We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

Russian symphonies in the nineteenth century came under two brand names. One was provided by the conservatories, founded in the 1860s by Anton Rubinstein in St. Petersburg and his brother Nikolai in Moscow. The other was provided by the last generation of aristocratic autodidacts, gathered around Miliy Balakirev in St. Petersburg beginning in the 1850s. Best known today as the moguchaya kuchka, the “Mighty Little Heap” (a sobriquet bestowed on them in 1867 by Vladimir Stasov, their publicist, but then monopolized for a while by their enemies), the Balakirev Circle preferred to call itself the New Russian School as a way of declaring solidarity with Liszt and the New Germans, as against the “old Germans” who manned the conservatories.

Each group produced one outstanding symphonist in the 1870s: from the Mighty Kuchka there was Alexander Borodin (1833–87), the remarkable chemist-composer whom we met in chapter 7 as an “orientalist;” and from the Conservatory side there was Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky (1840–93), an alumnus of the St. Petersburg institution's first graduating class (1866), who did his basic training with Anton Rubinstein. The surprising thing is that of the two, it was Chaikovsky, the conservatory product, who provided the most pointed challenge anywhere in Europe to German symphonic hegemony.

Because of their outsider, nonprofessional status, members of the Balakirev circle had no choice but to claim legitimacy on the strength of their ethnicity. They promoted a myth of Russian authenticity from which the conservatory was by definition excluded. The myth was exported to France by César Cui, a member of the circle who (like Schumann before him), wrote reams of press propaganda on behalf of the group, including a series of articles in French that appeared in 1878–79 in the Revue et gazette musicale, the leading Paris music magazine, and was published in book form a year later as La musique en Russie, the most influential tract of its kind ever to appear.

The Epic Style

fig. 14-8 Fyodor Vasilyev, Illumination of St. Petersburg at Night. The large dome in the background is that of St. Isaac's Cathedral.

On its fairytale of radical opposition between a heroic school of honest nationalists (the kuchka) fighting the good ethnic fight against an entrenched band of aristocratically supported foreigners (the conservatory), practically the whole subsequent historiography of Russian music in “the West” has been based. In the early twentieth century, Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario, exploited the French taste for exoticism in promoting his organization, the Ballets Russes, as purveyors of the authentic Russian soul. Their programs, brimming with folklore and orientalia, solidified the notion in the West that the authenticity of Russian music depended on its Russianness, which in turn depended on a heavily “Asiatic” component. Ever since, “how Russian is it?” has been the main critical question asked of Russian music by Western audiences and critics. And it had to be answered plainly enough for non-Russian ears to hear. As a result, Russian composers, more than any other comparable group, have been confined to an exotic ghetto that bears little resemblance to the country they actually inhabited.

Meanwhile, here is how the same César Cui described the early meetings of the Balakirev circle, in a memoir written not as foreign propaganda but for consumption at home:

We formed a close-knit circle of young composers. And since there was nowhere to study (the conservatory didn't exist) our self-education began. It consisted of playing through everything that had been written by all the greatest composers, and all works were subjected to criticism and analysis in all their technical and creative aspects. We were young and our judgments were harsh. We were very disrespectful in our attitude toward Mozart and Mendelssohn; to the latter we opposed Schumann, who was then ignored by everyone. We were very enthusiastic about Liszt and Berlioz. We worshiped Chopin and Glinka. We carried on heated debates (in the course of which we would down as many as four or five glasses of tea with jam), we discussed musical form, program music, vocal music, and especially operatic form.32

All the same issues, in other words, as were then being debated in the rest of Europe. For this was no band of narrow nationalists. What Cui was describing was a “Davidsbund,” to borrow an appropriately Schumannesque word for it, a cabal of idealistic “progressives” opposing institutional authority on the one hand and “philistinism” on the other. Except for Glinka, all the objects of their veneration were located to the west of Russia—and how could it be otherwise? Glinka was at this point (the mid-to-late 1850s) the only Russian to venerate, precisely because he alone, among Russians, was then on a level with the Europeans. The autochthonous music of Russia, the tonal products of the soil and its peasant denizens, were not admired and not discussed.

