Known for its vodka, the Kremlin, nesting dolls, and literature, Russia has also had its share of greatness in the arts. The classical music world was no exception, producing some of the best composers in the world.
These men and women, with their unique and groundbreaking styles, lead the way in a number of different genres, inspiring new generations of musicians to continue their legacy.
In this post, we’re going to look at the lives and music of 13 of the greatest Russian composers who have contributed hugely to the world of classical music. Let’s get started.
Related: Next, check out our list of the greatest composers of all time here.
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Renowned composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, in Votkinsk, Russian Empire. At an early age, he displayed an aptitude for music and received piano lessons as a child. However, his family initially encouraged him to pursue a career in law.
Despite this, Tchaikovsky’s passion for music couldn’t be suppressed, and he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study composition. There, he honed his skills and became deeply influenced by the works of prominent composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner.
Tchaikovsky’s compositions encompass a wide range of genres, including symphonies, ballets, operas, chamber music, and concertos. Some of his most famous works are the ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty, as well as symphonies like Pathétique Symphony and Fifth Symphony.
Despite his accomplishments, Tchaikovsky faced personal struggles. He grappled with his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. However, this inner struggle often fueled his music, resulting in deeply emotional compositions.
Sadly, Tchaikovsky’s life was cut short at the age of 53. The exact cause of his death remains a subject of debate, but it is believed to be due to cholera or possibly suicide.
Related: Next, check out our list of facts about Tchaikovsky here.
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff
Next, we have composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff, who is widely considered among the finest pianists of his time and one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music.
Born in 1873 in a small town in Russia, Rachmaninoff showed exceptional musical talent at a young age. He began piano lessons at the age of four, and at age 10, he entered the Moscow Conservatory.
Rachmaninoff’s early successes were as a composer with the popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor (part of his Morceaux de Fantaisie, op. 3) and his First Piano Concerto.
Despite this, Rachmaninoff faced a period of creative struggle. The negative reception of his Symphony No. 1 deeply affected him, leading to a period of depression and writer’s block. He eventually overcame these challenges and regained his creativity.
In 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia due to the Russian Revolution and settled in the United States. During his years there, he wrote some of his most essential works, like Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Third and Fourth Piano Concertos.
Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninoff fell ill and died of melanoma in 1943. Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff’s music continues to be cherished today for its lyrical beauty, depth, and pianistic challenges.
3. Igor Stravinsky
Oranienbaum, Russia, saw the birth of Igor Stravinsky in 1882. He showed an early aptitude for music and received training in piano and composition. He initially gained recognition for his ballet music.
In his early years, Stravinsky’s compositions were influenced by Russian folk music. Works like Petrushka, The Firebird, and The Rite of Spring exemplify this period.
The Rite of Spring, in particular, premiered in 1913 and caused a notorious riot due to its avant-garde nature and bold portrayal of pagan rituals. However, this piece revolutionized music and marked a turning point in Stravinsky’s career.
In the 1920s, Stravinsky’s style shifted towards neoclassicism, drawing inspiration from earlier musical forms. His compositions from this period, such as Pulcinella and Symphony of Psalms, combined elements of past styles with his own unique musical language, resulting in a fresh and inventive sound.
As a conductor and music theorist, Stravinsky made significant contributions to the understanding and interpretation of music as well. His book Poetics of Music remains a valuable resource for musicians and scholars alike.
In 1939, Stravinsky emigrated to the US and became a naturalized citizen in 1945. He continued to compose works up until his death in New York City at the age of 88.
4. Dmitri Shostakovich
Our next Russian composer is celebrated for his symphonies, string quartets, and film scores. Born in 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich began his musical education at a young age. His talent for composition was evident early, and by 19, he was studying at the Petrograd Conservatory.
His Symphony No. 1 in F Minor premiered in 1926, marking the start of his career as a pianist and composer. Though criticized for his piano playing style, Shostakovich focused on his compositions.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, under Josef Stalin’s rule, Shostakovich faced increasing scrutiny. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was condemned by the government. Despite this, he continued to compose, creating the Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, which was well received.
The challenges he faced did not hinder his creativity. After contributing to music through 15 symphonies, 15 string quartets, and numerous film scores, Shostakovich died in 1975 from heart failure.
Shostakovich’s music remains a testament to the power of artistic expression in the face of adversity. His ability to capture the human experience with honesty and depth has solidified his place as one of the most significant composers of the 20th century, leaving a lasting impact on the world of classical music.
