirov opera and ballet. To discourage him from making career out of music, Stravinsky's parents enrolled him as a law student at St. Petersburg University. In 1906, Stravinsky married his first cousin Catherine Nossenko despite a law banning marriages between first cousins.

Stravinsky has little interest in studying law but one his fellow students was the son of Nikolai Rinsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), a nationalist composer that Stravinsky admired very much. Stravinsky often stayed at the Rimsky-Korsakov family home, where he asked the composer for advise. After listening to some of Stravinsky's compositions, Rimsky-Korsakov was not impressed and advised the young man not enter the conservatory of music. Stravinsky was committed to music even though he show few early signs of genius. After the death of his father he was free to abandoned his study and he began taking private composing lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, who later became his mentor, in 1907.

Stravinsky's Music

The modernist composer Philip Glass wrote, Stravinsky made "music never before heard in a theater or concert hall." His "audaciously innovative works confirmed his status as the leader composer of the day."

Music critic Alex Ross wrote in the New Yorker, "His music asks us to listen, note by note. His greatness emerges not so much in his grand gestures—although he could supply those on demand—as in his constant stream if exquisite detail. He polished everything relentlessly, even the bric-a-brac he picked up off the musical street...He'd start with a brusque four-note tune; stretch it over an asymmetrical but catchy rhythm: stop on one note in a kind of funky stutter; punctuate the mass with a few oddly voiced but just-so chords; and suddenly the gates of Stravinskyland would swing open."

The folk-inspired melodies of Stravinsky's early works were clearly inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov but his primitive off beat use of rhythm was distinctively his own. Stravinsky's first major work was a symphonic poem called “Fireworks”.

Stravinsky, Diaghilev, The Firebird and Petrouchka

In 1908, Stravinsky was badly shaken by the death of Rimsky-Korsakov but after a months he began collaborating with a new patron, Sergei Diaghilev, a producer who attended a performance of Stravinsky's “Fireworks” and was greatly impressed.

Diaghilev, who had begun staging Russian ballet productions in Paris, had commissioned a composer to write a new ballet based on the Russian folk tale The Firebird. When the composer failed to produce the piece, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to do it. The result was “The Firebird” (1910), an adaption of Russian folk melodies to the ballet rhythms. It was a great success and Diaghilev and Stravinsky both became an instant celebrities

“The Firebird” was produced in Paris in 1910, when Stravinsky was only 28. It remains Stravinsky's most poplar piece. It was very much a Rimsky-styled piece with, in the words of Alex Ross of the New Yorker, "exotic scales, diaphanous orchestration and rapt repetitions of fascinating chords."

Stravinsky’s and Diaghilev’s next collaboration, “Petrouchka” (1911), was also a big success. Featuring Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role, this ballet was based on a Russian folk story about a puppet that comes to life at a fair on the frozen Neva River. Both the “Firebird” and “Petrouchka” were choreographed by another Russian, Mikhail Fokine.

Rite of Spring

The next Stravinsky-Diaghilev-Nijinsky collaboration, “The Rite of Spring” (1913), caused a scandal in the musical community. Choreographed by Nijinsky and based on Stravinsky's childhood memories of the Russian countryside, the “Rite of Spring “aimed to re-create an ancient Russian folk ritual: individual earth worship and sacrifice. It was about a group of pre-historic Slavs greeting the spring, with the second act revolving around the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death. The rhythms were explosive and unpredictable. The beat of the adolescent dance was the same as the basic rock 'n' roll beat. One critic described the event as a “sonic rock fight.” When the first performance was over, Stravinsky said he felt "excited, angry, disgusted and happy."

“Rite of Spring” was so the original that audiences were almost horror-stricken by the music and dance. Audience were shocked by both Stravinsky's discordant music and Nijinsky’s frenetic, herky-jerky movements and responded by making catcalls, whistling and throwing things. The critic Jacques Riviere described the performance as a “biological ballet: with he dancers acting like “large revolving masses of protoplasm; germ layers...placentas.”

The world premier of the “Rite of Spring” took place at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913 when Stravinsky was 30. The night began with the renowned composer Camille Saint-Saëns walking out after the first movements were played because he felt the notes from the bassoon were too high. As the night progressed the catcalls and whistles became so loud, the dancers couldn't hear their cues and fist fights broke out and a riot ensued.

Late the pieces was embraced by the public. After one performance in 1914, Stravinsky was carried out of the concert hall on the shoulders of the audience. After that it became one of the world’s most choreographed pieces of music. By one count is has been staged at a rate of almost once a year since 1913. Despite efforts to construct what happened at the premier, Nijinsky’s choreography has is mostly been lost. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker; “the dancing, like the music, was not just primitive but modernist. Though the dancers may have quaked and stamped, they did so in angular postures, rigid lines.”

Stravinsky, Fame and Hollywood

“The Rite of Spring” made Stravinsky an even bigger star and cemented his position as a leading modernist composer. Among his friends were Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Giacomo Puccini, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Charley Chaplin. He had an affair with Coco Chanel, collaborated with gay men like Cocteau and Gide, and gave his autograph to the Pope. Despite his fame Stravinsky it is said always gave money to street musicians.

Stravinsky moved from Paris to a mountain chalet in Switzerland, where he stayed through World War I. He returned to Russia in the summers. In 1920, he returned to France and became a French citizen in 1934.

In 1939, after the death of his mother, daughter and wife, and with World War II approaching, Stravinsky moved to the United States, where he settled near Sunset Strip in Hollywood and married Vera de Bosset, a talented long-time former actress who had been his mistress for 20 years and produced first-rate poems, watercolors and composition. After his second marriage he grew apart from his children from his first marriage.

A much-changed version of “Rite of Spring” was used in Walt Disney's “Fantasia”. Although he had many offers, including one from Orson Wells for “Jane Eyre” and another of $100,000 to "pad a film with music," Stravinsky never wrote am original score for Hollywood film. Stravinsky did however work with choreographer George Balanchin on a ballet for elephants for the Ringling Brother of the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Despite concerns by the elephant's trainer that the music made his animals uneasy, Stravinsky's “Circus Polka” was performed 425 times by the tutu-clad elephants and recorded by the Boston Symphony in 1944.

In Hollywood Stravinsky sported tortoiseshell sunglasses. He met Frank Sinatra and the Kennedy, declined an invitation from Aldous Huxley to drop LSD, studied black power and once was in a black limousine surrounded by teenage rock fans who thought Jim Morrison was inside.

Stravinsky Later Music

Stravinsky later compositions were categorized as neoclassical, cubism surrealism, objectivist, no-medieval, postmodern, jazzy and neo-medieval. Much of this work was experimental in nature and generally not well received by popular audiences. He rejected familiar forms of orchestra and opera, and composed pieces with unusual combinations of instruments, strange harmonic variations and serialism (music constructed through permutations of element such as pitch in a series).

"Over the years," Glass wrote in Time, "Stravinsky experimented with virtually every technique of 20th century music: tonal, polytonal and 12-tone serialism. He reinvented and personalized each form while adapting the melodic styles of earlier eras to the new times. In the end his own musical voice prevailed." He created "a musical revolution whose evolution never stopped. There is not a composer who lived during his time or alive today who was not touched, and sometimes transformed, by his work.”

A major turning point in Stravinsky's career occurred in 1947 when he befriended a 23-year-old conductor named Robert Craft who later became his substitute son "Bonsky." Two years before he broke down in the Mojave Desert, claiming his career was over.

Craft convinced the great Russian composer to take a close look at Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone school and turned him on to many other kinds of music. Stravinsky turned away from Russian folk traditions for inspiration and turned instead to "new music" from the Second Viennese School, Renaissance polyphony, jazz sheet music (he hadn't actually heard the music jazz) and Christian psalms.

Stravinsky collaborated French writer Jean Cocteau on an opera based on Oedipus Rex and English writer W.H Auden on “A Rakes Progress” (1951), an opera inspired a series of drawing of drunks, gamblers and whores by William Hogarth. It debuted in Venice. In 1957, he created his final ballet masterpiece “Agon” with Balanchine.

