The beginnings of Russian music culture

Little is known about secular music in Russia during the Middle Ages. Pictures of skomorokhi (similar to jongleurs) can be found in chronicles, but none of their music was notated in any form. Although the Russian Church believed the skomorokhi to be inspired by the devil, and accordingly persecuted them, they are known to have been employed at the court of Ivan the Terrible (1533–84). From the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russians made increasing contact with the West, and Russian music came under Western influences.  Portative organs and other keyboard instruments became popular as royal presents, and they were evidently used: we know, for example, that organ playing was popular at the court of Aleksey Mikhailovich (1645–76). Westerners hired by the Russian court brought other musical novelties: Gutovsky, for example, was printing music at the Russian court from as early as 1677. Instrumental music was used in ceremonial contexts (although, again, nothing is known of its nature), and military bands were formed around the middle of the century. In 1672 the first court theatre was established, and music played a significant role in its productions. From the late 17th century the court regularly invited foreign musicians, and this grew to a steady stream during the reign of Peter the Great. The first secular music to survive in notation was the new genre of partsong, known as kant, which emerged during this period. For Peter, the cultivation of European-style musical entertainments was a mark of civilization, and in 1718 he introduced regular balls (assamblei) where the Russian nobility were obliged to dance the newly learnt minuet. Large military bands featured in the celebrations of Peter’s victories, and the aristocracy began to employ instrumental musicians.

The first public concert in Russia took place in 1746, and by the end of the century public concerts had become commonplace. Nevertheless, the greater number of concerts were still private, taking place at court and in the homes of the aristocracy, such as the many sumptuous palaces lining St Petersburg’s Nevskiy Prospekt (admittedly, the invitees at private concerts would have constituted a large part of the potential audience for such music). Foreign musicians dominated concert life, although the first Russian virtuosos began to appear in the 1780s and 90s: the violinist Khandoshkin, for example, or the singer Sandunova. Over the course of the following decades, amateur musicians and music lovers from the aristocracy, well travelled and well connected, were able to attract Europe’s most eminent performers to St Petersburg and Moscow: John Field (1802–21), J.N. Hummel (1822), Lipiński (1820s and 30s), Sontag (1830), Henselt (1838–89), Vieuxtemps (1838, 1845–52), Liszt (1842, 1843), Clara Schumann (1844), Berlioz (1847) and Pauline Viardot (1843–6, 1853).

Foreign musicians dominated concert life, although Russian virtuosos began appearing in the 1780s-90s. Russian violinist Ivan Khandoshkin and Mexican soprano Elisabeth Sandunova are remembered from that time.

In 1802, the newly formed St Petersburg Philharmonic Society began to organize grand concerts with large orchestral and choral forces, including a number of Handel oratorios, Haydn masses and Mozart’s Requiem; and in 1824 they gave the first complete performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. The construction of a railway between St Petersburg and Pavlovsk, the site of the Tsar’s summer residence, led, in 1838, to the opening of an important new public concert hall which also served as the Pavlovsk terminus. Series of concerts given by Johann Strauss (ii) in 1856–65 and again in 1869 established the Pavlovsk concert hall as one of the most fashionable venues for the St Petersburg gentry and nobility. Within the confines of St Petersburg, summer concerts in the various parks became popular during this period. From 1842 until the late 1850s, the university orchestra presented an annual concert series, introducing a wide repertory to the inhabitants of the capital, including many new works.

The first opera ever presented in Russia was Ristori’s Calandro, performed in Moscow, in 1731, by a touring Italian troupe. Soon an Italian operatic company was established at the Imperial Court in St Petersburg; for their inaugural production in 1736, they presented Araja’s La forza dell’amore e dell’odio, recruiting Russian musicians for the choir and orchestra, a practice that was maintained thereafter. In time, the company began to perform new operas in the Russian language: the first of these, again with music by Araja, was Tsefal i Prokris (‘Cephalus and Procris’) by Sumarokov, performed in 1755, by which time there was a sufficient number of trained Russian singers for such enterprises. The Imperial Court and, increasingly, the higher nobility paid their foreign musicians handsomely and accorded them dignified status. Consequently many European musicians, especially Italians, took up positions in Russia, remaining for years, or often for the rest of their lives. The most senior position of court Kapellmeister was occupied by a string of distinguished composers: H.F. Raupach (1758–62), Vincenzo Manfredini (1762–5), Galuppi (1765–8), Traetta (1768–75), Paisiello (1776–84), Giuseppe Sarti (1784–6) and Cimarosa (1787–91); Martín y Soler held positions of court composer (1790–94) and inspector of the Italian Court Theatre (1800–04).

Many families among the higher nobility established their own theatrical and operatic companies (often training their serfs for this purpose), and several theatres were built to house regular productions. In the 1750s an Italian entrepreneur, Locatelli, ran the first public opera house in Moscow, but the enterprise was short-lived, since there was not yet sufficient public interest in opera, even though Locatelli presented comic operas which had appealed to the widest audience elsewhere. By the 1780s, however, interest had grown significantly, enough to justify the opening of several public opera houses during that decade; among the new opera houses was the Petrovsky Theatre in Moscow, which was one of the world’s largest at the time, with 1000 seats. Aside from the Italian opera, presented by the Italian companies alone, all other operas included spoken dialogue, and these were played by singer-actors who also took part in non-musical dramas; increasing specialization led to the division of companies into distinct operatic and dramatic troupes at the beginning of the 19th century. But in tandem with this division of companies according to specialization, the number of companies was also gradually diminishing as the Imperial Theatres began to absorb the best singers (and actors) from the foreign and native companies; since the Imperial Theatres could always outbid other companies for the services of singers, they eventually destroyed all competition, leaving only one Italian, French, German and Russian company based at each Imperial Theatre.

This was the foundation where the Russian music culture began to flow.


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