Russian culture is one of the main suppliers to the global art treasure. The famous Russian composers enriched the world we live in, with glorious melodies that remain a key lesson for those interested in classical music.
In the following paragraphs, we intend to give you a short overview on their work, personalities and some of their most important work.
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Top Russian Composers
1. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Tchaikovsky is undoubtedly a unique gem of the crown called the best Russian composers. Although he became famous for his music during his life, both in Russia and the rest of the world, his time on Earth wasn’t a comfortable one. Like most other Russian musicians of that time, he confronted many existential obstacles until he established himself as a composer.
This, in addition to his hypersensitive personality, brought him a lot of suffering. Disturbances that mostly refer to his relationships with women, beginning with the early loss of his mother due to cholera, a disease that is believed to be the cause of his own death later.
Besides many unfortunate spells, or maybe as a result of those, he wrote some of the most popular works of the romantic period. “Swan Lake”, “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker” are three works of art he is best known for.
Besides the ballet, he also composed great operas such as “Eugene Onegin” and marvelous symphonies such as “No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74” a.k.a. the Pathetique symphony.
Related post: The Mighty Five Russian Composers
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)
Leaving the chaos of post-Bolshevik Russia, with his family and his music case only, this famous Russian composer is just another example of how great talent comes with a great tragedy.
Fortunately, the crack in everything through which the light gets in, shone upon him quite early. He won a piano scholarship at the age of 10 at the St. Petersburg conservatory and soon after, he realized that he must become a composer. With his large hands, that could span an octave-and-a-half on the keys of the piano, he went on and wrote some of the best works in music ever composed.
Nevertheless, his authorship didn’t start too well since his debut First Symphony was a complete fiasco. After three years of agony and a major help of a hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl, to whom he dedicated his “Piano Concerto No. 2”, he overcame the initial failure.
Followed by the ever-present shadow of the Russian church, mostly because of his marriage with his first cousin Natalia Satina, he spent most of his life as an immigrant.
A month before he died, he was granted an American citizenship, that being the reason he was interred in Valhalla, New York. In his will, Rachmaninoff wished to be buried at Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow, the same as Alexander Scriabin, Taneyev, and Chekhov.
3. Dmitry Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Shostakovich is by many considered to be the best of the Russian 20th-century composers and one of the best Russian classical composers ever. He is also an embodiment of many controversies, with people speaking of him as a composer of the regime. A qualification that is hard to be true as he is remembered as a classical music artist who didn’t smile a lot.
Like most other composers of the Soviet-era, he also had problems with the state in terms of censorship. He pawned his way to recognition through cinema, writing music for some of the movie classics, such as “The Return of Maxim”.
At the age of 19, he composed his first symphony which by the time he was 21, was already performed throughout Germany and the United States. For his life, he wrote 15 symphonies in total, six concerti, composed ballet, and opera, and stands out as one of the most creative music composers ever born.
He is best known for the “Waltz No. 2″ from the Suite for Variety Orchestra, as well as the suite of music extracted from The Gadfly. He is also known as a mentor to another very famous Russian composer – Georgy Sviridov.
4. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
There is a little chance that you have never heard of the great Stravinsky. Born and raised in Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov) near St. Petersburg, he went on to become a symbol of innovation, modern approach and revolutionary style in the sphere of classical music.
Although deeply rooted in the arts, he was quite insecure about his vocation and firstly studied law and philosophy at St. Petersburg University. It was only after his music was heard by Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov, another of the all-time great Russian composers, that his journey in music finally began. Rimsky Korsakov took him as his protege, keeping him out of the conservatory, that way enabling Stravinsky to build his own authentic style.
It turns out that he did him, the music and the world a huge favour. If you are questioning yourself why, just give it a listen to “The Rite of Spring”, one of the finest ballet and orchestral concert works of classical music ever.
5. Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
Unlike Stravinsky, Prokofiev didn’t get the reputation he deserves in the West during his lifetime. Mainly due to the Cold War antipathies, and the fact that he returned to work in Russia, the praise he received from the Western critics at the time was limited.
In the motherland, he was beloved like very few artists were under Stalin’s regime. He was awarded the Stalin prize incredible six times, and also got the Lenin prize for his “Seventh Symphony” posthumously.
Although many of his operas were huge successes, both among the Russians and internationally, he is best known for the score he wrote for Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky.
He died the same day as Stalin did, and it is fair to say that his death was overshadowed by the death of the Soviet dictator. However, the music he wrote during his life, keeps him forever on the timeless shelf of Russian classical music immortals.