8 of the Greatest Russian Composers of All Time

Last updated

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 with unique and ground breaking styles they lead the way in a number of different genres.

In this post, we’re going to look at the lives and music of some of the greatest Russian composers who have contributed hugely to the world of classical music.

The Five

Known as The New Russian School, The Big Five, The Mighty Five, The Russian Five, and Russian Moguchaya Kuchka (“The Mighty Little Heap”), a group of composers from St. Petersburg came together in the 1860s to create an authentic national sound.

This new nationalistic sound will distinguish itself from the conventions of Western European forms such as the German lieder and Italian opera.

It is this unique sound that created some of the most loved pieces in the Classical music repertoire.

1. Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (1837-1910)

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev

The leader of the Russian Five, Mily Balakirev (Jan. 2, 1837, – May 29, 1910), was born in Nizhny Novgorod to a noble Russian family as his father, Alexey Konstantinovich Balakirev, was a titular counselor in an ancient dynasty and his mother, Elizaveta Ivanovna Balakireva.

Balakirev began studying piano at the age of four under the tutelage of his mother until the age of 10, when he started piano studies under Alexandre Dubuque during the summers in Moscow.

He continued his schooling at Nizhny Novgorod gymnasium until his mother’s death from smallpox in 1847.

In 1849, he transferred to the Nizhny Novgorod Noble Institute of Alexander II while gaining a patron, biographer, and landowner with a vast music library named Alexander Ulybyshev.

With help from Ulybyshev and access to the library, Balakirev continued his music education by studying under pianist Karl Eisrach.

By age 15, he began to compose, as well as lead a local orchestra.

Studying mathematics at the University of Kazan from 1853 to 1855, Balakirev wrote a piano concerto, became notable amongst society as a pianist, and started teaching pupils to supplement his income.

He spent vacations either in Nizhny Novgorod or on the Ulybyshev estate.

After finishing his courses at the University of Kazan, Ulybyshev took Balakirev to St Petersburg and introduced him to Mikhail Glinka.

Even though Glinka found Balakirev’s compositions defective, he thought very highly of his talent and encouraged Balakirev to choose a music career.

Due to their belief that Russian concert music should emulate the style of Russian folk music, Glinka often passed themes to Balakirev and the opportunity for Balakirev to his four-year-old niece’s music.

With no influential supporters backing him in 1857 due to the deaths of Ulybyshev and Glinka, he continued to perform often and compose works that had a Russian flavor to them.

Two such pieces include King Lear and Overture on Russian Themes in 1859-1861, which became popular.

Balakirev also became the teacher of two young composers César Cui in 1856 and Modest Mussorgsky in 1858.

Joined by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1861 and Alexander Borodin in 1862, this group became known as The Mighty Five.

This group formed the Free School of Music.

Unfortunately, Balakirev was very strict and often blunt with a tyrannical nature that made his students dread studying with him.

Leading him to a series of misfortunes and suffering from depression for 10 years, Balakirev decided to step back from the music world from 1872-1876.

Slowly returning to the music world, he assumed leadership at the Free School of Music and became director of the imperial chapel from 1883 to 1894 while resuming musical composition.

Balakirev retired in 1900 and died May 29, 1910, at the age of 73.

2. César Cui (1835-1918)

César Cui

Born in Vilnius, Vilna Governorate of the Russian Empire (Lithuania) as the youngest of five children, César Antonovich Cui (Jan. 18 1835, – March 13 1918,) was the son of a French officer and a Lithuanian mother.

Learning French, Polish and Lithuanian and Russian, Cui also took an interest in music and began to study composition as a boy with Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko.

Before finishing school at the age of 15, he was sent to St. Petersburg so he can prepare for and attend the Chief Engineering School.

Upon graduation in 1855, Cui pursued advanced studies at the Nikolaevsky Engineering Academy (the Military engineering-technical university) and started his military career as an instructor in fortifications.

He attained the academic status of professor in 1880 and earned the rank of general in 1906.

Although his achievements as a military instructor were well known, the West recognized Cui’s musical abilities as a prolific composer.

Upon meeting Mily Balakirev in 1856, Cui began to pursue music seriously while cutting back on his military teaching.

