Tone Poem Tuesday

As Rachmaninoff was a young man studying music in a rigorous environment (we’ll get to that in April), he–and just about every other young Russian musician of the day–was influenced heavily by a group of composers called collectively “The Five”. These composers, all giants of Russian music in their day and four of them still giants to this day, dominated Russian music and how it was taught and encouraged amongst the younger generations. Their focus was on a nationalistic school of Russian music that was to be wholly separate from the more dominant traditions from the Germanic nations and France to the west. How successful they were can be debated; certainly they turned out some wondrous music, but their forms are still wholly dependent on the Germanic traditions. As Leonard Bernstein would later write in one of his essays, “All the Russian symphonies are really German ones with vodka substituted for beer.”

The Five consisted of the spiritual leader Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui (more on him next week), Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin (so near to my heart!), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Each of these composers had strong influence on Rachmaninoff, in some ways and in others, and in negative light and in positive. From Rimsky-Korsakov Rachmaninoff likely learned about drama in music, and an appreciation for the sounds and modes of the Russian church liturgies. Rimsky-Korsakov was not himself a directly religious man, but that particular antipathy of his did not extend to the music, which he embodied in today’s work, the Russian Easter Festival Overture. The melodies of this work are taken directly from Russian Orthodox chants, and Rachmaninoff would later draw from some of this same material himself in several spiritual works of his own, as well as his lifelong fascination with one specific chant, the Dies irae.

We’re coming closer and closer to Rachmaninoff himself. Meantime, here is another of his influences: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture.


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