Music and the Russian Revolution

Music and the Russian Revolution

Pauline Fairclough discusses the impact of the Russian Revolution on Russian composers’ lives and careers.

During the year of revolution – the February and October revolutions of 1917 – and the bitter Civil War that followed, Russia’s musical life seemed as though it would fall apart entirely. The country that had produced the Russian National School, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky saw a haemorrhaging of musical talent that threatened to tear apart all that had been built up since the founding of the Conservatoires in Moscow and St Petersburg in the 1860s. Yet relatively few composers set themselves the task of reflecting this storm and stress during the revolutionary year itself, even though their own lives were greatly affected by those events. 

To understand why so much music from 1917 seems strangely serene, we need to see the revolution as a moment in time that did not, at least at first, bring the old musical culture to a standstill. To be sure, the first blow had already fallen with the outbreak of the First World War, which prevented touring artists from visiting, put several privately-run concert series out of business and sent a number of composers to the front. It also prevented Igor Stravinsky from continuing his practice of shuttling to and from Paris and Ustilug, his family’s estate in Ukraine. 

But it was the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917 that drove Sergei Rachmaninov into exile: he was the first major composer to abandon Lenin’s Russia, packing his bags and leaving with his family in November 1917. The last music he composed on Russian soil was for piano: an unpublished Prelude in D minor and the miniature Fragments, written on 14 and 15 November 1917, literally days before travelling across the border to Finland, never to return. The short Prelude is intensely chromatic, troubled in mood, and dominated by a menacing oscillating figure. Fragments is much gentler, but displays the same emotional uncertainty, with a wistful, searching theme framing a restless centre; the music hovers on the edge of becoming more robustly passionate, but retreats from it, turning back instead to wistful reflection. 

Sergey Rachmaninov: Fragments (1917). Performed by Idil Biret, piano. NAXOS. Shelfmark : 1CD0192278.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Alexander Glazunov – Preludes and Fugues op. 101

Yet though Rachmaninov’s departure represented a huge symbolic loss to Russian music, and though he was far from alone in deciding to leave, of those who stayed at least for a while, Alexander Glazunov was perhaps the most important of all. Not because he was an especially significant composer – though he was a prodigiously talented and prolific one – but because he remained at the helm of the Petrograd Conservatoire, maintained its standards and reputation despite his own considerable personal hardships during the Civil War, and shepherded the very young Dmitri Shostakovich through his studies there. 

In his Preludes and Fugues op. 101 (1918–1923) we see clearly what a towering master of this epic Baroque form Glazunov really was. The first of the set, no. 1, opens with a stately French Overture-style Prelude: Bach re-imagined in the 20th century, his spare, stark language powerfully eloquent over two hundred years later. The massive, virtuosic fugue lasts for over ten minutes – an imposing length only matched by a handful of Bach’s own keyboard fugues. It shows Glazunov’s true worth as a composer, and reminds us why, so many years later, Shostakovich acknowledged his enormous debt to the older composer for ensuring that he graduated with the peerless grasp of form and counterpoint that underpinned all his mature music.

Another older figure who stayed for several years after the revolution was the church music composer Alexander Grechaninov. Grechaninov’s second Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (composed 1917, also known as Domestic Liturgy) is unusual in that it is scored for choir, strings and organ instead of just choir, which meant it could only be a concert work, since instruments are barred from the Orthodox Rite. This radiantly lovely music is an eye of calm in the middle of the hurricane of revolution: about as far from the mayhem and stress of those years as could be imagined. 

Yet this music too tells a revolutionary story: Orthodox music was soon to be banned, many churches demolished and priests arrested. Grechaninov’s contemporary and fellow church musician Pavel Chesnokov was the last choirmaster at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, demolished at Stalin’s behest in 1933, and after which Chesnokov wrote no more music until his death in 1944. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was set by many Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Grechaninov, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Alexander Kastalsky, Rachmaninov and Chesnokov (his in 1914). Grechaninov’s was the last setting in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Igor Stravinsky – Les Noces, Pulcinella

Grechaninov would leave Russia in 1925 and make his final home in the United States. Another permanent exile was, of course, Stravinsky, who found himself cut off by war before the Bolshevik revolution sealed Russia’s borders and made him an exile rather than just a Russian composer currently working in Europe. Les Noces was the last of his Russian folk-inspired ballets for Sergei Diaghilev, finished in 1917 though not premiered until a few years later. And this work tells yet another revolutionary story, albeit obliquely. 

Les Noces, in both its music, set design and scenario – a Russian peasant wedding – is the product of a unique moment in time, and is also quintessentially a work of migration. Although its roots are to be found in Russian folk sources – Russian ethnographical books and song collections published in the 19th century – the modernist setting is indebted to the European Primitivist art movement, perhaps best exemplified by Pablo Picasso, with whom Stravinsky would soon collaborate on his ballet Pulcinella

Yet Stravinsky’s brand of Primitivism had a uniquely Russian flavour, and this is best illustrated by the costume designer for Les Noces, the Russian artist Natalia Goncharova. Though Goncharova also explored Futurist themes in her paintings of the 1910s, she was a master of stylised Russian peasant art – paintings like Peasant Women Picking Apples (1911) are in many ways the visual equivalent of Les Noces’ extraordinary music. 

The Russian peasant who found him- or herself on the receiving end of this radical treatment was not a symbol of nostalgia so much as of renewal and revived folk identity as a way of finding the ‘real’ in an age of bewildering mechanisation and urbanisation. Stravinsky was not nostalgic for folk Russia at the point at which he decided to compose Les Noces – the work was conceived already in 1913 – but he retained a lifelong deep affection for the piece which, in time, did become infused with his own sense of loss for the Russia of his childhood.

