Friday, May 18, 2018

The St. Petersburg School

No. 279  the ongoing ITYWLTMT  series of audio montages, which can be found in our archives at

There once were two brothers – Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein. Both were pianists, copmposers and educators; Anton not only founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the first music school in Russia, he was its first director but also recruited an imposing pool of talent for its faculty. Among  its first pupils, a young and eager Peter Tchaikovsky. Once Tchaikovsky graduated in 1865, Rubinstein's brother Nikolai offered him the post of Professor of Music Theory at the soon-to-open Moscow Conservatory – the second institution of its kind in Imperial Russia, and the second founded and directed by the Rubinstein brothers.

However, it would be inaccurate to purely equate the Russian Nationalist “St Petersburg School” with Conservatory and its close predecessor, the Russian Musical Society. Equally important is a group known in Russian as Moguchaya kuchka, which looseluy translates to "Mighty Bunch" – we also know  the group under other names: the Mighty Five, The Mighty Handful or simply the Five - five prominent 19th-century Russian composers who worked together to create distinct Russian classical music. Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin all lived in Saint Petersburg, and collaborated from 1856 to 1870.

The formation of the group began in 1856, with the first meeting of Balakirev and César Cui. Modest Mussorgsky joined them in 1857, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1861, and Alexander Borodin in 1862. All the composers in The Five were young men in 1862 (Balakirev was 25, Cui 27, Mussorgsky 23, Borodin the eldest at 28, and Rimsky-Korsakov just 18).

They were all self-trained amateurs. Borodin combined composing with a career in chemistry. Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer (he wrote his First Symphony on a three-year naval voyage circumnavigating the globe). Mussorgsky had been in the prestigious Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Imperial Guard, and then in the civil service before taking up music. For several years, Balakirev was the only professional musician of the group; the others were amateurs limited in musical education. He imparted to them his musical beliefs, which continued to underlie their thinking long after he left the group in 1871, and encouraged their compositional efforts.

The RMS and the two conservatories had powerful champions in Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, others feared the influence of German instructors and musical precepts into Russian classical music. Balakirev's sympathies and closest contacts were in the latter camp, and he frequently made derogatory comments about the German "routine" which, he believed, came at the expense of the composer's originality.

Balakirev was outspoken in his opposition to Anton Rubinstein's efforts. This opposition was partly ideological and partly personal; Anton Rubinstein was at that time the only Russian able to live on his art, while Balakirev had to live on income from piano lessons and recitals played in the salons of the aristocracy.

As a composer, Balakirev finished major works many years after he had started them; he began his First Symphony in 1864 but completed it in 1897. The exception to this was his oriental fantasy Islamey for solo piano, which he composed quickly and remains popular among virtuosos. Often, the musical ideas normally associated with Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin originated in Balakirev's compositions, which Balakirev played at informal gatherings of The Five. However, his slow pace in completing works for the public deprived him of credit for his inventiveness, and pieces that would have enjoyed success had they been completed in the 1860s and 1870s made a much smaller impact.
Balakirev’s First Symphony (opening the set) is to my ear much more pretentious and ambitious than the aforementioned First symphony by Rimsky-Korsakov.

Like the other members of the group, many of Mussorgsky’s works were inspired by Russian history, Russian folklore, and other national themes. Such works include the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition.
For many years Mussorgsky's works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers. This is the case for the selections I retained this week. Like Mussorgsky's earlier Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history; the background of the opera comprises the Moscow Uprising of 1682 and the Khovansky affair a few months later, its main themes are the struggle between progressive and reactionary political factions during the minority of Tsar Peter the Great and the passing of old Muscovy before Peter's westernizing reforms.

Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev's request; Diaghilev's company employed a mixture of orchestrations which did not prove successful. The Stravinsky-Ravel orchestration was forgotten, except for Stravinsky's finale, which is still sometimes used. Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky's vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed.

I think you will love this music too!