HIS 241
A Golden Age of Russian Culture remarks by Professor Evans


What a collection of graves that are located in the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Aleksandr Nevskii Lavra in St. Petersburg.  These are probably most of Russia's greatest musicians (Glinka, Rimskii-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgskii, Chaikovskii, Borodin, Cui).  Now I'm not exactly a classical music fanatic, but I still can offer a few remarks.


Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is generally considered to have been the father of Russian classical music, the first real "Russian" composer.  His most well-know works are his two operas:  A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Ruslan and Liudmilla. (1842); both a bit on the long side but then again what opera isn't long!.  Glinka does not get much play time on classical radio stations--except for those in Russia--these days.

Glinka Grave
Balakirev Grave

Milii Balakirev (1837-1910) is not really known today for any of his own music--yes, he did compose some symphonies, folk songs, overtures and piano pieces--but instead he was the center of the group of composers who came to be known as the "Mighty Five"; you might say that he was #1.  Balakirev helped some of these men with their musical studies and worked with others to refine their techniques.


Modest Mussorgskii (1839-1881), #2, came from a very wealthy family and studied in several elite educational institutions in St. Petersburg before receiving a military commission in the Preobrazhenskii Guards Regiment, the most prestigious elite unit in the Russian army.  Mussorgskii studied with Balakirev in the early 1860s.  His three great works include Boris Godunov (1874)--often called the Russian national opera, but you need a lot of patience to sit through it--Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).

Mussorgsky Grave

For a long time, most of Mussorgskii's works were mainly known in versions revised or completed by other composers, such as Rimskii-Korsakov.  Mussorgskii suffered from alcoholism, and probably depression, and in early 1881 he declared that there was 'nothing left but begging' and suffered four seizures in rapid succession before dying.  Probably his most famous work is St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain, which was made famous by its very bizarre appearance in Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) with Leopold Stokowski directing.

Borodin Grave

Aleksandr Borodin (1833-1877), #3, earned his living as a chemist--actually a pretty darn good one at that--but he was also a significant "Russian" composer connected to Balakirev and the Mighty Five.  In 1869 he began work on his opera, Prince Igor which he was not able to finish before his death in 1877.  It was completed later by Rimskii-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov.  The opera, which I have listened to countless times--They seem to be always singing слава (slava, "glory") in it-- is probably best known for the Polovetsian Dances which are often performed apart from the opera.

Cui Grave

Tsezar' Kiui (César Cui, 1835-1918), #4, of French-Lithuanian descent, was an army officer and one of the foremost experts on military fortifications in late imperial Russia.  After meeting Balakirev, he studied music and became an extremely prolific composer--some of his piano pieces are still played--and music critic.  It is as the latter that he had the most influence, contributing hundreds of articles and reviews on music to newspapers and journals.  As such he helped to promote the works of the Mighty Five and other contemporary Russian composers.


Nikolai Rimskii-Korsakov (1844-1908), #5, from a very well-to-do family, showed musical ability at a very early age, but he still went to study at the Imperial Naval College in St. Petersburg--There were no formal music schools in Russia before the 1860s--and then he joined the Russian Navy to see the world.  Only after meeting Balakirev in 1861 did Rimskii-Korsakov began to concentrate on his music.

Rimsky Korsakov Grave

Despite being largely self-trained, he was appointed to teach at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he taught many future composers such as Aleksandr Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinskii.   Korsakov was an extremely prolific composer--most of his works I have never heard, including his fifteen operas--but his fame outside of Russia rests largely on his orchestral compositions, such as the Capriccio Espagnol and the the symphonic suite Scheherazade.

Chaikovskii Grave

Petr Chaikovskii (often as Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893) was not technically a member of the Mighty Five, but he was, nonetheless, a proponent of a "Russian" character in his musical compositions.  He was also more "western" in his musical approaches than most of his contemporaries.

Musically gifted, Chaikovskii began playing the piano when he was five.  He studied at the School of Jurisprudence before attending the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  From 1866 to 1878 he taught at the Moscow Conservatory.

He had a rather troubled personal life:

One of his conservatory students, Antonina Miliukova, began writing him passionate letters around the time that he had made up his mind to "marry whoever will have me."  He didn't even remember her from his classes, but her letters were very persistent, and he hastily married her on July 18, 1877.  Within days, while still on their honeymoon, he deeply regretted his decision.  Two weeks after the wedding the composer attempted suicide by wading in a cold river.  He later fled to Saint Petersburg a nervous wreck, and was separated from his wife after only six weeks.  The couple never saw each other again, although they never divorced and Tchaikovsky died a married man.  His widow died in an insane asylum 24 years later.

Nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony (The "Pathétique") in 1893 in St. Petersburg, Chaikovskii died, most likely of cholera, although there is some dispute about that.

No doubt about, Chaikovskii was one of the world's great composer:

  • Three great ballets, including Swan Lake (Op. 20, 1875-1876), Sleeping Beauty (Op. 66, 1888-1889)--Chaikovskii considered this one of his best works--and The Nutcracker (Op. 71, 1891-1892)
  • Ten operas, the most famous being Evgenii Onegin, based on the Pushkin work; also The Queen of Spades (another Pushkin story)
  • Six symphonies, the latter three (the fourth, fifth and sixth) are truly great
  • Other stuff, including the 1812 Overture (Op. 49, 1880) which was written by Chaikovskii to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812.  With all of its overt and triumphant Russian nationalism, Chaikovskii never really liked it.  It is one of my pet peeves that somehow Americans always play this on the Fourth of July and other national celebrations when it is a work of Russian celebration not American.  Please play the Stars and Stripes Forever or some other American marches on the Fourth of July.
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The Russian "Golden Age" began roughly in the 1860s and peaked in the 1870s--there is some wiggle room with the dates.  During this time, there were some spectacular achievements in the realm of Russian culture, for example, in literature, painting, music and the arts in general.

In music, the "Могучая кучка" (Moguchaia Kuchka, the "Five, the "Mighty Handful," or the "Mighty Five"), so named by the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov (1824-1906) in 1867, were the principal composers trying to establish a Russian identity to their music.  This creation of a "Russian" identity was also taking place in the art world with the Peredvizhniki and in literature through the works of Turgenev, Dostoevskii and Tolstoi.  While this was, on one hand, an attempt to pioneer a "Russian" artistic expression in these cultural fields, the works of all of these artists were just as good--probably better--than anything being produced in the world at that time.  In other words, Dostoevskii, Chaikovskii and Il'ia Repin were not just "Russian" artists, they were "artists" (no national adjective needed).

But the Golden Age slowly began to disperse through the 1870s and then into the 1880s.  The literary age ended with the deaths of Turgenev in 1883 and Dostoevskii in 1881 and the publication of Tolstoi's Confession in 1884.  Music continued a bit longer into the 1890s but without Borodin and Mussorgskii and then Chaikovskii (1893).

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Some recommended books
  • Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, 5 vols. (1976-2002)
  • Walter Moss, Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (2002)
  • Lev Tolstoi, Death of Ivan Ilich (1882)
  • Lev Tolstoi, Resurrection (1889-1899)
  • Lev Tolstoi, What is Art? (1896-98)
  • David Brown, et al, Russian Masters, volume 1 (1986)
  • Elizabeth Valkenier, Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (1990)
  • Victor Terras, A History of Russian Literature (1991)
  • Yelena Nesterova, The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism (1996)


Some recommended Russian art websites:


Some recommended Russian music websites:
Some recommended Russian literature websites:



All materials on this site are copyright © 2005-11, B. Blois & C.T. Evans
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu