The last quarter of nineteenth century was the most crucial period of Russian music. The newly opened conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg gave rise to professional education. The line of Russian composers goes back to Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) - the first famous Russian composer and the first representative of nationalistic tradition, who made nationalism the purpose of his work in order to revive the Russian tradition after years of influence from Western music and Western culture in general. The real nationalism as a tradition in music was born in the middle of nineteenth century and associated with the "Russian five"*** composers, the musician-innovators (innovators in the sense of Russian music, which unlike Western contemporary music was still amateur). They are considered as the first composers in St. Petersburg's music school. After the opening of the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories, the difference in two schools was established. Maybe because St. Petersburg was the cultural capital the National Music school was established there. Moscow at the same time became the city of musical conservatism, the guardian of conservatory western traditions and remained so until the second decade of this century, when new geniuses appeared. This school was built on the authority of Tchaikovsky (though he graduated from St. Petersburg conservatory, he did not continue the pure nationalistic traditions, being strongly influenced by western music) and Nikolay Rubinstein.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) no doubt came from the Russian National School. He studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov, and continued his teacher's traditions, but he came at the time of dissolution of the national tradition. And as a result he combined nationalists achievements with the new style of neoimpressionism. Later he began to use Russian themes in a sarcastic manner. In that sense Stravinsky's nationalism proves to border on anti-nationalism, in caricature-like exaggeration. With his music began a new era of relations between Western and Russian music: during the nineteenth century Western music had influenced Russian style, but now the trends began to flow strongly in the opposite direction - giving a new color to the stream of western music from which it had sprung.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953), like Mozart was a child prodigy. He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of thirteen, and studied in the class of Rimsky-Korsakov. In the early period his music was influenced by the late years of the Russian nationalist school, but he found his own style very fast. Prokofiev had shown himself as an anti-romantic, using satire and realism to upset the old order. He ignored older rules governing melody, rhythm and harmony. Rimsky-Korasakov wrote on Prokofiev's graduation paper: "Talented, but completely immature". Contemporaries because of discord and dissonance considered some of his work barbaric. A New York Times critic called him "the psychologist of all uglier emotions - hatred, contempt, rage, disgust, despair, mockery, different". They also called his music "primitive" and "grotesque", but it was not the only way he could write - it was the way he wanted to write.
Alexander Scriabin (1872-19??) A graduate of Moscow conservatory, this very talented pianist and composer was taught piano by Zverev (the piano teacher of Rachmaninov), composition by Arensky, orchestration by Safonov (who later became an eminent conductor, leading the New York Philharmonic Society). Later he left the Moscow music school, but did not go towards old Russian national traditions. Scrjabin became antagonistic to conservatism but at the same time neglected nationalism; became antipodal to The Mighty Five and to Tchaikovsky. Scrjabin belonged to the Russian Symbolists, organized against art too saturated with social motives and toward a return to the pure art mastery and restoration of romanticism.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) belongs to the same generation as Scrjabin. They were even fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninov, a very talented piano player and quite original composer, who worked in the old romantic style, became very popular by his own work and from performing. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory as a pianist and composer one year earlier than his class, and even his first works, including his graduation work one act opera "Aleko" were very successful.
After studying at the Conservatory, Sergey Rachmaninov embarked on a career in Russia as a composer, pianist and conductor. Many considered him as the first pianist of his age and he remained a beautiful pianist his whole life.
Few composers have written a more successful opus 1, even if he rewrote it eight years later because his own dissatisfaction. He obtained rapid and firm popularity. Rachmaninov was a celebrated pianist, and his piano music was virtuosi and full with notes. Rachmaninov-composer and Rachmaninov-pianist worked together. His music was written for himself, and it can be easily seen: not all professional pianist can easily fit their hands on these spread cords, which were just nothing for Rachmaninov's huge hands (he could play a twelfth!).
Also as a pianist and composer he continued the piano composers line of Liszt and Chopin. Tchaikovsky's piano concertos and piano music were before Rachmaninov, but he is regarded as the first Russian piano composer. Sometimes even in his vocal pieces, especially in his early works, it seems that he paid more attention to the piano part, than to the vocals.
Rachmaninov grew up during the height of the Romantic movement when the emotions became intensified and the music grew larger than life. His early works from the 1890s were heavily influenced by P.I. Tchaikovsky: dramatic, passionately lyrical, darkly colorful in the orchestra and brilliant in the piano. Rachmaninov knew Tchaikovsky in his early age and admired his works. At the age of 13, he arranged some of Tchaikovsky's orchestra works for two pianos or piano duets (although the great composer was impressed by his first arrangement of the symphonic poem "Manfred", he was very unhappy with his piano-duet transcription of "Sleeping beauty").
Rachmaninov was very successful: conductorship of the Moscow Philharmonic, piano performances as both a solo pianist and with orchestras in Russia, Europe and America made him popular in the world. After the October Revolution, in 1918 he had to leave Russia - at first for Europe, than for America. Soon he became a fixture in the music life of the United States. With the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, he made phonograph records of his own works. The Soviet Government considered him an enemy of the Soviet people. In 1931, the Soviet Government newspaper "Pravda" wrote, that his music "is that of n insignificant imitator and reactionary: a former estate owner, who, as recently as 1918, burned with a hatred of Russia when the peasants took away his land - a sworn and active enemy of Soviet Government". "I am quite indifferent" - answered Rachmaninov, but the attack hurt him more than he would say. He stopped composing after he left Russia, almost for the rest of his life. "I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook". "The melody has gone, I can no longer compose. If it returns, then I shall write again". His separation from his native land was wound that never healed; he suffered nostalgia to the end of his life. He did compose, and some of his works, such as "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", were a dazzling success. But other works were much less interesting and more like recollections of his previous pieces, than something new.
He died in 1943 from cancer and was burned in the Kensico Cemetery in New York State.
Leonard, Richard. A History of Russian Music. The MacMillan Company, 1957.
Sabaneev, Leonid. Modern Russian Composers. Books for libraries press, Inc. 1927, 1967.
Walker, Robert. Rachmaninoff, His Life and Times. Midas Books, 1980.
Piggott, Patrick. The Great Composers. Rachmaninov. Faber and Faber, 1978.