And that is because Russian musicians in the European literate fine-art tradition, however alienated by temperament or by force of circumstance from the “mainstream” of local fashion or success, however dependent for their promotion upon their exotic appeal, and however inferior or superior they have felt in consequence, have always measured themselves by the only terms available—that is, the terms of the tradition within which they have chosen to pursue their careers. They have always construed their identities in a larger European context and drawn their “sentiment of being”33 (to cite Rousseau's romantic definition of authenticity) from that sense of relatedness to cultivated Europe, not peasant Russia.

When Balakirev himself, the one Russian composer (as we learned in chapter 9) who might fit anyone's narrowest definition of a “nationalist,” was introduced in 1901 to the English writer Rosa Newmarch, who would become the Mighty Kuchka's most ardent propagandist in the West, he sat down at the piano to play her a kind of musical credo: Beethoven's F-minor sonata (“Appassionata”), Chopin's B-minor, and Schumann's G-minor.34 Not a Russian note in the lot, but it characterizes Balakirev and his “kuchka” far better then their usual chauvinist label.

It was within the incubator described verbally by Cui and at the keyboard by Balakirev that Borodin received his “symphonic education.” His First Symphony, laboriously composed over a five-year period (1862–67) with Balakirev at his elbow, was cast in the key of E-flat major. Knowing this, and knowing how Balakirev and his fellow-kuchkists worked, we would be far better advised to expect allusions or (perhaps unconscious) quotations from past symphonic masterpieces in the same key by Beethoven (no. 3, “Eroica”) and Schumann (no. 3, “The Rhenish”) than from Russian folk songs. There are also obvious references in the Symphony's scherzo to a scherzo by Berlioz (“Queen Mab” from his Dramatic Symphony Romeo and Juliet) and in the finale to a finale by Glinka (from A Life for the Tsar), practically exhausting the list, in Cui's description, of the “kuchka's” admired models.

Only in the slow movement, the last to be composed, did Borodin venture into terrain now identified as stylistically (because exotically) “Russian” (Ex. 14-16). Its highly embellished, repetitive lyricism, backed up by chromatically inflected harmony, may have evoked “Russia” to listeners in France and Germany, but to Russians it evoked “the East.” There was no real contradiction: the Western view of Russia, like the Russian view of the Caucasian and Central Asian nations their empire was in the process of conquering, was an “Orientalist” view, at once fascinated and condescending.

The Epic Style

ex. 14-16 Alexander Borodin, Symphony no. 1, III, cello theme

In Borodin's Second Symphony (1869–76, revised 1878), the national colorings are far more pronounced, for which reason the symphony was an instant international hit. It arose in the euphoric wake of the First Symphony's premiere, alongside the earliest sketches for Prince Igor, the orientalist opera supreme, sampled in chapter 7. When Borodin temporarily decided to abandon work on his operatic epic in the early 1870s, he transferred to the symphony music originally conceived to illustrate scenes of Russian heroic antiquity, on the one hand, and oriental voluptuousness on the other. Rather than segregate these images by movements, as the opera would have segregated them by scenes and acts, Borodin mixed them according to a traditional symphonic recipe, reserving the lionhearted warrior material for the assertive “first themes” in the outer movements and the main body of the Scherzo, and the yielding, serpentine, feminine tunes for the recessive “second themes” in the outer movements—and in the Scherzo, for a Trio section replete with belly-dancer's percussion (the triangle standing in for her finger cymbals).

This Scherzo—marked Prestissimo, in time, with the whole notes racing at 108 to the minute—is a tour de force of orchestration, and (when well played) of orchestral virtuosity, in which the heavy brass, negotiating the tricky syncopations and the difficult staccatos, are made to move with all the speed and precision of the smaller, less unwieldy instruments of the orchestra, just as the ancient Russian heroes or bogatïry, for all their legendary girth, performed their limber feats of derring-do (Ex. 14-17). Still, this was a symphony, and so the initial characterization of primeval Russian boldness and fortitude comes by way of Beethoven's Fifth, whose unisons and fermatas had made an inescapable impression on all European composers, however Asiatic their immediate intent (Ex. 14-18).


(32) César Cui, “Pervïye kompozitorskiye shagi Ts. A. Kyui,” in Cui, Izbrannïye stat'i (Leningrad: Muzgiz, 1952), p. 544.

(33) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Second Discourse, quoted in Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 62.

(34) Rosa Newmarch, The Russian Opera (New York: E. P. Dutton, n.d. [1914]), p. 200.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014007.xml