When French boots marched onto Russian soil in June 1812, a sea change in Russian culture and music was precipitated. Previous to Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempted invasion of the Russian Empire, the Russian political and cultural elite was in thrall to the aesthetics of France and other Western European nations. Ever since Peter the Great ascended as Tsar in 1682, the aristocracy had sought to modernise the nation and its culture, which meant shearing away the slavic, feudal and Eastern Orthodox elements for more secularised and cosmopolitan tendencies.

Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky © Wikimedia Commons
Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky
© Wikimedia Commons

Yet that all changed from 1812. The intellectual class, feeling betrayed by the country from which it had taken so many of its cultural cues, set about trying to forge a distinctly Russian sense of cultural identity. Just as in visual art and literature, music was an important battleground in this war for a quantifiable national character. Musical instruments are not used in Eastern Orthodox churches, meaning the growth of an instrumental repertoire in Russia had been stunted in comparison to the Lutheran and Catholic traditions of the West. What’s more, before the 1800s courtly music was provided by German or Italian, rather than native, composers. Russian composers now had their work cut out.

But this new generation of composers didn’t look to their nation’s gleaming future for their inspiration. Instead, they looked to the past, to the centuries-old tradition of the folk tale and to carefully selected historical episodes of national triumph. One such composer was Mikhail Glinka, who was one of the first Russian composers to employ the use of dance rhythms and melodies from indigenous folksong. The work that perhaps best represents his use of history to project a sense of national identity is his 1836 opera A Life for the Tsar. It relates the story of a peasant named Ivan Susanin, who reportedly sacrificed his life for Tsar Mikhail during the Polish invasion of Russia in 1613. The story had been extracted from historical documents dating from throughout the 17th century and although some historians doubted their veracity, the patriotic image of the noble peasant was held up by the establishment as a shining example of loyalty to the Tsar. The fact that Glinka changed the name of the opera from Ivan Susanin to A Life for the Tsar after the monarch of the time, Nicholas I, attended one of the rehearsals, reveals the extent to which composers’ exploration of national history was influenced by their relationship with the political elite. The cultural policy of the Tsarist regime was characterised by prohibitions, bans and censorship, and this undoubtedly fed into the way in which composers such as Glinka used history to create a Russian identity through music. The opera was certainly successful in earning the regime’s endearment. When the Romanov dynasty celebrated the 300th anniversary of its reign in 1913, A Life for the Tsar was staged in a gala performance at the Mariinsky Theatre, as well as by amateur societies throughout the land.

Konstantin Makovsky's 1914 painting Ivan Susanin © Wikimedia Commons | Sotheby
Konstantin Makovsky's 1914 painting Ivan Susanin
© Wikimedia Commons | Sotheby

During the second half of the 19th century, a second generation of Russian composers followed Glinka’s example in using historical material to create a new nationalist musical aesthetic. This “Mighty Handful” was comprised of Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky. Like Glinka, they sought to create a distinct sense of “Russianness” in their music by incorporating elements of folk music and reflecting the sounds of daily Russian life by using church bells and religious chants in their works. But there was a somewhat jingoistic aspect to their musical patriotism: at the time, Tsar Alexander II was expanding the empire eastward, a cause reflected in Borodin’s tone poem In The Steppes of Central Asia. Opera, too, could be a vehicle for the Five’s nationalistic explorations of Russian history. Borodin’s Prince Igor, for example, celebrates the campaign by 12th-century prince Igor Svyatoslavich against invading Turkic nomads. Rimsky-Korsakov, meanwhile, dealt with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in The Maid of Pskov, though admittedly that work focuses on the psychology of the characters rather than military feats.

One composer from this period who had a more uneasy relationship with national history is Tchaikovsky, whose 1812 Overture – one of the most famous pieces in the classical canon –was originally commissioned to commemorate the Russian victory at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. Yet the premise for this perceived national triumph was flawed. It’s now thought that Napoleon’s troops won the upper hand in the battle itself, but were forced to withdraw because of overstretched supply lines. By the 1880s, however, the episode was immortalised as a resounding victory brought about by Russian military skill. This act of historical misremembering resulted in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, which was built as a tribute to the battle, and which Tchaikovsky’s piece was intended to inaugurate. The overture is packed with musical references to Russian culture and spirituality. Opening with a rousing Eastern Orthodox hymn “O Lord, save Thy people”, the work precedes to enact the battle itself, with the Russian folk song “At The Door, At My Door” driven out by an advancing Marseillaise, which is subsequently battered back by five carefully planned cannon blasts. Having bashed the work out in a matter of weeks, Tchaikovsky himself was neither fond nor proud of the overture, remarking that it was “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.” Perhaps he was uneasy with glorifying war.