Igor Stravinsky, Les Noces, performed by Alison Wells, Soprano, Susan Bickley, Mezzo-soprano, Martyn Hill, Tenor, Alan Ewing, Basso-profundo, Simon Joly Chorale, International Piano Quartet, Tristan Fry Percussion Ensemble, and conducted by Robert Craft (NAXOS). Scene two - At the Bridegroom’s House (Extract). Shelfmark : 1CD0237781.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Stravinsky's 'Pulcinella' notebook

Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella notebook, Zweig MS 94

Stravinsky’s notebook for his ballet Pulcinella is believed to have been given by him to Picasso in June 1920.

View images from this item  (17)

Usage terms Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Boosey & Hawkes

Igor Stravinsky, Pulcinella, Ballet in one act with song for small orchestra and three solo voices. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Craft (NAXOS). 2. Serenata. Shelfmark : 1CD0257478.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony no. 1 ‘Classical’

Dazzled by Stravinsky’s success in Europe, Sergei Prokofiev followed in his footsteps at precisely the same age – 27 – and went to seek his fortune with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in Paris. He never intended to leave Russia permanently and, like the brilliant feuilleton and short story writer Teffi (who fled to Europe in the summer of 1918, just a few months after Prokofiev’s departure), imagined he would soon return. But Prokofiev did not realise the extent to which his country was in a state of near-collapse: as he travelled serenely along the Trans-Siberian line to Vladivostok (and thence to Japan, Honolulu and the United States) playing chess and reading philosophy, the line itself was in jeopardy due to fighting. Prokofiev's train would be the last Trans-Siberian for some time. 

His music from 1917 presents us with yet another surprise: the ‘Classical’ Symphony was composed during the months of fighting that would see the Provisional Government hounded from power and exiled, and Lenin’s administration installed in its place. He wrote it mostly in his country retreat of Sablino, a haven of tranquillity about forty kilometres south of Petrograd, walking happily in the fields and woods, and, as he put it in his diary, ‘hugging myself with delight’ as he wrote out the finale. He wondered in passing if the joyous spirit of his symphony was slightly indecent; and though we do not usually remember the connection between this work and the dark history behind it, it is this uplifting quality that throws up yet another of those apparent anomalies when we look at the music written in the year of revolution itself.

Sergey Prokofiev: Symphony No.1 in D Major, ‘Classical’, Op.25. Performed by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Marin Alsop. NAXOS. Gavotta - Non troppo allegro. Shelfmark: 1CD0343375.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.

Arthur Lourié –The Piano in the Nursery

Far less well known to us now, but influential in the new Bolshevik regime, was the composer Arthur Lourié, Prokofiev’s close contemporary. Though he was initially given a lot of power, he quickly became disillusioned and left (under the pretext of a swift return) in 1922. Anxious to establish himself as an exciting new modern voice, he publicly aligned himself with the Russian Futurist movement, though in fact most of his music could not possibly be heard as in any way the sonic equivalent of the art movement that, in 1912, boldly advocated the ‘throwing overboard’ of Pushkin and other Russian classics ‘from the steamship of modernity’. Lourié’s Piano in the Nursery (‘Royal v detskoy’) also dates from the revolutionary year of 1917, but displays nothing more adventurous than a gentle pentatonicism (‘Porcelain pastorale’) and the ‘Bogey-Man’ movement even echoes Musorgsky’s ‘Cattle’ from Pictures at an Exhibition

This delightful suite of miniatures puts Lourié in quite a distinctive historical niche: clearly referencing both Debussy and Musorgsky, but combining both with the mild shock effects of early 20th-century pianism: modest dissonance, cheeky tone-clusters and the occasional glissandi. Its sound world places it somewhere between Debussy’s Children’s Corner and its exact contemporary, Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, with which it shares its brilliant characterisation and exploitation of extremes of piano register.

Arthur Lourié: The Piano in the Nursery

Arthur Lourie: The Piano in the Nursery, g.652.hh.

Arthur Lourié’s The Piano in the Nursery, composed in 1917, was published in 1920 by the music division of the Soviet State Publishing House, with illustrations by the graphic artist and painter Petr Vasilievich Miturich.

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers: Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd.  Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Held by© Boosey & Hawkes

Arthur Lourié, Rojal 'v detskoj (The Piano in the Nursery), performed by Moritz Ernst, piano. NAXOS. 3. Paĭ (Good as gold). Shelfmark : 1CD0360431.

Used with kind permission of Naxos Classical.


The paradox of Russia’s ‘revolutionary’ music is that the real music of revolution as we might at first think of it – music that supported the Bolshevik regime and addressed itself explicitly to a mass proletarian audience – took many years to evolve. In the end, it was the younger generation of Shostakovich and his fellow modernists of the 1920s like Alexander Mosolov who would rise to the call of what ‘October’ meant in music, with works like Mosolov’s 1927 Zavod (‘The Iron Foundry’) conspicuously inspired by Honegger’s Pacific 231 of 1923, and Shostakovich’s Second Symphony, ‘To October’, celebrating the Revolution’s Tenth anniversary and setting revolutionary verses that ended with the words – shouted out by the choir – ‘October, the Commune, and Lenin!’

Aleksandr Mosolov: Zavod

Aleksandr Mosolov, 'Zavod',

Zavod (The Iron Foundry) was initially part of Mosolov's ballet Stal’  (Steel), and became his most famous piece.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Reproduced with permission by UNIVERSAL EDITION A.G., Wien. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Universal Edition

  • Pauline Fairclough
  • Pauline Fairclough writes on Soviet music and culture and is Professor of Music at the University of Bristol. She is currently writing a biography of Shostakovich for Reaktion Press.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.