Music History – The Russian School

The Slav nature differs greatly from that of the races of Western Europe, and this difference appears also in the Slavonic music. For a proper understanding of the Russian Folk-songs, the student should be familiar with the country and its history, its vast steppes, its lonely summers and dreary winters, and the patient poverty of its long-suffering peasants. It is rich in legendary lore, and the poetry of Pushkin and Gogol has wrought the wild beauty of these tales into permanent form. The popular melodies trace their origin back to pagan times, and show infinite variety. There are epic chants, songs of weddings and funerals, and weirdly beautiful cradle-songs, Their delicate, capricious rhythm, and their strangeness of harmony and cadence, possess the utmost attraction. At times the songs are strong and savage, at times tranquil and majestic, or brisk and graceful; but usually they are tinged with the profound melancholy of an oppressed race. The church music, too, with its old modes and deep-voiced choirs, flourishes in unusual purity.

The Rise of Russian Music.—In the middle of the 18th century, the Imperial Court began to import foreign composers, and St. Petersburg was enabled to hear and see such men as Paisiello, Cimarosa, and Boieldieu. Works in the native language soon followed, and the Venetian Cavos became so identified with Russian music that he might almost have passed for a native. The first Russian composer, however, was Glinka, whose “Life for the Czar” (1836) was received with profound enthusiasm by the entire nation. Other composers followed, the best of whom were Dargomishky and Seroff. The former died only recently, and his later works show the Wagnerian influence. Instrumental music flourished also. The rich melodic beauty of Rubinstein charmed all Europe, and only the passionate power of Tchaikovsky placed it in the background. But now even he, the greatest of the Russians, is not considered truly national by his countrymen, who think him too German in style.

Balakireff.—Of the five men who strove to make Russian music distinctively national, Mily Alexejeviteh Balakireff (Nijni-Novgorod, Russia, 1836) was not the greatest, but may justly be called the founder of the movement. After his university studies, he came under the influence c f Alexander Oulibicheff, a retired diplomat who devoted himself to music. The young man soon settled in St. Petersburg, where he met Cui, and began with him the work of developing the new school. Balakireff has been active as pianist, teacher, and concert leader. The musical principles adopted by him and his four associates called for the use of Russian Folk-music in just the way that Dvorak employed the plantation style in his “New World” symphony. This idea is at least as old as the days of Weber whose “Freischütz,” written in the popular vein, made such an overwhelming triumph in Germany. With the wealth of beautiful Folk-songs in Russia, it has been possible to pro-duce an immense amount of interesting music, with which the Western world is as yet by’ no means fully acq’.iainted. Balakireff himself was not prolific as a composer, but his works, though few in number, show real value. They include a symphony, three overtures (Russian, Czech, and Spanish), incidental music to “King Lear,” the symphonic poem “Russia,” and a second one, “Tamara,” based on the legend of a beautiful Caucasian princess who entertained the passing cavalier for a night, while in the morning the river Tarek bore away his corpse. Another Oriental subject is the difficult piano fantasie “Islamey.” His lesser works include mazurkas, some four-hand pieces, and a score of remarkable songs, masterly in their perfection of detail.

Cesar Antonovitch Cui (Vilna, Russia, 1835) has been the literary champion of the new school. Son of a French soldier, Cui studied engineering, and became professor of fortification. In his writings we may see that the new Russians seem unwilling to admit the greatness of Wagner, but they have none the less adopted nearly all his dramatic theories. Like him, they revolted against the inanities of the old Italian opera, which was merely a singing-concert. They admitted that after Beethoven and Schumann, the symphony could say little of new import, but reform was needed in opera ; the plot should be worthy, and the music not only good in itself, but appropriate to the sentiment. Yet Russian opera has not followed Wagner, but has proceeded along its own lines ; and Cui even writes : “1 would like to preserve my compatriots from the dangerous influence of Wagner’s decadence. Whoever loves his music, ceases to appreciate real music; whoever admires his operas, holds Glinka as a writer of vaudevilles. The desire to find some-thing deep where nothing exists can have only dangerous consequences.” These strictures are not unlike certain early German criticisms of Wagner, now happily forgotten. Cui’s own operas include “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “William Ratcliff,” “Angelo,” “Le Filibustier,” and “The Saracen,” but none has won any real success. His music is good, but even his own countrymen admit that it lacks novelty or individuality. “Angelo” is the composer’s favorite. He, too, has done much in the smaller farms.