Yevgeniya Zbruyeva as Marfa in a 1911 production of <i>Khovanshchina</i> © Wikimedia Commons
Yevgeniya Zbruyeva as Marfa in a 1911 production of Khovanshchina
© Wikimedia Commons

For a more complex and worrisome musical view of Russian history, one could look back to the operas of Mussorgsky, another member of the Mighty Handful. Mussorgsky developed a realist aesthetic that one could argue extended to his treatment of Russian history. Both Khovanshchina (1880) and Boris Godunov (1881) deal not with celebrated moments of national pride, but historical episodes which highlight the fractiousness of the Russian people. Khovanshchina deals with political unrest in the time of Tsar Peter I, stemming from his attempts to modernise the country. At around that time, two factions rebelled against the monarchy: the Old Believers, a group of religious dissenters who opposed the theological reforms of Patriarch Nikon, and the Streltsy, a branch of the military who supported the revolt led by Prince Ivan Khovansky. Mussorgsky’s opera, essentially a historical tragedy with echoes of King Lear, gives voice to the deep divisions that haunt Russia’s past – there’s no jingoistic revisionism here. The tenor of the work might best be summed up by the choral section named “Akh, ty Rodnaya, Matushka Rus” (“Woe to thee native, Mother Rus”). In the song, the chorus bemoans the state of the nation, saying that it is not suffering due to a foreign invader but due to its own inner conflict. The grim ending, in which the defeated Old Believers self-immolate in an act of collective suicide, is a disturbing reminder of the horrors of civil war.

Though the actual historical events on which Khovanshchina is based took place over a twelve-year period, Mussorgsky condenses them into a single episode, heightening the sense of conflict and pain. Boris Godunov, meanwhile, deals with the crisis of succession following the death of Tsar Feodor I in 1598, with Mussorgsky’s libretto based on a historical novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin. Once again, fractiousness and inner conflict come to the fore. After the mysterious death of the eight-year-old Tsarevich Dmitriy Ivanovich – Feodor’s initial successor – Boris takes the throne. In Poland, a monk called Grigory learns that he shares a birthday with the Tsarevich, decides to pose as the young Dmitry and attempts to take the throne for himself. His coup is successful and Godunov is defeated, yet the ordinary Russian people remain poor and starving, doomed to suffer under an oppressive ruler. The lot of ordinary Russians really was desperate during this time – the real-life Godunov introduced repressive measures that further limited the freedoms of the country’s serfs.

Feodor Chaliapin as Boris Godunov in 1913 © Wikimedia Commons
Feodor Chaliapin as Boris Godunov in 1913
© Wikimedia Commons

The musical fight for Russian history reached a new level of intensity after the revolution of 1917, with all its new ideological aims. Particularly interesting is the way in which the Soviet Union commemorated its own history through music, as seen in Prokofiev’s 1937 Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution. If the establishment’s control over composers had been strong during the Tsarist era, by the time Stalin consolidated his power its grip was even tighter. Prokofiev intended the work to eulogise the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution, and when he was contracted for the work, Boris Gusman of the All-Union Radio Committee stipulated that it must conform to the criteria: “a) suitability for broadcast b) correct and precise political aims; and c) artistic goals.” The resulting piece told the story of the Soviet Union, from the storming of the Winter Palace right up to Stalin’s more recent industrial and agricultural reforms. While its programmatic themes could not have been more ideologically pure, its daring Modernist inflections – according to the Committee for Artistic Affairs – were not, and the piece was banned. It didn’t get its première until 1966 – by which time both the composer and the dictator were dead. Prokofiev, like his compatriots in the Tsarist era, helped mythologise Russian history through music. 80 years later, we can see the gap between music and reality.