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Hicham Chami RussiaBy the middle of the 19th century, a new awareness of national identity began to emerge in numerous parts of the world. The emergence of Nationalism–the love for and allegiance to the country of birth and its subjects, culture, heritage, and mother tongue–took place in Europe following the collapse of the of Napoleonic empire. While the concept of Nationalism existed earlier, it was usually aimed at a ruler rather to a native land.

First expressed as a political movement, the burgeoning nationalistic sentiments also manifested themselves in the cultural arena, and heavily impacted romantic music. As a result, Nationalism (also termed organic nationalism or identity nationalism) is often cited as one of the key ideas defining the Romantic era, an era during which composers and librettists intentionally gave their works a unique national identity. Thus, Verdi’s early operas were a reflection of the Italians’ aspirations to affranchise themselves from the  Austrian dominion, and were heavily nationalistic in essence.

“Verdi’s operas represented thinly veiled patriotic references […] through which the composer communicated to the Italian people the drive previously shared by a small minority of Italian nationalists. In this view, patriotic meaning emerged because the symbolism of the spectacle was easily processed to express a national liberationist worldview that distinguished between “us,” the people, and “them,”the foreign oppressors.

 Other composers, such as Czechs Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884) and Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), or Finnish Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) used their music to glorify their nations. The programs they composed, not only bore indicative titles such as Ma Vlast (“My Fatherland”), Slavonic Dances, or Finlandia, but often drew on local legends, folk tales, and histories. However, the nationalistic style wasn’t solely confined to making use of emblematic titles or exploiting patriotic themes; it also was made possible through heavily using folk songs and borrowing from local song traditions:

“A piece of music will sound French, Russian, or Italian when its rhythm, tone color, texture, and melody spring from national traditions”

 While the idea of using folklore as a platform to develop programmatic works was quite common throughout Europe and found its expression in numerous traditions–Czechoslovakia with Bedrich Smetana, Antonín Dvorak, and Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Norway with Edvard Grieg (1843–1907); Spain with Isaac Albeniz (1860–1909) and Enrique Granados (1867–1918); or Finland with Jean Sibelius,among others–no other school of music made a more systematic and consistent use of folk material in classical works than the Russian School of Music. The reason this phenomenon of drawing from the folk tradition was so prevalent in Russia might find an explanation in the following quote by Vladimir Stasov:

“Folk songs are heard everywhere even today. Every muzhik, carpenter, bricklayer, doorkeeper, cabman; every peasant woman, laundry-maid and cook, every nurse and wet-nurse–all bring the folk songs of their villages with them to Petersburg, Moscow, to each and every city, and we hear them the whole year round. We are constantly surrounded by them. Every working man and woman in Russia sings endlessly while working, just as their ancestors did a thousand years ago. The Russian soldier goes into battle with a folk song on his lips. These songs are a part of each and every one of us; we need no archeologists to unearth them so that we may come to know and love them” 

 It is worth recalling that until the 1800s, Russia was nowhere close to boasting the same creative energy otherwise available in Europe, the Czars relying heavily on Italian and German composers to contribute courtly music. By the 1860s, however, a renewed musical scene in the city capital of St. Petersburg allowed for the blooming of a whole new generation of composers, and with it the first ideological conflicts. A school of thought, spearheaded by virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (1829-1894), was of the opinion that the future of Russian Classical art lays in embedding traditional Western European values in the music, including an adherence  to a strict contrapuntal Germanic technique. This westward approach was greatly facilitated by the frequent travels of Western composers (Liszt, Schumann, and Berlioz) and conductors (Cavos), some of whom did actually live in St. Petersburg. Opposing the views of Rubinstein were a group of musicians, composers, and critics rallying around Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), the “father” of Russian classical music. Glinka and his followers believed in a distinctive Russian style of music, one that would break with traditional European norms of composition. Upon Glinka’s death, one of his disciples and staunch supporters, Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), started meeting with five other composers of his generation to defend Glinka’s ideals. This group of five composers ended up being know as The Five, or The Mighty Handful. The expression was coined in May 1867 when then-youthful music critic Vladimir Stasov wrote a review on a Balakirev concert performed in honor of the visiting Slav delegations to the “All-Russian Ethnographical Exhibition” in Moscow. Stasov wrote:

“God grant that our Slav guests may never forget today’s concert; God grant that they may forever preserve the memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent, and intelligence are possessed by the small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians.”