In 1858, he married Malvina Rafailovna Bamberg and dedicated his orchestral Scherzo, Op. 1, during its orchestral performance debut in 1859 through the Russian Musical Society.

Unfortunately, his first opera, debuting in 1869, was unsuccessful.

However, Cui continued to write over a dozen operas while receiving many accolades for his music.

In 1916, Cui, who developed blindness, continued to compose through dictation.

After writing 276 musical compositions, 800 articles for various publications and newspapers, and numerous books on music and military fortification, César Cui died from cerebral apoplexy on March 3rd 1918.

Cui was buried next to his wife at the Smolensky Lutheran Cemetery in Saint Petersburg.

Malvina died in 1899.

They had two children, including a daughter Lidiya, a married amateur singer, and a son, Yuri Borisovich, who served on the Russian senate before the October Revolution.

In 1939, Cui’s body, reinterred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, now lies beside the other members of the Mighty Five.

3. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Modest Mussorgsky

Known for the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition and orchestra tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (March 21 1839, – March 28 1881,) was born in Karevo, Toropets Uyezd, Pskov Governorate, Russian Empire, 250 south of St, Petersburg.

Being in a family of distinction that traced its roots to Prince Rurik of the ninth century, his father, Pyotr Alexeyevich Mussorgsky, was a wealthy landowner.

Modest’s mother was the daughter of a nobleman and accomplished pianist who taught him how to play when he was six years old.

By the time he was nine years old, he had performed various works by Franz Liszt and a concerto by Irish composer John Field for friends and family.

In Aug. 1849, Mussorgsky and his brother, Filaret, traveled to St. Petersburg to attend an elite German language school, Petrischule (St Peter’s School), upon the family’s wishes to be trained for a career in the military.

While attending the school, he took piano lessons with a future professor of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Gerke.

When Mussorgsky was 13 years old, he entered the Cadet School of the Guards and continued to study under Gerke.

While attending the Cadet School, Mussorgsky wrote his first musical composition, ‘Podpraporshchik’ (Porte-Enseigne Polka), while impressing his classmates with his piano playing.

Even though Mussorgsky found refuge in music and popularity in his playing, life at the Cadet School was a difficult place for a sensitive soul like his.

With the school director, General Sutgof, encouraging his students to drink and as a way to find quick relief, Mussorgsky turned to alcohol to deal with the stress.

Upon graduation from Cadet School in 1856, he received a commission with the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard, the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

It was there where he met Alexander Borodin while they were working in a military hospital and met composer Aleksandr Mikhail Glinka.

Upon attending a gathering in Dargomyzhsky’s home, Mussorgsky heard the music of Mikhail Glinka for the first time and it opened up a new world for him.

Impressed by his skills, Dargomyzhsky invited him to attend more soirées, where Mussorgsky became a fixture over the next two years.

It also enabled him to meet César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev, who started teaching Mussorgsky the basics of music composition in 1857.

After suffering a painful crisis in 1858, Mussorgsky resigned from his commission to devote his life entirely to music and gained valuable experience in 1859 when he assisted in producing Glinka’s opera, A Life for the Tsar.

With the passing of his father in 1853 and the emancipation of serfs in 1861, the Mussorgsky family fortune vanished. In an attempt to revive it by spending 1861-62 in Karevo, Mussorgsky was unsuccessful.

In 1863, he returned to St Petersburg, moved into a group home, and took a civil service job in the Ministry of Communications while freeing himself from Balakirev and teaching himself composing.

To add to his misfortunes, Mussorgsky’s mother died in 1865, which provoked him into a bout of heavy drinking.

As a result of his episode of alcoholism, the group home evicted him.

Needing a place to live, he first moved in with his brother, then with Rimsky-Korsakov until Rimsky-Korsakov married in 1872.

Picking himself up again, he composed his first realistic songs, such as The Seminarist, Darling Savishna and Hopak.

In 1867, he finished the original version of Night on Bald Mountain, but Balakirev heavily criticized it and refused to conduct it.

As a result, Mussorgsky never heard Night on Bald Mountain performed in his lifetime.

In 1869, he completed the opera, Boris Godunov.

Initially rejected for not having a female lead role by the advisory committee of the imperial theatres, he added two female parts and several other episodes, completing this version in 1872.

Boris Godunov had received a successful premiere Jan. 27 1874, at Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg.

In the same year, he finished the piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition in the memory of his friend, painter, designer, and architect Viktor Hartmann.

Unfortunately, Pictures at an Exhibition never appear in print, nor did Mussorgsky see it performed in his lifetime.

Modest Mussorgsky died March 28 1881, after three consecutive attacks of alcoholic epilepsy at 42.

4. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (March 18 1844, – June 21 1908,) was born in Tikhvin to a Russian noble family.

His father, Andrei Petrovich Rimsky-Korsakov, was a government official with liberal views and his mother, Andrei Petrovich Rimsky-Korsakov, was well educated and played piano.

Even though Nikolai was musically gifted and took piano as a child from local teachers, he chose a navy career.

Voin, 22 years older, also had a decisive influence as he was a well-known navigator and explorer.

In 1856, Rimsky-Korsakov enrolled at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg, where he took cello and piano lessons.

Thinking that the music lessons would help Nikolai overcome his shyness, Voin, now director of the school, approved them.

In 1859, Rimsky-Korsakov studied piano and composition from Théodore Canillé, who inspired him to visit operas and concerts while discovering the love of playing the music of Mikhail Glinka.

After Voin canceled his lessons in 1861, Nicholai visited Canillé every Sunday for music discussions and playing duets.

It was then when Canillé introduced Rimsky-Korsakov to Mily Balakirev, who then introduced him to César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky.

These men influenced Rimsky-Korsakov greatly and he learned and discussed the art of instrument and part writing and composition.

When he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1862 and was assigned to a clipper ship named Almaz which set sail on a voyage that lasted two years and eight months.

While he was aboard, Rimsky-Korsakov completed his Symphony in E-flat minor and mailed the score to Balakirev when they stopped in England.

Even though sailing worldwide and stopping at various ports fulfilled a lifelong dream, Rimsky-Korsakov grew tired of it when it took its toll and took a break from music after finishing his symphony while still on board.

He later started again once he saw Balakirev again in 1865.

With a few changes by Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony in E Flat Minor successfully premiered Dec. 31, 1865.

By 1871, due to his reputation as a great composer and orchestrator, Rimsky- Korsakov was appointed at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory as a professor of orchestration and composition.

In 1872, he married a pianist named Nadezhda Purgold, and the following year, Rimsky-Korsakov left active Navel duty to become inspector of Navy orchestras until 1884.

Grieved by his friend Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to edit his late friend’s unpublished works.

Throughout the 1880s, Rimsky-Korsakov helped his other colleagues revise their works.

From 1883 to 1892, Rimsky-Korsakov served as conductor of concerts at the Court Chapel, and from 1886 to 1900, he served as chief conductor of the Russian Symphony Concerts.

Rimsky-Korsakov continued to compose and wrote six more operas before his death in Lyubensk June 21 1908

5. Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

Born as an illegitimate son to a 62-year-old Georgian nobleman, Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili and a 25-year-old Russian army doctor’s wife in St. Petersburgh, Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (born 12 November 1833) acquired his surname from one of his father’s servants and registered as such.

Although he had the surname of a commoner and born illegitimate, Borodin, emancipated from serfdom at the age of 7, lived comfortably and had a gift in music and languages.

His early music consisted of studies in cello, flute, piano, and music composition as a schoolboy.

Even though his last name prevented him from enrolling in school, he received a good education through private tutors at home.

By the time he was 17 years old, Borodin had enrolled in the Medical-Surgical Academy in Saint Petersburg to pursue a career in chemistry.

After graduating from the academy with an honors degree in 1856, he worked as a surgeon at a military hospital, followed by three years of advanced scientific studies in Western Europe.

During his advanced studies, Borodin attended concerts by Franz Liszt. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1862, he appointed professorship of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy, started spending the rest of his scientific career in research.

In that same year, Borodin started music composition lessons with Mily Balakirev and in 1863, he married pianist Ekaterina Protopopova.

In 1869 his Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major was performed under the baton of Balakirev.

The premiere of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B minor, which he started in 1869, had a less than stellar premiere performance in 1877 with conductor Eduard Nápravník.

However, with minor revisions and performed by the Free Music School under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, it was a success.

In 1880, Borodin composed the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia in dedication to Franz Liszt.

It successfully premiered April 20 1880, in the same year and it continues to be a popular piece.

As a member of the Balakirev circle, Borodin identified himself to absolute music in his first two string quartets and his many chamber works.

Unfortunately, by the 1880s, Borodin’s work as a chemist and failing health left him with very little time writing music.

On Feb. 27, 1887, Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin died suddenly during a ball at the academy at 53.

His opera, Prince Igor, was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov.

Its Polovtsian Dances from the second act often serves as a stand-alone piece.

Other Russian Composers

6. Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Glinka

Born to a wealthy retired army captain, Ivan Glinka and his wife, Evgenia Andreyevna Glinka-Zemelka, in Novospasskoye, Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (June 1, 1804, – Feb. 15, 1857,) was the oldest of 11 surviving children.

During the first years of his life, he lived with his paternal grandmother, Thekla Aleksandrovna Glinka, who was overprotective of the young Glinka.

Domineering and strong-willed, she confined him to her room kept at 77 °F (25 °C) while wrapping him in furs and feeding him sweets.

As a result, Glinka often became sickly and often fell victim to fake physicians later in his life.

The only music he heard at that time was from the passing peasant choirs and local church bells.

When his grandmother died in late 1809, Glinka moved to live with his maternal uncle’s estate.

He was exposed to more music as he heard his uncle’s orchestra with included many pieces, including music from composers Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

When he was 10 years old, Glinka heard a clarinet quartet play a piece by Finnish composer Bernhard Henrik Crusell, igniting a passion for music in the young boy.

While his governess taught him Russian, German, French, and geography, she also taught him violin and piano.

To further his education at 13, Glinka moved to St. Petersburgh to a school that taught Persian, English, Latin, zoology, and math, as well as continuing his piano studies with Irish composer John Field, who exposed Glinka to a broader world of music.

Later, Glinka became a student of Field’s student, Prussian pianist, and composer Charles Mayer, who taught him piano and music composition.

When he was 20 years old, Glinka began a job as assistant secretary at the Department of Public Highways in St. Petersburg, which enabled him to pursue his interest in music.

Due to ill health, Glinka left his position with the Department of Public Highways in 1828.

On the advice of a physician, he lived three years in Italy, and on the way, he visited Germany and Switzerland before settling in Milan.

While in Milan, Glinka studied Francesco Basili at the Milan Conservatory, met composers Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Donizetti, and Bellini, and had an active social life.

However, becoming disenchanted, he left Italy, stopped in Vienna to hear the music of Franz Lizst, and moved to Berlin and stayed for five months.

Inspired by Donizetti and Bellini, known for distinct Italian music, Glinka started writing distinctly Russian music.

So, he wrote Six Studies for Contralto and a piano duet named Capriccio on Russian Themes and beginning Sinfonia per l’orchestra Sopra due motive Russe.

Upon hearing about his father’s death in 1834, he returned to Novospasskoye, leaving Sinfonia incomplete.

Back in Russia, Glinka started working on the opera Ivan Susanin, which was renamed A Life for the Tsar at the request of the Tsar.

It premiered successfully on Dec. 9, 1836, at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in St. Petersburg.

In 1837, he started serving as the instructor of the Imperial Chapel Choir for two years while he began to write a second opera named Ruslan and Lyudmila, among other musical compositions.

Unlike his first opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila was a disappointment at its premiere Nov. 27, 1842.

This unsuccessful premier sent Glinka into a deep depression.

Hoping to overcome it, he traveled to France and was happy to find out that Berlioz, whose music he admired, was playing excerpts from his operas.

This encounter encouraged Glinka to compose more music as he wrote a piece for Berlioz’s orchestra named Fantasies Pittoresques.

Soon after the stay in France, he went on to Spain and with his Spanish Overture No. 1 Capriccio Brilliante on the Jota Aragonesa.

With the success of its premiere, he came out of the depression and composed again.

By 1848, feeling homesick, Glinka returned to Russia and continued to write.

As the popularity of his music grew in Europe, he continued to travel there for several years.

Glinka moved to Berlin in 1856 and five months after, he died suddenly Feb. 15, 1857, which resulted from complications due to a cold.

He was buried in Berlin and reinterred in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

7. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Well, known for the 1812 Overture and the ballet Swan Lake, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840, – Nov. 6, 1893) was born in the small town of Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka, Russia, as the second eldest child of six surviving children to mine inspector and manager Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky.

His mother, Alexandra Andreyevna, was the second of Ilya’s three wives.

At the age of four, Pyotor’s parents hired a 22-year-old French governess named Fanny Dürbach.

Even though his parents thought he was too young for schooling, Pyotor was very eager to learn and convinced the governess to teach him lessons such as French and German.

When he was 5 years old, he began piano lessons with former serf Mariya Logovina.

Even though he showed a passion for music at a very early age, his parents, hoping that he would instead pursue a career in civil service, sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg in 1850.

The early separation from his mother caused emotional trauma in the young Tchaikovsky, and with her death from cholera in 1884, this trauma intensified.

However, music helped him through this challenging time, and it also served as a bridge between him and his classmates.

Even though his love for music continued to grow, Tchaikovsky followed his parents’ wishes and took the job as bureau clerk with the Ministry of Justice upon graduation from the school in 1859.

With his growing love and fascination with music, he decided to take music lessons at the Russian Musical Society and later became one of the first composition students under Anton Rubenstein at St. Petersburg Conservatory, founded in 1862.

In 1865, Tchaikovsky’s Characteristic Dances premiered at a Pavlovsk concert under the baton of Johann Strauss Jr.

From 1866-1878, Tchaikovsky served as professor of Theory and Harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, where he also served as a music critic.

There, he met composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt while they were on concert tours.

Working with Mily Balakirev, Tchaikovsky produced the fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet, which Balakirev and the rest of the Mighty Handful revered.

This group also welcomed his Second Symphony (The Little Russian).

Among operas and other compositions, he completed the ballet Swan Lake in 1876; however, its premiere March 4, 1877, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was far from stellar as the critics panned it for being “too noisy.”

Due to the social stigma, Tchaikovsky came under pressure to repress his homosexuality and married a former student, Antonina Miliukova, in July 1877.

However, the couple’s marriage was very brief due to incompatibility.

Thanks to a patron, a widow of a railway magnate named Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky resigned from the Moscow Conservatory in 1878 to focus exclusively on composing and traveling throughout Europe and rural Russia while gaining popularity.

In 1884, Tsar Alexander III granted him the Order of St. Vladimir (fourth class), which included a title of hereditary nobility.

Along with monthly stipends provided by von Meck, she also became a critical friend to the composer even though they never met.

Unfortunately, the wages and friendship ended in 1890, which left Tchaikovsky devastated.

In 1891, he traveled to the United States to conduct the New York Music Society’s in his work, Festival Coronation March, in the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall.

Nine days after conducting the premiere of his Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died Nov. 6, 1893, at 53 due to cholera.

8. Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich by Deutsche Fotothek / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Born as the middle child of three children in St. Petersburg to a chemical engineer, Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, and a pianist, Sofiya Vasilievna Kokoulina, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (Sept. 25, 1906, – Aug. 9, 1975,) had a love for music.

Even though he had no interest in playing it, his mother gave him piano lessons when he was nine years old.

Realizing that the young Shostakovich had an excellent ear for music, she took him to the leading piano teacher in town at the time, Ignatiy Glyasser.

In September 1915, he enrolled in the Shidlovskaya Commercial School, where his love of music grew.

A year after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Shostakovich began learning music composition and wrote a funeral march in memory of the two murdered leaders of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) party by Bolshevik sailors.

The school changed to 108th Soviet School the same year and later shut down in 1919.

By the time he was 19 years old, Shostakovich had enrolled in Petrograd Conservatory (St. Petersburg) headed by Alexander Glazunov.

He studied music composition from Maximilian Steinberg, fugue and counterpoint from Nikolay Sokolov, music history from Alexander Ossovsky, and piano from Leonid Nikolayev.

Shostakovich graduated from the conservatory in 1926 with his graduation composition, Symphony No. 1 in F Minor.

This work received a successful premiere on May 12th of that year by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra.

After graduation, Shostakovich embarked on a career as a pianist and composer.

However, many considered his piano playing restrained and dry.

In 1927, Shostakovich entered the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.

Unfortunately, suffering from a case of appendicitis, his performance was abysmal.

However, his music was named Honorable Mention and soon after that performance, he decided to focus on composition while keeping his piano playing only to his pieces.

1927 was an important year musically to Shostakovich as he completed his patriotic Second Symphony subtitled To October.

This work, dedicated to the October Revolution, premiered November 5 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

He also met polymath Ivan Sollertinsky, who introduced him to the works of Gustav Mahler.

Mahler’s works had a powerful influence on Shostakovich.

Sollertinsky and Shostakovich remained close friends until Sollertinsky died in 1944.

As Josef Stalin started taking over Russia in the late 1920s and 1930s, Shostakovich worked at the Workers’ Youth Theater or TRAM.

During this time, he worked on the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which received a successful premiere Jan. 22, 1934.

On January 26, 1936, Stalin visited the theater to hear Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and walked out of the performance without saying a word to anyone.

Shostakovich received word of warning from a friend telling him to postpone a tour of that performance to Arkhangelsk.

The government press heavily criticized the opera, and those who previously wrote positive reviews were forced to resend them.

He continued to compose music despite the harsh criticism, and Pravda panned his light ballet The Limpid Stream February 6, 1936.

Fearing arrest by the Soviet government, Shostakovich scheduled an appointment with the USSR State Committee on Culture chairperson, Platon Kerzheinntsev.

Kerzheinntsev advised him to “reject formalist errors and in his art attain something that the broad masses could understand.”

Admitting he was at fault, Shostakovich requested a meeting with Josef Stalin, but officials did not grant that meeting.

With the completion of his Symphony No. 4, Shostakovich planned its premiere December 11, 1936.

However, after a few rehearsals, he was forced to withdraw it by the Communist Party.

The Fourth Symphony officially made its premiere December 30, 1961, performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Kirill Kondrashin.

Due to the first denunciation he received in 1936, Shostakovich wrote the conservative Symphony No. 5 in D minor, which received a successful premiere in Leningrad November 21, 1937.

In that same year, he began to teach music composition at the Leningrad Conservatory.

While teaching at the conservatory, he began to write chamber music to satisfy his urge to experiment.

When World War II broke out, Shostakovich continued to compose pieces such as the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.

He also served as a volunteer for Leningrad Conservatory’s firefighter brigade and delivered a radio broadcast to the Russian people.

In 1948, Shostakovich denounced a second time, lost the jobs at both Leningrad and Moscow Conservatories, and threatened with arrests, continued to write, but kept those secret.

To earn a living, he started writing music for films.

The Symphony No 10 in E minor premiered soon after Stalin’s death in March 1953.

In 1960, blackmailed by the Communist Party, Shostakovich joined it, and it was during that time when he wrote his String Quartet No 8.

Officially interpreted as a dedication to victims of fascism and war, others believed it to be dedicated to the victims of totalitarianism.

Shostakovich continued to write other significant pieces in his lifetime, including the Symphony No. 12 in D minor, subtitled The Year of 1917 as a dedication to the memory of Vladimir Lenin.

Another significant work was based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems, the Symphony No. 13 B Flat minor commemorating the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar.

After a total of 15 Symphonies, 15 string quartets, and many film scores and awards, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich died August 9, 1975, from heart failure.

Summing up the Best Russian Composers

Anyway, that about wraps up our post and we hope you’ve enjoyed this list of some of the best Russian composers.

As you can see, all of these composers have not only contributed to the evolution of Russian music but of classical music as a whole and are well worth having on your playlist.

Let us know if you think we’ve missed anyone off this list!

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.