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The Elusive Soul of Russian Music

by Gerard McBurney, a composer, broadcaster and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, London
January 2001


Back to "What Makes Russian Music Russian?"


You can’t grasp Russia with the mind,
You cannot measure it in feet and inches.
Its special character is this:
That Russia has to be believed in.

    -Fyodor Tyutchev 1866

Russian classical music, like American classical music, appeared less than two centuries ago. That, compared with the time that separates us from Bach, Monteverdi, Palestrina, and Machaut, seems almost yesterday.

It was only in the late 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars and around the time that Beethoven and Schubert died, that Glinka, the first great Russian composer, invented what we now think of as the "sound of Russian music". But although that Russian sound is relatively new, it is a sound most music-lovers recognize and feel to be old. And it has echoed ever since through the works of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, right on to the masters and mistresses of our own day like Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina.

What makes Russian music sound the way it does? Why do we recognize it easily and why do we let it so enchant us (as the sleepy Sultan let himself be enchanted by the fabulous Sheherazade)?

For many people it is the art of Russian melody that makes the difference. But Russian melodies can be many things. There are famous Russian tunes, like those in Pictures from an Exhibition or Peter and the Wolf, that sound like Russian village folk-songs, especially those with falling fourths that Glinka called "the soul of Russian music". But there are others just as 'Russian', like the big tunes from Eugene Onegin, the Pathétique Symphony or Swan Lake, which you never could call folk-songs. And on the other hand those oh-so-Russian-feeling melodies in The Rite of Spring and Les Noces turn out not to be Russian at all, but to come from Lithuania and Georgia respectively, two ancient nations with their own distinctive musical traditions.

The Russianness of some great Russian tunes, like the haunting opening of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto, seems to lie in the way they evoke the darkly scented world of Russian Orthodox church-chanting. But this too can be deceptive. The celebrated modern Russian Orthodox music of Arvo Pärt is written by a Lutheran-born Estonian and the words are mostly from the Catholic liturgy. And, in sharp contrast, some of the most powerful tunes of Shostakovich, a Russian-speaking Slav of Polish extraction, are based on klezmer, which is Jewish wedding-music.

Then there are those famous booming Russian harmonies…those clangorous bells from Boris Godunov and The Great Gate of Kiev, or the thrilling opening chords of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto. We all think we know where those come from. The famous bell-casting scene from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublyov, a vision of the Slavic Middle Ages, comes to mind. But what about Rachmaninov’s doom-laden choral symphony The Bells? Those bells swing from the words of Edgar Allan Poe, hardly a Russian writer! And that famous tinkling Sugar-Plum Fairy…why does she sound so Russian?

Some scholars have tried to be more general. What makes Russian music Russian, they say, is its sense of space. Think of that vast and mighty land, a fifth or sixth of the world’s land-surface, those steppes, and deserts, ancient taiga forests and endless arctic wastes of tundra. And it seems Russians like long works of art, such as the novels of Tolstoy, the operas of Mussorgsky and the films of Eisenstein. But, all the same, some of the most Russian-sounding pieces ever written are the tiniest songs of Glinka and Rachmaninov, minute epiphanies of private feeling, sometimes to the words of Russia’s greatest poet Pushkin. And, anyway, does not the music of Brahms and Wagner and Mahler also convey as grand a sense of space?

Others point to the colored glories of the Russian orchestra, to

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples…

of Sheherazade, Firebird and the rest. But one of the greatest Russian orchestral show-stoppers is Pictures from an Exhibition, really a set of piano pieces. Its wonderfully "Russian" orchestral colors were painted on later by Ravel, a Frenchman. And what about the piano miniatures of Scriabin, the string quartets of Shostakovich? In different ways those pieces are studies in etching, streaked with shades of gray and sometimes almost colorless.

Yet still we sense the Russianness of all this music and as we listen it seems clear to us. But as it fades away, so often we are no wiser as to what makes it sound this way. We think we know what Russian music is, but time and time again it will surprise us. And the secret element of Russianness, the magical ingredient that draws us back, seems, like the will-o'-the-wisp, to dance and flicker in the music but always to stay just beyond our grasp.

Several of the 19th century Russian composers had a strong sense of what it was they needed that would make their music Russian. And one idea, popular in different ways with Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, was to make their music tell a story. That meant operas and ballets and melodramatic fantasies and tone-poems and fairy-stories. What it did not mean was 'abstract' chamber-music, like 'boring' Westerners were writing. They thought real Russians shouldn’t write violin sonatas, for example! Once, when Borodin wrote a string quartet, his friend Mussorgsky, outraged at the betrayal, wrote a furious letter. And when Tchaikovsky started his quartets, they caused a sensation, for they were something unexpected and quite new.

But soon things changed. The next generations of Russian composers were a different kind of animal. They were conservatory-trained stars from childhood, not romantic outsiders. They were professional performers, and nearly all great pianists of one kind or another. This was the time, from the late 19th century onwards, of the mighty Russian schools of piano, violin, cello and the voice… of giants like Rachmaninov, Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Chaliapin.

The three cello sonatas on this recording were written by great, albeit very different, composer-pianists. They wrote the piano parts out of their own experience of playing the piano and, in two cases, for themselves to play. They wrote the cello parts for great cellists who were their friends and colleagues. And they wrote this music not to be played in the drawing-room, not as after-dinner entertainment, not as a local demonstration of their Russianness, but as fully-fledged public music to be toured from one city to the next and published and performed in concert-halls both great and small, where people would pay to hear this music and the miracle of how great cellists and pianists played it.

Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev did not need to use this music to prove their Russianness. The music sounded Russian simply because the composers were Russian. In these 20th century works, modern Russian chamber music stands up and walks by itself, confident of what it is and wants to say, unafraid and no way needing to prove itself against an older, different way of making music.


Back to "What Makes Russian Music Russian?"