The East Meets the West: 18-19th Century Russian Music History and the Rise of Glinka (a research paper by Courtney Van Cleef)
*I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting!
Despite Russia’s rich musical life (demonstrated in the volumes of folk-songs that date back hundreds of years), Russia is a country whose music history is largely abandoned before the 18th century. In fairness, the separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian adopted Eastern Orthodox Church can be largely to blame for the gap in time before Russian music arrived on the western radar. Unlike the extensive rise of the Mass that catapulted change in Europe, the Eastern Orthodox Church imposed strict restrictions on its music rituals, thus thwarting development such as the kind observed in the west. Towards the end of the 18th century, however, Russia began to see great changes in its political atmosphere. The Tsars, particularly Tsarist Catherine the Great, suddenly adopted a sincere interested in the affairs of their European neighbors. The opening up of this previously isolationist society naturally led to a demand for western art and all its modern trappings in opera, dance, and instrumental music. Under these circumstances, it was to be that Russian music would finally escape obscurity and eventually (in the 19th century) begin its own historically significant developments as a unique nation. Success was mainly achieved through the prevailing musical movement of the time, “nationalism”. This paper aims to examine the events of late 18th century and 19th century Russian music history, including its historical context, the construction of a new music society, and the rise of Russia’s first significant composer (in western terms) Mikhail Glinka.
In order to understand Russian composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the “romantic era” in terms of music, one must first understand what was happening in the surrounding world at the time.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Europe (including Russia) became a region of great instability due to its disruption of previously established borders. In order to assist in the reduction of tensions, the leaders of all the major states of the time convened to Vienna for the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815).
The goals of the Congress of Vienna were to mainly restore the status quo of powers before 1792 without punishing France. This was in order to prevent revenge and hostility from the French people. The main powers to convene included Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later France. Although the meeting did accomplish its immediate goals to scale back France’s conquests and return to its 1792 borders, it tragically failed to address the cultural borders of the individual states. For example, Russia’s prized acquisition as a result of the meeting included the Duchy of Poland, regardless of Poland’s clear cultural distinction from Russia. Such violations prompted an attitude of rebellion by the people that would ultimately lead to World War 1.
The important consequences of these tensions in art were the rise of nationalism. The basic sentiment was that a citizen owed his/her loyalties to his/her nation before government, creed, dynasty, etc. In music the folk music was considered higher than all other national music as it is most closely related to the people. An important thing to note is that while the beginning of the nationalist movement began as people who identified themselves as citizens of a larger world, it later turned into a much more aggressive and almost competitive attitude of people aligning themselves with specific identities. Also important to mention is that although nationalism in theory refers to all classes of people within a society, the movement was entirely a movement of the bourgeois in order to establish their patriotism. Although nationalism affected different regions in different ways, Russia is unique in that its revolution during the 19th century failed to displace the Tsar and lead to democracy. The music lends itself to more themes of monarchy and the other popular practice of nationalism including exoticism. In reference to the Tsar’s power over nations in central Asia, many Russian composers wrote their music
with exotic Asiatic themes that distinguish their works as uniquely Russian.
As many of the Romantic composers turned to folk music as a center piece of their compositions, it became necessary that the music change to accommodate the flavor to such old tunes. Since folk music is largely monodic and does not fit cleanly into the harmonic structures defined during the classical era, composers were forced to explore new tonalities and move away from the traditions that had dominated in Italy, France, and Germany, for centuries. For example, most Russian folk music contains a dubious tonic and employs generous amounts of parallel 5ths, octaves, and other dissonant parallel intervals. Whereas music previously imitated earlier works, and borrowed from previous success, it was now considered inauthentic to engage in such practices and composers were pressured to conceive of entirely new and unique ideas. As previously mentioned, the nationalist movement was largely identified by the more educated bourgeois and ironically, its authenticity and folk characteristics were generally lost on the less sophisticated audiences from which they supposedly drew their inspiration.
