Russia had a late start in classical
music. No opera was performed there until 1736, when an Italian company arrived
in St. Petersburg to entertain the Russian Empress Anna Ioannovna. The first
publication of Russian songs with accompaniment came almost five decades later.
The first professional music school—the St. Petersburg Conservatory—was only
founded in 1862. Throughout the 19th century, however, the country produced a
roster of world-class composers and established its own style in all musical
genres from opera and ballet to symphonic and chamber music.
That century also became a golden epoch of Russian romance, as the Russians called
their lyrical accompanied songs. In fact, this offspring of a Westernized urban
culture (brought in by earlier reforms of Peter the Great) had been the most
popular musical genre in Russia for years. It was sung in households,
accompanied by harpsichord, piano, or guitar; included in dramatic plays;
performed by Gypsy choruses; and written by dozens of unknown amateurs and
professional composers. Stimulated by a flourishing of Russian poetry, the
romance quickly developed into a sophisticated genre and an important harbinger
of Russian operatic and symphonic style.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
romances—totaling more than 100—served as a personal journal, of sorts, to
which the composer turned throughout his
life. Great ingenuity, melodic appeal, and a natural flow of emotions
were evident from early on. Their mostly heightened emotional temperature reflected
Tchaikovsky’s own inner turmoil: He was prone to insomnia, fears, and extreme
mood fluctuations; his unusual sensitivity prompted his governess to call him
“a boy of glass.”
Tchaikovsky’s romances enriched the genre, which was cultivated earlier by the
first important Russian composers Glinka
and Dargomyzhsky, and by authors of
so-called bytovia (“domestic”)
romances. Dismissed by some contemporaries as “not Russian enough” and later
by the Soviet critics of the 1920s as too “teary” and sentimental,
Tchaikovsky’s romances always enjoyed enormous popularity among Russian
audiences. Like Tolstoy’s novels and Chekhov’s short stories, they addressed
emotional needs of the Russian society in the late 19th century—a time of dramatic
political, social, and psychological changes that came after the end of serfdom
Tchaikovsky blended the unpretentious and elegiac tone of Russian domestic
romance with elements of Russian, Ukrainian, and Gypsy folk songs—not to mention stylistic influences of Robert Schumann.
His romances were deeply
personal—almost confessional—and at
the same time universally appealing.
Surrounded by poetry and poets ever since
his youth, Tchaikovsky wrote many of his romances to lyrics by his friends and acquaintances. Unlike his
contemporary Mussorgsky, he never
took pains to follow the textual minutiae, nor did he care to closely
match words to musical intonation. (He could nevertheless be extremely
sensitive to the inner rhythm, shape, and “melody”
of a poetic phrase.) His songs often start with a psychologically astute musical image that develops into a single
melodic and emotional wave that surges up to a tense—sometimes even
melodramatic—climax. And, just like in his operas, the instrumental part
becomes a continuation of the vocal one, complementing it and revealing the
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
Universally recognized as the father of Russian national
music, Glinka had few predecessors. What distinguishes
him is the sophistication and originality of his style, blending the
best of Italian bel canto and German counterpoint with inherently Russian musical elements with astonishing ease. A product
of aristocratic culture, Glinka grew up in a rural estate in the midst
of serfs and village life with its church and folk rituals, songs, and dances.
His education continued in St. Petersburg’s
school for children of nobility. He served for a brief while as a government
bureaucrat, but got more pleasure and success as an amateur pianist, singer, and composer of piano
pieces and songs. He traveled to
Italy, where he took voice lessons and was inspired to write a Russian opera,
before relocating to Berlin, where he studied with Siegfried Dehn. The result
was A Life for the Tsar, the first
Russian opera with fully developed arias, ensembles and choruses, masterful
orchestration, and richly depicted Russian characters.
While not in Europe, Glinka spent much of his time in the bohemian circles of
St. Petersburg, among poets, artists, amateur musicians, and writers. His
romances—more than 60 in total—were often written (like Schubert’s songs) to
share with friends; they mimic Russian domestic romances of the time, yet
synthesize simplicity with inventiveness and refined elegance.
In spite of early signs of great musical talent,
Rimsky-Korsakov tried to follow the tradition of his aristocratic military
family. A naval officer with a promising career, he combined his service with
developing his skills as a pianist, composer, and conductor. He eventually left
the military for music, becoming a professor and later the director of the St.
Petersburg Conservatory, the teacher of Stravinsky, and an influential author
of such masterpieces as the symphonic Scheherazade
and Capriccio espagnol, and operas The Tsar’s Bride
and The Snow Maiden.
Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest member of the Mighty Five—an influential group
of composers who emerged in the 1860s and
included Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin, and their leader Balakirev. Like his
contemporaries, he wanted to follow Glinka’s path and write distinctly Russian
music (which meant Russian subjects and a new musical language rooted in
elements of national folklore, liturgical tradition, and speech).
Both Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov set texts by the same poets. Unlike
Tchaikovsky, however—who would change poetic text adjusting it to the needs of
musical expression and development—Rimsky-Korsakov was always faithful to his
literary source, and he gave less space and emotional weight to the piano
accompaniment. Known for his intellect,
discipline, craftsmanship, and aversion to emotional displays, he lacked
Tchaikovsky’s and Glinka’s immediate and captivating genius for melody. His songs
instead remind listeners of paintings—carefully structured, proportionate, and
laconic, with beautifully balanced colors.