Understanding the Eras of Russia’s Great Composers

By the time Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote his Slavonic March in 1876, Imperial Russia had become the world’s largest country, encompassing one-sixth of the world’s land surface, eleven time zones, and dozens of different national groups. Yet Russia remained a poor and largely agrarian country. Its serfs had been emancipated only in 1861, and with many restrictions (Emperor Alexander II corresponded with Abraham Lincoln, who would free America’s slaves two years later.) Literacy rates remained low, the result of a poorly developed educational system and repression of Ukrainian and other non-Russian languages. Until the Revolution of 1905, Imperial Russia was the only major European state without any kind of parliamentary or institutional check upon the powers of the king, or tsar as he was called in Russia. Desperate conditions produced waves of migration into Siberia and abroad. Between 1900 and 1920, 20% of America’s immigrants came from the Russian Empire, many of them Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Failure to keep pace with the industrial and technological advances of its European neighbors proved costly on the battlefield, and Russian armies performed poorly in the Crimean War (1853-56), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), and the First World War (1914-18). The Romanov dynasty never solved the question “how to survive as a great power, bestowed upon Russia by its place in Europe, with the economic and military capabilities of an undeveloped country,” and in February 1917 it collapsed. Eight months later, the Bolsheviks staged a coup which led to the creation of the Soviet Union, the world’s first Communist state.

Despite these difficulties , nineteenth-century Russia produced a world-class literary tradition marked by the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, a superb ballet, a grand tradition of realist painters (most notably Ilya Repin), and a number of composers whose works remain classics today. Insofar as possible, artists from all disciplines sought to protest censorship (even musical scores had been censored for a time) and political repression. One notable group of composers, called The Five, helped create a Russian national musical tradition, favoring themes from Russian history and folklore and also the music of the Orthodox Church.   Interestingly, Mily Balakirev was the group’s only professional musician. César Cui was a specialist in military fortification, Modest Musorgsky (whose Pictures at an Exhibition was performed at the Norton Center by the New York Philharmonic in March 2009 ) was a civil servant, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov a military officer, and Alexander Borodin a chemist. By the 1910s, Russian composers had become notable as pioneers of experimental and controversial techniques and forms. Igor Stravinsky’s discordant Rite of Spring drew catcalls and walkouts when it was first performed in Paris in 1913, but it is considered to be a seminal event in the emergence of modern European music.

The Communist Revolution was followed by brutal civil war (1918-21) and then by a period of relative cultural and economic relaxation called The New Economic Policy (1921-27). Jazz and the dance craze it created became popular in the twenties though some Communist officials condemned it as decadent. Some composers favored symphonies that included factory whistles and other sounds that betokened what they hoped would be Russia’s new industrial might. As a symbol of the new emphasis on egalitarianism, major city orchestras performed without conductors during the 1920s.

With the imposition of rigid totalitarian control under Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from the late twenties until his death in 1953, the arts were subjected to the restrictive dictates of “socialist realism.” Writers, composers and other artists were required to observe certain guidelines that served to promote the Communist cause. In post-Stalinist times, some prominent artists, for example renowned dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, defected. Freedom of artistic expression emerged finally under the remarkable initiatives of Mikhail Gorbachev, beginning in the mid- 1980s. In 1991 the Soviet Empire collapsed, leaving behind 15 independent countries.

Of this evening’s three composers, Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is the most famous and the first Russian composer whose works won international recognition. His Slavonic March is often called by its French name Marche Slave. Tchaikovsky wrote symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, and chamber music. He was featured at the inaugural concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), who was deeply influenced by Tchaikovsky, was a brilliant pianist who is known primarily for his piano concertos. He left the Soviet Union in December 1917 and spent the rest of his life in Europe and the United States.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed seven symphonies and numerous piano concertos and sonatas. After the Communist Revolution he spent eighteen years in the West, only to return to the Soviet Union during The Great Terror, in 1936. He is perhaps most famous for his musical symphony for children, Peter and the Wolf.

Michael Hamm
Ewing T. Boles Professor of History, Emeritus

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Michael Hamm joined Centre’s faculty in 1970 and retired in 2014, and was faculty president from 1998 to 2001 and history division chair from 1991 to 1995. He holds a B.A. from Macalester College, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Indiana University.

A scholarly expert on the history of eastern Europe, Hamm has published three books. He is the author of “Kiev: A Portrait 1800-1917,” published in 1993 by the Princeton University Press. Hamm was the editor and part-author of “The City in Russian History” and “The City in Late Imperial Russia). He guest-edited a special issue of Nationalities Papers on Moldova in 1998. His published articles include: “On the Perimeter of Revolution: Kharkiv’s Academic Community, 1905” in Revolutionary Russia; “Jews and Revolution in Kharkiv: How One Ukrainian City Escaped A Pogrom in 1905,” in The Russian Revolution of 1905. He also writes on conservation and wildlife issues; is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Kentucky Chapter of the Nature Conservancy; and serves on the Board of Directors of the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge.

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Categories: A Closer Look, Notes from the Faculty

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