St. Petersburg Music Guide
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Brief History

The city's music history begins with its visionary creator, Peter the Great (reign 1682-1725). According to early accounts, Peter possessed a fine tenor voice. In 1705 he issued an order to "act comedies in the Russian and German languages and let the musicians play various instruments at these comedies…and let the people of different ranks both among the Russian folk and the foreigners visit them willingly and without any fear?" His friend Prince Menshikov established the first court orchestra and chorus and many concerts were held in the presence of Peter at his palace on the banks of the Neva.

Peter the Great's successors ensured that music was an integral part of court life. Empress Anna's (1730-1740) agreement with Jean-Baptiste Lande, the court ballet master, to subsidize payments to young ballet students was the beginning of the Russian ballet school, and many Italian and German musicians and composers came to work in the city. The very first Russian opera, "Cepahlus and Prokris," by Francesco Araja, was performed under the auspices of Empress Anna.

Empress Elizabeth (1741-1762), the daughter of Peter the Great, was as interested in music as she was in dresses. The opera "La Clemenza di Tito" by Hasse was performed at her coronation. She commissioned more opera from the court composer Araja, and established the Russian theatre with salaried actors.

Visitors to St. Petersburg were amazed by the beautiful music heard in churches. One 18th century listener wrote "I came to mass at the church to listen to the glorious Russian music…imagine the whole choir, consisting of twelve basses, thirteen tenors, thirteen altos and fifteen discants, i.e., more than fifty singers in general?" Bells from the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the church at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery reverberated throughout the city.

Catherine the Great (1762-1796) brought music to the Winter Palace with the construction of the Hermitage Theatre, described by its architect Giacomo Quarenghi as being "for private, home usage of Her Imperial Majesty and the highest court." Catherine surrounded herself with the best and brightest, reflected in her love of theatre, music and the arts. Opera, especially comic opera, became a mainstay of the Smolny Institute, which Catherine created in 1764 for the education of young girls. In 1792, the St. Petersburg Music Club was formed, where the rules stated "Music is the main object of our society" that members were allowed to bring their wives once a week. At least six operas were composed to libretti by the Empress. Music was everywhere in the city. Prince Nikolai Lvov compiled a collection of Russian folk songs and the noble houses collected instruments and scores. Italian, French, Czech and German musicians often came to perform for the empress and at new music venues. Catherine's ambassador to Vienna, Count Andrei Razumovsky, had a passion for music and wrote to Catherine about Mozart, asking if she wished to engage him. At the end of her life, opera in St. Petersburg was considered by contemporary journals to be "the most glorious."

Catherine's son Paul I (1796-1801) and his wife Marie held many music festivals at Pavlovsk, their home outside the city. Marie particularly loved keyboard music, and today one can see her beautiful "piano with flutes," a combination piano/organ at Pavlovsk that once belonged to Prince Gregory Potemkin. Vivaldi, "Autumn" (Concerto in F) - AllegroThe prolific and imaginative Italian theatrical designer Pietro Gonzaga was at his peak during this time and wrote of his craft, "it drew into the habit for me to define all the visible decorations as 'the music for the eyes.?" Italian and French companies visited the city, where opera was performed constantly.

Due to the War of 1812, Paul's son Alexander I (1801-1825) had little time for music. But this didn't mean that art and music came to a standstill. Alexander I was well versed in the arts, having been educated by his grandmother Catherine the Great. He was instrumental in reorganizing the theatre throughout Russia and placing it under a single director, and insisted that students were taught academic subjects as well as dance and music. Beethoven held Alexander in such esteem that he wrote Three Sonatas for Piano and Violin Opus 30 for him and the world premiere of "Missa Solemnis" took place on March 24, 1824 in St. Petersburg in what is now the Small Philharmonic Hall under the purview of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Society. It was also during the reign of Alexander I that the poet Pushkin wrote the poems that would later be set to operas by Tchaikovsky.

The reign of Alexander I's brother Nicholas I (1825-1855) saw the burgeoning of Russian ballet and the work of Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857). Glinka's most famous operas, Glinka, Epilogue of "A Life for the Tsar""A Life for the Tsar," premiered in 1836 and his second opera, Glinka, Overture to "Ruslan and Ludmila""Ruslan and Ludmila," set to a tale by Pushkin, opened in St. Petersburg in 1842. It was the first time Russians heard operas with Russian themes and folk music motifs. Nicholas I also established the Mikhailovsky Theatre in 1833.

Alexander II (1855-1881) brought reform to Russia by liberating the serfs. Keenly interested in education, it was under his direction that the St. Petersburg Conservatory was founded in 1862. The Mariinsky Theatre, named for the Alexander's wife Marie, opened in October 1860s with Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar." Alexander commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to write Verdi, "La Forza del Destino""La Forza del Destino," which had its premiere in 1862. During a winter's visit to the city in 1861 Verdi's wife Giuseppina wrote to a friend "this terrible cold doesn't bother us thanks to our apartments…but the poor people in general, and the coachmen in particular, are the most miserable creatures on earth...many of the coachmen stay sometimes all day and some of the night sitting on their boxes, exposed to the freezing cold, waiting for their masters who are guzzling in beautiful warm apartments while some of these unhappy beings are freezing to death. Such horrible things happen all the time. I shall never get used to the sight of such suffering." Signora Verdi's words were suggestive of unrest yet to come, for in 1881 Alexander II was assassinated.

The 19th century saw a number of important European musicians make the arduous journey to St. Petersburg. In addition to the Verdis, Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz (who visited twice), and Richard Wagner all played or conducted in the city's venues to enthusiastic listeners. One person lucky enough to hear Liszt wrote "Nearly two hours have passed since I have left the hall, meanwhile I'm still insane ?where am I? We are happy, happy indeed to live in 1842 when such a performer exists in this world and this very performer has come to our country, and we chanced to hear him."

During this time St. Petersburg became the epicenter of Russian music, in large part thanks to Mily Balakirev (1837-1910). Balakirev believed in creating music with a distinct Russian character, recognizably different from what was heard in concerts of the day. He banded together with a group of young musicians who shared his love of all things Russian and together they formed "The Big Five." Rimsky Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and of course, Balikirev, were the super talents in this group.

1859 saw the formation of a new kind of musical organization, The Russian Musical Society. Founded by Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, the aunt of Alexander II, and Anton Rubenstein, the society not only presented concerts but provided music education. Born in Germany, the Grand Duchess was an advocate of the arts in her adopted city St. Petersburg. She was keenly interested in education and arranged for students to have classes in her home, the Mikhailovsky Palace, which later became the Russian Museum. The Russian Musical Society was the forerunner of the St Petersburg Conservatory. That year, Mily Balakirev conceived the Free School of Music. The school emphasized choral works and also offered free lessons for men and women.

The reign of Alexander III (1881-1894) saw music continue to flourish. Alexander was a keen horn player, emulating the tradition of Russian horn playing begun in St. Petersburg in the 18th century. His patronage of the arts led to the formation of the Russian Museum in the Mikhailovsky Palace. He was a constant visitor to the Mariinsky, where he enjoyed opera and ballet, particularly by his favorite composer Tchaikovsky. According to Count Sheremetev (whose palace would eventually house the Museum of Musical Instruments), Alexander "basically loved music, without any preconceived ideas …he always knew of any new works." The tsar also formed the first "Court Musical Chorus," which in time grew to be the great St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Alexander III's son Nicholas II (1894-1918) took over the throne after his father's sudden death in 1894. Though the reign of Nicholas II was fraught with mass unrest, war and little peace, it was during his reign that music and the arts took an amazing journey to a new world. With the advent of such luminaries as impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Fyodor Chaliapin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aleksandr Scriabin, and Sergei Prokoviev, ballet and music were never the same again. A galaxy of foreign stars including Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Fritz Kreisler, Pablo Casals and Arnold Schoenberg came to the city and performed in the city's glittering halls.

World War I changed the course of history and in 1917 the continued unrest of the working classes led to the fall of the Romanov dynasty. The revolution saw the exodus of many of Russia's greatest talents. However, many also chose to remain and adjust to life under a new regime such as the director of the Petrograd Conservatory, Alexander Glazunov. The capital of Russia moved to Moscow (its name was changed to the more Russian-sounding Petrograd during World War I), and St. Petersburg was relegated to second place in the new nation's hierarchy of cities. The city was renamed Leningrad in 1924.

The revolution meant that music had to be geared to the masses. An eyewitness wrote, "the revolution brought new theatrical-musical genres to Russia…the contemporary composers were making mixtures of revolutionary songs mingled with Beethoven, Chopin, Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov." Works of a religious nature were banned, and new works were written which extolled the Motherland. Among these was the 1924 "Struggle for the Commune" set to Puccini's "Tosca," with a new libretto making Tosca into a revolutionary. Others were "Red Vortex," a ballet with avant-garde sets, and the 1925 "Petrograd the Red," about the revolution. The Leningrad Association of Modern Music was formed in 1926 with musicologist Boris Asafiev and one of their guests was French composer Darius Milhaud. Again the lure of Leningrad proved strong and despite the new government, Arthur Honegger, Alexander Zemlinsky, Artur Rubenstein and Paul Hindemith were among its visitors.

The 1930s were the time of the Five Year Plan that saw the importation of American jazz, supposedly to make the worker happy. But proletarian themes infused into jazz diluted it and it soon lost its allure. The 1930s witnessed the rise of Dmitri Shostakovich, a son of St. Petersburg to the core. His studies at the Leningrad Conservatory led him to become perhaps along with Sergei Prokofiev the Soviet Union's most famous composer. His love of the theatre, film and contemporary music influenced his work. His opera, Shostakovich, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,""Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," premiered in Leningrad in 1934 and ran for over two years.

The 1930s were also the dark days of Stalin. Suddenly, artistic luminaries such as Shostakovich were shunned; the gifted director Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested in Moscow and never heard from again. Most musicians attempted to compose and play some form of "Soviet Realism," which had propaganda at its heart. Artistic directives from the state were frequent and music was strictly controlled.

World War II brought a relaxation of government-imposed controls. Some of the most beautiful Russian songs were written during World War II. Although music certainly reflected patriotism, composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich somehow wrote music that eluded the prescribed controls. Leningrad was under siege and its two major orchestras, the Philharmonic and the Kirov (the former Mariinsky), were evacuated, leaving the Leningrad Radio Orchestra to perform when it was able despite the horrific conditions in the city. The company of the Musical Comedy Theatre performed throughout the entire siege, giving a miraculous gift to the city during the 900-day ordeal. When a performer didn't show up, it almost always meant they had died. Many musicians died during the siege, including several professors at the conservatory.

After the war, Stalin attempted to exert more controls over music and the arts. In 1948 Andrei Zhdanov, Chief of the Communist Party in Leningrad during World War II and Stalin's cultural henchman, presided over a three-day conference in Moscow, with the country's most prominent musicians. There were no words of praise spoken, only the harshest criticism that "this music savors of present-day modernist bourgeois culture." The composers were admonished to "become more conscious of their duty to the Soviet people." Fortunately Zhdanov died in the same year.

Despite these crackdowns, the Russian song took on new meaning to Leningraders. Song was always a mainstay in Soviet life. Although many were written with patriotic lyrics about the Motherland, a great many captured the innermost thoughts of the citizens, telling of everyday triumphs and sorrows. The songs were extremely melodic, full of emotion and contained beautiful lyrics by contemporary poets. The wistful "Evening Song," with lyrics by Alexander Tchurkin and music by Vasily Soloviev-Sedoy, describes a young man's thoughts of Leningrad during a summer's night. Soloviev-Sedoy, a 1936 graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, is best known for one of the most popular Russian songs ever written, Soloviev-Sedoy, "Moscow Nights""Moscow Nights."

With the death of Stalin in 1953, the chokehold that had been placed on music and arts began to loosen. The Leningrad Philharmonic toured abroad as did the famed Kirov Ballet. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first United States orchestra to play in Leningrad, shortly followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. One of Canada's greatest gifts to the world, Glenn Gould, then a young man in his twenties, visited Moscow and Leningrad for two weeks in May 1957, the first North American pianist to do so since Stalin's death. Crowds were spellbound at his interpretation of Bach, a composer seldom heard during Soviet times because of the religious nature of his work. During his stay in Leningrad, Gould performed at the Philharmonic Hall, the Small Philharmonic Hall and the Conservatory, where he lectured on such topics as Arnold Schoenberg and his 12-tone system.

Leningrad at that time was a faded beauty, a rather sleepy city of dusty streets, few signs, few cars and little color except on its former palaces. Life was not easy but Leningraders never ceased going to concerts. The first jazz club, Kvadrat, opened in 1956 and jazz quickly became a favorite with students. Recordings were hard to come by, and a technique was developed to put recordings on used X-ray film. "Jazz on bones" as it became known, quickly became an important part of the underground jazz scene. Rock and jazz grew in tandem and in the 1970s Boris Grebenshchikov founded his band "Aquarium." 1989 gave Leningrad another music venue ?the Jazz Philharmonic. However, western tourists were seldom exposed to music other than the Kirov Theatre and venues featuring small folk ensembles.

