The idea that there could be 'Russian classical music' was something quite new in 19th century Russia. From time immemorial normal Russians who belonged to the Orthodox Church listened only to religious music or to folk music. Higher circles of society had no particular interest in this, for Tsar Peter the Great had shifted their focus westwards towards Europe; French was spoken more often than Russian in such circles and Western artists and composers such as Cimarosa were the Russian nobility's preferred choice. Russia's love affair with the West cooled somewhat after the French Revolution and the war with Napoleon, and Russians then felt a need for a national art, a Russian art.
The composer Mikhail Glinka wrote in 1832: 'I want everything to be national: above all, the subject - and the music likewise - so much so that my dear compatriots will feel they are at home, and so that abroad I shall be considered neither a braggart nor a crow who seeks to deck himself in borrowed plumage'.
The actual purpose and function of art was a subject that caused great dissension primarily in musical circles. Five composers came together in a sort of nationalist collective in 1856: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky and Mily Balakirev; their aim was to compose 100% Russian classical music. None of them had an extensive European musical training, but this disadvantage was seen by them as an advantage; their music would thus be safeguarded against Western influences. Instead, the members of the 'Mighty Handful', as the nationalist critic Vladimir Stasov affectionately termed them, learned their trade 'by playing through and studying all the music by the greatest composers', according to Cui. 'We were young… and we had no respect for Mozart and Mendelssohn'.
The celebrated Russian concert pianist Anton Rubinstein returned to St. Petersburg from Germany around that time and found what he considered to be a musical wilderness, as he was convinced that a traditional musical training was essential for a flourishing musical life to develop. Rubinstein opened the first Russian conservatory in St. Petersburg in 1862. Although he astonished the great and good of St. Petersburg by teaching in Russian and not in French, the Mighty Handful found that Rubinstein's work was by no means Russian enough and came down in fervent opposition to Rubinstein's academic way of teaching.
One of Rubinstein's first pupils to graduate was Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, an amateur musician who had given up his career as a civil servant at the Ministry of Justice to become a composer.
The Mighty Handful and Stasov were naturally suspicious when they listened to Tchaikovsky's work, but he made a good impression on them with his Symphony No. 2 (1872). He played the symphony's last movement at a party at Rimsky-Korsakov's and 'the entire assembled company almost tore me apart with delight, and Mme Korsakov, with tears in her eyes, asked if she might arrange it for piano four hands'. This was not surprising, for although the symphony was indeed composed in a Western manner, melodies from Ukrainian ('Little Russian') folksongs that Tchaikovsky had first got to know during a summer holiday in Kamenka had been woven into it. The horn solo at the beginning of the first movement contains the song Alongside Mother Volga, while Spin, o spinning-girl is to be heard in the second movement. The Crane is the basis of the most important melodic material in the fourth movement; it is varied and orchestrated in every possible manner, becoming a splendid ending to the symphony in every way.
The Mighty Handful and Tchaikovsky had found each other, but were never to become true friends. Stasov later wrote: 'The conservatory, academic training, eclecticism and the endless development of musical material all claimed their pound of flesh. Only a few of his works [Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Francesca da Rimini and the String Quartets 2 and 3] are first-class, the rest are mediocre to weak. '
Tchaikovsky's music was to mirror his turbulent emotional life to an-ever increasing degree in the years to come, thanks to which its Russianness would never again come into question. Rimsky-Korsakov was finally appointed a professor at the St. Petersburg conservatory, an establishment that eventually took its name from him in 1944.
Translation: Peter Lockwood