Russia’s rich music history was forged by composers determined to differentiate themselves from German and other Western styles. The use of octatonic scales and other modes, traditional Eastern folk melodies, and repeating phrases that staunchly refused to develop were all brought together to create a distinct national style. The result is a type of music that is wholly unique and adored by people around the world to this day.
If this is your first time exploring the definitive music of Russia over the ages, it’s helpful to have an overview of who’s who. Here are some of the key Russian composers that you need to know.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Best known for his explosive 1812 Overture and thematically unforgettable ballets like The Nutcracker, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is considered by many to be the most famous composer in all of Russian history. His music of the Romantic era is characterized by melodies that easily catch the ear – lending to his widespread appeal – and rich tone, inspiring orchestrations with harmonies that capture a deep range of emotionality.
Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia as the second of six surviving children of Ilya Tchaikovsky and Alexandra Assier. Whereas some composers seem to be born with a natural gift for music, Tchaikovsky’s talent, skill, and recognition for both were something that developed gradually. This was largely due to the sporadic nature of his musical tutelage during a simple and modest upbringing.
These humble beginnings didn’t stop him from becoming so fixated on perfection in his work that he reportedly tore sheet music to shreds if it fell below his standards. He was also a fierce friend, holding on to many relationships for the duration of his life. By 1893, when he died in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky had composed 169 pieces altogether.
On the list of great Russian composers, Rachmaninoff is another who shouldn’t be overlooked. A composer of the late Romantic era, he’s best known for Symphonic Dances, Vocalise, along with an extensive catalog of sonatas and piano concertos. His virtuoso playing style and ambitious compositions have led to his legendary status as both a composer and pianist, widely considered among the most influential of the 20th century.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 to a family that was already quite active and accomplished in the music community, putting a lot of expectation on his shoulders. One can safely say that he more than lived up to his name, starting his work on the piano at four years old. By 1892, when he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, he already had several pieces for orchestra and piano under his belt. During the early phase of his compositional career, the works of Tchaikovsky along with many other prominent Russian composers of the age like Balakireve and Mussorgsky were highly evident influences.
All this isn’t to say that he was a composer without a personal struggle. Critics reacted poorly to his Symphony No. 1, which resulted in a period of depression that he Rachmaninoff wouldn’t emerge from for four years. It was with the help of therapy that this great composer got back on his feet, finally composing the much better-received Symphony No. 2. He emigrating with his family to the United States to escape communism and died in 1943 in Beverly Hills as a highly accomplished musical master.
Born 1839, Modest Mussorgsky is most well-known for his songs and operas. He was famously part of The Five, also known as the Mighty Handful, which was a group of Russian 19th-century composers who had a powerful influence on shaping the distinct style of classical music for their country. The other members of this esteemed group were Mily Balakirev – who served as the leader – César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin.
What makes Mussorgsky unique is the way he pioneered vocal compositions, focusing on tuneful melodies that bring out the best in the Russian language. Among his most popular compositions are Pictures at an Exhibition, Songs and Dances of Death, and The Fair at Sorochyntsi. Mussorgsky died in St. Petersburg in 1881 after a career of heavily promoting Russian music with the rest of The Five.
Prokofiev’s distinction as a great composer comes in no small part from his flexibility of style. His body of work spans across an impressive number of dynamically different genres, many of them hailed as masterpieces. Born in Sontsivka in 1891, he received his training at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
Prokofiev went on to compose the ballet Romeo and Juliet, which spawned the well-known Dance of the Knights, as well as the exceedingly popular Peter and the Wolf. In 1948, just five years before his death in 1953, he made his most ambitious composition in an operatic adaptation of War and Peace by Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Although this bold move was met with criticism and attacks, Prokofiev was bolstered by the new generation of Russian artists.
For many of the composers in Russia who came after him, Ginka is considered the father of modern Russian music. However, his life and musical journey were anything but conventional. Born in 1804 to the aristocracy with an interest in the arts but no real knowledge or commitment to the subject, it is surprising in retrospect that he went on to serve as such a central fountainhead to the Russian music community. His work would eventually serve as the foundation that The Five would build upon to solidify the nationally agreed-upon style of what Russian music would be. Glinka died unexpectedly in 1857 after a severe bout with a cold.
Born in 1882 to a family of wealth and musical talent, Igor Stravinsky received a childhood that shaped him into one of the greatest Russian composers of all time. During school, Stravinsky studied an impressive number of 6 languages.
His young music career began at the age of 9 with piano lessons. He later began to study music theory and composition. During a failed college career, he quickly became a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, another famous Russian composer. Under the watchful eye of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky completed his very 1st composition of Symphony in E-flat.
Stravinsky is most well-known for his ballets completed during his early years, including Ballets Russes: The Firebird which was completed in 1910, Petrushka which was completed in 1911, and The Rite of Spring which was completed in 1913. His compositions were said to push the boundaries of the musical design of his time. Prior to his death in 1971, Stravinsky composed more than 100 works, including symphonies, ballets, concertos.
The well-known predecessor and tutor of Stravinsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhiv, Russian in 1844. He came from a family of nobility, whose wealth of resources allowed for extensive musical tutoring in his younger years.
During his younger years, Rimsky-Korsakov is said to have preferred literature over music. This led to a career with shaky foundations in music but destined for musical composition. Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical talent carried him on through his career. Although his teacher canceled his piano lessons at the age of 17 since they were considered impractical, Rimsky-Korsakov began to compose a short while later and found his passion.
Rimsky-Korsakov is 1 of the famous Russian composers known as a member of the 5. These 5 prominent and famous composers together created a new style of music for the country, focused on a national style with classical elements woven through its melody.
Before his death in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov composed several operas, symphonies, and choral music pieces. The most famous of these include his orchestra compositions of Capriccio Espagnol and The Russian Easter Festival Overture.
Alexander Scriabin was born in 1872 in the capital city of Moscow, Russia. His family also belonged to a noble lineage with a long history of military careers. His mother was a concert pianist during her younger years.
Scriabin is known for his small hands and small stature, which he was often teased for in school. However, he quickly became known among his peers both academically and musically. His hands could barely reach the ninth interval.
Scriabin’s musical career began as a pianist working in St. Petersburg. He frequently performed his own compositions and works, which were well-loved by the crowds who heard from him. Scriabin’s composition career took off in the early 1900s when he began writing operas and symphonies.
Scriabin is well-known for his piano sonatas and concertos. He composed over 100 orchestral and piano works prior to his death in 1915 at the early age of 43.
Shostakovich made his fame as both a composer and a pianist. Born in 1906 to a family of Polish descent, Shostakovich promised musical talent early on in years. At the age of 9 when he began piano lessons, he would frequently play music from previous lessons instead of playing the music in front of him.
He continued to study piano under the tutelage of Alexander Glazunov at the age of 13. It wasn’t until 1927 that he began to focus on composition, writing his Second and Third Symphonies.
Over his career, Shostakovich composed 15 symphonies, in addition to a variety of other works including string quartets and piano pieces. His most famous works include his 1st symphony, “Waltz No. 2 from Suite for Variety Orchestra, and pieces of his work The Gadfly. He passed away in August of 1975 from heart failure.
This, of course, only scratches the surface of the compositional wonders that have come out of Russia over the centuries. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the works of these highly notable musical minds, there are countless others to further explore. The rest of The Five is a great place to start, and as any composer or appreciator of music will tell you, the best way to learn about any kind of music is to listen to it – and listen to it well!