During the three decades before the Revolution, Russian music was part of a flourishing cultural world that was deeply entwined with wider European culture, particularly that of France. The term “Silver Age” is used mainly to describe Russian poetry of the time, but unlike the “Golden Age” in which Pushkin forged the Russian language into its literary form, the Silver Age was a time when music, dance and the visual arts were as glittering as the poetry, and artists thrived on collaborations across genres. When the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war smashed through Russian society a hundred years ago, the close links between Russian and European music, and between Russian art, music and literature were shattered, and a new artistic world had to be built on what was left.

Alexander Scriabin and Serge Koussevitzky, by Robert Sterl
Alexander Scriabin and Serge Koussevitzky, by Robert Sterl

The defining force of the Silver Age was Symbolism, a reaction against the deterministic materialism of the industrialising world and the great scientific discoveries of the 19th century. The Russian Symbolists, like others across Europe, used art to search for and express deeper meanings behind the superficialities of the modern world, testing and breaking moral and spiritual boundaries in the process. Decadent poets like Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius explored the ideas of theosophy, a mystical philosophy whose adherents sought to know God through spiritual ecstasy. Alongside them, Alexander Scriabin was developing these ideas in music, using chords and intervals as symbolic expressions. Scriabin’s Seventh Piano Sonata, “White Mass”, is awash with bells and incense, and explodes at the end in a blaze of light, whilst the Ninth, the “Black Mass” is a descent into a demonic vortex and, like all Scriabin’s later sonatas, they are marked by atonal dissonance and rhythmic complexity; absorbing, beautiful and absolutely terrifying – and that’s just for the listener.

As the symbolist movement matured, the everyday world and the gritty reality of life in big industrialised cities superimposed itself on the mysticism. One symbolic idea that found its way into all art forms was that of the puppet booth, and the poets Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely drew heavily on the commedia dell’arte figures of Harlequin, Columbine and Pierrot (reflecting their own love-triangle with Blok’s wife Lyuba). The most famous incarnation of the puppet booth love-triangle though is Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, a piece that demonstrates perfectly the fertile collaborations that existed across artistic genres, and one that for me, more than any other artistic work symbolises the febrile atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg.

Page from a Ballets russes souvenir programme for <i>Petrushka</i>, 1911 © Wikicommons
Page from a Ballets russes souvenir programme for Petrushka, 1911
© Wikicommons

Petrushka was the second of three ballets that Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and, like The Firebird and the Rite of Spring, it draws heavily on Russian folk culture, this time with an overlay of urban grit. Diaghilev himself was the spider at the heart of the web of Russian Symbolism, energetically immersed in every aspect of Russian art, and through his aptly named Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement, he had exhibited artists and published poets. At one stage he had wanted to become a professional singer, and he had studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov: this musical background, combined with his fascination with the stage, led to Diaghilev founding the Ballets Russes in Paris, a dance company that broke away from the formalities of classical ballet, and put emphasis on natural, flowing movements. The vividly beautiful sets and costumes for The Firebird and Petrushka were designed by Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, two of the leading artists of the symbolist movement – their designs stand as works of art in their own right.

Benois asked Stravinsky to write a “symphony of the street” for Petrushka, and that is a perfect description of restless, fizzing energy of the ballet. It’s set in a puppet booth at maslenitsa, the Shrovetide fair, an event which in Russians allow themselves a brief moment of respite from their harsh winter. The maslenitsa of Petrushka seems much like one I went to once in Moscow: it’s not a pretty, bucolic occasion, but a grotesque urban carnival, marked by dirty snow, pushing crowds, tawdry entertainments and too much vodka; an outlet for all the tensions that would eventually lead to revolution.

The details in this Bolshoi video of a 1997 production capture it all:

By 1917, Stravinsky was already spending most of his time in Europe, and Sergei Rachmaninov, whose music was a continuation of the Romantic tradition, left Russia after the revolution when the regime seized his beloved country estate, Ivanovka. From the start, Sergei Prokofiev had a more complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks. He left Russia in 1918, but with in possession of a Soviet passport, and with the blessing of the Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and he returned to live permanently in Russia in 1936. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, written just before he left  mirrored a trend in poetry led by Anna Akhmatova that turned away from decadence towards simplicity and grace, but Prokofiev is never easy to pin down, for in the same year wrote the cantata Seven, they are Seven, a demonic explosion of noise and energy that sets a text by the symbolist poet Konstantin Bal’mont based on a cuneiform inscription from Mesopotamia.

Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian © Wikicommons
Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian
© Wikicommons

Music requires collectivity, stability and large resources of time, space and money, all of which were almost non-existent during the civil war. As things settled down, music, like everything else, became subject to political ideologies. Lenin himself was ambivalent about Western art; he saw it as something to learn from, but he wasn’t personally committed to art, and was happy to leave cultural matters to Lunacharsky, who encouraged the avant-garde, and supported artists who wanted to make their own revolution to match the political and sociological one.

Another strand of thinking viewed ‘classical’ music as a bourgeois luxury that poisoned and corrupted the mind, and organisations such as Proletkult and the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, demanded simple music that the masses could understand and take part in, the music of marching machines and the relentless production of the factories and mines. One audience of workers apparently preferred the pounding of Deshevov’s piano piece Rails to Beethoven. Alexander Mosolov’s brutal Zavod (The Iron Foundry), is a wall of sound that includes a sheet of steel in its orchestration:

The early Soviet years also gave rise to interesting anarchic experiments, such as Persymphans a full-sized symphony orchestra that attempted to operate without a conductor, and explorations of new ways of creating sound. One outcome of these experiments was the instrument invented by an electronic engineer and amateur cellist, Leon Theremin: the eerie swooping sound of the theremin is produced by the player’s hand moving through an electromagnetic field generated by two antennae.

One composer stands out as the thread that held everything together through these chaotic years, the link that gets us from the world of Scriabin to Shostakovich. Nikolai Myaskovsky was born in 1880 and began his composing career within the Mir Iskusstva movement, setting the poetry of Zinaida Gippius and others: his setting of Gippius’s poem Leeches is a particularly extreme and sickly example of decadent poetry, with cloying music to match: “I see leeches clinging also to my soul... leeches, black leeches of ravening sin” – there’s no recording that I can find, but here are two other Gippius settings, from the collection Premonitions.  

Two songs from Myaskovsky’s settings of “Premonitions” by Gippius - No.5 Vnezapno “Unawares” and No.4 Zaklinan’e “The Incantation”

Nikolai Myaskovsky © Wikicommons
Nikolai Myaskovsky
© Wikicommons
Despite the fact that his father was shot by a revolutionary in 1919, Myaskovsky remained quietly in Russia, teaching composition at the Moscow Conservatoire, where he became known as the “conscience of Russian music”: his students included Khachaturian, and although Shostakovich decided to remain in Leningrad to study, he sought Myaskovsky’s advice when writing his first symphony.  During Prokofiev’s years abroad, Myaskovsky championed his music in the Soviet Union, while Prokofiev returned the favour in the West. Tom Service included Myaskovsky’s 10th symphony in his “50 greatest symphonies” series for the Guardian, writing that it is “a truly remarkable document of early 20th-century symphonic history in terms of its sounds, structure, energy, musical language [and] formal compression”, https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/feb/18/symphony-guide-myaskovskys-tenth-tom-service

The symphony was written for Persymphans, the conductorless orchestra, and like so much Russian art, draws its inspiration from Pushkin – in this case, the poem The Bronze Horseman, a gothic story of the famous statue coming to life and chasing the poem’s hero through a flooded city, and you can hear the rushing waters, the pounding hooves and the sheer terror in the music as the story unfolds.

Once Stalin had consolidated his grip on power, all the wild social and artistic experiments of the 1920s came to an end. Socialist Realism was the order of the day; composers, writers and artists shared a common purpose again, but this time it was imposed from above: all had to depict positive images of Soviet life or risk everything. The various musical groups were brought together into the Ministry of Culture’s Union of Soviet Composers in 1932. Writing in 1936 about the process of writing his twelfth symphony, The Collective Farm, Myaskovsky sums up the problems and compromises that would beset Soviet composers for the next two decades:

When the first news of the plan of collectivization of rural agriculture reached me, I decided to write a symphony that would reflect the struggle for the new social order in the villages. But my Symphony did not come off as I had planned. It was schematic. I failed to find an adequate form for the last movement, which expressed my basic idea in a merely external manner, without inner conviction ....


[with thanks to Prof. Philip Bullock for his useful suggestions and guidance].