Specifically, the Russian nationalist music began the process of unearthing its roots in its first printed collection of Russian folk songs by Chulkov. With appearances of his work beginning to appear from 1770-1774 under the title of “Sobraine Raznukh Pesen”, the entirety of Chuklov’s collection was organized in four volumes. Unfortunately, however, the collection was primitive and made little to no attempt in dividing the mass of folk songs by genre. Nonetheless, the 800 pages of text containing over 400 peasant songs either from existing manuscripts or indeed written out by Chuklov himself, established a pattern for future Russian folk-song collections into the 19th century. Finally a more organized and systematic collection was realized in the “Collection of Russian Folk Songs” assembled by Nikolai Lvov and written out by Ivan Prach in 1790. Unlike the collection of Chuklov, the Lvov-Prach collections was perhaps the first collection to extensively divide and classify folk songs into the categories “protracted songs, dance songs, wedding songs, Khorovods, Christmas carols, and Ukranian songs”. Main contributions of this anthology also demonstrate features of the peasant chant including “shifting tones and uneven rhythms that would become prominent features of Russian musical style from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky”; however, the songs are adapted to western musical traditions in order to be more pleasing to the ears of Russia’s “piano-owning classes”. “Despite its inaccuracy, Lvov-Prach’s work provides many important insights into transcription methods, classification criteria, and theories that explain what exactly separates Russian music from its western counterparts”. As a result many of the “original folk tunes” used in nationalistic repertory are taken from the Lvov-Prach collection. In essence it paved the way for more skilled arrangers (for example, Balakirev and Rimsky- Korsakov) to revive their rich musical heritage.
Before diving into the significant literature of the 19th century, it is necessary to examine one more significant historical development, the appearance of Italian Opera from 1731 and onward. Like all Russian music, once again the tradition dates back to encounters with the all-encompassing western art of opera, derived from Italy. In 1736, St. Petersburg was presented her first fully staged production of Francesco Araja’s “The Power of Love and Hate”. The theatrics combined with the western musical style that was becoming increasingly popular in Russia dazzled its audience with its grandness. The opera was naturally sung its original Italian. It was not until 1755 that an opera was finally translated to the Russian mother tongue and acted out by young Russian native performers. The first opera “Cephalus and Procris”, translated by Sumarkov, was merely rearranged by its original Italian composer, Araja, and thus failed to change fundamentally to include Russian national themes to match its changed Russian libretto. Well into the 18th century, Russian opera continued to be written by foreign composers, though in in the last year folk elements finally began to appear in the material. Seaman reports that “of about 100 operas written in the course of the last years of the 18th century, 30 survived 15 of which make use of Russian or Ukrainian Folk music”. More specifically these operas employ a total of about “55 clearly identifiable folksongs”. Evidence suggests that the first Russian
opera written by a native composer on a native topic was “Anyuta”. Musicologists speculate that a man by the name of Pashkevich composed the opera, though the music itself is tragically lost and thus it is difficult to determine definitively. Important to note, despite all attempts to produce authentically Russian opera of high quality, efforts were largely hindered by a lack of trained native musicians capable of delivering technically challenging performances.
Perhaps more notable include the accomplishments in Russian opera by Catterino Cavos. In the beginning of his career Cavos was enthusiastically dedicated to promoting Russian opera’s with Russian subjects. This evidenced in his first opera in his “early national opera, “The Invisible Prince” (1805)”. Such a work, however, pales in comparison to the success of his opera “Ivan Susanin” and is the only one of his opera to clearly employ Russian folk music. This particular opera is not only important in that it tells the patriotic story of a Russian man who offers his life for the sake of his Tsar, but also it would later be virtually the same plot Glinka uses for his first operatic masterpiece “A Life for a Tsar”.
The death of Empress Catherine II marks the next significant transition between the 18th century and 19th century. Under the reign on Paul I, the next Tsar, the citizens of St. Petersburg were suddenly placed under a series of strict new laws intended to “curb the moral laxity of the Russian population”. As a result art and the fledgling attempts at Russian opera came effectively to a halt due to censorship and the reduction of private ensembles. In 1801, Paul I was assassinated and rule was passed to the much more liberal Tsar Alexander. His appreciation for art and literature proved a much more nurturing environment for development in Russia and new works in all forms of art began to appear at increasing speed with “marked national coloring”. Unfortunately, it was not long before Alexander also made himself unpopular among his people and political organizations began to prepare a reaction. Ultimately the tensions led to the Decembrist risings of 1825. Despite the inevitable suppression of these rebellions by Tsar Nicholas I, the effects on artists were represented in contemplation of issues including “suppression, the world of bureaucracy, the growth of merchant middle classes, and the desire for reform and the abolition of serfdom”. These ideas resulted in a realism that dominated the Russian art for the duration of the 19th century.
With the inspiration and the expanding ideas of realism and nationalism it fast became necessary for music education institutions to train Russian musicians. Music schools were based almost exclusively in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as were the large theaters and concert performance series. Foreign teachers continued to be brought into Russia’s borders and in fact made up the majority of the faculty. According to Seaman, among these visitors were such names as “Clara Schumann, Liszt, and later Hummel (a man who had considerable influence on the development of Glinka)”. Many of the greatest musicians in the world indeed moved to Russia permanently or for large periods of their career in anticipation of Russia’s growing potential. Important pedagogues include John Field who was largely responsible for his creation of a new school of piano playing in Moscow. Again, his music would go on to have great influence on the music of Glinka.
