Russian winters are colder, longer and deeper than most, so it’s no surprise that Russian composers depict the season so well. So wrap yourself in a warm coat and snuggle down in a troika for our ride across the snowy landscapes of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov.

Symphony no. 1 in G minor, “Winter Daydreams” (Tchaikovsky)

In 1866, Tchaikovsky had just been appointed to teach harmony at the Moscow Conservatory and decided to write a symphony – not a musical form which had any strong tradition at that point in Russia. Composers such as Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, members of The Mighty Handful, were busily trying to establish a distinctive national style, far from Germanic influences, having just composed their own first symphonies. Tchaikovsky felt the time was ripe for him to have a go.

Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov: Snegurochka (Snow Maiden)
© Wikipedia - Public Domain

Although it is not an openly programmatic work, the first two movements of “Winter Daydreams” (Tchaikovsky’s own title, unlike some of his other symphonies) do conjure up specific, wintry landscapes. Over shivering strings, flute and bassoon double a wistful, pining theme, bringing a distinctly Russian snap as you step into the snow. The music of this first movement, subtitled “Daydreams of a Winter Journey”, is more like a tone poem painting rather than a traditional symphonic argument; flutes conjure up snow flurries as the strings thicken and icy brass stabs puncture your winter coat. There are fierce violin pizzicatos – this is not an easy journey but a bracing one all the same.

In “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists”, there is a sluggish mood, from which the oboe uncurls with a sentimental, haunting theme, the flute providing encouraging commentary. Tchaikovsky’s scherzo is the work’s most “westernised” movement; with its dainty, elven woodwinds, it could easily have been modelled on Mendelssohn. The finale, based on a pair of folk songs, the lugubrious introduction leading to a more vigorous tune which could easily be a cossack dance.

The symphony earned a terrible reception from Anton Rubinstein at a playthrough, after which it was not approved for performance: “I spent the entire day wandering about the town repeating to myself ‘I am sterile, I am a nonentity, nothing will ever come of me, I have no talent.’” Twenty years later, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck: “Despite all its glaring deficiencies I have a soft spot for it, for it is a sin of my sweet youth.”

The Seasons (Glazunov)

Alexander Glazunov’s music is not often performed now, which is more the pity, because he was as full of melodic invention as Tchaikovsky. His ballet The Seasons was composed in 1899, premiered at the Mariinsky to choreography by Marius Petipa. Winter opens proceedings, surrounded by her companions Frost, Ice, Hail and Snow. There is much use of swirling strings, trilling flutes and glistening percussion.

The Snow Maiden (Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov)

In Russian legend, Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, is the daughter of Father Frost and Spring Beauty. She lives a sheltered existence, growing up yearning for human company. Adopted by a village couple, she falls in love with Lel, a shepherd boy… but her heart melts and she dies.

Tchaikovsky’s music was composed for a play by Alexander Ostrovsky. “It is one of my favourite offspring,” Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck. “I think the happy spring-like mood with which I was filled at the time must be audible in the music.” His delicious score was composed in the spring of 1873, making liberal use of a folksong collection Tchaikovsky had just edited.

Rimsky-Korsakov later composed an operatic version of the same tale, which premiered at the Mariinsky in 1882. In the prologue, much use is made of an oboe to imitate the shepherd boy’s pipe while the shrill piccolo cries over shimmering strings summon a wintry blast. Both Tchaikovsky and Rimsky have great fun in their peasant folksy Dance of the Tumblers.

The Waltz of the Snowflakes (Tchaikovsky)

No Russian Christmas would be complete without Tchaikovsky’s toothsome ballet The Nutcracker. The finale of Act 1 finds our heroine, Clara, whisked off to the Land of Sweets by her nutcracker prince. In the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Tchaikovsky introduces his corps de ballet to flickering flutes. Once the waltz proper gets under way, he adds an off-stage children’s choir to magical effect.

The Snowstorm (Sviridov)

Georgy Sviridov wrote this score for Vladimir Basov's 1964 film The Snowstorm, based on a strange short story by Pushkin. His suite opens with a troika dashing into view, promising a wild ride!