It wasn't until the fall of communism however, when the city arose from its long sleep. The weights were lifted from the city and its performers could travel without restrictions. Abroad, a whole new audience was exposed to the great orchestras and musicians of the city. And visitors to the city were enchanted and surprised by the richness of music available to them. Entrepreneurs launched shows such as "Feel Yourself Russian," which were devoted to Russian folk music. Churches were open for worship and the sounds of choirs and bells were heard again after years of silence. The Kirov returned to its historic name Mariinsky and under the leadership of Valery Gergiev launched the "White Nights Festival." This was quickly followed by a plethora of classical, contemporary and jazz festivals. Innovative tourist agencies added to the enjoyment of their clients with private performances by musicians as part of a special palace tour. Many hotels featured a harpist, violinist or pianist, often students at the Conservatory, as a musical treat throughout the day.

Russian composers such as Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998) became well known to western music lovers with compositions such as "Petersburg: A Vocal Poem," which tells the story of the "Silver Age" of the city through the words of poet Alexander Blok. A beautiful spring day in the city is described by Blok: Sviridov, "The Breeze Has Brought from Far Away""The breeze has brought from far away a motif of spring's song; Somewhere, bright and deep, A Piece of Heaven has been revealed." Svirdov studied at the Leningrad Conservatory and was a pupil of Shostakovich. Although Sviridov left Leningrad for Moscow, he never forgot the city of his youth. Sviridov worked over 20 years on "Petersburg" and in 1995 Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky premiered the work.

Today, St. Petersburg continues to give the world and its residents the gift of music. Although classical music is the mainstay, the city is rich with contemporary, jazz, folk, and rock music. Twenty-first century St. Petersburg continues to draw performers of international renown. Thomas Hampson, the famous American baritone, says "St. Petersburg is one of the most enchanting, musical cities in the world. The St. Petersburg audience is world-renown for its knowledge and enthusiasm. It is always an honor to be invited to make music in this city."

Peter the Great in Russian dress Peter the Great in Russian dress, 1698
The Menshikov Palace Menshikov Palace, 1716
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, late 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul, late 19 c.
The Hall of the Hermitage Theatre The Hermitage Theatre
Pavlovsk Palace, late 19 century Pavlovsk Palace,
late 19 c.
"Piano with flutes" "Piano with flutes"
Mikhailovsky Theatre, early 20th century Mikhailovsky Theatre,
early 20 c.
St. Petersburg Conservatory, early 20th century Conservatory,
early 20 c.
Mariinsky Theatre, 1904 Mariinsky Theatre, 1904
Alexander Borodin, "On the Steppes of Central Asia" Borodin, symphony
Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna Grand Duchess
Elena Pavlovna
Mikhailovsky Palace, early 20 century Mikhailovsky Palace,
early 20 c.
Nevsky Prospect, 1901 Nevsky Prospect, 1901
Ball in Nobles' Assembly, 23 February 1913 Ball in Nobles' Assembly, 1913
Sergei Diaghilev, Vaslav Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky, 1911 Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky, 1911
Richard Strauss conducting, 1912 Strauss conducting, 1912
Street unrest, 1917 Street unrest, 1917
Bullet holes,  Nevsky Prospect, 1918 Bullet holes
Nevsky Prospect, 1918
"Our March" Vladimir Mayakovsky, Artur Lurye, 1918 "Our March" Mayakovsky, Lurye, 1918
Street musicians, Petrograd, 1919 Street musicians,
Petrograd, 1919
"Flea. Suite," Yuri Shaporin, Boris Kustodiev, 1935 "Flea. Suite" Shaporin, Kustodiev, 1935
Dmitri Shostakovich and Evgeny Mravinsky, Novosibirsk, 1942 Shostakovich and Mravinsky, 1942
Seventh Symphony Poster, Novosibirsk, 1942 Concert Poster, 1942
Glenn Gould, Leningrad Conservatory, May 19, 1957 Glenn Gould, 1957
"Jazz on Bones" "Jazz on Bones"
Composer Georgy Sviridov Georgy Sviridov