5. Alexander Borodin
Born in 1833 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Alexander Borodin initially pursued a career in chemistry and medicine. He made notable advancements in organic chemistry and became a respected professor. However, his passion for music remained strong, and he composed in his spare time.
Borodin’s compositions drew inspiration from his Russian heritage and incorporated elements of Russian folk music into his works, infusing them with a distinct nationalistic flavor.
One of Borodin’s most famous and beloved compositions is his Symphony No. 2 in B Minor. Though it initially had a lukewarm premiere in 1877, it later found success with minor revisions under the direction of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Another notable work is his opera Prince Igor, which remained unfinished at the time of his death.
Despite his notable achievements in music, Borodin’s compositions were often overshadowed by his scientific career. Borodin passed away suddenly at the age of 53, and it was only after his death that his music gained broader recognition and appreciation.
6. Sergei Prokofiev
Our next Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, is viewed as one of the major composers of the 20th century. Like many on this list, Prokofiev showed prodigious talent as a young child. He learned piano from his mother, and at the age of 13, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
One of Prokofiev’s most famous works is his ballet, Romeo and Juliet. This masterpiece showcases his exceptional talent for storytelling through music; his ballet remains one of his most performed and beloved compositions.
In addition to ballets, Prokofiev composed symphonies, concertos, operas, and chamber music. His Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 3 are still widely celebrated and performed today.
Prokofiev had a successful career in Russia and internationally, but he faced political challenges. He clashed with Soviet authorities who wanted to control artistic expression and enforce socialist realism, significantly impacting his creativity.
Despite these struggles, he stayed committed to his artistic vision and overcame those obstacles. Prokofiev continued to compose until his death in 1953, which sadly went largely unnoticed as it occurred on the same day as Joseph Stalin’s death.
7. Modest Mussorgsky
In Karevo in 1839, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was born into a distinguished family. His mother, who was an accomplished pianist, taught him to play piano at a young age. By nine, he was performing works by composers like Franz Liszt.
Mussorgsky initially pursued a career in the civil service but eventually dedicated himself to music. Despite his lack of formal musical training, he demonstrated remarkable creativity and originality in his compositions.
One of Mussorgsky’s most famous works is his piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. Inspired by an art exhibition, each movement of the suite represents a different painting, capturing its essence through colorful harmonies.
Another notable work by Mussorgsky is his A Night on Bald Mountain, composed in 1867. This haunting orchestral tone poem portrays a night of witches’ revelry on a desolate mountain.
Despite his immense talent, Mussorgsky faced personal struggles and battled alcoholism, which tragically contributed to his early death at the age of 42. His compositions gained wider recognition after his passing, thanks to the efforts of his fellow composers and the revision and orchestration of his works by other musicians.
8. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
A master of orchestration, we have Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, born in 1844 in Tikhvin, Russia, This renowned composer was integral to the 19th-century classical music scene.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony in E-Flat Minor premiered in 1865, marking the start of his serious foray into composition. However, he is perhaps best known for his operas.
One of his most famous works, Scheherazade, an orchestral suite composed in 1888, is noted for its rich use of orchestration to tell the story of One Thousand and One Nights. Other well-known works include The Golden Cockerel and, of course, Flight of the Bumblebee.
His proficiency in composition and orchestration was widely recognized, leading to his appointment as a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. Throughout his career, he also spent considerable effort revising and editing the works of his colleagues, most notably Mussorgsky’s pieces after his death.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s significant contributions to classical music continued until his death in 1908, leaving behind a legacy of innovative, brilliant classical compositions.
9. Mikhail Glinka
Up next, we have Mikhail Glinka, regarded as the father of Russian classical music. Born in 1804, he created a distinctly Russian musical identity and paved the way for future generations of Russian composers.
After displaying an early passion for music, Glinka received formal musical training. Then when he took a position with the Department of Public Highways in St. Petersburg, his compositional career began to flourish.
However, due to health problems, he left his job and began traveling in Italy. Inspired by the music of Donizetti and Bellini, Glinka began composing works with a uniquely Russian flavor. Among his earliest works were Six Studies for Contralto and Capriccio on Russian Themes.
On returning to Russia, Glinka composed his first opera, A Life for the Tsar, which premiered successfully in 1836. However, his second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, wasn’t as warmly received.
This setback led Glinka into a period of depression, during which he wrote Fantasies Pittoresques for Berlioz’s orchestra and the Spanish Overture No. 1 Capriccio Brilliante on the Jota Aragonesa.
