The Classical Series, vol. 4: Russian Classical Music

By: Claudia Siregar |

It’s no secret that some of the world’s most famous classical pieces came from the land of Russia. From Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, Russian classical music has always had its own place in the history of classical music, characterised by Russian folk music influences, its unique use of musical scales, and sometimes even elements of romantic nationalism. But what makes it so different from the usual Western/Central Europe classical music you hear at orchestral performances?

The roots of Russian classical music began in the Muscovy era where religious music thrived and secular music did not. Religious music was unique in that era in the sense that it employed Byzantine era influences, sounds of the Russian basso profundo and Russian Orthodox bell ringing, and Neumes used for notation for choral music. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Russian music saw its growth, when its beloved tsar Peter the Great, one of Russia’s icons of Enlightenment, helped bring Western European influences to Russian art during his reign. Soon pioneer Mikhail Glinka and other classical composers at that time came into play as they plunged into the music industry. Yet a group of St. Petersburg-based composers called Mighty Five (Balakirev, Ciu, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov), with their orientation towards freedom in music-making and taking Glinka’s lead, opted to create the defining sound of Russian classical music. The Five notably started blending Western classical music with the roots of Eastern folk music and its elements such as tonal mutability and its heterophony, and sounds of the everyday Russian life. They went as far as using various harmonic scales that had not been used in Russian music before, in order to create a distinctive sound.

While the Five rebelled against the Germanic-influenced musical establishment, another remarkable Russian composer was on the rise. A part of the elite conservatory, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky became one of the most famous Russian composers in history, with fairytale-like orchestra and a blend of both Germanic influences and elements of the Five’s “Russian sound” (particularly his use of whole tone scale) in his music. However, this period of freedom in creating music didn’t last long – after the 1917 revolution, the nation saw Stalin rise in the 1930’s with his “socialist realism” doctrine. Music was heavily censored in order to prevent Western influences being communicated to the masses through the arts, yet at this time, official nationalist composers such as Shostakovich with his Symphony no. 5 and Prokofiev saw their rise in the music industry. Meanwhile Russian composers who sought peace in the West such as Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky innovated the sound of their music with avant-garde influences, notably mixing their sound with serialist, Western classicist, and jazz elements, while still retaining the East-meets-West sound of Russian classical music.

In conclusion, the evolution of Russian classical music hasn’t always been a simple one to begin with, and so the result of the evolution is nothing near simple as well. Shaped by politics, Eastern folk music, and avant garde influences, it has become pretty much distinctive. Growing up with Tchaikovsky playing in my living room, I must say I’m more than familiar with the distinctive sound of Russian classical music – which I have curated in a playlist for those who are as intrigued by Russian classics as me. Enjoy.

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