The symphonic tradition came relatively late to Russia, but it blossomed rapidly, starting with works of genius like Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, an “overture-fantasy” (1868). Important symphonies soon followed. But first, let me begin with a harmony lesson, showing a harmonic basis that quickly became an emblem in Russian symphonic music:
In this succession, which I call the “Russian sixth,” a root-position major tonic (I) proceeds to a submediant triad (VI) in first inversion, with the tonic note in the bass, and with a chromatic passing tone (raised fifth degree) in between. There are many good examples: the beginning of Borodin’s D major string quartet, the Polovtsian Dances in Prince Igor, the third movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and (spectacularly) the entire Trio section of the 5/4 second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, in which the equilibrium between D major and B minor constantly shifts. [See my article, “The Russian Submediant in the Nineteenth Century,” Current Musicology 59 (1997), or on my website HERE]
When we think “Russian symphonies,” Tchaikovsky’s last three especially draw us in: the noisy and excessively long but irresistible Fourth, the much noisier, more glutinous, and too-often-heard Fifth, and the amazing Sixth (“Pathétique”), which overcomes the noise with sheer dramatic power to become one of the greatest symphonies of all time. The first three Tchaikovsky symphonies, along with monumentalities that aren’t numbered symphonies (Fatum, Manfred, etc.) are occasionally heard. The Second, in C minor, subtitled “Little Russian” (1872), deserves performances more often; it is notable for its use of Russian folk melodies, and we remember today that, politically speaking, “Little Russia” is the Ukraine. In the triumphant C major finale, the second theme features a prominent Russian sixth.
Tchaikovsky’s brave and ambitious achievements in the early symphonies both stimulated and challenged the Russian Five, the moguchaya kuchka (“mighty handful” of gifted amateurs), who represented a rivalry in St. Petersburg that matched with Tchaikovsky’s Moscow. Their leader Mily Balakirev’s (1837-1910) varied career included conducting and performing all over central Europe, intermittent composing, nervous breakdowns, and one very good symphony, about which I’ll say more soon. Three symphonies each came from Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). Borodin’s Second, in B minor, the best-known of his symphonies, is a beauty — economically proportioned, harmonically inventive, orchestrally masterful, and especially marked by a sensitive melodism unmatched by any of his four fellows. Borodin’s Third Symphony in A minor, unfinished but complete in two movements in piano score, and filled with lovely melody, full of Russian sadness and longing, is heard less often. Borodin died relatively young, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s devout pupil Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) gave the Third an expert orchestration.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar Symphony (no. 2) achieved some fame before Rimsky decided to concentrate on his dozen or so operas. The most original composer of the Five, Modest Mussorgsky (1837-1881), wrote no symphonies, but his one completed opera, Boris Godunov (1867-74) secures his importance for all time by. (Stravinsky wrote in the 1960s: “Tchaikovsky’s was the largest talent in Russia, and except for Mussorgsky’s, the truest.” Make of that what you will.) The least of the Five, César Cui, like Mussorgsky an Army officer, wrote no symphonies that I know of.
In the turn of the 20th century we find profusion, collapse, and regeneration of the Russian symphony, with sprawling examples by Skryabin (1872-1915) before he went off the orchestral deep end with Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) suffered an emotional catastrophe with the failure of his First Symphony (1897), as we all know (Glazunov was reportedly drunk when he conducted the premiere), but he recovered his soul with his later concertos and a brilliant but much too long and too thick Second Symphony (1908). Glazunov himself had composed his first symphonies in the 1880s, completing his 9th and last in 1910. It’s appropriate to consider here the Symphony in E-flat major, op. 1, of Stravinsky (1882-1971), completed in 1907 under Rimsky-Korsakov’s tutelage, in sound, style, and skill very comparable to those of Glazunov (whom Stravinsky acknowledged but despised), and still delightful to hear; but we don’t evaluate Stravinsky for this amiable student work.
Another product of the time, the Symphony no. 3, Ilya Muromets (1912), by Reinhold Glière (1875-1956), used to be very popular in America. A big work, in four epic movements lasting more than 70 minutes, it has some undeniable moments of orchestral splendor, colorful harmony, melody, and Tchaikovskyan drama, but also an overblown repetitiveness that in the end reveals a tasteless sense of musical structure. In later years Glière became a useful fixture of Soviet antique Romanticism. His best-known pupil, Sergei Prokofiev, was a better composer of film music (and of symphonies).
However big, or bad, or bizarre any of these symphonies may be, they are all recognizable as part of an original and genuinely Russian symphonic school. Even if their formal antecedents are Germanic — Beethoven, Wagner, and Liszt — they don’t sound even remotely like Brahms, or Dvořák, or Mahler, or Sibelius; they sound Russian. They all draw abundantly on Russian folksong, dance styles, and perceived orientalism, and usually the modal purity of the Orthodox church as well. (Stravinsky, echoing his own youthful rebellion, pointed to such nationalism as merely “boring,” but he was doing his best to develop by himself.)
Balakirev eventually produced one of the lesser-known Russian masterpieces, his Symphony no. 1 in C major (1897). This four-movement work took him more than 30 years to complete, but the result, notwithstanding some flaws, justified the hangup. One suspects that Balakirev’s difficulties came from the struggle of the first movement, which still shows weaknesses of form: the excess of new themes, and keys and tempi that don’t quite connect, all add up to an unsettling disunity that belies the fine sound and melodic beauty. The slow introduction conceals a principal theme that develops at higher speed in the Allegro. As laid out in a gnarly varied sonata form like those in Schumann’s symphonies, it doesn’t quite work. After a veiled Recapitulation, the movement ends too quickly. The Scherzo in A minor that follows is a gem of orchestral bounce; its tonality, with major-minor and modal inflections, is particularly impressive. The high-register pianissimo ending in A major, with delicate solo piccolo, is still echoing when the spacious slow movement, Andante, begins in that key, immediately moving to 12/8 D-flat major, with a prominent Russian sixth supporting a clarinet.
This lovely melody spreads out with expansive warmth and length, soon contrasting with a second melody (which Cole Porter could well have had in mind when he wrote “I get no kick from champagne…”) in an elegant dialogue worthy of Chopin, whom Balakirev admired probably even more than he adored Beethoven. The slow movement reaches the expressive high point of the symphony, and it leads smoothly into the C major Allegro moderato finale, beginning with a Russian folk melody in the bass
The 2/4 becomes 6/8 when a second theme begins with a prominent Russian sixth; both themes develop in a compressed rondo form, steadily and mostly quietly, with only a few fortissimo climaxes, until a Coda in 3/4, Tempo di polacca, wraps everything up very genially; the entire finale is all the stronger for being firm but anti-triumphal. For this reason, perhaps, Balakirev’s chaste and very Russian symphony became a favorite of Beecham, who recorded it elegantly for Angel. A current recording with the Birmingham Symphony conducted by Neeme Järvi (EMI CDC 7 47505 2) is also worth hearing. I haven’t listened to all the examples available on YouTube, but there’s a good one conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov HERE that includes the printed score.
The Soviet Russian symphony, an entirely different category, is dominated by three major figures: Prokofiev (1891-1953; seven symphonies), Miaskovsky (1881-1950; 27 symphonies), and Shostakovich (1906-1975; 15 symphonies), to which should be added an important composer now being increasingly recognized in the West, Moishe Vainberg (Mieczysław Weinberg, a Polish native, 1919-1996; 26 symphonies). I might have something to say about these sometime, before, after, or if I write about Stravinsky’s sui generis symphonic efforts.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.