Glinka’s popularity grew throughout Europe, and he continued to compose until his sudden death in 1857. His profound influence on Russian music resonated through the works of future composers, firmly establishing him as a pioneer of the Russian classical tradition.
10. Irving Berlin
Our next composer came later than the ones we have already listed. Irving Berlin was born in 1888 in Tyumen, Russia; however, he emigrated to the US with his family when he was five. Living in poverty for most of his young life, Berlin taught himself piano as he worked in bars to survive.
His keen ear for melodies and an intuitive understanding of music composition allowed him to capture the spirit of the times and create works that captivated audiences. He went on to compose scores for Broadway musicals, including acclaimed works such as Annie Get Your Gun in 1946 and Call Me Madam in 1950.
However, Berlin’s impact extends far beyond the theater. He composed a vast catalog of songs that have become an integral part of American music. Classics like “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are just a few examples of his timeless compositions.
Irving Berlin’s cultural impact is undeniable. His music has shaped American popular culture, serving as a soundtrack to significant moments in history. His contributions earned him numerous honors, including the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.
11. Alexander Scriabin
Alexander Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872 into a relatively aristocratic family. He displayed an early talent for music, and at the age of 16, he was enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano under the renowned teacher Nikolai Zverev and composition under Arensky and Taneyev.
Early in his career, Scriabin was heavily influenced by the Romantic era’s composers, especially Frédéric Chopin. His early works, including many for solo piano, such as the Études and Preludes, demonstrate this.
However, as his career progressed, Scriabin’s work became more innovative and individualistic. He started to move towards atonality, abandoning traditional key centers, and he began to explore mysticism, philosophy, and the synesthetic relationship between color and sound (he famously associated specific colors with particular musical keys).
One of his most ambitious projects was a work he never completed: Mysterium, intended to be a week-long performance involving music, light, and dance.
Scriabin’s works, particularly his late pieces, were controversial and often poorly received in his time, but they’ve been reassessed and recognized for their innovative qualities.
He died relatively young, at the age of 43, from septicemia, likely due to a minor lip injury. Despite his short life, Scriabin left a significant mark on the world of music, influencing many composers that followed.
12. Mily Balakirev
Born in 1837, Mily Balakirev, the leader of the Russian Five (a.k.a. The Five or The Mighty Handful), was born into a noble family in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. His early musical education began at home under his mother’s guidance and later with Alexandre Dubuque in Moscow.
Balakirev began composing and conducting a local orchestra at 15. While studying mathematics at the University of Kazan, he gained recognition as a pianist.
After his studies, Balakirev was introduced to composer Mikhail Glinka in St. Petersburg, who encouraged him to pursue a career in music. After the deaths of his mentors Ulybyshev and Glinka in 1857, Balakirev continued composing and performing, gaining popularity with compositions like King Lear and Overture on Russian Themes.
During this period, he also mentored young composers like César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, eventually forming The Mighty Five, which included Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. This group led the Free School of Music.
Balakirev faced a decade of depression and professional setbacks, prompting a withdrawal from the music world between 1872 and 1876. Eventually, he returned to assume leadership at the Free School of Music. He continued composing until his retirement in 1900. He passed away in 1910 at the age of 73.
13. César Cui
Born in 1835 in Vilna, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire), our next composer, César Cui, led a diverse and accomplished life in the realms of music, criticism, and engineering.
He became known as a composer, music critic, and military engineer and was a member of the esteemed group of composers referred to as The Five. This influential group also included Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, and Mily Balakirev.
While Cui is often considered the lesser-known member of The Five, he made notable contributions to Russian music. He composed in various genres, including chamber music and operas, like William Ratcliff and The Captain’s Daughter.
In 1858, he married Malvina Rafailovna Bamberg, to whom he dedicated his orchestral Scherzo, Op. 1, which premiered in 1859. Despite the unsuccessful debut of his first opera in 1869, Cui persevered, producing over a dozen operas and earning critical acclaim.
Later in his life, Cui lost his sight, yet he continued to compose by dictation. His rich oeuvre includes 276 musical compositions, numerous books on music and military fortification, and over 800 articles for various publications.
After an impactful career, Cui succumbed to cerebral apoplexy in 1918. He left a long legacy of compositions that continue to be performed and appreciated.
Summing Up The Best Russian Composers
That wraps up our post on the greatest composers from Russia. We hope you’ve enjoyed this list and hopefully discovered some new composers.
As you can see, all of these composers have contributed not only to the evolution of Russian music but to classical music as a whole and are well worth having on your playlist.
Let us know if you think we’ve missed anyone. We’ll get them added to our list!