Moussorgsky.—The strangest figure in the group of five was, by all odds, Modest Petrovitch Moussorgsky (Karevo, Russia, 1839-St. Petersburg, 1881). Like Cui, he received a military training, and became an officer, but his restiveness soon caused his resignation, and two later at-tempts at Government work were again failures. His fondness for drink, and his many excesses, soon marked him as a Bohemian whose dominating passions and savage independence could brook no restraint. The same qualities are shown in his music. He was a poet by nature, expressing in great thoughts the passion and misery of humanity, but never taking the trouble to master the technic of his art. Thus his two operas, “Boris Godunoff” and “Chovanstchina,” did not meet with favor until smoothed and polished by his more learned friends. The same is true of his “Night on Calvary” and “Intermezzo” for orchestra. His “Defeat of Sennacherib” is one of many “Hebraic Choruses,” while the “Tableaux d’une Exposition” are among the best of his piano pieces. His songs include settings of Goethe and Heine, as well as the Russian poets.

Alexander Porphyrievitch Borodin (St. Petersburg, Russia, 1834-1887) could claim kinship with the old princes of Imeretia, the former Caucasian kingdom whose rulers boasted of their descent from King David. He studied medicine and surgery, and wrote several important works on chemistry. He was active in the cause of higher education for women, and founded a medical school for them. In music he owed his development chiefly to Balakireff, though he composed at an early age, almost by instinct. The success of his first symphony encouraged him ‘to write two others, as well as an orchestral scherzo. His two string quartets are full of originality, and his choral and piano music shows the same quality. He is best known in America by the “Steppenskizze,” a tone-picture of the vast Russian plains traversed by Oriental caravans. His greatest work, however, is the opera “Prince Igor,” on an old Russian war-legend treated by Pushkin. Borodin is a master of sombre effects, and his dissonances are at times almost too striking; but there is real musical worth, also, in his compositions.

Rimsky-Korsakoff.—The best of the renowned group of five is decidedly Nicolai Andreievitch Rimsky-Korsakoff (Tikhvin, Russia, 1844) (d. 1900). He adopted a vocation other than music, graduating from a Government school and afterwards attaining the rank of admiral. His chief musical work has been in opera, and his dozen productions in this form are nearly all widely popular in his native land. “The Czar’s Betrothed” is the best known, but the “May Night,” “The Snow Maiden,” and “Sadko” are not far behind it in favor. “Mozart and Salieri” is a one-act version of a poem by Pushkin, based on the suspicion that Mozart was really poisoned by his Italian rival. In the orchestral field, “Antar,” “Scheherezade,” and “Sadko” are three symphonic poems that show remarkable mastery of expression. Other orchestral works are an overture m popular melodies, another on church themes, a “Serb Fantasie,” a “Spanish Caprice,” and a “Fairy Legend.” He has written a noble and dignified concerto, dedicated to Liszt, and the usual number of lesser works. He shows the greatest skill in handling instrumental color, an art for which the Russians are noted. His music is descriptive, dramatic. His inspiration never flags, and his treatment of the thematic material is always interesting and skilful. His music may perhaps be criticised as lacking unity, but its breadth are originality are undoubted.

Glazounoff.—Among men of a later generation, Alexander Constantinovitch Glazounoff (St. Petersburg, Russia, 1865) is the most prominent, and the only one who may dispute with Rimsky-Korsakoff, his former teacher, the position of greatest of the living Russian composers. Son of a rich bookseller, he was able to devote all his energies to music, and produced at eighteen a symphony that won the congratulations of Liszt. Since then he has composed works as beautiful as they are numerous. His early creations show a tendency to fantastic and imaginative subjects. The haunting beauty of the forest, the inspiring charm of spring, the compelling magic of the sea, the gorgeousness of the Orient, the majesty of the historic Kremlin, all find an echo in his great orchestral rhapsodies. His seven symphonies are marvels of harmonic richness and melodic beauty. His “Triumphal March” for the Chicago Exposition, and a “Coronation Cantata” for the Czar, were both written to order. His early overtures are based on sacred themes, but the “Carnival” and the “Ouverture Solennelle” are again in the style of vivid coloring to which he has accustomed his hearers. His eighty or more published compositions include ballades, marches, suites, mazurkas, and other numbers for orchestra, to say nothing of chamber works, songs, cantatas, and two piano sonatas. For a time, he renounced his early style, and wrote serious works in classical German vein, but he returned to it with a number of ballets, or pantomimes with real plot and full orchestral accompaniment.

