Russian Opera


Russian Opera Essay, Research Paper

Russian Opera

The seeds of a distinctively national art music in Russia are usually dated from the first half of the 19th century. The performance of the opera A Life for the Tsar (1836), by Mikhail GLINKA, is usually cited as the turning point for Russian music (Russia’s national anthem is taken from this opera). In this historical opera, as well as in his subsequent opera Ruslan and Ludmila (1842), the orchestral fantasy Kamarinskaya (1848), and numerous songs, Glinka successfully fused the typical

melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of Russian folk music with the forms and techniques of Italian opera — creating an eclectic but unmistakably national idiom. Glinka’s younger contemporary, Alexander DARGOMYZHSKY, is best known for his

influence on subsequent nationalist composers through his posthumously produced opera The Stone Guest (1872), a radical

attempt to promote musical realism by abandoning the forms and conventions of traditional opera in favor of continuous


The FIVE, or the Mighty Five, is the label given to a group of Russian composers that formed during the 1860s. Supported

by the influential critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906), the Five — Mily BALAKIREV, Aleksandr BORODIN, Cesar

CUI,Modest MUSORGSKY, and Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV — sought to legitimize the goals and achievements of

nationalistic music and to oppose the dominance of Western musical influences. Although linked by common propagandistic

aims and by the characteristic absence of formal musical education, the composers wrote in differing styles. The most lasting

musical achievements were made by Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Borodin is noted for his use of Russian

orientalisms in works such as In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) and his opera Prince Igor. In his numerous operas on

historical and fairy-tale subjects, as well as in the well-known symphonic suite Scheherazade (1891), Rimsky-Korsakov

exploited the unusual modal tendencies of Russian folk music, and his orchestration was colorful and effective.

Musorgsky was undoubtedly the most original composer of the Five. Continuing Dargomyzhsky’s search for musical realism,

he combined an instinctive flair for the nuances of folk music with flexible, textually motivated rhythmic practices and unusual

harmonic juxtapositions in his many songs, his operatic masterpiece Boris Godunov (1869-72), and his suite for piano Pictures

at an Exhibition (1874). Although he was misunderstood by many of his contemporaries, Mussorgsky’s legacy has been

profoundly important for music in the 20th century.

The conspicuous targets of the nationalists were Aleksandr Serov (1820-71), a prominent music critic, Wagnerite, and

opera composer, and Anton RUBINSTEIN, a legendary piano virtuoso as well as a prolific composer. Rubinstein and his

brother Nikolai (1835-81) were responsible for establishing the first music conservatories in Russia, founded on German

models, in Saint Petersburg (1862) and Moscow (1866). Peter Ilich TCHAIKOVSKY was one of the first graduates of the

former and subsequently taught at the latter. Without rejecting his national heritage Tchaikovsky evolved a more cosmopolitan,

romantic, yet highly personal style that won him widespread international popularity. Many of his works–including the six

symphonies, the operas Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890), the ballets Swan Lake (1877), Sleeping

Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892)–established themselves as repertory classics.

After the October revolution in 1917, many composers and performers chose to leave Russia. Among those who pursued

successful careers in the West were Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), Nikolay and Aleksandr

TCHEREPNIN, and Serge KOUSSEVITZKY. The unexpected official denunciation (1936) of the highly successful opera

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1932) was the first explicit application of socialist

realism to music. Recognizing music to be a powerful weapon in the ideological struggle, this ambiguous doctrine called for

music with a “socialist” content, expressed in a musical language that ordinary people could understand. The formula effectively

banned the modernistic directions characteristic of contemporary Western music and fostered conservative and readily

accessible styles. Shostakovich, one of the first generation of Soviet composers, had achieved early success with his First

Symphony (1925) and subsequent works and was able to reestablish himself spectacularly with his Fifth Symphony (1937).

Mildly dissonant counterpoint, march rhythms, and sensitive orchestration became the hallmarks not only of Shostakovich’s

style but of that of many other Soviet composers as well. Composers who reached artistic maturity during the 1930s and ’40s

included Aram KHATCHATURIAN, Dmitri KABALEVSKY, Yuri Shaporin (1887-1966), and Vissarion Shebalin


Laurel E. Fay


1.Abraham, Gerald, Essays on Russian and East European Music (1985);

2.Asafiev, Boris, Russian Music from the Beginning of the 19th Century (1953);

3.Schwarz, Boris, Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, 1917-81, enl. ed. (1983);

4.Seaman, Gerald, History of Russian Music, vol. 1 (1967);

5.Stasov, Vladimir, Selected Essays on Music, trans. by Florence Jonas (1968; repr. 1980).

Musical samples


A Life for the Tsar. Aria of Ivan Susanin by Maxim Mikhailov


Eugene Onegin:

Gremin’s Aria by Mark Reizen (1948)

Lenski’s Aria by Nikolay Gedda



Song of the Viking Guest by Feodor Shaliapin (1927)

Viking Song by Mark Reizen (1952)

Song of the Indian Guest by Ivan Kozlovsky

Song of the Venetian Gest by Pavel Lisitsian


Mermaid. Miller’s Aria by Maxim Mikhailov



Marfa’s Song by Nadezhda Obukhova (1948)

Marfa’s Devination by Nadezhda Obukhova (1941)

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