 For the composers involved, embedding their music with a Russian “flavor” was achieved through various compositional techniques and harmonic devices.

– Whole-tone scale: While occurrences of whole-tone scales in classical music could be found as early on as in Mozart (i.e. Musical Joke, for strings and horns), it was the Russian school of music that legitimized the whole-tone scale (a scale in which each note is separated from its neighbors by the interval of a whole step).

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Often associated with odious characters or villainous situations, it was used by Glinka in his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), but also by Rimsky-Korsakov in all his magic/fantastic operas: The Invisible City of Kitezh , Sadko, and Kashchey the Deathless.

– Russian Submediant: In his 1995 article, “The Russian Submediant in the 19th Century”, , Mark DeVoto contended the following:

“Russian harmony significantly increases the importance of the submediant function in a major-mode context, by emphasizing the sixth degree as an adjunct harmonic factor to the tonic triad, and by promoting the submediant as an alternative tonal focus to the tonic function. So important is this evolved submediant function that it becomes the basis of a prominent stylistic mannerism, even a distinguishing characteristic, in the works of The Five.” 

Confined to major scales, it is usually defined as a harmonic pattern in which the upper part chromatically moves from the dominant pitch to the submediant, while the other parts are unaltered. An example–beginning with the tonic degree–would encompass the following progression: 1/ Tonic triad in root-position;  2/ Augmented tonic triad in root-position; 3/ First inversion submediant minor triad. Rimsky-Korsakof used this particular technique at the beginning of the third movement of  Scheherazade:

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– Pentatonic and Octatonic scales: Deemed closer in essence to the “earthy and primitive” style of both Russian folkmusic and its “Eastern” component, the pentatonic scale was used at will by members of The Five but also their disciples, as shown here in Prince Igor by Borodin.

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 Very similarly, octatonic scales (also called diminished scales) became the hallmark of the Russian school after being used by Rimsky-Korsakov in Sadko (1867)

 – Parallel fifths: While frowned upon and sparsely used in European compositional traditions, parallel fifths, fourths, and thirds frequently appeared in the works of Russian composers, just as shown in Song of the Dark Forest (1868) and The Sleeping Princess (1867), both by Borodin.

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– Modulation in sequences of thirds: In order to accommodate the program music they were writing for, Russian composers had to devise a stratagem to modulate from one scale to another, without having to abide by the rigorous sonata-form rules of modulation applicable in the West. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are a case in point showcasing how the music serves the content, and not the other way around.

The dramatic surge in the development of Russian nationalistic music at this time was a result of the conjoined efforts of The Five, who derived their sense of mission from Glinka. They accomplished this mission by using folk material and patriotic songs that would be easily identifiable by the populace and employing compositional techniques that would reinforce the message. The results are an impressive corpus of work that continues to express the Russian national character.


1 Stamatov, Peter. “Interpretive Activism and the Political Uses of Verdi’s Operas in the 1840s.” American Sociological Association 67.3 (2002): 345-66. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3088961>.

2 Kamien, Roger. “Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Music.” Music: an Appreciation. New York: McGraw-Hill Book, 1980.
311. Print.

3 Stasov, Vladimir Vasilevich. “Twenty-Five Years of Russian Art: Our Music.” In Selected Essays on Music, trans. F. Jonas. New York: Praeger, 1968. 71.

4 Rosenthal, Harold. Program notes. Berezovsky plays Tchaikovsky. 23 April 2010. Hong Kong: Concert Hall of Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

5 Woodside, Mary S. “Leitmotiv in Russia: Glinka’s Use of the Whole-Tone Scale.” 19th-Century Music 14.1 (1990): 67-74. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2010.