Anton Stepanovitch Arensky (Nijni-Novgorod, Russia, 1861-1906) is another of a younger generation, and like Glazounoff, did not limit himself to the style of Russian Folk-music, but aims to be more cosmopolitan. Educated at St. Petersburg, Arensky soon became known by a symphony and a piano concerto, and was called to Moscow as professor of counterpoint. In that city he increased his reputation by a grand opera, “A Dream on the Volga.” “Raphael,” a one-act work, was followed by the ballet, “A Night in Egypt,” but Arensky’s greatest opera is “Nal and Damajanti,” on an East Indian subject. His other works include a second symphony, a fantasie with piano, a violin concerto, and a “Memorial March.” He displays real strength of feeling, and he shows the influence of Schumann and Tchaikovsky, especially in his piano music.

Other Composers.—Taneieff, one of those who held apart from the national movement, has written a symphony, some string quartets, and numerous choruses, but is best known by his “Oresteia,'” an orchestral trilogy based on the tragedies of Aeschylus. This is a work of dignity and power, but at times lacking in inspiration. Rachmaninoff, a pupil of Arensky, is one of the younger mer. who won fame as a pianist and piano composer before attempting larger works. His more ambitious compositions include two concertos, a symphony, a symphonic poem, and the cantata “Spring,” also two operas “The Bohemians” and “The Avaricious Knight.” Another piano composer is Stcherbatcheff, a pupil of Liszt, who displays excessive boldness in his effects, though his “Fairy Scenes” are charming in style, and his, “Fantasies Etudes” show the influence of Schumann. Liadoff is another composer of piano works, such as the “Arabesques” and the “Birioulki.” Scriabine is one of the more recent piano writers who has won his spurs in the symphonic field also. Pachulski, too, has become known by his piano compositions. Wihtol has done much valuable work in collecting the Lett Folk-melodies. Solovieff has at-tempted opera, though not with any remarkable success. Ippolitoff-Ivanoff, active in the musical life of Moscow, has produced operas, suites, and the set of lyric scenes, entitled “Asia.” Michael Ivanoff is another opera composer, whose “Sabawa” has met with some favor. Among many others worthy of mention, Sokoloff has written chamber-works, Alpheraki is noted for his songs, Antipoff and Blumenfeld have produced excellent piano music, while Rebikoff, known for the same reason, has won new laurels with his so-called mimodrame, “Genius and Death.”

Tchaikovsky.—Although the new Russian school does not recognize Peter Iljitsch Tchaikovsky as an exponent of national musical ideas and although he represents a blending of Teutonic and Slavonic methods, yet his music par-takes of the latter, rather than of the former temperament, and he is therefore included among the Russian composers in this lesson. He was born May 7, 1840; at ten he went to St. Petersburg. He was intended for the legal profession and was appointed to a place in the Ministry of Justice when only nineteen years old. Shortly after, he entered the harmony classes at the Conservatory, resigned his Government position, and entered the musical profession. In 1866 he became professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory ; in 1867, brought out his first symphony and his first opera. In 1877 he resigned his post at the Conservatory and gave himself up to composition. In 1891 he visited the United States. He died, October 12, 1893, in St. Petersburg.

His compositions include eight operas, six symphonies, eight overtures and fantasias for orchestra, seven works for special occasions, eight orchestral suites, three string quartets, a trio and sextet, three concertos and two other pieces for piano and orchestra, three works for violin and orchestra, and two for ‘cello and orchestra, a large number of piano pieces and vocal works.

An English critic sums up Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works thus : Good points, beauty of melody, brilliancy of workmanship, beauty of color; weak points, undue pursuit of the morbid, extravagance of idea; noisiness of orchestration.

Conclusion.—At the beginning of the 20th century, the chief characteristic of music seems to be a development of national schools. As already explained, in those countries that have worthy Folk-music, composers find the material ready for them to fashion. Such has been the case in Nor-way, Sweden, and Bohemia, as well as in Russia. Countries that have not this advantage, such as England, the Netherlands, or America, atone for it in part by study and education ; but this seldom produces great musical geniuses. Italy, where the common people cared for nothing but the lighter style of tune, has had to build anew, upon foreign foundations. France is making a brave struggle after novelty, but seems to lack the needed inspiration ; while Germany, for the moment, seems content with mastering the modern orchestra. The Russian school is today the most spontaneous, the least artificial ; and it cannot fail to grow in appreciation during the next few years.


Habets.—Borodin and Liszt.

Newmarch.—Life of Tchaikovsky.

Lee.—Tchaikovski, Music of the Masters Series.