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Russian Composers Essay Examples


Russian Composers

Russian composers are often mentioned in history as the most influential in the world. With style unlike any other, Russians are able to capture mood through a unique ability to capture exactly what they feel. Exactly how the Russians are able to do this is unknown, though through this, the greatest composers have turned out to be Russian. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich are all able to write and portray the most detailed feelings and moods, and it is to them that we owe the advancement of all music.

Tchaikovsky is one of the most beloved composers in history. An inspired craftsman of melody, orchestration and tonal color, he wrote in an astonishing variety of musical forms, from symphonies to ballet scores to concertos (Sadie, 94). His life and work are the stuff of legend, and his personal struggles are almost as well recorded today as the methods by which he created his music (Osborne, 77).

He was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840, and was initially trained in music by a French governess (Mason, 70). At ten, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied law and enrolled in jurisprudence school (Ewen, 72). After his graduation in 1859, he briefly held a job as a government clerk, but soon threw out that career in favor of his musical pursuits’ (Osborne, 77). Tchaikovsky entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1861 and studied composition with Anton Rubinstein, then the most famed pianist and composer in Russia. Graduating in 1856, he found a position as a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory and began to write minor overtures, quartets and a larger symphonic work (Sadie, 94).

In 1876, Tchaikovsky entered into a relationship, which would dominate most of his career as a composer. A wealth widow, Nedezhda von Meck, had heard that Tchaikovsky was in financial straits and without ever meeting the young musician, commissioned several works from him with pricey fees attached. Soon, she put the composer on a fixed allowance, which covered his basic living expenses, and this arrangement lasted for the next thirteen years, without the two ever meeting. By Madame von Meck’s generosity, Tchaikovsky was able to devote his energy to composition without hardship. Madame von Meck deserves the gratitude of every music lover who cherishes the work of this great composer (Mason, 70).

In 1877, Tchaikovsky was married to Antonia Milyukova, a student at the conservatory. Their brief relationship was a complete disaster; within a year, Tchaikovsky had attempted suicide by jumping into the Moscow River, and the marriage was quickly broken off (Osborne, 77). At the same time, he was coming into his own as a composer, writing his Fourth Symphony (1877) and other works. He also was starting to experience chronic depression. Many music historians say this was in response to hiding his homosexuality, while others point to a clinical conditional condition which was only exacerbated by his chaotic personal life (Sadie, 94).

He wrote the magnificent Violin concerto in D in 1878, and endured its rejection by Leopold Auer, who deemed the work unplayable and followed with the Symphony No 6 and other legendary works (Mason, 70). Throughout the 1880s, his fame spread to Europe and America, and his financial position improved. In 1889 Madame von Meck suddenly, for unknown reasons, cut off her financial support, a blow from which Tchaikovsky never recovered (Mason, 70).

In the same year he saw the premiere of Sleeping Beauty, a work which brought even higher acclaim to the now famous composer (Sadie, 94).

In 1891 to 1892 he toured Europe and the United States, conducting concerts of his music and winning praises from the public as well as the critics (Mason, 70). Never a robust person, in constant strain from mental and physical disorders, Tchaikovsky died in 1893 under mysterious circumstances. Some believe he contracted cholera during a trip to St. Petersburg, while others believe he committed suicide or was murdered (Osborne, 77).

Tchaikovsky was best known for his last three symphonies, the concertos for piano and violin and three ballets, (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty), the celebrated 1812 Overture, and also an opera Pique Dame. He tended to follow traditional architecture in his symphonies and larger works (Mason, 70), but it is not for this for which he is known, he is known for the mood, emotion and feeling that he creates in his work and this will keep his music eternal.

Rachmaninoff is another Russian composer whose style is very similar to Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff has not been as celebrated as he, but still has had lots of success credited to him. These two composers have the closest to the same technique.

Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, in the district of Novgorod, to a musical family. A sensetive youth, he suffered from his familiy’s frequent moves, the death of his sister, and his parents’ seperation. In 1885 he failed his end-of-term examenations in all general subjects at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (Osborne, 77). It was only the strict teaching of the Moscow piano professor Zverev, who took him into his home along with two other pupils, that Rachmaninoff began to develop as a pianist and composer. His final examination in composition brought him the insttutions highest award in 1892. Recognition from the rest of the world was to come much later. The failure of his First Symphonie in 1897 (conducted by the composer Glazunov, who was said to be drunk at the time) and a poorly received private performance for the elderly Tolstoy of his latest songs, with the great singer Chaliapin, sent Rachmoninoff into a deep depression (Mason, 70).

