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M.Tevfik DORAK


In the 1830s, a national musical style -marked with emphasis on folk songs, folk-dances, and especially folk rhythms- began to emerge in Russia. This coincided with similar nationalistic movements in other countries such as Poland, Bohemia, and Scandinavian countries. The Russian music is considered to be among the greatest of national music. Before the 1830s, music in Russia was dominated by Italian and French music, mainly opera. The few operas written by Russian composers before Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) were not good enough to compete with their foreign counterparts.

Musical life in the capital St. Petersburg was no doubt very rich. The major works of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Weber were known. John Field lived there, and Liszt, Schumann and Berlioz all visited Russia. The Italian composer and conductor C Cavos (1776-1840) who spent his life in Russia from 1798 absorbed the Russian musical idioms into his own.  The first ever complete performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis took place in St Petersburg in April 1824. In his operas Ilya the Hero (1807) and Ivan Susanin (1815), Cavos anticipated Glinka's work. Glinka used the same subject as Ivan Susanin in his first patriotic opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). His second opera Russlan and Ludmilla (1842) has some oriental elements. Glinka is with good reason considered to be the father of Russian classical music. He brought it up to date and into the European mainstream without sacrificing its national identity. The Russian composers before him were no more than feeble imitators of the Italians or Germans.

There was not a distinguished Russian Art Music style before the 1830s. Two important sources of genuine Russian music as inspiration for the nineteenth century Russian composers were church music (Russian chants) and folk music. The modal sounds of Russian church music and folk-songs were echoed in much of the art music in Russia in the nineteenth century (as in the music of Stravinsky, Glazunov and Rachmaninoff). Composers were already using folk-songs to write variations on them or as a basis for their compositions. In the hands of Glinka and Borodin, most of them became world-known. Despite a comparatively small output, Glinka formed the basis for a Russian nationalist school which resulted in the Russian Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff). The Russian Five used the folk material extensively in their music. Balakirev's symphonic poem Tamara, Borodin's Polovtzian Dances from Prince Igor, and Rimsky-Korsakoff's Scheherazade are examples of Russian orientalism.

Kamarinskaya is free variations on two Russian folk songs written by Glinka in 1848. In this piece, he surmounted the restrictions of folk songs by the additions of countermelodies to them. The folk tunes (a wedding song and a dance song) are used as a cantus firmus against which new melodies and figurations are worked. The songs he used are extremely repetitive which makes arabesque-like ornamentations inevitable. The theme is at times accompanied by its own decorated version. Motivic development is replaced by obsessive repetition. He shows his genius during the transition from the first to the second song. He makes two dissimilar folk-tunes to have something in common. The woodwind variation in bars 1312-1371 is in effect a simultaneous variation on both folk tunes. This is an excellent example of the art of combining melodies.

Tchaikovsky, the first great Russian symphonist, only rarely used folk material in his large orchestral music (the second and fourth symphonies make use of folk songs), but his songs, piano music and chamber music are full of examples. He noted the problems with their tonality and rhythm. In his second string quartet in F, he uses the combination of Russian harmony with a Norwegian melodic contour (falling leading note) in the Scherzo.

As in Glinka's Kamarinskaya, Borodin (1833-87), used two different songs in the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). A peaceful Russian song and the melancholy notes of an oriental melody join in a common harmony. In b.193-227, the two tunes are presented simultaneously. Minor, major and modal elements based on the note A are all present in different parts of the piece.

By carrying the folk song elements into their art music, the Russian composers developed a unique idiom which contained the following: the cell development technique (a short motif or phrase repeated exactly or slightly varied), pronounced interest in orchestral colour, variety of dynamics, use of (inverted) pedal points, drone basses, dominant hovering, use of exotic harmony (chromatic or modal), pentatonic or modal tunes and their associated harmonies, and additive structures resulting from the cell development on a big scale, small melodic compass, recurring intervallic shapes (like the falling fourth in Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings). By the second half of the nineteenth century, original Russian tunes could almost be mistaken for folk songs as the folk idiom had been assimilated so successfully.

In the nineteenth century, folk elements (repetition of single notes, motifs, phrases; dance-like rhythms; real or imitation folk-tunes) were integrated into Russian music. Folk tales were used as subjects for opera and symphonic poems. Russian music made an important contribution to the development of harmony by the use of whole-tone elements, chromaticism and higher discords. The use of whole tones inevitably resulted in a frequent use of augmented triads as all triads using whole tones are augmented. A common harmonic cliché in Russian music, chord I - followed by augmented chord I - and VIb, has, for example, tonal/modal ambiguity. A new harmonic language was needed because of the employment of monodic modal tunes. Therefore, Russian national music is full of tonal/modal ambiguities (In the Steppes of Central Asia). There was also a pronounced interest in new rhythmic patterns. Quintuple time, five-bar phrases and the general disruption of conventional rhythmic patterns were typical features. Polysyllabic Russian words had an obvious influence on the newly emerged rhythmic patterns which influenced instrumental music too. Repetition rather than motivic development produced new attitudes to form. Such repetition or breakdown of extended phrases into small bricks (or mosaics) replaced thematic development and created new additive structures (Mosaic form). Constantly changing rhythm, dynamics, volume and orchestral tone colour disguises repetitiveness and prevent monotony. The overall result was a distinctively national style, which is colourful, exotic and immediately attractive. Realism was another feature of the Russian music (opera) in the nineteenth century. The plots were true to contemporary life (Boris Godunov). Composer's preferences for the juxtaposition of static and unrelated tonal areas rather than employment of conventional modulation processes, led much Russian music into the twentieth century. As a result, the continuation of traditional tonality was put in question. The whole-tone scale due to inevitable augmented triads and lack of semitonal pull of the leading note was s significant factor in the disintegration of tonality.


Resources Used

1.  The Open University A314 Course Team: Russian nationalism (Unit 32a). In From Baroque to Romantic: Studies in Tonal Music: Romantic Music III (Units 30-32). Milton Keynes: The Open University Press, 1994 (pp. 52-67) (ISBN 0 335 11208 0)

2.  Longyear RM: Nineteenth century nationalism in music. In Longyear RM: Nineteenth Century Romanticism in Music (pp. 214-271). New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc, 1973  (ISBN 0 13 622647-7)

3.  Several articles in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd Edition, 2001. Macmillan Publishing Group.


Further Reading

Meas F: A History of Russian Music. From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2002

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Compiled by   M.Tevfik Dorak B.A. (Hons)

Last updated on 23 May 2002

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