Stravinsky's Explanations of his Later Works

While recordings of “The Firebird” continued to sell well throughout his life, recordings of his later works sold poorly and audiences were generally less than enthusiastic about having to sit through live performances of the stuff.

Explaining what he wanted from his listeners, Stravinsky wrote in his autobiography, "To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions, such as joy, grief, sadness, an image of nature, a subject for daydreams or— still better—oblivion from 'everyday life.' They want a drug. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be a far higher and more potent order."

Stravinsky echod this sentiment in explanation of his “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”: "This music is not meant 'to please' an audience or to rouse its passions. I had hoped, however, that it would appeal to those in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy emotional cravings."

Stravinsky, the Conductor and His Final Years

Glass wrote: "I heard him conduct only 1959 at New York City's Town Hall. What an event that was. Stravinsky led a performance of “Les Noces”, a vocal/theater work accompanied by four pianos—played by Samuel Barber, Aaron Copeland, Kukas Poss and Roger Sessions. Each brought his own charisma to the event, but all seemed in awe of Stravinsky—as if he appeared before them with one foot on earth and other planted firmly on Olympus...He conducted with an energy and vividness that completely conveyed his every musical intention. Seeing him at that moment, embodying his work in demeanor and gestures, is one of my most treasured memories.”

In 1969, Stravinsky moved to New York City. According to one story when he was asked why he said "to mutate faster." Stravinsky died on April 1, 1971. He was buried near Diaghilev in the Island-Cemetery of San Michele, one mile off the coast of Venice, Italy. His gravestone is a curved marble slab with cross, with his name in colored tiles.


Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) blended modernism, classicism, and Russian Nationalism. Three Prokofiev trademarks were "the mocking march, the ironic gavotte and sour waltz.” David Schiff wrote in the New York Times, "unsuspected depth and passion in a composer which has been either loved or despised for his facility, charm and unmistakable melodic flair...Because Prokofiev was popular, we may think we know him, but like Gershwin, he was a master of disguise, even when he appeared to be most forthright. The recipes he gave away for his own work, the naive belief in Classical forms, the apologies for stylistic sins may all have seen like smoke screens, designed to look like a sleepwalker when he was, in fact, a great chess player whose next move no one could predict."

Prokofiev is best known for his ballet music. He composed the “Classical” Symphony, “Peter and the Wolf”, “Lieutenant Wife”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “War and Peace”, based on Tolstoy's novel, and “The Love of Three Oranges”. He scored the films “Alexander Nevsky “and “Ivan the Terrible” for the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein “Peter and the Wolf” acquainted generations of children with the instruments of the orchestra.

Prokofiev had hoped to ingratiate himself with Stalin regime after returning to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. “Betrothal in a Monastery” is rarely heard. The opera “Semyon Kotko” (based on a novella called “I Am a Son of the Laboring Masses”) contained "gorgeous love music” and “stormy dramatic conflicts" but "openly glorified the Soviet state. Prokofiev had achieved enough international stature by 1948 to avoid official disgrace. He died on the same day that Stalin died.

Book: “Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography” by Harlow Robinson.


Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian composer who produced great music but was criticized for sucking up to the Communists. He presented his “First Symphony” in 1926 when he was 18. The piece was played by orchestras all over the world and Shostakovich quickly established himself as a "brilliant young man of Soviet music"

Shostakovich was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Petersburg. His father was a civil servant. His mother started him and his two sisters with piano lessons when they were each nine. Dimitri's health as fragile. He was in St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He entered the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919 and graduated in 1926.

Book: “Shostakovich: A Life” by Laurel Fay, an American scholar (Oxford); “Testimony: The Memories of Dimitri Shostakovich”, edited by Solomon Volkov. The latter work is controversial. The text seems to be from Shostakovich but is not always what it claims to be: a direct first person accounting of his life. Rather it is a mix of quotes different sources that are manipulated to make the point that Shostakovich was a dissident not a Stalin lackey as he sometimes is accused of being.

Shostakovich and the Soviets

Shostakovich had love-hate relationship with Soviet authorities and a similar relationship with Western critics, who viewed as both a willing propagandist and a victim. Early in his career Shostakovich enthusiastically produced works with Communist themes. In interviews he said things like "Soviet art rests four square on the desires and principles proclaimed by the great Lenin."