For three years he was unable to compose, he was engaged to conduct the Moscow Private Russian Opera, where he aquired a broad knowledge of both Russian and Western opera. In April 1899 he made his London debut at the Queen’s Hall. Nicolai Dahl, a phsycotherapist who specialized in hypnosis, was able to stabilize his condition, and his desire to compose returned, reaffirmed by the success of his Second Piano Concerto, first performed in November 1901 (Osborne, 77). There were also difficulties caused by Rachmaninoff’s decision to marry his cousin Natalya Satina. The Russian Orthodox Church forbids marriage between first cousins, but with the intervention of one of Rachmaninoff’s aunts made it possible for the wedding to take place at a military chapel on the outskirts of Moscow (Sadie, 94).

In 1909 Rachmaninoff undertook his first tour of America, enjoying success as a conductor. He took with him the score of his Third Piano Concerto, which he had composed during the previous summer. Despite many contract offers in the United States, Rachmaninoff was anxious to return home and withdrew to Ivanovka, the country estate given to him by his uncle, a place where he could recover from his strenuous concert tours and compose in peace (Mason, 70). When chaos broke out in Russia towards the end of 1916 with the widespread strikes, and the anti-tsarist movement had reached its peak, Rachmaninoff considered emigrating. Oppurtunity presented itself with the offer of a concert engagement in Stockholm in the autumn of 1917 and, with his family, Rachmaninoff left Russia for good abandoning money and possessions (Sadie, 94).

By the end of 1918 he had received lucrative offers from America. Rachmaninoff had come to realize that a regular income was essential for the survival of his family; he declined the offers but saw the United States as a possible answer to his financial problems (Mason, 70). He went with his family to New York and signed a contract with the agent Charles Ellis, who arranged nearly forty concerts within a period of only four months. In 1920 he signed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company, and the following year the family bought a house on New York’s Riverside Drive, where they recreated the atmosphere of their beloved Ivanovka, complete with Russian guests, servants and customs (Mason, 70).

In Paris he found a publishing firm to bring out works by himself and other Russian composers, and in the United States he limited his engagements to allow himself more time in Europe. By the summer of 1939, he decided it would be safer for his family to return to the United States. The tour of 1942 would be his last, and in that year he bought a house in Beverly Hills. But what was first diagnosed as pleurisy in February 28, 1943 turned out to be cancer and in April 1943, Rachmaninoff died.

Dmitry Shostakovich was born in 1906 in St. Petersburg. His childhood was not well recorded and there is not much information until he entered Petrograd Conservatory in 1919 at the age of 14. For his graduation he wrote his Symphony No.1 and won international acclaim (Williams, 92).

In the early 1930’s Shostakovich was writing in a style that Soviet authorities declared unacceptable. In early 1936 they denounced his opera “chaos instead of music”. In 1937 he wrote Symphony No. 5 which restored his place with the government (Williams, 92). In 1941 Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 7 which he then dedicated to the city of Leningrad, in 1948 the government again censored his music and after the death of the Soviet dictator, Stalin, in 1953, he again felt free to write as he pleased (Osborne, 77). He died in 1975 of natural causes.

Shostakovich is the final famous Russian composer, unlike Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff he came almost a century and added to the Russians history of wonderful music. They all have a common bond through their heritage which shines brightly.

Shostakovich was an intence composer and was able to set mood and tone very similar to the great Tchaikovsky. He was a great orcestrater, using the winds very carefully for melodic purposes. Shostakovich used repetitive rhythms and great brilliance in style as well as compose about Russia’s history (Williams, 94). He is one of the best twenth- century composers and will always be remembered.

These three great composers all played a role in the advancement of music, not just Russian but worldwide. Their style is all so alike, yet they span over a hundred years. What do they all have in common? There is no documented reason, except that the all are Russian and both Rachmaminoff and Shostakovich probably studied Tchaikovsky works and this possibly influenced their own personal style. These composers should be considered the greatest composers as their music lives inside everyone alike, young and old, every race and nationality and it shall continue as we continue to honor these three great composers, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich.


Ewen, David. Composers of Tomorrows Music.

New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972.

Mason, Daniel. The Romantic Composers.

New York: Macmillan Company, 1970.

Osborne, Charles, ed. The Dictionary of Composers.

New York: Taplinger Publishing 1977.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. The Norton Grove Encyclopedia ofMusic.

New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1994.

Salzman, Eric. Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction.

New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Williams, Edward. “Shostakovich, Dimitri”

World Book Encyclopedia: World Book,1992.

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