Between Moscow and St. Petersburg it can be fairly argued that St. Petersburg was the larger of the two music spheres in Russia. To begin St. Petersburg in during the 19th century represented the capital of the country and thus had front row seats to exposure from the west via the Tsar. Ridenour sums up the political climate by stating that “as with virtually all public activities in Tsarist Russia, the dominate force directing all activity was the government, in this case the Imperial Theater Directorate”. This department controlled two of the largest opera companies in the state, the St. Petersburg ballet and drama theaters, and from afar the Imperial ballet in Moscow. Furthermore, all public performances were to be approved by the department, with the exception of Lent “when the imperial theaters closed and private organizations and individuals could arrange concerts”. The Theater Directorate as a government department had access to large sums of money and was able to ensure that St. Petersburg’s opera company had the best of all stage equipment, producers, and performers in Europe. In 1862, “Giuseppe Verdi was paid 20,000 rubles for a production of his opera “La Forza del Destino” and the leads of the cast purportedly earned 10,000 rubles”. These figures were astronomical for this time. Important to note here is that the Italian opera company in St. Petersburg was considerably more respected than its Russian rival on the other side of town. Ridenour writes that indeed the “while the Italian company occupied the Grand Theater, St. Petersburg’s best Russian Troupe was relegated a building originally constructed for a circus”. Interestingly, the building burned down in 1859 and in 1860 the building was reconstructed as the now famous Mariinsky Theater.
Now that a suitable music environment had been established in Russia, and despite the popular view that Russian produced music was substandard to the west, a few Russian composers began to arrive on the scene. Perhaps the clearest example of the first significant composer is in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka.
If Pushkin “formulated the Russian Tongue”, Glinka comparably is said to have “formulated the Russian Musical Language”. Glinka primarily is celebrated for his innovations in harmonic and orchestral writing as well as his extensive knowledge of Russian folk music. Born to a retired captain of the Imperial army, Glinka grew up in privilege but also in a village where he was exposed to much folk-song and folk-life. Glinka’s home was also located “near the Smolensk road” and as the scene in 1812 was that “of intense military operations and the invasion of the French”. Observation of such a political scene had a profound effect on young Glinka and instilled in him a great sense of patriotism. He was particularly fond of the serf orchestra directed by his Uncle, Afanasiy Andreevich, and through his encounters with these musicians he first became “acquainted with the European music in the form of opera overtures”. By 1822 Glinka had chosen to devote the entirety of his career to music and he thrived under the advice of famous pedagogue Charles Mayer. Although Glinka had studied Violin in his formative years he himself claimed “Passion for composition decisively distracted me from practice in performance”. In 1823 Glinka spent a brief time in Caucasus and drew inspiration from the Northern Caucasian people, his reflection of which is portrayed “later in his opera Ruslan and Lydmila”. Finally Glinka’s period of exploration culminated in a five year study abroad during which he travelled throughout the great cities of Italy (Milan, Rome, Venice, etc.). The result of this trip drove Glinka to deeply miss his own country. In his memoirs Glinka writes “I did not compose but thought a great deal… I was convinced that I was not following my own path and that sincerely I could not be Italian… I was led constantly to the idea of writing something in Russian”. This excerpt marks a turning point in Glinka’s career when he realizes that in order to fulfill his music career he music find his own distinctively Russian voice.
Upon his return to Russia in 1834, Glinka immediately began work on the masterpiece that would realize his vision for the revival of the Russian music traditions so near to him. He planned to prepare a large-scale national opera on the legend of Ivan Susanin (note this is the same plot as that of Cavos). When the opera was completed in 1836, the opera was indeed conducted by Cavos. Tsar Nicholas I himself took great interest in this opera by Glinka and suggested the title of the work to be changed to “A Life for a Tsar”. It came as little surprise that when the opera premiered on November 27th it was largely a success. As one of Glinka’s critics remarked, “it was a wonderful beginning to the approaching era of Russian music”.
Indeed with the success and continued life of Glinka a new era appeared to be on the horizon for Russia. Following his efforts towards a truly native opera, Glinka ushered in such Russian musical nationalists as the Russian Five and later Tchaikovsky. In conclusion, the period of time from the end of the 18th century and through the mid-19th century represents a transformation of the Russian Music traditions from its obscure roots in folk to a culture that could rival or even surpass those of the west. In a changing world and a changing government it was about time the west began to take notice of their massive eastern neighbor.