The Russian Symphony: A Series

The Russian Coat of Arms from around the time of the earliest of the symphonies we’ll be talking about

We’ve been doing lots of German stuff this year.
If you think of music like you think of language families (if that’s something you think about), there are different branches from which these different forms of expression spring. The overwhelmingly heavy attention to German (speaking; I know, many are Austrian; I’m counting them together-ish) music is in an attempt to do justice to the incredible bigness of the contribution they’ve made to the history and culture of classical music. Vienna is such an important place musically speaking, and so much of that in that place began with Haydn. He kind of established the symphony. Then came Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern, and on and on down to today with people like Olga Neuwirth or Wolfgang Rihm.
But then… there’s another whole system, family, heritage of music that doesn’t really appear or factor into the German, Viennese music scene. What about, oh, Tchaikovsky? That’s what we’re going to be focusing on for the next, oh, three months, with specific focus on the symphony.
Much of the heritage and culture and history of classical music is owed to Vienna and Leipzig and Western European tradition, so we’re going to be exploring the Russian relationship to a very European form and their contributions and innovations to it.
Again, the series that I compile are not intended to be comprehensive in any way. In any of this year’s Germanic Symphony series, you’ll notice I still managed to exclude (not actively avoid, but just by chance) people like Mendelssohn. That’s not indicative of how I feel about Mendelssohn, but more telling of the fact that I’m terribly unfamiliar with his work. These series are, rather, a representation of some train of thought, based on or influenced by (obviously) my tastes or experiences with the music under examination.
In doing research for this Russian idea, over a year ago, I found that the heritage, in many ways, was quite straightforward. A was B’s teacher, who was C’s teacher, who was a friend of D and also student of B; E studied under C and D, and F studied under E and taught G, who opened a school that H, I and J attended, and so on. The details of this long patronage of
pedagogy and instruction will be explained when appropriate, but it was fascinating to see how easily and quickly (with some perhaps convenient organizational decisions and exclusions) a lineage can be designed that spans almost exactly 100 years, beginning with the earliest of Russian symphonists and ending with some of the most modern, famous, and respected works of the past half-century.
I tried to get them all in, but it obviously isn’t possible to do it all, so the summation of a century of very rich history is incredibly subjective to my perception of what is salient and important and worthy of inclusion or discussion. Let me be clear, though, that, as I said earlier, I am most interested in discussing the symphony, which would exclude some of the pieces and composers who come before our first piece this week (next month) because they didn’t write symphonies. It is far less feasible to think that I could summarize the entire grand, rich, complicated history of Russian music, so I have to take on something more manageable; I have confined our discussion specifically to the Russian symphony, their contribution to a very Western form, which, as we shall see, presents its own advantages and challenges.
Some people dealt with the form quite well, others not as well, and in places, we will see how the European tradition and form of the symphony became a very Russian thing, to the benefit of anyone who’s ever listened to any music ever. It is another journey, one that I hope both of my readers will enjoy reading as much as I have enjoyed preparing for it.
What would I do without Wikipedia and tabbed browsing? It was quite easy to find out the lineages and connections I mentioned above, the links in what appears to have been a very tight circle of pedagogy and style, almost intentionally cultivated, in some ways, and oppressed in others. It’s fascinating to me, and I’m eager to do a bit of what I’ve done with the German and Austrian music of the past few centuries with a century of Russian music. I’ll feel better when I’ve given these works the attention they deserve.
I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll intersperse these fourteen symphonies with related smaller works (piano/symphonic) by their respective composers, but I’m thinking not. There are a few works that I’m debating between, and we may get a few weeks of two symphonies, but we will see.
The pieces we will be discussing are going to be presented in chronological order, with some of the earliest Russian symphonies by some of the most influential composers and instructors presented first, with their progeny, their students’ and followers’ works coming next. There are some big names in the series, and I am interested in focusing as much on the relationships and interconnectedness of the people involved in having created Russian music as on the music itself. These two concepts are obviously related.
Let’s get started.


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