Shostakovich had a falling out with the Soviet authorities when Stalin walked out of a performance of “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk”—a daring work with explicit sex scenes and multiple murders—at the Maly Theater in Leningrad. Pravda described the opera as a "deliberately disoriented, muddled stream of noise." The denouncement coincided with the "Reign of Terror." Shostakovich was declared an "enemy of the people" and feared for his life for the next two years. Close friends were shot and Shostakovich was interrogated. He reportedly slept in the hallway of his apartment to spare his family the sight of his arrest.

Shostakovich's “Fifth Symphony” redeemed him somewhat. Boris Pasternak wrote: “he went and said everything, and no one said anything to him for it.” Even so, in 1948, Stalin condemned Shostakovich's music for "anti-democratic tendencies...alien to Soviet people and their artistic tastes." In 1958, five years after Stalin's death, the statement was taken back.

Books: “Shostakovich and Stalin” by Solomon Volkov (Knopf, 2004); “A Shostakovich Casebook”, a collection of essays edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown (Indiana, 2004)

Shostakovich's Music

Shostakovich produced three main kinds of compositions: uplifting lyrical symphonies, tragic works of gut-wrenching bleakness, and hack tunes intended to please his Soviet bosses. His early pieces were influenced by Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Alexander Sciabin and often dealt with Communist themes. Over time he developed his own style.

Shostakovich first opera was a an adaption of Gogol's “The Nose”. His second, “Lady Macbeth of Mzensk”, began as "violent, sexually explicit" opera with foolish policemen who arrested people on fabricated charges. It was widely viewed as a typical Soviet musical drama with an antitsarist, anticapitalist theme. Even so Stalin didn't like it.

Shostakovich quickly withdrew his dreary, surrealist “Forth Symphony” after it was criticized by people in the Culture Ministry. His “Fifth Symphony”, an inspiring work with socialist-realist sensibilities, moved audiences to tears and was received a 40 minute ovation at its premier. His “Fifth Symphony” remains one his most popular pieces in the West.

Shostakovich survived the 900 day siege of Leningrad in World War II. When the war ended Stalin expected him to write an uplifting, Beethovenian victory pieces. Instead he responded with a frivolous “Ninth Symphony” with a comic ending. Shostakovich's “Tenth Symphony” and Op, 99" violin concerto are considered masterpieces. Some have called the “Tenth Symphony” as a "portrait of Stalin." His “Fourteenth Symphony” was set to an Apollinaire poem “The Zaporozhian Cossacks' Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople”."

Shostakovich's Last Years

In 1960, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party and during the Khrushchev era and attached his name to a number of manifestos and denunciations. Near the end of his life Shostakovich changed his tune. He condemned Stalin and said that many people had misinterpreted his work. He wrote, "Looking back, I see nothing but ruins, only mountains of corpses.”

Scholars have reexamined his work and "discovered" anti-Communist themes in pieces that had earlier been dismissed as Soviet propaganda. Dissidents like Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky embraced him.

Shostakovich remained enigmatic and controversial to the end. He was reportedly very bitter in his last years and enraged the dissident community by signing a denouncement of Andrey Sakharov in 1973. Shostakovich died in 1975.


Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) is considered by many people to be greatest pianist ever. "He is a giant redwood," Vladimir Horowitz once said, "I'm only a tree." Rachmaninoff was 6 foot 6 and his hands were larger than Michael Jordan’s. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory.

Rachmaninoff wrote music in the romantic tradition of Liszt and Chopin. These include his famous piano concerto “Prelude in C Sharp Minor”. “Vespers”, inspired by the Orthodox church, is regarded as one if his masterpieces,

Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is considered to be the most difficult piece on the standard concerto repertoire. Introduced to the public at large by the film “Shine”, the "Rach 3" has been called thee "Everest of Pianism." Rachmaninoff once said he composed the piece for elephants. He was only the man brave enough to perform it in public but when he heard Vladimir Horowitz perform it he said he would never play it again and he didn't.

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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