Music History 102

Music History 102:

Twentieth Century Russian Composers

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: Oneg, district of Novgorod, April 1, 1873
Died: Beverly Hills, Cal., March 28, 1943

Having studied at the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, Rachmaninoff produced, at the age of twenty, one of the most popular and enduring piano pieces in the whole literature, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3 no. 2. Most of Rachmaninoff’s best-known compositions were written before 1917, the year he left Russia to settle first in Switzerland, and later in the United States. His career focused mainly on his concertizing as a virtuoso pianist, although he was acknowledged as a fine conductor. Among his best works are his four piano concertos, including the well-known Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor, which illustrates Rachmaninoff’s penchant for “the big tune,” much in the manner of Tchaikovsky, whom he greatly admired.

Serge Prokofiev

Born: Sontsovka, April 27, 1891
Died: Moscow, March 5, 1953

Prokofiev’s life and musical styles fall into three periods: the first being his formative years in Russia; the second (1920-1933) his years in Paris; and the third in which he returned to his homeland. The music of Prokofiev’s first period is mostly of the primitive style brought about by the onslaught of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ballet in 1913. Prokofiev’s music of this period utilizes driving rhythms and dissonant harmonies, and includes his first three piano concertos (the Third is widely conceded to be his best), and the ballet Ala and Lolly. Also from this period, however, comes the delightfully charming “Classical” Symphony no. 1 in D major, written to convince his critics that he could, when he wanted, compose in the refined style of Mozart.

Prokofiev’s second period resulted in such works as the Symphonies 2, 3, and 4, two more piano concertos, the satirical opera The Love for Three Oranges (from which comes this famous and jaunty March) and two more ballets. Many of Prokofiev’s most famous compositions were written after he had returned to Russia in 1934. These include the children’s story for orchestra and narrator, Peter and the Wolf, several film scores, one of the most popular ballets of the twentieth century, Romeo and Juliet, and his greatest symphony, the Symphony no. 5. In keeping with government dictates of the Stalin Regime, this music is more tonal, less dissonant, and conforms to classical styles, making them generally accessible to the public. Even so, Prokofiev was denounced in 1948 by the government as being “too modern” and he composed no more music for the remainder of his life.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born: St. Petersburg, September 25, 1906
Died: Moscow, August 9, 1975

Unlike his countrymen Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Shostakovich opted to remain in Russia throughout his life. Stylistically, this meant that the composer was constantly bowing to the decrees of the Stalinist Regime, stunting his natural growth and tendencies in efforts to please the government. Although his vast output is variable in quality, Shostakovich was nevertheless able to compose some powerful and lasting works. He is known primarily for his fifteen symphonies and string quartets, as these are the works that contain much of his most original thought and expression.

The symphonies, in particular, remain his best-known works. Although many of them, in attempts to conform to the decrees of the government, contain pages of inflated heroism and bombast, one or two stand out as perhaps the composer’s finest achievements. The Symphony no. 5, Op. 47 for example, shows what the composer could do to please Stalin, while at the same time may have been expressing the composer’s true feelings about the difficulties of artistic life in Russia at the time. In the later Symphony no. 10, Op. 93, Shostakovich’s irony and anger at the losses the Russian people suffered under Stalin’s hand during World War II is given voice in a relentless, motor-driven scherzo.

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane