Russia Arts and Music Part I

By | February 13, 2022

Despite the persecutions of the Orthodox Church against profane music, music was already involved in the court of the Tsars in very distant times. Thus Ivan III had foreign musicians come to Moscow. In the century XVI English ambassadors brought some clavichords and organs to Tsar Fedor Ivanovich, which aroused astonishment at court. At the beginning of the following century a wind orchestra was formed under Dmitry, and under Mikhail Fedorovič music was by now introduced as a rule in court and patrician houses. Under Peter the Great it was above all the foreign ambassadors who by organizing musical entertainments pushed the Tsar to call musicians from their countries to court. But the real great impetus had the music from the time of Catherine II. This empress called especially Italian musicians; first B.Dido abandoned ; then G. Paisiello, who stayed in Petersburg for 10 years, and G. Sarti, who came to Petersburg in 1784 and first wrote works on Italian texts, then – in 1794 – The glory of the North on a Russian text. Catherine’s interest in opera was such that she herself collaborated in the drafting of three librettos, called the most famous singers and neglected nothing to have splendid productions.

Under Paul I the music retreated a little into the shadows, but soon the work found favor, and among other things they gave themselves The magic flute and The Marriage of Figaro by WA Mozart and Iphigenia in Aulis by CW v. Gluck.

A real concert life did not begin in Petersburg and Moscow until the beginning of the century. XIX, when Italian, French and German musicians came to perform the compositions of the greatest masters of Europe. The interest in music was greatly supported by the nobility, but with this it cannot be said that the talent of the musician constituted an important title for the consideration in which to hold the person of him: in fact we see that those first Russian artists (composers like Dmitry Kašin and Michail Matinskij, virtuosos like the violinist Ivan Chandošin, etc.), lived in slavery; and as slaves they were bought and sold by the nobles, for their private parties, single musicians or entire groups. Those artists were able to make a first ascent to greater consideration with the establishment of the Petersburg Philharmonic Society, and some were able to devote themselves regularly to composition. However, there was still no talk of musical education, and in fact the composers of the time: Aljab’ev, Varlamov, Verstovskij, etc., can only be placed, technically, at a level of the lowest. Aljab′ev (1802-1852) composed 110Lieder and some romantic operas; Varlamov, who had also studied in Holland, about 225 Lieder ; Verstovsky (1799-1862), the most gifted of the three, had great success with his work The Tomb of Askold. The greatest contribution was made in this period of Russian opera by the Italian C. Cavos who was in Russia since 1798 and was music director in Petersburg. Among his 50 works there was also an Ivan Susanin who staged the same topic then dealt with by M. Glinka in Life for the Tsar. But Cavos, when he got to know Glinka’s work, not only concerted its execution, but took his own from the repertoire. Life for the Tsarit is the first vital work that Russia has given to European music. At first accepted with reserve, it became more and more popular from year to year. Michail Ivanovich Glinka meanwhile continued with Ruslan and Ludmila in the type of national opera which Life for the Tsar had opened the way.

From Glinka onwards, a Russian school of great value was rapidly developing. His example is first referred to by the younger contemporaries: Dargomyžskij and Serov. AS Dargomyžskij (1813-69) had a French education, as was the custom in noble families. Close friends with Glinka, he soon emulated his theatrical achievements with his works Esmeralda (1847) and Rusalka (1856), the latter of which earned him a great name. But greater historical importance is to be attributed to the third: The stone guest, by Pushkin, which – left unfinished due to the death of Dargomyžskij – was completed by his friend C. Cui. Here, in fact, Dargomyžskij initiates the work towards the dramatic-musical conception that will then triumph in the theater of M. Musorgskij, and which relies not on melodic expansion but on continuous declamation. Less notable than him, AN Serov did not succeed in a very original expression, but with the seriousness of his work as an opera composer (culminating in Iudith [1863], Rogneda [1866] and in the unfinished Enemy Force) and as a critic he effectively contributed to the strengthening of the dramatic-musical theater, to which he brought Wagnerian currents, soon rejected by the “Five” but which in the meantime had not been useless.

According to mysteryaround, the legacy of this first genuinely Russian musical generation was picked up by some young artists, who united by intents in a certain sense close in what was called “Group of Five”, (or even “Powerful Group”), first met a lot of hostility and derisions. Their names were: Modesto Musorgskij, Cesare Cui, Nikolaj Rimskij-Korsakov, Aleksandr Borodin, Milij Balakirev; all belonging to the army or navy, except the last. The critic Vladimir Stasov supported the ideas and works of the group. The young innovating group initially gathered around the most learned in terms of technique: the Balakirev. Their name soon spread: C. Cui, in 1868, received great acclaim with his Guglielmo Ratcliff, and composed symphonic and chamber pieces, and then also successfully devoted himself to criticism. M. Balakirev, author of a lot of piano music (also famous today the Islamey fantasy) and orchestral music (among other things the symphonic poem Thamar), since 1866 for the first gave impetus to the study of popular music with a collection of Russian songs. A. Borodin (1834-87), in the rare stops of his activity as a chemist, also succeeded in excellence in musical art, to which he gave works of genre: theatrical, symphonic, chamber, etc., which still shine today for the colorful (oriental in nature) and splendid orchestration. His masterpiece, the opera Prince Igor(performed by Rimsky-Korsakov) remains – close to Musorgsky’s plays – among the peaks of Russian musical theater. The Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) achieved the greatest notoriety in Europe of all the “Five”. He began his activity with a symphony, which – composed in 1865, when he was still in the navy – was the first Russian author symphony; he then gave a very large number of legendary and decorative operas and ballets, symphonic poems, choral pages, etc., in which music he proves to be more expert technician than any other of his group (he ended up professor at the Petersburg conservatory and wrote works theoreticians among which the Principles of orchestration are still consulted today) and a magnificent painter of sound paintings that are as refined as they are original.

The most brilliant of the five, however, was Musorgsky (1835-81), whose importance appears to be ever greater and international, especially as regards the theater. In his Boris Godunov (1874) as well as in Chovan š è ina, he knows how to impose the dramatic-musical conception glimpsed at Dargomyžskij by presenting it in artistic realities of unsurpassed power. The impression aroused by Boris in the Russian milieu was quite varied at first, seeing himself by many in Musorgsky as a barbarian unaware of music, by others as the revealer of a new artistic truth. And the latter ended up prevailing, so much so that today it is fully recognized in the comparison between the original score of Borisand the one revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, also the author’s technical security. Musorgsky was perfectly capable of realizing very daring musical concepts, close to the freedom of popular song in melos and rhythm, obedient – in terms of harmony, orchestration, etc. – not to theoretical scruples but to dramatic intuition. In Rimsky’s revision, typical of the broader mentality of music professionals, all of this is corrected as an error.

Russia Arts and Music 1